Literary Agent Offers: Don’t Settle!

(Just starting your agent search? You may want to check out How to Query Lit Agents: 6 Overlooked Steps first, then come back!)

You’ve perfected your query letter, done your agent research, and sent your letters to a targeted list. You’ve crossed your fingers, rubbed the genie lamp, kissed your lucky troll doll. You’ve gotten requests, sent out partials, sent out fulls. You may have even suffered a few (or many) rejections along the way.

But then… what’s this?

An offer from a literary agent to represent and sell your work?

Congratulations! An agent! A real agent! You’re on the road to publication! He’ll sell your book for millions of dollars! She’ll rocket you to best-sellerdom! He’ll get you on Oprah’s couch with the literary elite! You’ll thank her in your acknowledgments and become BFFs for life! Right?

Not.
So.
Fast.

Making an Impression

As writers, we spend a lot of time trying to make a good impression on potential agents with our polished prose, personality, and professionalism. We’re so excited (rightfully so!) when an agent responds to our efforts—especially if we’ve already endured a few (dozen) (hundred) rejections—that we forget one very important point:

An agent interested in representing your book should work just as hard to impress you.

If an agent makes an offer, she’s already excited about you and your writing. She’s in love with your book, and believes she can sell it. She probably already has editors in mind that will love the project as much as she does. See? Your good impression was a success!

Now, it’s her turn.

Your agent works for you, and should have your career and best interests in mind always. Accepting her offer is the beginning of a long partnership—one that you must consider as seriously as you would any long-term commitment or career decision. Enter it with both eyes open.

Pre-Literary Counseling

I don’t know what the author/agent divorce rate is these days, but I bet it’s higher than failed marriages and, in some cases, more complicated. The souring of a literary partnership isn’t always predictable, but having an honest, two-way conversation up front might help you avoid future drama.

Before accepting representation from an agent:

  • Thank him for the interest in your work.
  • Let him know that you’re excited about the opportunity to work together.
  • Tell him that you’d like to take a few days to think things over and prepare your questions.

Don’t skip this crucial step because you’re worried that questions will scare him off, or that the offer won’t last. This isn’t a TV promo, it’s a potential business partnership. His offer is on the table, waiting patiently for your consideration and ultimate response. It’s not going anywhere unless the offer or the agent isn’t legitimate, in which case, that’s not the person you want representing your work.

Questions to Ask Literary Agents

Craft questions to help you learn about the following:

1. Working and communication style. Some agents offer more personal attention and career development than others. Some are heavily involved in the editorial and revision process, while others are more interested in selling and contract negotiation and will not spend a lot of time reviewing your work. Certain agents encourage you to call them informally and often, while others will rely more on email communications or scheduled appointments. What do you prefer? Don’t enter a relationship with someone whose working and communication style will overwhelm you, confuse you, or leave you wanting more.

2. Ideal clients. Ask the agent to describe her ideal client. Of course it will be you, but beyond that, get specifics. This will give you another perspective on her working style and help you determine whether you’ll be a good fit. If the agent likes clients who are highly involved in brainstorming ideas for their next projects and career path, but you’d prefer someone who just focuses on contracts and managing the author/editor relationship, this agent isn’t for you. Similarly, if you’re looking for a lot of hand-holding and the agent tells you she likes clients who leave her alone to do her job, that’s not a match.

3. Client load. The number of clients an agent has and wants will impact his time. Some have as many as 60 (or more!) clients to manage. If you want an agent who can provide personal attention and a more hands-on approach, look for agents with fewer clients.

4. References. Ask the agent to put you in touch with some of his current clients. You can ask them for firsthand accounts on what it’s like to work with the agent before and after the sale. You can also look at the blogs and Web sites of the agent’s clients to see if they’ve said anything about their agent experience. If an agent is reluctant to provide you with at least one client reference, be wary!

