Monday, February 16, 2015

Do You Know Your Agent?

The author - agent relationship is a unique one that requires a great deal of trust, probably more so than any other relationship you'll ever have within this industry. An agent is basically a person who will manage your career. They will help you edit and polish your manuscript; create an outstanding query package; sell your manuscript to a publisher; negotiate your contract for you; and just be an all-around champion for you and your work. In addition to all of that, your agent will be responsible for collecting and disbursing your royalties to you, so there's a very delicate fiduciary relationship that shouldn't be ignored or left un-discussed. 

There are a lot of agents out there with new ones showing up on the scene every day. So, how do you know which ones are the good ones? By doing your homework. I always tell authors to research, research, research! NEVER sign with an agent unless you're 100% confident in them and their ability to represent you. 

Here are the steps I took BEFORE I ever sent a query letter to any agent:

1.      The Agent's Website – Okay, this might seem like a no-brainer. I mean, duh, right? How else will you know how & where to submit? But, don’t just visit the submissions page. Take the time to click through every single page on the website. Do all the links work? Are there missing pages? Does the site itself look professional? Is it full of silly grammatical errors? Is there an “About Us” or a “Staff” page? What kind of experience does the agent have? Is there a list of current authors? Is there a page for recent deals? What kind of deals has the agent recently made? Are they to traditional Big 5 publishers or are they small press deals? How long has the agency been in business?

2.      Preditors & Editors – ( This is an alphabetical listing of publishers and agents along with a “recommendation.” Search for the specific agent you’re thinking of submitting to and see what recommendation they’ve been given. If they’re listed and “not recommended” or “highly not recommended” you might want to cross them off your list.

3.      Absolute Write Forums – ( Go to Google, type in the name of the agency / agent, and then add “absolute write” after it. This usually results in the first hit being a direct link to the forum that discusses said agent. Take the time to read every single posting. Some will have 20+ pages, and some of the comments will be nothing more than “I got an offer!” Weed through those to get to all the other stuff. Oftentimes, current and/or past authors will chime in and give their personal experiences with the agent. This information can be invaluable.

4.      Ask Friends & Fellow Writers – If you don’t already belong to writing groups on Facebook, go join some right now! They’re invaluable. Make a posting asking about said agent. Ask if anyone has any experience with the agent and if so, what it is.

5.      Check the Agent's Social Media Accounts – Facebook, Twitter, blog, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc. How big of a following do they have? Are they active on those accounts or has it been months since they last posted? Are they using them to help promote their authors? Are they using it to interact with readers? Are they conducting themselves professionally?

6.      Make Google Your New Best Friend – Google the agent's name. Do any articles or interviews come up? Read them. Is there anything that gives you pause?

7.   Check Publisher's Marketplace - Most agents will announce deals they've made on this site. It's a great way to see what types of things they've been selling and to whom. Are you looking for a traditional deal, but the agent works primarily with small presses?You may want to cross him/her off your list and move on. 

So, your agent of choice has made it through your initial round of scrutiny and you polish up your query and hit send. Then you wait and wait and wait… Until one day you get an offer! YAY! I know how tempting it will be to just sign on the dotted line and get your book moving toward publication. DON’T! Take a step back. You’ve still got a lot of work to do.

AFTER you’ve received an offer for representation, it’s time to dig a little deeper and do more research.

1.      Read the Contract – Again, a no brainer. Read it two, three, four times. Have a lawyer read the contract. If you don’t have one or can’t afford one, ask a friend who has experience working with contracts to read it for you. As you do, compile a list of questions. Even if everything seems straightforward and you understand it, ask a question anyway. Create a list of items you want to negotiate. If you feel the contract is fair and there isn’t anything you want changed, come up with something anyway and ask for it. Doing these two things (asking questions, negotiating) will show you two things: (A) how communicative the agent is, and (B) how willing they are to work with you as an author. The standard agent fee is 15%, so if the contract is granting the agent more than that, find out why!

2.      Contact Current Authors – Go back to the publisher’s website and look through their current author list. Randomly chose 6 – 10 authors, hunt them down on the intranet, and email them. Politely let them know you’ve received an offer of representation with Agent and you’re touching base to see what their personal experiences have been like. It’s very rare an author won’t respond, and trust me, they will be brutally honest with you. 

** An argument can be made to do this step before querying, but I find this specific step to be very time-consuming and is often better done once an offer is on the table because at that point, you have a lot more invested and a lot more to gain / lose. **

3.      Do a Business Search – Once you get the contract, it will have a lot of information such as the owner’s full name, business address, telephone number. Plug these into trusty ‘ole Google and see what comes up. Alternatively, you can search for the state where the business is located and search their business database. (All companies registered as an Inc., LLC, etc is public information and as such must be listed somewhere.) Is the business legally registered in the state listed in the address? Are there any formal complaints against the business? Does the business listing information match what is on the contract?

** Note: A lot of agencies will have this basic information available on their website -- if not a full street address, at the very least a state listing. Those that don't -- take pause and ask yourself why? **

4.      Ask to Speak on the Phone – Nowadays, a majority of publishing is done online and communication is via email. However, don’t be afraid to ask to schedule a phone call to speak about contractual terms or anything else you want to talk about. Honestly, I don't know of a single agent that won't immediately schedule a call with you, so if an agent isn't willing to do this, it's a major red flag! It’s so much easier to gauge tone and inflection when speaking as opposed to email. You can ask the tough questions on the phone and listen to how the agent responds. Is he/she dodging your questions? Talking in circles? Are they actively engaging you regarding your manuscript? Are they excited about it? Did they even read it?? (Yes, I have heard of this happening.)

6.      Ask Questions – In addition to asking contractual questions, ask lots of other questions, too. Some common ones to ask are:

  • Will you edit my manuscript before we begin to query? If so, what is your process for that? How long does it generally take? 
  • What is your vision for my book? What types of big, global changes do you think need to be made?
  • What is your submission plan? Who will we submit to first? 
  • Will you represent just this book or every single book I ever write?
  • What happens if my book doesn't sell?

I typically save this questions until after I’ve reached out to current authors and have heard back from them. This way, I can compare the publisher’s answers to the actual experiences of the authors. 

Remember that everyone’s experience is different, and although these steps will help you make an educated decision whether or not to query an agent, use common sense and come to your own conclusions. Only you know what is best for your career.  

Do you have anything to add? Are there any other steps you take or websites you visit? Share them in the comments :)