Questioning Agents

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jun 11 2008

I’ve been reading your posts about questions a writer should ask an agent before accepting an offer, and finding it very enlightening! What I’m wondering now is, is it acceptable for an author to contact an agent and ask some of these questions before submitting work, particularly if the agency is new? I’ve been to the agency’s webpage and they seem ‘on the level’ near as I can tell, but since they don’t represent any authors yet (or haven’t yet posted the representations on their website), I can’t tell if they deal with the publishing houses I’m interested in and have nothing to compare my own work to in terms of exactly what they might be interested in.

My first concern isn’t necessarily whether or not this agent represents the types of work you are writing; my concern is whether or not this agency is legitimate. You say that they seem on the level as far as you can tell, but do the agents have any publishing experience? What are they doing, or have they done, to learn about the business, network with editors, understand publishing contract language, etc.? It’s one thing to find someone who calls herself an agent, it’s another to find an agent who can actually grow your career. The best place to go to learn about the legitimacy of an agency is Writer Beware. Here you can find a comprehensive list of things to look out for when evaluating a new agency.

I wasn’t given much information other than what you said above, so I can’t say for sure what their Web site might look like or who they are. A red flag for me, though, is if they don’t have a list of genres they are interested in representing and/or houses they have contacts with. It’s tough. I was a new agent once and I know what it’s like to put up a practically empty Web site. However, I also know that what helped me really build my career was the fact that I did have a publishing background, that I did have contacts in the business, and that I did attend regular publishing meetings and events to not only network but also to learn more about the industry. It’s amazing what you can learn about things like contract negotiation and publishing houses by simply talking to other agents.

Okay, back to your first question: I think you could easily call the agency. You can always call, but I don’t necessarily know that they’ll call you back. The truth is that you can query them and ask all of the questions if they call to offer representation. You can always say no. This is a good question for readers, and even some of our own clients. For those of you who queried or signed with an agency that might have been fairly new at the time, what made you comfortable doing so, and if you avoided querying a particular new agency, what were the red flags for you?


23 responses to “Questioning Agents”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Excellent subject. I signed with my first agent after meeting her at a writers’ conference and seeming to hit it off with her. But as we went along, it became obvious that she had neither the contacts nor the expertise needed to help me in my chosen genre. After much too long we parted company and I signed with an agent I’d come to know and whose background I’d investigated more thoroughly. Bottom line–first impressions aren’t that important, good research is very important.

  2. I would never sign (much less query) an agent who isn’t a member of AAR (Association of Author’s Representatives). In order to join the AAR, an agent has to have sold a certain number of books, and pledge to follow their Code of Ethics. Remember a bad agent is worse than no agent.

  3. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Like Anon 8:08, I signed with an agent that I had seen speak at a writer’s conference. She was top-notch and everyone said good things about her. But I found after “much too long” as well, that all her big clients meant she had no time or inclination to pay attention to my work. She had the contacts, mind you, just not the verve to keep at it after 8 rejections.

    * To answer the post, I think my main question for my next agent will be — how many publishers will you try before you give up on the book it took me a year of my life to write?

    You can go wrong in so many different areas when agent hunting. Honestly, in spite of the usual efforts, the only way you can know how someone works is by working with them. I don’t want to seem like I have sour grapes, but when an agent wants your book, they tell you what you want to hear. The actual day-in and day-out relatonship often bears no resemblence to what’s been discussed before signing.

    They go on with other clients and meanwhile, your book has been shopped (albeit to only a handful of publishers) and you have to start over with a fresh book.

    Querying agents — may God help us all.

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I have to concur with Anonymous 8:08. Like many writers just hoping to snag an agent, I was offered representation by a ‘new agent’ with a P.R. background and who had published a couple of books, herself. I jumped at it and stayed with her for a good five years. Went through three books, before the third received an offer from a small publisher. After discussing it, we decided to decline thinking that particular book could do better. Unfortunately, after trying a couple more editors she pretty much gave up. And when I came to her with my next book, she informed me she wouldn’t be representing it. So I left it at that for a time then finally got off the dime and decided to sever our relationship and seek new representation. It’s been a hard slog so far, numerous requests for partials and fulls, but so far no offers. Still hoping.
    Bottom line is to do research. Through the usual sources. And smaller agencies should be looked at closely if they offer representation. Though they may appear enthusiastic and have the best of intentions, many of them simply aren’t that well connected and much time can be wasted this way. It’s a hard call. But I am of the opinion that an agent with limited contacts is no better than no agent at all.

