Monday, September 28, 2009

The next set of questions to ask prospective agents

Most of the places that list questions to ask prospective agents are intent on helping writers avoid scammers and bad or ineffective/marginal agents. That's all valuable info (and if you have not read it, go do so at once), but I hope most of this blog's readership will know enough know to avoid those pitfalls.

What's less common, but occurring more frequently with the rise in number of agent is: questions to ask when you're deciding amongst a less-motley crew.

Perhaps you have offers from several reputable, experienced agents. What do you do then, other than rely on gut instinct? (and sign with FPLM, of course!)

Here are my suggestions of questions to ask.

One answer is not better than the other; it's information that might help you figure out what you want in an agent and agency, and thus how to select from among several good agents.

1. How long does the agency representation last?
Many very reputable agencies offer contracts for a specific period of time (six months, one year.) If the book doesn't sell, or you want a new agent, you're free to leave after the time period.

Our agency takes a different course: we grab you for what we're hoping is life--a long and prosperous relationship. That means we're generally not interested in one-offs. If this book doesn't sell, we work with you to figure out what the next book will be.

Both courses of action are perfectly legit. You should know which you prefer, and you should ASK before you sign on the dotted line.

2. Is the agent a sole practitioner or part of an agency?
Some of the very best agents in the biz fly solo. I'm pleased and honored to consider them colleagues and friends, and I refer prospective clients to them knowing they would be in excellent hands.

If you're considering a sole practitioner, ask what the plan is if the agent dies or becomes disabled. This is probably one of the most difficult questions to ask. It sounds morbid. It sounds AWFUL. Yet, I get queries from prospective clients who've lost their agents through death or disability, and boy oh boy, that's not much fun either.

Solo practitioners are perfectly legit. But, you should know which you prefer, and you should ASK before you sign on the dotted line.

Our agency is of course stuffed with a baseball team of agents. If I get eaten by a shark tomorrow, you'll still be a FinePrint client, and you'll discover just how fabu the rest of the team is.

3. Is your agent in this for the long haul?
Experience is great, but if you're considering an agent with lots of experience, it's entirely kosher to ask if they intend to retire soon. This is almost as bad as the death question, but again, it's better to KNOW than assume.

And if your prospective agent is new to the game, remember this is a tough business to make a living in, and burnout in five years isn't uncommon. ASK about their experience.

4. Does your agent really want to be a writer?
I'm going to get an enormous amount of flack for this, so I'll preface this by saying: I represent agents who are writers; agents who are writers work at our agency; I've got NO problem with agents who write.

However, scratch a writer with a day job and you'll find someone who would rather be writing full time. That's just the godiva's honest truth.

I'm not saying you shouldn't sign with an agent who also writes, but if it is something that bothers you, ASK FIRST.

5. What's the subsidiary rights set up?
Does the agency have a sub-rights director or agent? An in-house film agent? A marketing person? A publicity person? Increasingly these are jobs handled in-house. Does the agent you're considering have that? If not (such as a sole practitioner) with whom does s/he work? ASK.

6. Does your agent maintain an electronic presence?
For some prospective clients this is not a plus. I tell all prospects about my blogging and tweeting. I don't want any of them to be surprised. And if you think an agent who blogs and tweets isn't working hard enough for her clients, you'll want to ask before you assume an agent doesn't blog or tweet. ASK.

7. Is the agent hands on or hands off?
An agent should know this about him/herself. And his/her clients will know for sure. ASK.

(this was added in the comments column, and it's a good thing to know)


AnAlaskanGirl said...

Thank you for posting such an informative blog!

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Great post Janet - thanks so much. I hope to need this exact info soon. (BTW: Change "theme" to "them" in #6.)

Anonymous said...

I know we've locked horns a couple of times, but I just had to say that you've outlined some GREAT questions. Thank you very much for taking the time to spell out some very important considerations.

jjdebenedictis said...

Another good question to ask is whether your prospective-agent is hands-on or hands-off, i.e. do they want to brainstorm ideas and workshop your first drafts with you, or do they only want to hear from you when you're finished the damned book?