5. Sales and non-sales. You should have a good idea of the agent’s track record for selling books before you query him or her, but you can ask about additional details after you’ve received an offer. Understand how the agent treats your manuscript if it doesn’t sell—does she set it aside and get ready to shop around your next project? Does she revisit the original project later or help you revise for another round of submissions? Or does she drop you as a client if she can’t sell it in a certain time frame?

6. Genres / specialties and co-agents. You may query an agent with your adult historical fiction manuscript, but what if you decide to write a middle grade novel in the future? Non-fiction? A paranormal romance? A teen guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse? Ask the agent if she represents other genres you may be considering and if not, if she has a partner, co-agent, or referral for you, should you decide to write something different. There’s nothing wrong with using a second agent if your primary agent doesn’t represent what you want to do next, but it’s an important question to ask before you sign on.

7. Finances. Most agents will take the standard 15% fee from the monies that you earn (may be higher for foreign rights or other special circumstances). Be sure you understand the rate, and ask about how the money is distributed. Generally, the publisher will send your advance and royalty money to the agency, which will cut you a new check, less their 15%. Ask about how (and how often) your money is managed and distributed.

8. Breaking up. No one wants to think about ending a relationship before it even begins, but asking about it now could save you and your agent heartache (and legal fees) in the future. Find out about the agency contract and how and when either party can dissolve it. Also, ask about what happens if your agent leaves the agency, is unable to work due to illness, injury, or death, or if the agency itself dissolves.

It’s tempting to give an instant YES to that well-earned agent offer, but remember, an agent making an offer is already interested in you. She’s not going to change her mind just because you’re asking questions or taking a few days to think about it. Just the opposite, actually. By doing your homework, you’re showing potential agents that you’re professional, committed, and serious about your writing career—all qualities that make you a better client.

Danger! Bad Agent Warning Signs

If the agent you’re considering exhibits any of these behaviors, get thyself back to the querying board:

  • The agent is uncomfortable or terse in answering your questions, or responds with canned marketing-speak designed to evade your research.
  • She’s reluctant or refuses to provide client references.
  • He makes you feel like you’re wasting his time or like he’s doing you a favor, or he pressures you into making a hasty decision.
  • She charges a fee to read, consider, or submit your work, or charges more than the standard 15% fee for domestic sales.
  • He charges for or refers you to a paid editing service or “book doctor,” or charges for these services in-house.
  • The agent or agency is listed on Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Agency List or has a negative rating on Preditors & Editors: Literary Agents.

You should also Google the agent and agency’s name to scope out any bad press or client comments about them. If you do find any negatives, evaluate them carefully, considering the source and not jumping to conclusions. One ranted-about experience doesn’t mean the agent is bad or even at fault. But if you find numerous complaints or warnings, you probably want to steer clear.

A Not-So-Perfect Union

Even with your questions sufficiently answered and agency contract signed, sealed, and delivered, stuff might happen. Your book doesn’t sell. Your agent doesn’t responded to your emails. You’re having problems with your editor and your agent hasn’t stepped up to mediate. You’ve experienced a misunderstanding or miscommunication, or someone has made an outright screw-up.

Like in any relationship, things aren’t always sweet and rosy. It doesn’t mean that you have a bad agent, that you’re a bad client, or that it’s time for a divorce. It just means that you need to pick up the phone. Be open and honest with your agent about how you’re feeling, and see if you can find some common ground.

It’s unrealistic to expect constant perfection, but you should expect a willingness to communicate and a commitment to resolve issues as they arise. Sometimes what feels like an insurmountable obstacle turns out to be a laughable misunderstanding. Sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, it’s worth checking out before you make a hasty decision.

Ultimately, if you do decide to part ways, let your agent know that your seeking other representation before you jump ship. This is a business and should be treated respectfully, even if you’re the only one being respectful. If the partnership isn’t working and you just can’t reach an agreement, be honest about your intended departure and try to leave on good terms.