  5. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Has anyone read Nicholas Sparks story? In a nutshell, he sent out 25 queries and 24 were eventually rejected. He got a call from a young woman who said that the agent he’d queried had died and, while cleaning out his desk, she came across his query. He sent her the manuscript and she offered representation. He asked her how long she’d been agent and how many sales she’d made. She’d been an agent for a few weeks and had never made a sale. Feeling he had no other options he signed with her anyway. She sold The Notebook at auction for $1 million.

    In my own case, five agents wanted partials, but only one offered representation. Since there are a limited number of agents handling my genre, and I’d queried them all, I went with her. She’s AAR , RWA, etc. but still a small agency. The book’s still out on submission so we’ll see how things play out.

  6. Avatar Just_Me says:

    I suppose authors feel the same way about new agents that agents feel about new authors: it might work, they might be the next big thing, but they might not.

    I know I want an agent who loves me work and the genres I write. There are several excellent agents whose blogs I read and who I’d love to work with, but they don’t rep what I write. And as nice as it would be to have the Big Name Agent’s clout in my corner I want the person who’s trying to sell my book to editors to absolutely love what I write.

  7. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Wow. So many good responses to this post. I agree wholeheartedly that no agent is better than a bad or inexperienced agent. You may as well keep that extra 15% for yourself if your going to end up slogging the Slush piles because your agent has no contacts to help you.

    I was approached by an agent back in August who had read my very first MS eight months earlier and rejected me at the time, saying the story and writing were great but she didn’t like the ending and the market was too tight for the length of the book.

    Well, she CALLED me on the phone out of the blue those eight months later (without my having heard a word from her since the rejection) and said she’d tried to throw away the MS, but everytime she did, she would start reading it and mark editing notes on it. She decided she wanted to represent me after all.

    Well, of course I was ecstatic, because I’d still been sludging through the querying murk for almost a year with requests for partials and fulls but no offers. Plus, I had written two more MS since then. I was so tempted to take her up on her offer.

    But–even though I had researched her the first time around for legitimacy, which she was, although she wasn’t AAR–I spent the next few nights researching her track record: sales (to which houses and for how much), conferences she attended, even emailed one of her clients to ask them if they were happy with her services.

    I ended up deciding that she didn’t have a wide enough web of contacts for my style of writing (my voice is VERY different, and will take someone with lots of contacts to know the right houses to send it to–Harlequin is out of the question, and that was one of her biggest contacts).

    So I emailed her, asked her to please shred my MS from all those months earlier (it still freaks me out that she kept it so long–one of my writer buds wondered if she’d been shopping it around w/out my knowledge and getting some positive feedback, that’s why she contacted me again–let’s hope she’s wrong). In my email, I told the agent the truth, that I needed someone with a more solid list of contacts to handle my different writing style.

    There were moments since that I wondered if I had made a mistake, when I kept getting rejection after rejection. But just recently (6 months after the first agent’s offer) I wrote the MS that snagged me a bona fide AAR agent who loves my writing style and has the contacts to get me published. Not to mention she was an editor before becoming an agent, so she has lots of experience making that story shine.

    Just goes to show you–don’t jump at the first thing that comes along. Respect your work enough to hold out for the real deal. Your stories deserve the best representation. So hold out for it.

  8. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Google the agent and the name of agency. You’ll turn up all sorts of interesting tidbits which will help you make your decision. There are a few poor sports among aspiring authors, so do cross-check and take it all with a grain of salt.

  9. Avatar Anonymous says:

    There’s a difference between someone who’s just starting out as an agent and isn’t a member of AAR yet, but is working at, say, Writers House–and someone without any sort of contacts or background in the publishing business.

