What We Talk About When We Talk About An Offer of Representation

In light of the Danielle Smith/Lupine Grove Creative scandal last month, this seems like a good time to talk about questions that authors and illustrators can ask their prospective agent to make sure that the working relationship will be a good one. Every agent works and communicates with their clients in different ways, and it can be helpful for both agent and client to establish ahead of time what that relationship should look like. So, borrowing my favorite blog-title style from 2010 (still love you, Raymond Carver!), let’s get into it:

  • Who are your favorite publishers to submit to?
    • Some agents are stronger in some genres than others, and asking about the types of publishers that the agent likes can give you a sense of where they are seeing your work. Does the agent usually submit to big commercial publishers, or literary imprints? Does the agent work only with larger trade houses, or do they also work with smaller, independent, or regional publishers? There are pros and cons to every publisher, and it’s good to know exactly where the agent thinks your work might fit.
  • What type of submission strategy do you normally use?
    • Some agents will submit to many publishers at the same time, with the hopes of generating enough interest that a lucrative, multi-house auction will be possible (though the risk is that could mean no offers and no further submissions). Other agents prefer to send out a manuscript to a few trusted editors at a time, and allow for the author to make revisions between rounds of submissions. And some will use fall somewhere in between, or use a blend of strategies depending on the project and client. There’s no right or wrong answer here, but it can give you a sense as to how an agent likes to work with clients and publishers.
  • What happens if we disagree about whether a manuscript is ready to go out on submission?
    • This scenario will sometimes come up with a client, and it can be helpful to have previously discussed it before it becomes a bigger issue. Again, each agent will handle this differently, but it can be useful to hear how an agent has handled this in the past. Are they flexible to submit something that they think might need more work? Or will they only send out manuscripts that they believe are ready?
  • How long do you respond to emails? How long do you take to give feedback?
    • Clear communication might be the most important aspect of an agent-client relationship, and it’s good to know exactly what that will look like from the onset. How long does it take an agent to respond to day-to-day issues, and how long do they usually take to give feedback on manuscripts? Do they only respond to emails, or are they available for phone calls/video chats/etc.?
  • Why did you stop working w/ a former client?
    • This is a question that has come up more recently, and I think it’s a smart one to be asking an agent. If you’ve worked in publishing for a long enough time, it’s likely that an agent will have authors and illustrators that they no longer represent. It can be helpful to ask why they’ve parted ways and under what circumstances (although I usually can’t go into too many specifics out of respect for the former client’s privacy).
  • What rights do you usually reserve, and how do you exploit them?
    • This is a more technical question, and it goes to the agent’s overall strategy. Some agents are very aggressive about retaining as many rights as possible (e.g. translation, commercial, multimedia, audio, etc.), while others are more flexible if the publisher is willing to increase the advance or subsidiary rights splits. It’s also good to know how those reserved rights will be exploited and sold – will the agent be working on them directly, partnering with sub-agents, or will another agent within the agency be working on them?
  • What’s in the agency agreement?
    • I can’t speak to what will be in every agent’s agency agreement with their clients, but the agent should be able to share the agreement with you in advance, tell you precisely what each clause means, and why it’s in the agreement. If you have any questions at all about the agency agreement, the agent should be able to help you better understand it. (Even – or especially – if it’s something that you’re 95% sure about.) This will make sure that the relationship gets off on the right foot, and is on solid ground from the start.

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