Picking an Agent

by Erin Brown

“Picking an agent?” you ask. “Don’t I just pick the agent that picks me? Sheesh, if someone wants to represent me, sign me up, no questions asked, right?” Well, slow down there, partner. Sure, it’s fantastic to have someone interested in your work, but you want to be certain that your agent is a good fit for you and your book. Of course if you only have one bite—one agent interested—then you pretty much have one of two choices. You can say, “Yes, hell yes! Let me just sign in blood on the dotted line,” or you can say, “Forget you, I’m going to keep looking for an agent that is more reputable/wiser/more enthusiastic/younger/a better dancer/a stronger swimmer/whatever.” It’s your prerogative. However, I want to talk about the scenario in which a client of mine recently found herself—battling agents! Once she finished giving thanks to the writing gods (no human sacrifices necessary, FYI) and gave a few loud “Whoo hoo!”s, she wondered, “How to choose?”

Signing with the right agent is serious business. Before even speaking to an interested agent in person (many make initial contact with you via email), do your research. What is the agent’s reputation? Even a simple Google search will pull up any “BEWARE!!!” notices from upset authors. And of course, it goes without saying that no agent will ever, ever, EVER charge you money to read your work or represent you. There’s a huge (as in Grand Canyon huge) difference between paying an agent cash up front—which you should never do—and taking a percentage of your earnings once the book is sold. Editors at publishing houses know which agents are scammers (i.e., charge “reading fees,” etc.) and will not even look at submissions from them, so don’t even waste your time, no matter what the agent promises you (“Look, we’re busy, we need monetary compensation to read your work, everyone does it, etc.”).

Once you’ve established that your interested agent is legit, next comes a phone conversation. You want to make sure that you connect with your future agent. After all, you’re going to be in each other’s lives for a long time, ideally, and you will be spending a lot of time on the phone, sending emails, negotiating finances (you think that arguing over money only happens in marriages? Hah!), editing, having dinners, talking about the latest episode of Mad Men, etc. This is an extremely important relationship—and hopefully a long-term one. If your agent is rude, abrupt, doesn’t have time for you, is a downer, or isn’t totally and completely in love with your book, you don’t want him or her. Hear that? Say no if your gut tells you that you don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time working with this person. You can say no, after all. You don’t want your baby in the hands of someone that won’t treat it with the respect and attention it deserves. And you don’t want an agent treating you that way either. Don’t let desperation drive you into a relationship that will soon turn sour. Bottom line: make sure you “click” with your agent.

 Next, don’t be afraid to ask questions. In fact, this is a must!! A few suggestions:

The “get to know ya” questions: Tell me about your background: why did you become an agent? What do you love about agenting? What are your favorite books? How long have you been in the business? Tell me about your time in the business.

The “get to the point” questions: What made you fall in love with my book? Why are you the best person to represent my book? Do you have any editorial changes/revisions in mind for the project? How much work will be involved? Are you interested in representing my future work? Let’s discuss my ideas for more projects, etc.

The “get down to business” questions: What editors do you have in mind for my project? Have you sold to them before? What other books have you sold that are similar to mine? Explain to me your vision for the project and the submission process.

Remember, you have every right to interview your agent. Now don’t come across as hoity-toity or grill them like an overbearing father sending his teenage daughter out on a first date (“Keep your hands to yourself, mister, and bring the book home by midnight!!!”). Be calm and conversational about it. But you want to make sure, after all of the effort that you’ve put into writing the dang thing, that your book will be in the best hands possible. On the flip side, though, don’t have a chip on your shoulder, turning down perfectly viable agents in the hopes that some William Morris super-agent will swoop in with a sparkly cape and get you a million dollars.

Be realistic, open to smaller agents, and humble. Just as importantly, be smart, ask the right questions, and don’t settle. And please, please make sure that your agent is very enthusiastic about the book and working with you. That means he or she will go to the ends of the earth for your book, just like you would. After all, you’re seeking the best for your book because it’s your baby—and you don’t just drop off an infant with the first nanny you see on some random street corner. Check references, do background checks, ask important questions, make sure you mesh personality-wise, and of course, make sure that she’s not going to fall asleep on the job or invite no-good boyfriends over when you’re at the movies.


Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com

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