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Ask Before You Leap

Author:  Equally Entrenched
Date:  02-13-03

When offering representation to authors or when speaking at conferences I'm continually asked what questions an author should ask before signing with an agent. Obviously, an author/agent relationship is very personal. However, I've put together a list (with the help of AAR) of questions I think every author should ask before entering into the author/agent relationship. I've also commented on what kind of responses you might get and what you should hope for (in my opinion). Obviously the answers you are looking for depends on the type of relationship you want.

Are you a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives?

Whether or not the agent answers yes isn’t necessarily the key to this question. The AAR has strict guidelines for membership, which include at least 18 months in business and the sale of 10 books in those months. Now, for a good agent this isn’t a problem at all, but there are also plenty of terrific agents who haven’t been in business for 18 months. If an agent isn’t a member of AAR find out whether or not they follow the guidelines set forth by the organization - which include such rules as a requirement to keep two separate bank accounts and a ban against reader fees.

How long have you been in business as an agent?

This is a question with no correct answer. After all, some agents might only have been in business a few months before selling their first bestseller, for others it might take years and years. Older agents will obviously have years of trial and error under their belts and a solid understanding of the market. They should also have a number of good editor contacts. Newer agents will probably have more time to spend with you and your projects because they aren’t yet bogged down with high-maintenance celebrity authors or more projects than they can handle.

What is your previous experience in publishing?

An agent who has only been in business for three months, has no sales, and previous experience as a gardener, who loves to read, might not be the best choice. What contacts do they have and what do they know about negotiating a contract? Look for someone who has had at least some experience as an agent, working for an agency or as an editor working for a publishing house. If the agent is fairly new, but working for an established agency you know that they have access to others’ experience and expertise.

Do you have specialists at your agency who handle movie and television rights? Foreign rights?

You will find that not a lot of smaller agencies do have specialists on staff. However, they work closely with subagents to ensure that these rights are sold.

Who in your agency will actually be handling my work? Will other staff members be familiar with my work and the status of my business at your agency?

In the world of HMOs and Cost Cutters haircuts it seems we are more and more satisfied to work with whomever answers the phone. Don’t let it be that way with your agent. Make sure you are comfortable with the person who is handling your work. If you won’t be working with the agent who makes the offer, ask to speak with the person who will be handling your work before making a final decision. Honestly, I don’t know of many agencies that operate this way, but it is always a good question to ask. Also be aware that you might have just as much contact with an agent’s assistant as you will with the agent - that is normal.

What happens to my work if you leave the agency?

We no longer live in a world where people get a gold watch after 30 years with the company. In order to survive and thrive in this economy it seems that we need to move from job to job and company to company. So what happens if your agent makes that switch? Find out! It might not do you any good when and if the time comes, but you should at least be prepared. For some agents there may be no provision. They might be alone in their agency and you will be stuck looking for a new agent, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sign with them. For others, your contract will simply pass on to another agent in the company.

How will I be kept apprised of the work that your agency is doing on my behalf?

It's important to remember that this is your career and no one should be handling it without input from you. Make sure that you will be kept informed of when submissions are made and who they are made to. I also suggest that you ask to see copies of all rejection letters. And how will communication be made? Are you comfortable with email? If not, let your agent know ahead of time and make an arrangement for updates. Once a month or once every three months. More than once a month is probably not reasonable.

Do you issue an agent-author agreement? May I review the language of the agency clause that appears in contracts you negotiate for your clients?

Not all agencies will issue an agreement and whether or not you are comfortable with that is up to you. There is no right or wrong answer, but you need to do what's comfortable for you. Would you prefer to have your relationship validated in writing? You might want to discuss the possibility with the agent. Either way, the contract clause that appears in the publisher’s contract should be enough to cover both of you.

Do you place a minimum time requirement on our relationship? If so for how long?

Some agents require that you sign with them for a certain number of years. I tend to discourage this and would suggest trying to get this clause removed from any contracts. If you sign for two years and discover after three months that your agent isn't working for you it's possible that you have another 21 months before you can find someone more worthy of representing you.

If I'm not happy with our relationship what can I do?