    My former agent’s assistant, who works at one of the larger lit agencies, was promoted a couple of years ago. Now he’s got a great client list with a lot of sales, along with a very popular blog.

    My critique partner signed with a well-meaning agent who’d had a couple of books published with one of the major publishing houses. The agent frequented conferences, was communicative, etc. But she didn’t have the contacts. That agent recently closed her doors.

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I agree with you Anon @ 12:38, but a young agent working for a reputable publisher is no guarantee that s/he isn’t flaky. I ran across a book written by someone in my town, so I called the author and asked about her agent. She was (too) careful not to say anything bad about the agency, but did mention that her young agent had left in the middle of her publishing process to pursue her own writing. Someone else took over the author’s ms, and she felt that not only did he not have the same enthusiasm for it, I think she also felt betrayed by the original agent.

  11. A lot of people are bringing up agents who don’t have any contacts or sales, or aren’t part of AAR, and I just want to point out one thing: at some point, every agent was new, and didn’t have any of these things. This doesn’t mean they’re bad agents, just that they haven’t become established yet.

    Thus it’s doubly important to do research–research the agency as a whole, what (if any) experience the agent has, if they have anyone who’s played a mentor role for them, how they plan to establish relationships and contacts, etc. I’ll admit that when I go agent-hunting, I’d feel comfortable with someone more established, but if my perfect agent was new but had a good foundation/support structure with their agency, I’d accept it. There may be some good agents out there who are still gaining experience, and hopefully a lot of research would distinguish them from agents who truly are lazy, give up easily, or have no contacts.

  12. Avatar Karen Duvall says:

    I signed on with an new agent that another agent referred me to. That was a long time ago and I was one of her first clients. I chose to sign with her after talking with her and hearing how professional she was. Her only background was a course in publishing at NYU, I believe. She was unable to sell my book, but it was the book, not her, that got in the way. She’s still an agent today, and very successful, but she hasn’t repped fiction for many years.

    Recently there has been a number of new agents just getting started, some coming from other agencies, some from editorial backgrounds, even bookstore backgrounds. They’re not AAR members yet, obviously, since they don’t yet have the sales, but I would never hold just that against an agent. There are a number of experienced agents with dozens of bestsellers in their list who aren’t AAR members.

    My agent is a member of AAR, but that’s not why I signed with her. She is, however, the VP of the oldest literary agency in New York and that’s one reason why I chose to go with her.

  13. Avatar Amie Stuart says:

    I *belive* (from reading on another agent’s blog ages ago) that agents who do package deals can’t join AAR?? I may be phrasing this wrong…Jessica do you know the answer to this one?

    That said my first agent was young and new to the biz but with a reputable agency. It didn’t work out. I’m on my third. She was recced by a friend’s agent (her former asst) and she is with an agency that does mostly non-fic (which really made me stop and think bec. I write commercial fic). In the end I went with her because she was so enthusiastic about my work (which contained elements that normally don’t work for her).

    Heavens…you do NOT want an agent with no contacts. You don’t want an agent with poor communication skills and you don’t want an agent who won’t keep you in the loop. Unfortunately, sometimes we writers have to learn things the hard way 🙁

  14. Avatar Vicki says:

    I want to say I agree with southern writer on not signing with an agent who isn’t a member of AAR, but the thing is I can’t in all honesty agree.

    I’m not saying you wouldn’t need to check out an agency who is not a member with AAR, and check them out well. But every agency had to start somewhere. As well as every agent.

    What if that agent / agency is new, they have a few clients, and are making some sales, but their not yet a member of AAR? They could turn out to be the next Bookends, or Nelson, or Knight Agency. (there are more, just can’t name them all here) 🙂

    I do think the agency Jessica commented on, is a major red flag, but it also doesn’t mean every new agency is.

  15. There’s some good advice here, but no one has mentioned any actual resources, and I’m sure new writers (as I was) are unsure as to where to go to research agents.

    Check out Preditors & Editors, Agent Query, the Absolute Writer Water Cooler, etc.

    These are excellent resources for a new writer looking for an agent. You can find the links (and a few others) on my site under “Writerly Resources.”