An Affirmation to Remember

If you’ve got an agent offer, that means you’ve achieved what most people never will—you’ve written an entire book. It didn’t happen overnight, and you’ve certainly poured a lot of blood into it. Give yourself and your hard-earned accomplishment the respect you both deserve—don’t settle for the wrong agent just because she’s the first to show an interest in your work. There are hundreds–possibly thousands—of hard-working, dedicated, talented agents out there waiting for your query.

This is your writing career, your passion, and possibly your life’s dream. Take your time, do your homework, and find the right agent to represent you. You deserve it!

24 Responses to Literary Agent Offers: Don’t Settle!

  1. webbiegrrl says:

    Great timing with this article, Sarah!! I’m spending this holiday weekend setting up and starting a Blogger and WordPress presence for my soon-to-be launched freelance (non-fiction) writing career (my Evil Plan for how to support my as-yet-unprofitable fiction writing habit to which I am thoroughly addicted but which has yet to glean any money).

    First, do you mind if I link to this? trackback, digg or whatever?

    Second, would you like to be an Invited Reader at the webbiegrrl blogger? I didn’t automatically add you as I know you’re busy with your own stuff but figured I’d offer, as one WWACie Sarah to another.

    -sry
    Sarah, The Webbiegrrl Writer

  2. Sarah Ockler says:

    Hi Sarah! Yes, definitely add me as a reader and trackback/link/digg whatever. Thanks!

    Good luck with your freelance career and fiction. It’s worth it! :-)

  3. rgoodchild says:

    I love my agent. She copes with all my crazy impulsivity- and is so easy to work with…
    and I love her refusal to own a cell phone!

  4. Ken Kiser says:

    Very informative. Excellent article. I’ll be back to read more. In fact, I’m link to here to make those trips easier. :)

  5. Alex Moore says:

    Excellent information, Sarah. Enjoyed the read. Hope your book is successful (great insertioon of humor btw).

  6. [...] Sarah Okler’s Blog: Literary Agent Offers: Don’t Settle! [...]

  7. Hey Sarah! I included a link to this post in my “What To Do When An Agent Offers…” post. Thanks for including such great info!

  8. LJCohen says:

    Thank you for this succinct and comprehensive list. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll have to ask these questions soon.

  9. Sarah Ockler says:

    Thanks, everyone for your comments! Let me know if anyone has other questions about finding or accepting an agent. Just leave your questions here in the comments!

    And to those of you still searching, good luck! :-)

  10. Gary Towner says:

    After years polishing my writing skills I’m facing a brick wall. I write Adventure Novels and have sent queries to over 50 potential agents. All have said my offerings are “not right for my list.” I can accept that, but their refusal to handle my works is without seeing any of my works first.

    So, I am left to pick an agent listed in the water cooler forem as a “run away from” agent. What am I to do if I want to ever get published?

    >>>> Gary Towner novels in need of publication: The Mbuji Juju (88,280 Words); The Dead Still Walk (76,250 Words); The Three-Legged-Camel (88,800 Words); The Frozen Detaunt (81,025 Words);Pestilence (132,000 Words)

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Hi Gary – I know it might seem like it will never happen, but please don’t give up! And please don’t seek an agent that has an unethical reputation! If your writing work is important to you, treat it (and yourself) with the respect it deserves and insist on professionalism!

      Since it sounds like your query letter is being rejected outright without any requests for sample pages, I would take another look at your letter and your targeted agents.

      Do the agents you’re targeting represent adventure novels? Have they taken on (and sold) other works similar to yours? Are you sure you’re targeting the right agents to rep your specific type of work?

      Is the letter short (1 page or less) and compelling, including a “hook” about your novel that would make the agent want to request sample pages to find out what happens next?

      Are you following the agency’s specific submission guidelines? Many of them are different, so it’s important to read all instructions!

      Are you including the agent’s name and not a blanket “Dear Sir”?

      Are you pitching one agent per email rather than sending a mass email blitz?

      Are you pitching one novel per letter, rather than trying to do a broad pitch for all of your novels?