If you are signing a written agreement, it should contain a clause that allows you to dissolve the relationship at any time. If you don't have an agreement find out if you can just walk away at any time.

If we should part company, what is your policy about handling any unsold subsidiary rights in my work?

Most agents will want to try and continue to sell those rights. However, if a considerable amount of time has passed you will want to ask for them back or have a clause in your contract stating that they revert back to you after a set amount of time.

Do you consult with your clients on any and all offers?

You should never sign with an agent who doesn’t. Remember they are representing you, but you still have the ultimate decision.

What are your commission rates? What are your procedures and time-frames for processing and disbursing client funds?

The standard agency commission is 15%, 20% on foreign sales.

Do you keep different bank accounts separating author funds from agency revenue?

According to the AAR guidelines all agents must keep author funds and agency revenue separate. Whether or not your agent is a member, they should be keeping funds separate. You would hate to not receive an advance check because you agent needed to use it to pay her own bills.

What are your policies about charging clients for expenses incurred by your agency?

How and if clients are charged for expenses depends on the agency. Never pay an upfront expense fee and make sure your expense fee has a cap. Most have a maximum they will charge and in most cases agents will well exceed that fee. Many of these expenses go to cover copying and mailing fees, and the cost of books to submit for foreign and other sub rights.

When you issue 1099 tax forms at the end of each year, do you also furnish clients upon request with a detailed account of their financial activity, such as gross income, commissions and other deductions, and net income, for the past year?

Again this depends on the agency and how strongly you feel about having this done. If you are fairly disorganized yourself you may need someone to pass this all on to you. Depending on how the bookkeeping is done, this shouldn’t be a difficult task for the agent.

What is your experience representing books similar to mine?

If you are writing a romantic suspense and the agent offering only handles non-fiction, you’ll need to really think about whether or not they are the right agent for you. Do they have contacts in the romance field? Maybe they are new, have made a number of contacts, but just haven’t sold romance before. That might be fine. If however, they don’t have any contacts you should really think about whether or not your relationship will work.

How will you help grow my career?

Will she send back any books you’ve written that she doesn’t feel meet the standards you’ve already set for yourself as a writer? Will she make editorial suggestions? Will your agent help you go from category romance to single title? In addition to selling books and negotiating a contract, your agent should help you build a writing career. She should be able to be open and honest about the work you’re doing. We’ve all seen authors fall down in their career when books don’t stand up to those initial sales. An agent should help you prevent that from happening as best she can.

So, now that you've gotten the answers to your questions what should you do?

Run if you think this agent is not reputable. There are some easy ways to spot unsavoury agents and while I'm sure many of you have heard this before, I think it bears repeating.

  • Stay away from anyone charging an up-front or reading fee. While some agencies may charge a small amount for expenses - mailing costs, etc; NO respectable agency will charge an up-front fee.
  • Avoid agents who refer you to a freelance book doctor or who charge for book doctoring or editorial services themselves (similar to a reading fee).
  • No agent who is a member of AAR or who acts on their guidelines will offer you a book deal that says you have to pay.
  • Question an agent who refuses to share the names of any of its clients or of any of its latest sales. It seems suspicious when an agent is not willing to brag a little about a client they have just sold. The same is true for an agent who refuses to list the publishing houses she has worked with. I wouldn't require her to give names of editors, but if she can't even name the houses a red light should start flashing.

A Few More Things To Consider:

If the agent has passed all tests or answered all of your questions in a manner you would have liked them to than there’s only a few other things to consider:

Do you feel you can trust this agent, does she make you feel confident about her ability to sell your work? Can you talk openly and honestly with her? Would you like to do business together?

If everything checks out and you feel good about the situation than by all means, sign that paper and go out for a congratulatory dinner!

Copyright 2002 'Equally Entrenched' is a literary agent who spends time in the WritersNet forums helping to dispel the many myths that distort aspirant writers' views of the publishing world. EE (as forum regulars know her/him) was kind enough to let us post this nformative insight into making sure you get the agent you deserve. Read it carefully; these questions may save you a lot of time and effort wooing unscrupulous or ineffectual agents. (Please Note: We at WritersNet respect EE's wish to remain anonymous but we also know that the information here is based on extensive agenting experience.)