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12 Essential Questions to Ask a Literary Agent Who Offers To Represent You

Laura Cross - Author

Guest Post by Laura Cross and you can win a free copy of her ebook – details at the end of her article.

Every writer knows that finding a literary agent can be challenging. Often authors are so happy to finally connect with an agent who wants to work with them that they simply sign a contract with the first agent who offers representation. Selecting an agent is a serious business decision and should be carefully considered. You want to ensure the agent is the best one for your book and the right match for your writing career.

Here is a list of questions to consider asking your potential agent before signing the dotted line:

  1. How do you feel about my book and its potential?
    The response you receive will help you gage her enthusiasm for the project. You need an agent who will champion your book and not give up after receiving a few rejections.
  2. Do you feel the manuscript or proposal needs edits before you begin pitching the book to publishers?
    Her response will give you an idea of the scope of edits she is expecting and how long it will take to make the changes before she actually begins selling the project. It can also help you decide if you agree with her comments and are willing to make the requested revisions.
  3. How do you plan to market my book?
    The agent should be able to provide a clear strategy to sell your book. Will she pitch to several publishers at once or only one at a time? How many editors will she approach and what publishing houses will she submit to? If she cannot illustrate her plan, then she may be a disorganized and ineffective salesperson.
  4. How often should I contact you?
    It’s best to have an understanding of expectations regarding communication before entering an agreement with the agent. If your hope is to be able to contact her once a week and she implies that anything more than once per month is inappropriate, then she is probably not the right agent for you.
  5. How often should I expect to receive updates?
    It is important to determine if you are a match regarding correspondence. Are you comfortable receiving an e-mail update once every two months or do you prefer contact by telephone at least twice per month?
  6. How many authors do you currently represent?
    If she represents a small number of clients she will likely have plenty of time to focus on you and your book – but do ask why she has so few clients. If the number of clients she represents is large (more than 50), ask her how she manages so many authors. Does she have assistants and sub-agents? Find out how she plans to provide the attention necessary for your book to succeed.
  7. How many of your current clients are published?
    The percentage of authors for whom she has actually landed a book deal can provide insight into her sales ability.
  8. On average how many [insert genre] books do you sell a year?
    If your prospective agent represents a variety of fiction genres but she has only sold romance novels and you write urban fantasy, it may indicate that — while she may be enthusiastic about urban fantasy fiction and want to represent you — she may lack the experience and connections to garner publishing deals for your genre. In such a case, if you decide to proceed with her as your agent, ensure she has a strong marketing strategy in place for your book – not simply an enthusiastic attitude.
  9. What commissions do you charge?
    The standard industry commission is 15 percent. You should not be charged a higher rate. If the agent offers a “reduced commission” plus a small “representation fee” – run fast in the other direction because such an “offer” is a scam.

10.  What subsidiary rights have you sold for your clients and how is that handled?
You want an agent who is competent in selling different types of subsidiary rights – book clubs, film rights, foreign rights, audio, serial rights. If your agent lacks this skill you risk losing potential profits and exposure you would otherwise acquire with the sale of subsidiary rights. Some agencies have in-house departments that exclusively handle subsidiary rights. Some agents sub-contract other agents to handle the sales of these rights. For instance, your agent may work with a literary agent in Hollywood to handle selling film and television rights because the Hollywood agent has better connections in the entertainment industry. It is always to the author’s benefit to have subsidiary rights retained by the agent. If your prospective agent informs you that she usually allows the publisher to retain the rights, you need to consider how such a policy will impact your long-term career.

11.  What is your procedure and timeframe for payment of authors’ royalties and advances received from the publisher?
All payments due to you from your publisher will be paid to your agent. Your agent deducts his or her commission and any additional agreed upon expenses from the publisher’s check and then issues you the remaining balance. An ethical agent who follows standard business practices should have a non-interest bearing ‘holding’ account for client monies that is entirely separate from the agency bank account. You want to deal with an efficient and organized agent who will issue your payment to you in a timely manner. Her response to this question should indicate that she has good business practices and a well-managed system in place for sending authors’ payments.

