If you’ve decided to go the traditional publishing route, your next step is to think about how to hire and work with a literary agent. Below, I’ve included some of the most frequently asked questions I get about working with an agent. And I’ve also included the list of questions you need to use to interview your prospective agent, so you can be prepared to find the creative collaborator who will work best for your book.
What is a literary agent?
A literary agent represents you, the author, to the traditional publishing world. They are empowered to sell your book, make negotiations on your behalf, and they are your representative should things go sour with your publisher.
What does it take to become a literary agent?
It takes virtually nothing to hang up your shingle as an agent (no certs, no accreditation, nada). That being said, a good literary agent has experience in the publishing world and knows the literary world, i.e. they’ve studied writing or publishing, they have long-standing relationships with other agents and publishers in their world, and they’ve successfully represented other authors like you in the past.
Do I need an agent?
You might wonder whether you need an agent in the first place. If you’re self-publishing your book, then no. You may need an agent to help you sell the international rights to your book, but that comes down the road and can be arranged after the book is published.
In the traditional world, publishers don’t tend to work with unrepresented people because if an author can’t even get an agent, then it’s likely that they can’t pass the first “test.” Agents serve as one of the gatekeepers to the traditional publishing world and good ones have an eye for a good look and an author who has potential. This isn’t a rule, but it is the norm.
Please, for the love of god, don’t assume you will be that one special snowflake who will mail your proposal to the big five publishers, and every single editor will be so delighted with your prose and your style that they will be squabbling with one another about who gets to work with you. It’s so unlikely it’s a wee bit funny.
Are there people who get book deals without going through an agent first? Yes. Editors are constantly on the hunt for the new idea, the new topic, the eloquent presenter. So, they will frequently go to the places where the new ideas, topics, and presenters are – places like TED talks, South by Southwest, and Summit Series events. In fact, it’s not altogether rare. However, note that these people didn’t mail anything in to these editors unasked. They presented their best work on a selective stage and caught the attention of an editor, who then approached the would-be author.
What will my agent do for me?
Agents help you navigate the negotiation and the work agreement with your publisher. They’re your representative and know the ins and outs of what you can and can’t ask for in a contract negotiation. A good agent will help you come up with some creative solutions to problems that you might not be able to handle on your own. Ideally, your agent helps prevent you from getting screwed.
They also step in should the work arrangement with your publisher go sour.
Some agents are hands-on and some are only involved should they get called in to mediate a disagreement or a sticky point in the relationship. For example, with one client, her agent is typically CC’d on every single email between her and the publisher, so she knows what’s going on and where we are in the process. She responds when there’s something in her wheelhouse to respond to. She’s also a bulldog, though, and is on top of every possible problem that might present itself.
With another client, his agent was also CC’d, but he only responded when we specifically reached out to him to point out a problem. In other words, he was hands off, which was ok, except for those times when my client – a first-time book author – didn’t know when his agent should be problem-solving or not.
How much does it cost to work with an agent?
The average commission for book sales within the US is 15%, and that changes with international deals. Make sure you do your research before you commit if you hear a higher number. I once heard a horror story from a friend of mine who had a fantastic story around his business, and an agent reached out to him to ask him if he was interested in working with a publisher who was already interested in his story. He said yes, but the agent said “You must work with me to get this deal, and you will pay 20% commission.” When the would-be author said no, the agent held the deal hostage and wouldn’t make the connection between him and the publisher.
Don’t assume that because they’re involved in the “high-brow” literary world, they are good and noble people. Not all of them are.
Can I talk to an agent before I spend time and money writing the proposal?
Yes, you can talk to an agent before you have a proposal ready. They will want to see a proposal to move forward, but you can at least get some good information from them about the marketability of your book idea. At the same time, you can vet them and decide if you want to work with them in the future.
What should I have ready before my talk with an agent?
First, even if you don’t have the outline or the table of contents nailed for your book, you still need to have the hook ready to share. What is a hook, you might be wondering? A hook is the book world’s version of an elevator pitch. A well done hook will include the what, the why, and who it’s for. Some agents like to hear things like “It’s You Are a Badass meets Lean In,” but that’s not necessary. If one comparison easily comes to mind for you, then use it. In any case, your book needs to sound compelling, a little counter-intuitive, and wanted by a specific audience (more on that in a moment).
Second, you need to have at least a basic understanding of the market in which you want to launch your book, and the other comparable books. This means you’ll need to spend some time on Amazon looking up the other major book titles in your genre, how well they did, etc. Save all of this information in your notes, because you’ll need it again when you write your proposal.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, you need to have the numbers for your platform ready, as well as your plan over the next year for building it. This includes any specific initiatives you have planned, any email campaigns, any affiliate promotions, as well as any speaking gigs you have coming up (even if they’re just a glimmer on the horizon). The point is to show that you’re actively building a platform, that people want to hear your message, and that you’re well connected. Feel free to name drop people who support you and would mail for you. No one likes bragging, but this is not the time to be modest.
If you have low platform numbers, share the engagement of your current audience (assuming it’s good), and/or the rate of new acquisitions per month – that can help.
