THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION TO ASK ABOUT a LITERARY AGENT WHO WANTS TO REPRESENT YOU

Hello friends! My cynical guide to the publishing industry is coming out this Thursday! If you’re at all interested in ever getting a book published, you’re gonna want to read my guide. The advice is way fresher than anything you’re likely to read online. Preorder it here!

As an example, I recently joined a Facebook group for writers looking for agents. Not to publicize my guide, I just joined because giving unsolicited advice about publishing has become like a drug to me. And someone asked about what questions you should ask an agent when they offer representation.

Now there are a dozen blog posts out there with advice on this subject, but I’ve never seen someone use the approach that I use. First of all, the call with the agent isn’t that important. During the call, focus on their plans for your book. But everything else, like, "What’ll you do if you don’t like a subsequent book?" or "How do you prefer clients to communicate with you?" isn’t really that useful, because you won’t know how to interpret the answers. In fact, a lot of what agents tell you is essentially in code. And usually first-time authors are so committed to fooling themselves that they can’t interpret the code. For instance, if an agent says, "I just really want to find the right editor" then that means they don’t think it’ll be a big book, and they’ll be happy to get one offer (which is totally fine! Just telling you the code). If an agent says "This just needs a little revision" then that means you’ll only be rewriting a quarter of the book. Whereas "Might need a little work" means you’ll be rewriting half the book.

But anyway, you likely won’t understand the code, so don’t worry about that. I have found, in my three agent searches, that the number one most important thing to do is contact their former clients. You want to go on Publisher’s Marketplace, scroll down to the bottom of their list of deals, and start contacting their oldest clients first. The real pay-dirt though comes from two kinds of clients: former clients and clients for whom they haven’t sold a book. To find former clients, looking at the oldest PM deals is good. You can also search google books for their names, to see who’s thanked them in acknowledgements in the past. And you can look up old interviews online to see what authors they mention themselves as repping who they no longer rep. If they list clients on their web page, you can also use archive.org to grab an old capture of their page to see who used to be on it.

Getting clients for whom they haven’t yet sold a book is trickier. But I usually search for their name followed by "my agent" or "represented by". This often pulls up people who’ve listed them on their author website.

Then just sit down and email every single one of the people you’ve found. Don’t leave any out. Write "AGENT NAME" as the subject. Ask if you can ask them about their experiences. Offer to talk on the phone if they would prefer.

Then when you’re talking, there’s only one question that matters. "I know you probably like them, but if there was one thing you could change about your relationship or their style, what would it be?"

That’s the question that gets you the fly in the ointment. Authors will almost always say nice things about their agents, even their former agents. But almost no author is entirely happy with their agent. What you want is to elicit that one thing they do or have done that’s been a problem. Usually there’s something. They are slow responding to emails. Not aggressive in submitting. Don’t seem to have the best contacts.

Keep in mind, you’re going to be having this conversation 30+ times (almost all the people you contact will reply). And over time some sort of picture will build up. You’ll get a sense of who they are and how they operate and what problems, if any, people tend to have with them.

This is also the moment to practice some emotional intelligence and listen to how people say things. It’s hard advice to give, and I wouldn’t give it if we weren’t writers, but we ought to be able to pay attention to little details and to the nuances in a person’s statements.

I once got a testimonial from an author that was literally the most lukewarm recommendation I’ve ever seen. It was like, "They send emails for me. Sometimes editors answer. But they sold my book, so I guess it worked out." Three weeks later the author emailed back being like why didn’t you go with my agent. I was like, "Your email was a huge part of it!" The author had no idea. They were like, "Wow, you discovered something I knew without knowing that I knew it."

After all this, you’ll probably discover that all the agents have their upsides and downsides. The sole exception is my current agent, who is perfect. I couldn’t find a single person who had a bad thing to say about him, even out of the five or six former clients I tracked down (in almost all cases they’d left because books hadn’t sold or their career had changed directions). But generally speaking you won’t be so lucky.

Then, after doing all this work, just go with the agent who seems most excited about your work and who seems to have the most contacts in and experience with the field in question. After all, almost every agent will do a great job with the book they sign you with. And with subsequent books it’s hard to say what’ll happen. But at least after doing your due diligence you will know how they operate. You will know what parts of the relationship are typical and what parts are unique to you. I’ve never once, with any agent, been surprised by what they did. In every case, they treated me just like they tended to treat their clients. Don’t assume you’ll be an outlier.

Oh and this is just personal preference, but don’t sign with an agent who promises you the book will sell or that it’ll sell big. Nobody who is ethical ought to make such a promise. The most important thing in an author / agent relationship is trust, and it’s very hard to know who to trust to have your best interests in mind, but a trusting relationship doesn’t start with lies. No matter how much the agent loves your book, nobody can know for certain that a book will sell. Even the best agents fail to sell books all the time.

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