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Questions I Wish I'd Asked

by Libby Malin

In my April 2010 release, My Own Personal Soap Opera, soap opera head writer Frankie McNally rarely has to deal with actors' agents. But as writers, we all interact with agents regularly.

(And how was that for slipping a mention of my next book in with the topic of this post? LOL!)

When I first started writing seriously, I queried agents left and right, scrupulously researching which agents would be best for me. For any aspiring authors on this blog, here's a quick rundown of the kind of research you might find valuable (I did):

  • Read Publishers Lunch, the weekly round-up of deals produced by Publishers Marketplace, noting the agents representing works that are in the same genre and of the same tone as yours. Consider subscribing to Publishers Marketplace so you can search their deals database.
  • Use websites like to look for more information on agents, whose names you cull from Publishers Lunch. Also use AgentQuery to look up other agents.
  • Plunk the name of agents you're thinking of querying into the search engine of amazon. It pulls up any searchable book where an author has acknowledged his/her agent and gives you a more comprehensive view of that agent's work.
  • Go to the agency's website, looking at who handles subsidiary rights, whether the agent is a member of AAR (not essential, but a good indicator), and the like.
  • Use various writing email loops to pose the question: "Anyone here know anything about Agent X? Write me privately."

Once I had a list of good agents to pursue, I pounded the cyber pavement with my queries. (By the way, if an agent didn't accept electronic queries, I would think twice about querying him or her because I knew that electronic communication was important to me. It's fast and convenient.)

And then, finally, of course, I waited, my list of "agent questions" at the ready should I be fortunate enough to receive "the call" from one of these exotic creatures.

I was lucky enough to get that call more than once. And I'm extremely happy with my current agent (shout out to Holly Root!) because we're on the same page (groan -writing pun) on virtually everything.

That wasn't the case for my previous agents. Yes, I had more than one. It took me awhile to figure out that a good agent/client relationship is like a marriage as much as a business arrangement. You have to be in sync with each other. You have to respect and trust each other. You have to have the same vision and the same affection for the projects you're handling together. Your agent has to have a working style with which you're comfortable.

A good agent isn't necessarily the best agent for you, if this "marriage" isn't working out.

I had the usual list of questions to ask agents when I interviewed them:

  • How do you handle submissions?
  • How many editors/houses do you submit to?
  • How do you notify authors of editor reactions?
  • Do you have a contract? What is it like?
These questions and more are available on handy websites aimed at writers. But these questions often resulted in answers that all writers want to hear--why yes, I submit to all the major houses and more, and I immediately get back to authors with editor reactions, and my authors can contact me any time--really, any time--they want, etc.

As I became more business-savvy, I started adding to my list of questions, and I discovered that the more I could quantify, the clearer picture I could draw of that agency's work. So here are some questions I wish I'd known to ask at the outset of my career:

  • How many clients do you handle?
  • About how many sales do you make in a year?
  • How many times do you interact with authors in a month?
  • Do you notify your clients when you're going away (a small thing, but it means a lot to me--there's nothing like being all excited about a project, writing your agent, and getting an automated "out of office" reply telling you she'll be away for a week or more)?
  • Do you have a cap on any copying and mailing expenses the author might be responsible for? If not, may I insert one in the contract?
  • How many submissions do you generally do before having the ole "book funeral?"

When I began writing, I would have been too timid to ask those questions. Agents were great. I was small. Now I know that it's better to find these things out right away, to make sure the marriage of author and agent can work smoothly.

For you agented authors--what kinds of research or questions were most useful for you in your agent search? And for unagented authors--what would you like to know about an agent but have been afraid to ask?


  1. I queried a lot of agents a few years back and never got to the "asking questions" phase because nobody was interested in a new author, and if they were, they were being very picky. Not sure what I'd ask them now.

  2. Great post Libby! Very informational to authors looking for agents. Glad your process worked out for you over the years :)

  3. I knew my biggest challenge would be to find an agent that "got" me. Even for a writer, I'm a touch weird. :-) I was fortunate to find my agent, Stephany Evans with Fineprint, after a very short search. She's terrific!

