8 Questions to Ask a Prospective Agent
Congratulations! The hardest part of the agent journey is behind you: you’ve received one—or more!—offers of representation. Now it’s time to figure out whether you and this agent are a good fit. You’ll do this by getting on the phone or meeting in person with the prospective agent, asking them a bunch of questions, and seeing how the two of you get along. I hate the phone/meeting new people as much as you do but DON’T SKIP THIS STEP.
As I mentioned in Part IV of my How I Got My Agent series, I think it’s a good idea to come up with your list of questions before you hit send on your first query. I suggest this because a) it will help clarify in your mind what matters most to you about your future agent and b) if things move faster than expected and you receive an offer a week after you send your first batch of emails, you want to be prepared, not stressing and scrambling to get your questions in order. I speak from experience when I say your brain may very well turn to jelly the moment that first agent starts praising your work!
Below are the questions I asked while talking to the five agents who offered me representation, as well as a few that, were I to go back in time and start the process again, I would make sure to add to my list.
Questions I Asked
Do you have editorial feedback?
This is the single most important question you need to ask an agent. It will tell you whether your respective visions for your book are compatible. If your favorite part of your novel is the battle between a diabolical squid and his arch-nemesis, a fire-throwing ghoul, and the first thing the agent wants to do is get rid of said battle, you might not be as compatible as you’d hoped. You want to figure out whether the agent thinks minimal or major rewrites are necessary before she takes the book out on submission. As with most things, balance is key here. You don’t need to be a pushover and cave to every request the agent makes, but you also don’t want to give the impression you think your novel is written in gold ink, whispered to you by Zeus himself and therefore untouchable. Every manuscript can be improved, and that includes yours. What you’re looking for is a trusted ally who will help you make it the best book it can be. For my part, Maddy brought up two or three minor plot holes and tonal changes that she wanted me to resolve before we sent the book out. It took me about a week to implement them. That said, plenty of authors do more substantial revisions with their agents before the book is ready. It all depends on you and the state of your manuscript.
What is your submission plan/style? Time estimate for responses from editors?
A good agent knows the best way to sell your book. Much of their plan comes down to genre, book topic, etc. To give you an example of how agent strategies can differ, one offering agent I spoke to told me she wanted us to take the next year to work together on Rose Gold. She suggested that, during this time, I would also write a handful of short stories, which she would work to get placed in great literary magazines, and that would help establish me as a writer before she took my first novel out to the publishing houses.
Compare this with Maddy, whose plan was to do a quick round of edits on Rose Gold and then submit the manuscript simultaneously to US and UK publishers the week before the London Book Fair, so as to create a big buzz around the book and get foreign publishers interested as well. Maddy’s plan for my book was to send it to 20-30 UK and US publishers each, and she expected to hear back from editors quickly—within days of their receipt of the manuscript. She would then either create an auction (what happened in the UK) or accept a pre-empt (what happened in the US).
Neither of these approaches is the right one, but the second was more compatible with what I envisioned. I had just spent the previous two years writing short stories and sending them to literary magazines—accruing 221 rejections in the process!—so I felt pretty confident that short stories were not my strength or way in. I’d also spent a year honing Rose Gold with my thesis advisor, so it was pretty polished by the time I sent it to agents. A big, buzzy submission plan sounded thrilling, and the process went exactly as Maddy said it would.
Do you have editors in mind already?
I received a range of responses when I asked this question. One agent seemed surprised, possibly even a little put off, that I asked for names. Most were happy to rattle off a handful. Maddy had a typed-out list ready to share at our first meeting before I’d even asked. (Are you beginning to see why we’re such compatible partners?!) Unless you already work in the publishing industry, most editors’ names probably won’t mean much to you—they didn’t to me! That’s fine. The reason you’re asking is to get an idea where the prospective agent envisions your book fitting in the market, as well as to see how much prep he’s done/thought he’s put into your career. Either jot the names down or try to remember a few so you can look them up later.
Do you have any comp titles in mind for my book?
Again, the specific titles don’t matter that much here. What you’re trying to get a sense of is how the agent sees your book. Maybe you see your book as more literary but her comp titles are solidly genre, or vice versa! If the titles are not what you’d pick for your book, there’s a chance the agent is off-base; then again, remember that this is what they do for a living. It’s more likely that your own perception of your book needs readjustment. Even if you don’t sign with the agent in question, it’s extremely helpful to get an objective perspective as to where your book fits on shelves.
What happens if you don’t sell my book?
Will the agent help you revise and then take the book out a second time? Will the agent instead encourage you to start a new writing project? Is the agent only agreeing to represent you for one book, meaning if this one doesn’t sell, you’ll part ways? This is an awkward question to ask but good to see how the agent responds. From my own experience, none of the five agents I interviewed said we’d part ways if they couldn’t sell Rose Gold.
Are you open to authors who work in multiple genres?
I don’t know if I want to write suspense forever. I’m interested in speculative and dystopian fiction too, and I’ve had one historical fiction idea on the back burner for a few years. Agents and editors don’t thrill at the idea of genre switching—it takes a lot of work to get a debut author launched, so it’s understandable they don’t revel in the prospect of starting over—but if this is important to you, you should ask. Maddy’s response was that we could definitely explore it a few books down the line, and she cited a number of her clients who have successfully made big genre leaps.
Questions I Didn’t Ask But Should Have
Will you be pursuing a one- or two-book deal?
Some authors may not like the pressure of writing to a deadline or creating on demand. They might prefer to write books while not under contract. Others, like me, look at how undependable life as a writer is and crave some stability and financial assurance that we can keep working at this craft we love. Maddy suggested from the start that we push for two-book deals, which I was thrilled about. With the schedule that advances are paid out, this guarantees me writing income from 2019-2022. In order to entice editors into two-book deals, in addition to submitting the entire Rose Gold (book 1) manuscript, we also submitted book 2’s first chapter and back jacket copy. At the time I wrote chapter one of book 2, I didn’t have much of an idea what was going to happen in the book, but I knew where I wanted it to start. You don’t need to know the whole story to write the first seven pages.
What is your plan for foreign rights deals?
This is probably the most important question that I didn’t know to ask. Foreign rights deals (i.e. not US or UK*) made up 38% of my advances for Rose Gold! I had no idea they could play such a significant role in a writer’s income. Maddy began her career as a foreign rights agent, so she and her team have a lot of solid relationships with both foreign publishers and literary scouts. Almost a year after my initial US/UK deals, my agency is still securing new foreign rights deals for Rose Gold. This is income that you, the author, don’t have to do any additional work to get! It was dumb luck that I happened to choose an agent who excels at foreign rights. I am only one small data point but from my perspective, I’d go with an agent who is going to get you money for deals in every country vs. one pursuing world rights. To understand why, you can read more about territorial rights here. I know this stuff is not the most engaging to read about, but it could mean the difference between you supporting yourself as a writer for years to come and… not. Do your homework, do your homework, do your homework. Ask the offering agent who handles foreign rights at their agency: the agent herself? a designated foreign rights team? a third party partner? no one?
*I’m an American living in the UK, which is why I’m excluding these countries from foreign rights.