  16. Avatar Karen Duvall says:

    Good point, Robert. You can also count on the reliability of the agents in the database. They’ve all been prescreened, meaning they’re legitimate and endorsed by Preditors and Editors, but whether or not an agent is right for you and your book can only be determined by you.

  17. I don’t think I would query a brand new agent in a brand new agency, neither of which had any track record of experience.

    I’m OK with a junior agent in an established agency, even if the junior agent has no experience, because I know she has resources to draw on.

    I’m OK with a brand new agency with no track record if the agent herself has had some experience, perhaps as an assistant/junior agent in another agency or editor for a major publisher.

    I’m OK with agents who aren’t AAR members yet because I know it takes time to meet the requirements for membership, and a lot of good agents just aren’t qualified yet (I would, however, expect them to say they follow AAR guidelines).

    But an agent who had nothing? No experience, no established agency to help, nothing? I’m just not that desperate yet.

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I’ll query agents that have left other firms to start their own agencies as long as they aren’t new to the publishing business. As a new writer I would avoid agent with little or no experience. After all, that’s exactly what I need from an agent: experience and contacts.

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I ran into a variation of this agent problem: I encountered an agent who had lots of experience, but had taken a rather large hiatus and was essentially starting over by establishing a new client list. To her credit, she is very knowledgeable about the industry, having started out with a major publisher before becoming an agent.

    She gave a fantastic presentation at the conference I attended. She did five-minute appointments, and asked me to send a partial. I was surprised, because she didn’t really sound interested in my manuscript.

    I found out after the fact that she asked everyone with an appointment to send a partial. Then I looked at her web site, and discovered that she hadn’t had a single new book come through her authors in more than three years.

    She requested a full manuscript, which I sent, even though by this point, I didn’t feel right about it. An editor who read my partial in a contest asked me for a full manuscript, and I passed that information on to this agent. She then told me that she didn’t really like my manuscript, but that I needed someone to help with the contract if I received an offer, but if not, we would go our separate ways.

    What I learned:
    – I need to learn to trust my gut. The markers were there – the fact that she asked for my manuscript even though she obviously wasn’t interested, the fact that she hadn’t sold any books in a long while, and the fact that she was willing to take the 15% commission but not willing to actually try to sell the book. And yet still, I hemmed and hawed over what to do.

    – I need to really research the agents attending/speaking/holding appointments at conferences. Just looking at her web page, I knew she wasn’t the right agent for me, and really, I wasted my time and hers by going to the appointment.

    – I will probably be more careful about telling an agent that I have an editor who is interested in my manuscript.

  20. Let me add to Robert’s post about the Absolute Write messageboard. There’s a forum called Bewares & Background Checks, where you can search the Index to see if the agent/agency has a thread about them. (For example, here is Bookends’ own thread. If a thread on an agent doesn’t exist, start one. Many, many great agents and agencies have threads (and some are very long); it’s not just about scammers.

  21. Avatar Gabrielle says:

    Anonymous 9:49– awesome Nicholas Sparks story. Has anyone read the “Getting Published” anthology with J.A. Konrath and Clive Cussler contributing? Clive’s story (about how he sent a fake letter to a top-notch agent, pretending to be an agent himself) took the prize.

  22. We all know it so hard out there for an emerging writer. Personally, I’ve been getting the same rejection from agent after agent – my work is really good, good to read, interesting characters, well put together etc, etc, but the agents have all said the same thing: they just weren’t passionate about the over all premise. I guess my point is there comes a time when taking a risk on an emerging agent might seem like a good idea, but I suppose we have to remember the advice of those who know when they’ve said “no agent is better than a bad agent”

  23. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this great post. I've just gone through the ringer with an agent I met at a conference who offered me representation after reading only a partial. After being a bit shocked by the offer, I asked to speak to clients, asked about her deal list (nothing recent on Publishers Marketplace). Then when I read the agency agreement and asked questions about it, and even asked that one clause be changed (perpetual agency clause), she rescinded her offer. I was questioning too much. It just seemed all backwards and wrong. Oh well, back to the query mines. Thanks for sharing, everyone. Makes me feel like I'm not totally nuts. Maybe a little bit, but not totally!