12.  If you do not sell my book within a specific period of time, what happens?
Will the agent drop you as a client, allow you the option to find another agent, or continue to work with you to create another project to pitch?

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Add a question or a comment. I’ll do my best to answer the questions. Laura’s swamped. In about 10 days I’ll shut both eyes and pick a comment in as random a fashion as I can and the lucky winner will get a free ebook version of Laura’s book The Complete Guide To Hiring A Literary Agent: Everything You Need To Know To Become Successfully Published.

Laura Cross is an author, screenwriter, ghostwriter, freelance book editor, and writing coach specializing in nonfiction books and script adaptation (book-to-film projects). She writes two popular blogs, www.NonfictionInk.com and www.AboutAScreenplay.com, and teaches online writing workshops www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com/workshops. Her latest book is The Complete Guide To Hiring A Literary Agent: Everything You Need To Know To Become Successfully Published. You can download a free chapter, view the book trailer, read the full table of contents, and purchase the eBook at www.GetALiteraryAgent.com.

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{ 40 comments… add one }
  • I hzve read several excellent stuff here. Certainly worth
    bookmarking for revisiting. I surprse how much attempt you put
    to make this sort of exceolent informative website.

  • Candie

    Hi Anne,
    I wish I had stumbled on your website
    (BEFORE) I signed with an agent.
    However, let me ask a quick question.
    I am a screenwriter, who has signed
    my sitcom with a literary agent,
    who advised they plan to “package”
    my material. I asked them for
    a list of where my material has been
    sent. To date, I have received nothing.
    Am I correct in that I am entitled to
    know the companies/entities where
    my work has been “shopped”? Thx.

    • Candie, I think you should be entitled, but I’ve had agents refuse that info on the grounds they’re protecting their client list. If I sign with an agent again I’ll make sure that my right to know where/when it’s been submitted is in the contract or no deal. I don’t think you have any legal right to that information. Keep bugging them is my suggestion…

  • Jeannie

    Hi Anne!

    Can you recommend a fantastic book on how to write an awesome book proposal that will capture the attention of reputable publishing companies, especially when the author is unknown?

  • I would like to know a little more about getting my book published. I have never done this before.

    Do authors get taxed on the profits from their books? About how much percentage do they get on each sale? About how much money will I get if I have a movie made out of this? I really feel it is movie material.

    Thanks,

    Sally

    • Anne

      Yes, you get taxed on profits… royalties are taxed differently than regular income in the US. Percentages vary widely… there is no standard. And I don’t know much about movies, that’s script writing, but I’ll bet the pay varies widely there too.

  • My book is non-ficition and my book was ordained by God to get out to help restore people that has a problem with forgiveness. It has been a blessing to readers ,but I don’t have no one to help me to it out to the world.I haven’t had my book signing due to not knowing how to. So what should my first step be?

  • This information is vital. Pre-published writers generally have no clue as to the importance of the “marriage” between writer and agent. Laura’s comments are equivalent to marriage vows that will assure the happy couple a little mileage in achieving “til death do us part”. After what seems like one thousand years, I finally have a agent who is interested in my manuscript. The questions Laura presents, I am sure, will establish a good rapport between us, if all goes well.

  • The office for copyright in Canada is http://www.cb-cda.gc.ca/home-accueil-e.html.
    .-= Anne Cagle´s last blog ..UPDATE ON SYNOPSIS =-.

    • Anne

      Thanks.

    • Some additional information, directly from the Canadian government’s copyright site:

      “You do not have to register your copyright to have protection in Canada, but when you register with the Copyright Office, you receive a certificate which can be used to your advantage in the event that your work is infringed.