Both methods are legit, but depending on whether you're a writer who loves or hates hand-holding/meddling, one of those options will drive you up the wall.

Tana said...

Great info. I got stuck with a lemon a while back and I wish I would have asked a million questions before wasting my time. Like say... will I ever here from you again? (The answer would have been NO.)

Diana said...

Thanks for this super list of questions!

The issue about an online presence is interesting to me. I see it as an incredible way to get a better sense of an agent's (or editor's or writer's) personality. Ever since I joined twitter, I feel like I have found an amazing community of people in the publishing industry. I think querying nothing but a name or an agency out of an annual publication would be a lot more worrisome.

SundaySoup said...

Ask for time to think about it. Seriously. I asked and the agent got all huffy and offended (I had other offers pending too, but even if you don't, I recommend this path). I was so scared I'd lose my chance I said I'd sign. BIG MISTAKE. Luckily, everything came right in the end and I'm with a wonderful agent now. But not that one.

Lydia Sharp said...

This is excellent. Thank you so much!

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

I've been wondering about the correct etiquette when signing with an agent.

Thanks for this - an interesting post.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

I've been wondering about the correct etiquette when signing with an agent.

Thanks for this - an interesting post.

Kristi Faith said...

As always, I learn something new from each blog you post. Even if it is a frightening picture of a shark. :-)

Thank you for sharing such a straightforward and honest list of things to consider when I do find the perfect agent.

Vonna said...

I never thought of asking an agent what would happen if he/she died! What a way to break the ice. But true. The doctor I had been going to for twenty years retired suddenly and unexpectedly, so now whenever I need a new physician I look for someone who is much younger than I so that won't happen again. It was bad enough dealing with medical records; imagine if it was my career!

Sean Ferrell said...

I would also suggest that and author ask an agent for referrals. Employers do it. Schools do it. Authors, do it.

Donna Gambale said...

I really appreciate your posting this. Such basic, useful information - that's actually hard to find out! I did know how to watch out for scam agents, but it's still best not to sign automatically with the first legit agent that has an interest in your work. It has to be a mutually agreeable relationship for your book to have the best chance of success, and these questions will really help me determine that!

Sara J. Henry said...

I was absolutely not comfortable asking about retirement or accidental death or disability! (Although they are quite valid questions.) I just supposed I'd move on to one of the other interested agents ...

I just helped a young writer through the difficult task of choosing among three agents - a lot of soul-searching went on! Plus she is only 15 and lives in Australia, so couldn't meet any of the agents in person. Wish I'd had this blog entry to refer her to.

Unknown said...

So true -- it's not WHAT they answer, it's HOW they answer. Like on that signed agreement question. Some have em, some don't, some are by year, some are by book. It's not a red flag if they don't have one. But if you ask an agent about theirs and they "People who sign agreements are idiots and you're an idiot if you want one," well, you've learned something about that agent's style.

Travener said...

I'll try to remember all this when and if I get the Call. Right now I'd settle for just hearing back on my queries!

Jm Diaz said...

I had to read this twice, because upon seeing Godiva, my legs scurried toward the pantry in search of some chocolate goodness.

But as always, thank you for the great post!

Anonymous said...

Super info. I happen to think an agent who makes time to blog would be an asset. Shows an understanding of communication tools, not to mention marketing in the Internet age.

Pat Brown said...

Wonderful questions. I plan to hang on to them, and hope and wish for the day I actually get to ask them of multiple agents who all want me! LOL. Hey, might as well wish big as not at all.

Rachel Hamm said...

as someone about to embark on the task of querying agents, i found this helpful and informative. only God knows if I'll need any of these questions, but I hope so!

Thanks, Janet, for being the type of agent who wants to help authors, not just represent them.

Roslyn Reid said...

Thanx for the opinion on agent-writers. I've been wondering if this was a red flag.

Ulla Hakanson said...

Thanks for your informative posts, Janet. Every day I learn something new. Thank you!
Ulla Hakanson