Monday, 21 May 2012

The One Question to ask a prospective agent

Ah, I remember those long ago days when I used to submit to agents; how young I was, how naive, how filled with hope. It was a frustrating business - enough to make a writer get a bit sarky. I spent a surprising amount of money on paper, ink cartridges and postage, plus time researching which agents to approach, and the differing submission requirements of individual agents. I had faith in Remix (then called Catch a Falling Star or Heart of Rock) so I also spent time working out Questions to Ask an Agent ready for when I got The Call. I bookmarked several sites that dealt with this topic, and followed agents' blogs.

I now know there is only one question you need to ask a prospective agent:

What can you do for me?

And if the answer is not precise, persuasive and pretty damn exciting, forget it. Keep your 15% (notional if she doesn't find you a publisher). You don't need that agent. In the great upheaval that is going on in publishing today, agents will have to make drastic changes to the way they work in order to stay in business. Some are. Trident Media in New York is signing successful indie authors, a sensible change of approach. Some are turning e-publisher for their clients, with varying success. Others get defensive, expending energy assuring the world how essential they are.

Remember that although you pay an agent to work for you,  so she should be on your side, maintaining a good relationship with the publishers she knows is more important to her than any individual contract. She makes her money from the advance, so a poor royalty rate will not affect her as it will you. And she is unlikely to want to rock the boat on your behalf.

Illustration by LittleBluePaws on Deviant Art

I love this quote from Tom Simon, commenting on Passive Guy's blog: 
"What was that story I read in Aesop the other day?
There was this wolf, see, and this sheep, who needed to do business with the wolf but knew it was going to be dangerous. So the sheep hired a fox to be her agent.
The fox got 15 percent of the sheep."


  1. This article is so spot-on. At a writer's conference last month, a big-name agent handed me his business card and invited me to send him anything I had. I smiled and nodded and pocketed the card but inside I was screaming, "Not gonna happen!"

    A year ago, that conversation with that agent would have been a dream come true. Now? Not so much. Funny how things change, isn't it?

  2. Funny...and deeply satisfying :o)

  3. Pah!Had a big powerful London agent way back in the pre-digital age. Achieved zilch. That's not to say I'd turn down an offer now, but they'd have to come to me.... ;-)

  4. Debbie, several talented fellow writers I know acquired agents during the period I was submitting. When the agents failed to sell their books, they accepted that book wasn't up to scratch and got on with the next.

    I have readers and an income from my writing, while they have only the hope that the next book will get a deal. I was lucky.

  5. I think it’s probably a good idea to go back a step and think about what you want from your writing career, THEN ask what an agent can do for you. If you want to e-publish only and you’re either happy with your own editing skills and/or cover design skills or are prepared to hire someone to do a professional job on either or both, then I’m not sure you need an agent.

    If you want to see your book in print and/or explore the possibility of other revenue streams such as foreign rights, income from library loans (especially if you are a children’s writer as school libraries can be a significant form of income) etc, then maybe you would be better at least exploring the trad. route. An agent can help with this, but of course there are no guarantees of them helping secure a deal. Agents can also be amazingly supportive and nuturing, even when they have earned zilch from you ahem).

    I think the important thing to bear in mind is that all writers are different. The end aim is to get readers reading books, how individual writers pursue that aim is going to vary. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way.

    (Deleted earlier comment due to typo!).

  6. I think most indies, like me, ‘explored the trad route’, but traditional publishing didn't want us. A lot of articles discuss the benefits of trad versus indie as if it’s like deciding whether to go to France or Spain for your holidays. For most writers these days, this is not realistic; the choice is between self-publishing and not publishing at all. Right and wrong don’t come into it.

    I think it might be an idea if UK agents, publishers and bookshops did a bit of ‘exploring’. Digital has made opportunities for them too, if they would only look around a bit and find them. I’m surprised that the only agent and publishers I’ve been approached by have been American, Hungarian and Turkish.

  7. Lexi, just to be clear, when I say 'you' I meant generically, not you personally!

    The reason I said there's no right or wrong is because I get the impression that some indie writers look down on those of us still going the trad route and think we're "wrong".

  8. Not wrong - misguided, perhaps :o)

  9. My mum nodded and said yes, yes, spot on Lexi, when she was reading this. She spent hours of research time and more than £300 in stationery and postage submitting to agents and got precisely nowhere. She decided the next time she spent £300 she had to see a book in her hand for it. She got that - properly edited, beautifully produced, nice cover. The only good thing those agents did was make her cross enough to set out to do it herself.

  10. Smart authors these days go straight to DIY digital. We are possibly among the last writers to have done the whole submission thing. In ten years' time it'll seem as outré as smoking in a restaurant.

  11. Thanks for your encouragement.
    I am putting the finishing
    touches on my first book
    and am looking forward to
    being an indie author.

  12. Go for it, Sandra, and good luck! Self publishing can be a lot of fun.

    Rather nice to get a comment in blank verse :o)

  13. Loved the first few chapters of Remix. Interesting beginning, well written. Concise. Written by someone who has studied writing, spent time at her craft for many years.
    I wanted to read more.
    And then I read the utter dross, the horrible writing that so many so called self pub indie writers put on KDP select every day. Will we not drown in the glut of bad writing ?
    And if we do, is that not bad for kindle and digital publishing in general ?
    Some sort of quality control ( in the widest sense )has to emerge somewhere.
    Just written my first novel and wondering whehter to go the kindle route or trad.

    Thanks Mick.

  14. Hi Mick - good luck with your novel.

    I don't see that bad indie books are a problem. People don't buy them, so they sink to the bottom of the chart where they trouble no one. (It's hard enough to sell a good book.)

    Traditional publishers publish some terrible books, too - and too many of their ebooks have typos to boot. There is always a problem with gatekeepers imposing their values on the rest of us. I prefer the current free for all.