      A certificate of registration is evidence that your work is protected by copyright and that you, the person registered, are the owner. In the event of a legal dispute, you do not have to prove ownership; the onus is on your opponent to disprove it.

      However, registration is no guarantee against infringement. You have to take legal action on your own if you believe your rights have been violated. Also, registration is no guarantee that your claim of ownership will eventually be recognized as legitimate. Note too, that the Copyright Office does not check to ensure that your work is indeed original, as you claim. Verification of your claim can only be done through a court of law.”
      .-= Benjamin Hunting´s last blog ..My Miata Heartbreak =-.

  • @Wendy – thanks for your question. I always recommend authors approach literary agents themselves. Literary agents don’t appreciate having to deal with third parties. However, there are a lot of ghostwriters and book proposal packagers, as well as an established company (Writers Relief), that offer this “matchmaking service”. When I create and submit a pitch package for a client, all the material refers the agent directly to the client (not back to me) for follow-up. I provide the client with detailed instructions on how to effectively engage with the literary agent to ensure an effective meeting or conversation. Hope this information is helpful.

    @Benjamin – most of my clients are not writers, they’re experts in their fields pitching nonfiction book ideas, and they do not have the time to research and approach agents themselves so they hire a ghostwriter to prepare the pitch package. However, as noted above, if you are the actual writer (especially a novelist) it is in your best interest to approach literary agents directly.
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..Secrets Every Writer Should Know About Query Letters =-.

  • wendy rich

    Hello,
    What happens if you find many writers around you who need someone to approach agents on their behalf? Is there anyone out their in the literary world doing that, and what would be involved in becoming a “matchmaker” for both? Thank you kindly.

    • Why can’t these writers approach agents directly?
      .-= Benjamin Hunting´s last blog ..Building A Macquarium =-.

      • wendy rich

        I find more and more talented artists from writers to graphic artists to painters who fear failure and don’t want to deal with rejection but would be willing for me to market for them. I headhunt for another writer who because of time constraints pays me a finder fee for helping her find legit project opportunities. It’s a great win-win situation. I want to be people’s dream makers. So many talented people who would rather hide their masterpieces in a drawer. Oh, and I know of a Japanese elder who designed the first automatic door opener for vehicles and was offered 1 million for his investion by an auto maker many years ago. He felt it was too low so he said no. What happened??? Some other car manufacturer did invent the car door opener to mass market. The Japanese man’s invention sits in his nightstand collecting dust. Writers (some of them) have trouble believeing in their talents. I want to help them.

  • @Benjamin – you’re correct. Copyright is the same here in the U.S. However, for full protection a work should be registered with the Copyright Office at http://www.copyright.gov/
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..3 Secrets To A Successful Book Ghostwriting Career =-.

  • Regarding copyright for people in other countries: in Canada, as soon as you put pen to paper, your work is copyrighted. There is no need to register with any government organization.
    .-= Benjamin Hunting´s last blog ..Building A Macquarium =-.

  • Estelle

    Hi Laura and Anne. This article was extremely helpful. I am halfway through writing my book and I always find invaluable advice on this site. Thanks a lot.

  • @Elizabeth, @Aparajita, @Clara54, @Cheryl – glad to hear you found the information helpful.

    @Aparajita – it is not necessary to copyright a fiction manuscript when submitting it to an established and reputable literary agent (and it can get expensive if you have to copyright the material every time it’s revised). However, if you have any doubts, or the agent is unknown, consider registering the copyright prior to submission. If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal you won’t be able to copyright that (since ideas cannot be copyrighted).
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..3 Secrets To A Successful Book Ghostwriting Career =-.

  • Cheryl Branche

    Great questions. I am seeking a literary agent for my book in the memoirs/biography genre and found the questions and the answers very helpful.

    Thanks.

    • Anne

      You’re welcome. She did a great job with the post I think.

