Late in the graduate school admissions process, there's a sudden flip. You've spent a year polishing up your cv, revising your personal statement, and doing your best not to bungle up interviews. Then suddenly, you’re admitted, and everything changes. Suddenly, all these distinguished professors are courting you -- calling you up and doing their best to sell you on their department. And somehow, you have to decide where to spend the next 5+ years of your life.
When I finally got “the call” at the end of my querying process, I couldn't help but notice similarities between signing an agent and choosing a graduate advisor. There is the same disorienting role flip, the scrambled attempt to figure out working styles and personality. With just a few e-mails and phone calls, you’re supposed to choose the person who will have more influence over your career than anyone else (except for you). And unlike for graduate school, this decision happens on the time course of weeks, rather than months.
So how do you do make the right decision? Beats me. I'm a brain scientist/writer, not a sage. But I will share what I did, and hopefully you'll find some useful tidbits.
Part One: Questions for the Agent
Probably the first thing that will happen when you receive an offer is a conversation with the agent. This is a lot of fun, and a great chance to ask questions. I got most of these questions from Rachelle Gardner and Greenhouse Literary, and added a few of my own.
What are the agent’s thoughts about the book? Any ideas for revision?
After you sign on, what happens next? What's the expected process?
How many clients does the agent have and how many is she planning on having eventually?
What are the terms of the representation being offered? Is there a time limit? Is it for one book, or is it open-ended?
What happens if either the agent or client wants to end the relationship?
If the relationship is terminated, what is the policy for unsold works the agent has represented? What about unsold subsidiary rights in works that the agent has sold?
How does the agent handle subsidiary and foreign rights?
Does the author receive payments directly from the publisher, or do payments go through the agent first?
How long after the agent receives advances and royalties will they send them to you? (Note: The AAR Canon of Ethics stipulates that agents should forward payments to clients no more than 10 days after receipt, but I've seen agreements from AAR agencies with longer payment periods, so I'm not quite sure how this works.)
Does the agency keep client funds in a separate bank account from the agency’s other funds? (Note: This is also stipulated in the AAR code of ethics.)
Does the agent charge for mailing? Copies? Faxes? Phone calls? Any other fees?
What publishers does the agent think would be appropriate for your book?
What submission strategy does the agent have in mind? (How many editors at a time? Does she usually pitch by phone, email, or both? Does she follow up after a certain amount of time?)
When negotiating a contract, are there any specific points that the agent feels is important to negotiate for?
(You can also ask about specific contract points also. I asked about ebook royalties, out of print clauses, and non-compete clauses because they were important to me.)
What, if anything, would make the agent council an author to walk away from a deal?
What are the agent's thoughts on self publishing? Does the agency offer, or plan to offer, self-publishing services? (Note: Even in the two months since I put these questions together, the landscape has changed greatly. Many agencies are now moving into self-publishing, with a wide range of models. There are a lot of very intelligent people with very different opinions on this, so read up and make your own decision. Here is an overview of different models from David Gaughran. And here's some articles about agent facilitating self-publishing, arranged roughly from supportive to against: Joe Konrath, Mark Coker, Barry Eisler, Mike Shatzkin, David Gaughran, Courtney Milan, Bob Mayer, Kristine Rusch, Victoria Strauss, Laura Resnick, Scott Nicholson)
How does the agent see agents’ roles changing in the near future?
What is the agent’s preferred communication style: what medium, and how often?
If a client doesn’t hear back from the agent on an email, what would be an appropriate amount of time to wait before following up?
How much does the agent prefer to communicate during the submissions process? Does the agent forward rejection letters to the client?
Part Two: Speaking with the Agent's Other Clients.
When I was choosing a graduate advisor, I spoke with students and postdocs from his lab. It's also helpful to do the same thing with an agent. It's perfectly fine to (politely) ask for references. All the agents I spoke to were happy to provide names of current clients to contact, and I would consider it a huge red flag if an agent refuses or otherwise makes you feel uncomfortable for asking. You can speak to ctheir lients over e-mail or phone, although you will probably get a more honest and spontaneous opinion over the phone. Here are some possible questions.
What has your experience been like with your agent?
Can you take me through the process of selling a book with your agent, from beginning to end?
How often do you communicate with your agent?
How long does it take for your agent to reply to an email?
How long does it take for your agent to get back to you on a manuscript?
What was it like being on submission? How much did you communicate, and what did you communicate about?
What has your experience been like with foreign and subsidiary rights?
What were contract negotiations like once you sold your book? How much did you communicate, and what did you communicate about?
What role does your agent play in books that you’re currently writing?
What role does your agent play, if any, in marketing your book?
For a new writer who’s just signed on, do you have any advice about how to work well with your agent?
What kind of writer would not be compatible with your agent’s working style?
Have you had any experiences in which something came up w/ your publisher (or anyone else) and your agent had to go to bat for you?
Note: In the course of my conversations, I found it really helpful to speak to authors whose first books didn't sell. This lets you know whether the agent continues to work with authors if they can't sell the first book, and you can also learn about how long they keep books on submission.
Part three: The Agency Agreement
Agency agreements vary greatly in both style and content. Some are written in everyday language while others are written in contract language. Possible variations include whether the agent represents one book or all your work, commission rate on foreign and subsidiary rights, terms of termination, etc.
Here are some resources for understanding agency contracts.
Books: The Writer's Legal Companion and Negotiating a Book Contract are two great resources, and both have sections about agency agreements. The two books differ slightly in their advice, which is nice for getting a well-rounded view.
Websites: There are some resources on the web, although not as systematic as the books. Kristin Nelson covers agency agreements on her blog. Writer beware has an article on perpetual agency clauses and what they mean. Passive Guy is also writes about both agency and publishing contract clauses. Not all these resources agree, which is a good thing, I think.
So that's about all I can think of. In addition to this, you'll also want to take a look at the agent's sales record in your genre. If the agent posts sales to Publishers Marketplace, that is one place to look. You can also ask the agent about books that she's sold.
One word of caution. Please, please, PLEASE keep a level head. Remember that agenting is an unregulated industry. As is true with any industry, regulated or unregulated, there are many agents who are professional, smart, and awesome, and many who are… not. It may be cliché to say that no agent is better than a bad agent, but I've had enough writer friends get burned to know just how true it is. So when you get an offer of representation, by all means, celebrate, but don't ignore red flags, and don't ignore your gut.
Even if you only have one offer, remember that you have other options. You can keep querying, you can submit directly to editors, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with self-publishing. For more on this topic, take a look at Anne R. Allen’s post on literary agents in the new publishing world, Nathan Bransford's post on spaghetti agents, Patricia Wrede's post on what agents really do, and this post on trusting your gut by Caroline Tung Richmond. Don't be paranoid, but remember that you will be entrusting both your money and your career to this person, so choose wisely.
So now readers, your turn. Did I miss anything in this article? Share your wisdom please!
P.S. And for those who haven't heard from my twitter stream, I'm thrilled to share that I’ve signed with Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich for my young adult fantasy Midnight Thief . Jim has been awesome so far and I’m really looking forward to working with him further. I also want to give a shout out to agent sisters Carrie Ryan and Jessica Spotswood, who were kind enough to answer all my questions about their experiences. Yay! :-)
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