I’ve been getting some requests from clients who are getting “nibbles” (YAY!) and wondering what to talk about in the first conversation with an agent. Here are some of my thoughts.
This assumes that the agent has seen a proposal or writing sample from you, the author, and has expressed interest.
10 questions to ask a literary agent
1. What is the range of monetary advance that you would hope or expect us to get for this book?
This is a business relationship, so don’t be afraid to talk money. Agents will only take on your project if they see it as financially viable enough to be worth the time they’ll put into selling it, which means that they will have at least a minimum dollar figure in mind.
2. How much do you work with authors before taking the book to publishers? How engaged do you like to be in the revision process? How many drafts do you typically read?
3. How many clients do you have right now? How often do you typically speak with your authors?
Everyone’s different; you may want more or less agent involvement. These kinds of questions help you to find out if you’re on the same page and set mutual expectations early.
4. What changes do you envision in my proposal and/or manuscript before you’d take it out for sale?
When I was shopping the proposal for the book that eventually became Leaving India, I had an agent tell me that although he loved the idea, it had “too many characters with really long names” in it. He suggested simplifying. Glad I asked! You should, too.
5. What types of editors/publishers would you approach?
Agents may not want to share the names and contacts before you sign, but they should be able to give you a general sense. The more specific, the better, of course. If you feel hesitant about asking this, please keep in mind that you’re not asking them to do extra work here. If they’re ready to take on your project, they probably have at least a couple of ideas for where to pitch it.
6. After you get a publishing contract for a writer, how engaged do you remain in the process? How do you see your role in this phase?
7. We all hope it doesn’t happen, but I’ve heard of situations where a writer gets into a difficult situation with a publisher over content or something else. Can you describe a time that you went to bat for an author?
Your relationship with your agent carries through the entire life of your book. Know what to expect in the post-contract period.
8. Would you be able to put me in touch with one of your other clients, so I can speak with them about the working relationship?
(Note: This is also something you can do on your own.) Please don’t ask the agent who her or his clients are; you should already know that from your research. Most agencies these days list their deals and clients on their websites.
9. If we move forward, would you like me to sign a contract with your agency, or do you prefer to shop it around first without an exclusive contract?
My agent asked me to sign a contract before doing any work on my behalf, which makes sense to me. However, I’ve been hearing lately of writers whose agents want to see if they get any “nibbles” from publishers before going through the whole contract-signing process. To me, this feels like a lower level of commitment on both sides, which can be beneficial to you as well; if you’re not happy with the attention your agent is giving you, you can part ways amicably. Either way, it’s good to clarify what the terms are before proceeding further.
10. What makes you want to represent my project?
If you ask nothing else, please don’t skip this one! First of all, your hard-working writer self deserves to hear the praise. Write it down and soak it up. Second, you need to hear how passionate this person is about your project, and why, because that’s what prospective publishers are going to hear. Listen closely and let this answer inform your all-important “gut check.”
I was lucky enough to have four agents to interview, and the one I went with ultimately was the one whose understanding of the book was closest to my own.
No agent yet? There are many good resources on agents, publishing, and how to do your own market research out there. Poets & Writers magazine publishes a fantastic Guide to Literary Agents that tells you everything about the process.
Want help? In the Unicorn Authors Club, we write and finish books! I’d love to help you prep a fantastic book proposal and query letter, and navigate the process of writing a book from beginning to end. Join us!