  • Hi Laura,

    This is so timely for writers. Sadly, I found out several years ago that NOT all Literary Agents have your beat interests at heart, only how much money they (some) can con the unsuspecting writer/novice out (:(
    .-= clara54´s last blog ..THE BOOK! =-.

  • Aparajita

    Hi Laura,
    Thanks a lot for this article.
    Anne,
    This site answers so many of my questions on freelance writing. I can’t thank you enough.
    Anyway, my question: should you get your writing copyrighted before you submit to an agent? Specially if the agent is a newbie?

  • Thank you, Laura, for sharing your insight. It’s a scary world out there for new writers and every little bit of help we can get is like manna from Heaven.

    And thank you, Anne, for sharing this post with us.
    .-= Elizabeth West´s last blog ..Shiny New =-.

    • Anne

      You’re welcome.

  • @Robin – For an extensive list of resources, you can download a free chapter on “Finding & Selecting A Literary Agent” from my book at http://www.GetALiteraryAgent.com
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..The Author’s Toolkit =-.

  • Robin

    Laura,

    Thanks for the article. It is very informative. I do have a question, though. Where do you recommend looking for possible literary agents? I do have a Writer’s Market, but I’m sure that’s not the only source. What additional resources that could help me an agent that represents my genre (primarily fantasy fiction)?

    Thank you!

  • @Lucinda – an author usually only has one literary agent who represents all of his or her work. It may be a little more difficult to find agents that represent both biography and dystopian fiction – but they do exist. Each week, Chuck Sambuchino features interviews with both new agents and established agents who often represent a wide selection of genres – check out his blog at http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..The Author’s Toolkit =-.

  • If you work in two seriously different genres, what is the likelihood of finding an agent who can work with you in both. For example, I am working on a non-fction biography of a locally famous politician (who has been in office for 44 years), but my primary focus is dystopian fiction. Should I be looking for representation for each or is it possible to find one agent to handle everything you write?

  • @Jim – thanks for your comment. The agent-author partnership is a relationship. It is a two-way street. And I would never recommend an author accept an offer of representation from a literary agent unless it is a good fit. A writer who falls into the trap of fear and desperation runs the risk of ending up in a negative situation – possibly wasting months or even years with the wrong agent, and missing opportunities to become a successfully published author. Who would want to go down that road? Writing is a serious career. I don’t know any professional who would enter into a business arrangement with someone without asking questions and ensuring it was a good fit. Yes, even in this publishing climate, I do believe that sometimes it may be in a writer’s best interest to turn down an offer of representation. And yes, I do seriously believe that authors are smart enough to realize that. Writers should feel empowered to make informed decisions about who represents them and their work.
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..The Author’s Toolkit =-.

  • Jim Whiting

    Do you seriously think that in an era of shrinking publishing opportunities and an increasingly large number of agents who don’t even reply to queries, anyone would turn down an offer of representation? You’re not really selecting an agent, s/he is selecting you according to his/her business judgment about your potential for making money.

  • Hi Benjamin:

    I write nonfiction exclusively – prescriptive how-to and self-help. But my latest book “The Complete Guide To Hiring A Literary Agent” covers everything you should know for both fiction and nonfiction writers.
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..12 Essential Questions To Ask A Literary Agent Who Offers To Represent You =-.

  • Hello Laura,

    Do you write primarily fiction or non-fiction?

    Thanks.
    .-= Benjamin Hunting´s last blog ..A Freelance Writer Muses On Novel Writing =-.

  • If the agent is new and you are unsure if he or she is legit (no verifiable track record or previous industry experience), it is absolutely acceptable to ask for client referrals. Also, consider asking a new or unknown agent to list a few editors he/she thinks may be interested in your work and why he/she selected those particular contacts – this helps ensure the agent has publishing industry connections and a plan to market your book.
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..12 Essential Questions To Ask A Literary Agent Who Offers To Represent You =-.

  • Is it ok to ask for references- like other authors they have represented?
    .-= John Peragine´s last blog ..Word Counter =-.

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