      Your answers to these questions should all be YES. If they are, then try running your letter by some trusted friends or critique partners and get their feedback. Ask them to tell you: would this letter make you want to read more? This is the tricky part, because your friends might say yes even if they don’t mean it, in an effort to be supportive. So ask people you know will be honest at all costs!

      And whatever you do, keep writing, don’t give up, and don’t give in to the temptation to go with a bad or unethical agent just to see your name in print.

  11. Chaka says:

    One of the best articles, if not the best, that I’ve read about finding a suitable agent. Great work! I’m preparing my questions right now. Thanks for the article.

  12. M.J. Wright says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I have a question for you. Would you be my query letter critique? I love to write all children’s genres. I am currently working on 2 YA novels, a mid-grade, and I have finished a couple of first readers and picture books.

    Another question, why is it that only a small selection of books have a prologue, forward, epilogue, etc. Why is it needed and what kinds of books actually use these things? Which is your favorite?

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Hi M.J.! Thanks for visiting!

      I’m not able to critique your query letter, but there are lots of resources and groups online that might be able to help you. Try googling query letter critiques, or check out some of the popular YA agent blogs like http://pubrants.blogspot.com and http://blog.nathanbransford.com/ for sample queries and critiques. I know Miss Snark used to do crits but her blog is no longer active – you might still find good info in the archives. Finally, check out your local chapter of SCBWI at http://www.scbwi.org/ for info about in person writing groups that might help you.

      In terms of prologues, forwards, and epilogues, it really just depends on the story. I haven’t seen forwards in fiction – I think that’s more fore introducing and endorsing a nonfiction work. Prologues in fiction are generally used to provide background information necessary for the story that doesn’t otherwise work in the story itself, like an event that happened years before the story open or with other characters who are not the main characters in the book. Epilogues are used similarly at the end to tie up loose ends or reflect on how things worked out after the close of the main story. They’re not necessary for all books — it really just depends on the individual story and how the author wants to tell it.

      Thanks again for stopping by and good luck with your agent search!

  13. Philip Yates says:

    Sarah, just happened upon your site the night before I have a chat with a potential agent. So much great information. I’ve actually been communicating with her by email for several weeks about my work and it’s already a good sign (in the communication department) that she’s pretty communicator since she responds so promptly to my emails. Is it a good sign or a bad sign, though, when the agent uses the term “chat” when she says she’s going to call you? Thanks!

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Hi Phillip – in my experience, if an agent wants to talk by phone, weather it’s to talk, chat, converse, discuss, connect, exchange ideas, or any other word for it, it’s a good thing! Best of luck on your conversation and your ongoing search. Remember, don’t be afraid to ask those questions and take your time making a decision! :-)

  14. Gretchen says:

    Sarah, excellent, excellent post. Agented and non-agented writers alike should read and digest this!

    I personally know a half dozen agent-author “divorces” that have happened in the last six months. Some agent-initiated, some author-initiated. One thing we all have to keep in mind is that the publishing industry isn’t the same as it was a year ago. Everything takes longer, and expectations on both sides need to be modified accordingly.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      You’re absolutely right, Gretchen, and that’s a great point. The way we do book business is changing on all sides – authors, agents, publishers, bookstores, readers. And it’s changing rapidly. It’s important to keep that in mind when approaching an agent search and our relationships with current agents.

  15. This list was fabulous! I bookmarked it, and I can’t wait for the day when I can finally use it! Thanks so much.

  16. kathytemean says:

    Sarah,

    Great Post! I would like to mention you, you books and point people to your full post on my Writing and Illustrating blog. Please let me know if this does not work for you. Who’s you editor at Little, Brown?
    They have been putting out some wonderful books.

    Kathy

  17. [...] Finding an agent who you click with and also loves your writing and is willing to work hard for you is a daunting task, so don’t miss the next 4 steps and other advice from Sara, click here. [...]

  18. Lee Wind says:

    A really good post with great advice!
    Thanks,
    Namaste,
    Lee

  19. An older post, but I so needed this today. Thanks, Sarah! Excellent list and you’ve certainly given me something to think about!

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