The Fun Part: Choosing an Agent

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Greetings WEbook. Sorry to be gone so long. I was on vacation and it‘s been hard getting back into the swing of things. But I haven’t forgotten where we left off … so far, I’ve written about why writers need agents and how you can find an agent who might be simpatico to both you and your work. We’re now going to take a small leap and suppose that you have sent your beautifully crafted query letters out to a bunch of agents and you got great responses from some of them, all of whom have now read your novel. Now, several of THOSE have called and left messages saying they love your work and would very much like to represent you. First thought: OMG!  Second thought: Holy shit! Now what? How do I decide between these guys?

We should all have such problems, right? Well, while it CAN be tricky, there are a few things you can think about in order to guide you to a good decision.

First, return the calls. Immediately. One by one. Listen carefully to what each agent has to say and start asking him/her questions about your novel, the working relationship you’d have together, the process of getting the manuscript to publishers, and anything else that comes to mind.

Here’s a quick laundry list:


  • What does she like about your novel?

  • Why did she pick yours out of all the submissions she must get?

  • Does she think your novel needs work?

  • Will she be providing extensive notes for revisions?

  • When will she get those to you?

  • Will she read it again after you have revised?

  • What if she thinks it still needs work then?

  • Does she have a submission plan?

  • Which imprints/editors would she approach?

  • Will she send the manuscript out widely to many editors at once, or to a smaller, more selective group? Why?

  • Does she have a sense of timing? Is timing important?

  • Has she thought about the kind of advance he might get you?

  • What is the commission structure? [Correct answer: 15% is the norm on all domestic sales; 20% for foreign sales.]

  • Does she handle foreign/translation rights, or does she work with sub-agents? Or would she expect the publisher to do that? Why?

  • Should you expect to have any out of pocket expenses? [Correct answer: no.]

  • Are there any hidden charges involved in working together? [Correct answer: no.]

  • How does she make payments to you once a deal with a publisher is made?

  • Does she or her agency have a standard author agreement?

  • Are parts of that agreement negotiable?


Then, get her to talk a little bit about herself and how she actually works. Draw her out. Who are some of her other clients? Will she be generally available to you when you have questions? Will she keep you informed of the submission process along the way? And how will she do that? How involved will she be after he has sold your book? Does she prefer communicating by phone or email? Even ask her questions about her own reading habits.

Finally, ask her some basic questions about the book publishing business. After all, you want a sense that she is experienced and knowledgeable, and knows her way around, don’t you?  Ask her about the marketplace. If your work is literary fiction, get her to tell you about other literary novels that are selling and being published now. We all know the publishing industry is in a state of flux. Does she feel optimistic about the future of book publishing? What are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing with a small publisher vs. a large one? Ask her about things like the Google settlement, the rise of e-books, and her opinion about the Kindle vs. the Sony Reader. 

The point is, ask lots of questions like these, and really listen…  And then say thank you for her time, you’re very excited at the prospect of working with her, but that you would like to think about it all for a day or two. Then make the call to the next agent, and the next. When you’re done with the calls, you have to decide. And, frankly, your decision will mostly depend on instinct, because there really is no right or wrong answer for most of the questions you’ve asked (except for the basic business questions, of course). Bottom line: you ultimately want a good rapport with your agent. You need to like her. You need to trust her. You need to have faith in her style and taste and openness. You need to feel you have a partner. She is someone you will, with any luck, have a relationship with for many years. So, it’s got to FEEL right. If you have asked a lot of questions like these, and if you have LISTENED, chances are you will find this decision pretty easy to make. Trust your instincts.

Next? Sleep on it. When you wake up, think about it for a half hour and then call the agent you have decided on and tell her how friggin’ excited you are that he wants to work with you and that you are thrilled and yes, yes, yes…

Congratulations. You have yourself an agent. You are on your way!

 --Ken

Ken Wright is an agent at Writers House, a leading NYC-based literary agency with a wide
range of bestselling and award-winning authors
. Read more of Ken's columns.

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1 comments

  1. Welcome back Ken, hope you enjoyed the holiday. Another top-quality, informative blog here. I think that this will help many new writers who are on the cusp of being reader to take this first big step... and how timely, hot on the heels of the new AgentInbox service that WeBook launched!
    The information you've provided here should help those looking for their first agent to feel a little more empowered and a little less overwhelmed by the process.

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