Why is your platform so important? Suffice to say that there are those in the book world who think platform is 50% of the total author package. Meaning, your idea is worth only as much as your platform. In fact, there are those who think platform is worth 90%, idea be damned. In other words, as long as you have the right numbers and name to support strong sales of the book, your idea could be crappy or half-baked.
I don’t think I need to provide you evidence of the truth of this. Just check out Kim Kardashian’s book Selfish, with a whopping 50% of her Amazon reviews at one star. While I spent an annoying amount of time researching the amount of money she received for an advance, alas, I couldn’t find the number. Instead, I got majorly distracted by all of the damn selfies associated with the book. Anyway, even if the book sold well (and there are mixed reports on that), in the end, it’s just a book with selfies of someone who is exceptionally good at taking selfies. But she still got a huge publishing deal because of the enormous amount of followers she has cultivated. So, if you don’t think platform matters, please think again.
What You Should Ask Your Prospective Agent
How many clients does he/she manage at a time?
Most agencies have a limit as to how many clients an agent can handle at a time, but if an agent is a solo flyer… then it’s up to them to police themselves. And just because they’re with an agency doesn’t mean they aren’t overloaded with work. Ask them how often they like to make contact with their clients, how involved they are after the book deal is signed, and what you can expect from them. Some agents are very hands-on and will be on top of every possible issue that could arise with your publisher, and some like to be copied in on emails but won’t step in unless you ask them to. The latter scenario might be ok, but there are times where you won’t know that you need your agent’s help until you’re far into it with your publisher.
How good are they at sales?
Most people don’t think of agents as salespeople, but that’s what they are. They might have gone to Brown, or an Ivy League school, and they might have worked at the most prestigious publisher, they might have all the credentials that make you swoon. All of those things are important and they look good on their website bio, but in the end, no matter how fancy their accolades, you have to remember that when it comes to getting your book into the hands of a publisher, they are salespeople.
If you’ve spent any time in sales, you know this is no job for the thin-skinned. This requires initiative, hustle, follow-up, good ideas, an understanding of the market, and the ability to foster good relationships. When you speak with your prospective agent, you need to keep this in mind. Are they hungry for your business? Excited about the book idea? And out every book they take on, how many do they sell to a publisher?
How long does it take to get a deal between submission and sale of the book, on average?
Now, keep in mind, your agent doesn’t control when or if a publishing house extends an offer, so this is a tricky question. Your agent does, however, control when he or she follows up and how often. Some agents have a terrible follow-up game, and you want to work with someone who will be sure to keep your book moving along in the process, whether it gets purchased or not.
What is their vetting process for a book proposal – do they evaluate/work on it, or do they pass it on to publishers as is?
Every agent will differ in this regard. You’ll find that some agents were former editors and will gladly dig into a proposal and work to make it better, possibly spending months to do so. Other agents have a team of people they hand the proposal off to in order to “vet” the idea, the hook, the overview, the title, and the sample chapters. And still other agents do very little and pass it off as is.
This is entirely up to you, but you may want to consider working with the agent who has a vetting process that will help you make your proposal – and your book – much better. Think of it this way: If your book doesn’t sell, you’ll at least have had an expert eye on it, telling you what works, what doesn’t, and what you need to improve.
What other major projects have they sold within the last year?
Depending on the agent, they may have already published this information on their site. However, it’s always good to ask your agent who they’ve represented in the last year in the same category. If you want to write a business/how-to book, you probably want to work with an agent who has sold the same kind of book and knows the market. You might be ready to sell your non-fiction book, and you might want to work with an agent you know who specializes in fiction. It might work, but that’s an entirely different world as far as book marketing and publishing. You want to make sure that you’re working with someone who has an interest and experience in your genre.
How would they improve the book idea/title/positioning?
Assuming your would-be agent has experience in your genre, they will have some valuable insight for you as to your topic, position, marketing, hook, title, etc. Be sure to ask them for their opinion. While their feedback will be based on the little they’ve heard about your book, it’s still important to get their feedback early and often.
What are the next steps?
This is a no-brainer, but you need to ask what needs to happen if you’re interested in working with them. They will likely tell you they want to see your proposal. You will need to give them an estimated date by which you’ll have it ready. Don’t rush it… if you’ve written not one sentence, tell them you’ll have it ready within the next three months at the very earliest. Telling them 3-6 months might be even better if there are details about your marketing, platform, or idea that need to be ironed out.
Why so long? We’ll cover book proposals in the next post, but think of it this way. This is not just a proposal, this is a marketing tool that, if done right, could net you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is not to be rushed. And if you don’t know how to write one, telling someone you’ll have it to them “next week” because you’re feeling excited and optimistic and high on the conversation is a good way to shoot yourself in the foot and burn the relationship fast. For one thing, you will not have a good proposal done in a week. And for another, if you turn in a crappy book proposal in an effort to honor your word, you will never hear from that agent again.
To sum this up, think of your agent as your guide in publishing. While you want someone with experience in your genre and in the traditional world, you also want someone who you will enjoy working with. Don’t get dazzled by the big name or the agent with the high-visibility client list. You’re going to be working with them for at least a year or two, if not a lifetime of writing books. Make sure you like them.