    But now that I've seen what other writers go through when the agent/writer fit isn't good, I think (once you've made sure they are legit) finding an agent who "gets" you is the most important thing for ANY writer.

    I've seen too many fledgling writers waste time rewriting to an agent's specifications, only to have the agent say the reworked MS isn't what's being bought these days and request yet another rewriting to make it into a fundamentally different book.

    A long, frustrating while later, the writer realizes the agent doesn't really see their work as saleable.

  4. Thanx Libby for a WONDERFUL POST!

    Very informative and thought provoking. I'm like Cheryl and haven't had much luck with agents, either before or after I sold.

    As you can tell from your post, it is a time-consuming and exhausting process. I will definitely keep your list of questions around for the next time I muster up my energy for an agent search.


  5. Thanks. I've added some tips from your post to help me in my search. I feel like I've tried all the agents who I thought weren't bound to say no - the more research I do, the more impossible it seems. But I'll keep dreaming and looking.

  6. What a timely post! I have a friend who is fielding agent offers as I type this, so I sent her to the post.

    All very good questions. I had multiple offers so it was important to me that I find everything I could out about the agents. I even asked to speak to some of their clients. They emailed their clients with my email address and their clients decided whether or not they'd like to get in touch with me. Happily, all of the ones my agent asked did, and they had nothing but great things to say, which solidified my personal feelings and the research I'd done on her.

    Great post, Libby!

  7. Judi, excellent idea about speaking to other clients. I did that once.

    Sheila, keep trying, it only takes one yes from the right person.

    AC, one of the biggest lessons I learned when I started writing was I had to commit almost as much time to the "business" side of writing as to writing itself. It was awfully frustrating at first.

    Mary Margret, you are so right about finding an agent who gets you. I've been one of those writers who ended up rewriting to an agent's specs, only to realize it didn't work for me. With Holly, that has never happened, so I'm a happy camper.

  8. Great post, Libby~

    I also like to go to conferences and listen to agent panels. That gives you a really good feel about a specific agent. I also talked to so many of my published friends to see who their agents are. Many times a friend will call her agent for you and I know my agent, Kevan Lyon from the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency will look at my friends' manuscripts, and she's accepted many of them. She tells me I'm her best PR person. I'm turning into quite the publishing yenta.

    I actually got my agent through Deb, our editor. She arranged a meeting, and Kevan and I hit it off from the get-go. I think a good agent is priceless, I know Kevan has more than paid for herself.

  9. A timely post indeed, Judi. *smile

    I've fallen into the "can't get an agent because I'm not published"/ "can't get published because I don't have an agent" cycle for years. It's incredibly frustrating, but when you finally find an agent or editor who "gets" your work and loves it, it's the greatest feeling in the world.

    My previous agent is now on the predators and editor list of agents to avoid (wince). Now she's on the list, she wasn't at the time I signed, unfortunately. Anyway, that was a nightmare situation. I was young and foolish and happily signed the first contract offered. Not my best idea.

    My brand, spanking new agent is marvelous. Our vision for my future writing career is the same. That is imperative in this kind of relationship. Yes, ask questions, do your research and I'd say no one knows an agent better than their other clients. Make sure you connect. This is an important decision. Don't jump the gun, like I did in my first agent/author "marriage". Bad, bad idea. Bad. Very bad.

  10. Excellent post, Libby! I'm unagented, and don't have time to submit to them now, but if I did...your post is a great help! :) Great that yours is so perfect for you when the other wasn't.I've heard where some authors who are really big time end up outgrowing their agents because they want to write something new and different and their agent wants them to continue the tried and true. One had a 6 book deal with 6 figures once she dumped her agent and got another. :) *sigh* The stuff of dreams. :)

  11. Excellent post, Libby.

    I am in the same boat as Cheryl and Cindy - no one wanted lil' ole me and my Austen sequel. :(

    Seriously, their loss! I am doing just fine without them! But I am sure having one is vital in most circumstances. Glad you found your "fit".


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