Giving that gift horse a thorough dental inspection

Yesterday, in wrapping up my series on how advances work, I made passing reference to differences in how agents like to submit their clients’ work to editors — differences which can determine whether there is any possibility of your first book’s generating competitive bidding between publishing houses. I had suggested, in fact, that you might want to have a wee chat with any agent interested in signing you about which strategy s/he prefers.

Today, I want to talk a bit about that conversation, in the hope that some of you will be having it very soon with agents who read your submissions over the Labor Day weekend. (And also, if I’m honest, to distract you while you are waiting for everyone in the publishing industry to get back from summer vacation. I’m a big fan of multi-tasking.)

While you’re waiting to hear back from an agent is a great time to come up with your list of questions for when you are offered representation. (It’s also a good time to send out more queries, to be on the safe side. Unless the agent who has your work has specified that he will only accept an exclusive submission, you are under no obligation to keep your work under wraps while he is making up his mind. Keep moving forward.)

Why should you come up with questions in advance, or come up with your own list distinct from the ones the AAR suggests? Well, for many writers, the actual moment of solicitation can be very, very disconcerting: after years of plowing through uncertainty and rejection, an agent who says yes can look a whole lot like the Archangel Gabriel, descending from heaven in a cloud of glory, book contract in hand.

In my experience, writers are often too dazzled by their own good fortune in being solicited as a client to ask pertinent questions. One does not, after all, lightly question a burning bush.

However, choosing an agent is one of the most important decisions you will ever make as a writer — more important, conceivably, than deciding to sign a publication contract. You need as much information as you can get, in order to make sure that you are making the right decision.

I know, I know: when you don’t have an agent, any agent sounds pretty good. But all you have to do to learn otherwise is walk into a group of three or more agented writers. Give them an hour, and at least one will be complaining about her agent. Not all agents are good ones; as in any profession, there are bound to be ones who are better at it than others. More importantly, there will be some who are better fits for you than others.

Trust me, you will be happier in the long run if you ask about the issues that are important to you up front. Remember, this is a long-term relationship you are setting up: for years to come, your agent will be the FIRST person you call when you have a professional crisis or triumph. Get to know this person a little before you say yes. My favorite pre-signing question of the moment is, “How often do you typically have contact with your clients? How often should I expect updates from you?” followed closely by, “If I have questions or concerns, would you prefer that I e-mailed you, or picked up the phone?”

Why are these at the top of my list? Because, to be absolutely truthful, I am the only writer I know who has as much contact with her agent as she wants. (And why am I so sure about that? Because I am often in those groups of three or more agented writers that I mentioned above.) Before I signed with her, I told her that I would have a lot of questions — because I am a habitual crier of “But why? — and that I wanted to make sure that I could feel free to ask them without imposing on her time or getting on her Manhattan-frazzled nerves.

I knew to ask, because I’d previously been with an agent whose only time to chat was between 5 and 6 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Why so early? Well, she was a perverse soul who would not answer the phone at all after noon New York time (that was when she called editors, you see.) and who couldn’t seem to remember which Washington had the pleasure of my citizenship. In short, my former agent was prone to forget about the time difference between her coast and mine. Not being a habitually early riser myself (I often write in the dead of night, when the phone is unlikely to ring), I certainly did not want to repeat this experience with my new agent.

Judging from my current agent’s reaction, I would guess that I was the first prospective client who had ever asked for that kind of ground rule up front. Moral of the story: when you are first dealing with an agent, remember that you are two human beings who don’t know each other very well. The clearer you can be about how you would like to be treated (over and above the fact that you would like the agent to sell your books for you), the more likely you are to get what you want out of the relationship.

Don’t badger, of course, but be straightforward. Also, be as precise as you can. “What are your plans for my book?” for instance, tends to elicit rather vague replies, giving a false impression that the agent is either being evasive or that they have not thought about it much.

However, to the ear of a good agent, this question translates thus: “Who specifically will you be approaching first? Will it be a phone call, lunch, or coffee? Why is your first choice the best publishing house for it?” Agents do not tend to think in vague terms: they’re concrete people, by and large.

So throw ‘em a lifeline. Ask instead, “Are you planning to do individual submissions, or multiple submissions?” This question does not require translation for the agent to understand, and will elicit much of the information that most writers have in mind when they ask for a plan.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s distinction between individual and mass submissions — just as I reach the end of my blogging day, I notice. Tomorrow, I shall go into the logic behind these two major submission strategies, as well as giving you a better idea of what the agent could conceivably do on your behalf.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *