THE CALL. The CALL. THE call. The call has reached legendary status among querying writers. Stories told at writing conferences over drinks, everyone with their own version. With my very first offer, the agent emailed me to say, “I loved your manuscript and I’d like to set up a time to chat.” This will incite great panic in writers, because they suddenly begin to gaslight themselves. Is the agent calling to offer representation? Or will they want a revise and resubmit? Or perhaps they are so deeply offended that they feel the need to pick up the phone and unload? Writers, as a group, tend toward drastic imaginings. Do agents know this? I don’t know. Probably.
There’s a ton on the web about what to ask an agent if you’re lucky enough to get an offer. But below are my top tips for when it happens to you:
TIP: Before you even query, you need to be clear on what kind of agent you want. Do you want an enthusiastic cheerleader, or would you prefer an agent with an all-business demeanor, someone who will give good and bad news to you straight? Do you want an editorial agent who will critique your work before sending out to editors, or would you prefer to handle all of that with your writing group, and just let your agent handle the sale? Talk to your agented friends. Ask them what it’s like working with their agent, from submission all the way through publication and beyond. What do they love? What would they like more of? What do they wish they had? Knowing the kind of agent you want ahead of time will help when you talk on the phone with an offering agent because you will be so flabber-smacked by the call, you might not even remember your name.
TIP: Make sure you’re alone, with a large chunk of time to talk. You don’t want to feel rushed or have your attention split. So if the offering agent does what my agent did — call out of the blue with no warning — and it’s not a good time to talk (like say, for example, you’re teaching math when she calls), don’t take the call until you have the time to focus. Most of my offer calls lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. But I’ve had friends who tell me they talked for nearly two hours. Carve out the time.
TIP: The first thing you should do is let them gush about your book. And if they’re offering, they’re going to gush. One thing I didn’t realize is how angsty agents get about books they want to represent. Suddenly, they feel worried they might not get picked. So enjoy what they have to say about your book and soak it in. You’ve earned this! BUT THEN, you need to ask about revisions they think are still needed. This is important because their vision of the book needs to match yours. Take notes. Even if you end up not signing with that agent, their thoughts on revisions might still be valuable. After I signed with my agent, we talked about all the revisions other agents suggested, and incorporated those into our revision plan as well.
TIP: Some agents will tell you which editors they want to pitch your book to, but others won’t. Don’t be put off by this. Agents are very protective of their editor relationships, and they don’t want you to run off to another agent with their submission list. But they should be able to tell you whether they see your book at a Big 5 publisher, or if they see it at one of the smaller presses.
TIP: Ask about agency resources. At my agency, which is also a film and entertainment agency, we have resources that smaller boutique agencies don’t have. That I had the power of CAA behind my book was a big selling point for me. But I have writing friends who don’t want the big agency feel. They want something smaller and more intimate. Some agencies have in-house publicists and foreign rights and film departments. Others don’t. Again, be clear on what your priorities are, and don’t be afraid to ask what their agency can offer you that others cannot.
TIP: Beware of agents who are wanting to move in a new direction with your manuscript. I heard a few I mostly represent romance, but I want to move in the direction of women’s fiction from a couple agents. Which is fine, but they need to have the contacts and agency support to back it up. If you’re fielding an offer from a newer agent, you want to ask how the more experienced agents at the agency will support them.
TIP: Ask what books they’ve read in your genre that they love. If they can’t name several books that are solidly in your lane, they might not be as well-versed in your genre as they are claiming to be. Again, this is fine, as long as they’re up front about it and you are comfortable with it.
TIP: Remember, you are interviewing them at this point. You have to trust your gut. A great rapport with an agent is not enough to guarantee a long-lasting relationship. This is a business decision, and you need to pick someone you feel you can work with. If their abrupt tone makes you worried you might be bothering them with emails or phone calls, then that might not be the best fit for you. If their abrupt tone makes you feel like they confidently have a handle on what to do with your book and it makes you feel secure that someone is in the driver’s seat, then this might be the agent for you. Don’t pick someone because you like their Twitter feed, or they seem like someone you could be friends with. You’re not looking for nice. You aren’t picking your best friend. You’re picking the person who is going to sell your book to a publisher. Who is going to go over your contract with a fine-tooth comb and fight for every single point and dollar. And you won’t always want them to be nice about it.
TIP: Ask to talk to other clients. If you have multiple offers, pay attention to how each agent facilitates that. One offering agent simply told me to look her clients up on Twitter, but not to bother them if I wasn’t serious. My agent emailed two of her clients and cc’ed me, introducing me as a potential new client, raving about my book, and then inviting them to talk with me about their experiences with her. That alone was very informative for me, especially for someone who had serious anxiety about cold-emailing published authors. Which leads me to…
TIP: When you speak to clients, ask them how easy it is to get in touch with their agent. What are response times like? Is he or she accessible? Ask again how hands-on the agent is…client perception can be very different from agent perception. Ask about a difficult situation with an editor and how the agent handled it. Ask about how the agent handles editor rejections, and what does he or she do when a book doesn’t sell? Or when a book sells but doesn’t do well in the market? If you can, talk to clients on the phone, not via email. They will be much more forthcoming if they don’t have to put anything in writing.
TIP: But also be aware that if an agent is connecting you with a client, they’re generally going to pick people they have good relationships with. At the end of the day, you’re going to have to trust your instincts.
REMEMBER: This is your book. No one is going to love it as much as you do. You need someone knowledgeable and with the right connections to sell it. And if you’re not completely sold on the offering agent, do not be afraid to decline the offer and keep querying. The wrong agent is worse than no agent at all.
The Ones We Choose is available for preorder!
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