Choosing among agents


If you’re lucky enough to get several agents interested in your proposal, how should you pick?

Surprisingly enough, the answer is not “Pick the agent who swings the biggest deals.”

You can pitch multiple literary agents

On a recent project, I was helping an author who had some very good connections. He had recommendations on a few agents who’d worked with colleagues; others had reached out to him after he got mentioned in a newspaper article; and others were connections of mine.

So we sent the proposal to all of them.

Agents are more likely to read your proposal if you come recommended by somebody they trust. So if you’re seeking agent connections, get help from fellow authors in your genre. (And no, if I don’t already know you, don’t look for me to introduce you.)

You can’t work with multiple agents at once. But you can pitch several agents at once, and then pick the one that best fits your needs.

What makes an agent the best choice?

Here are some tips that will help you not only find a good agent, but choose among them.

Review the list of books they’ve worked on. (That list is easy to find — any decent agent has all the book covers scrolling by on their web site.) Do those books look like your book? If so, you may be in the right place. But if your agent has only helped authors of memoirs, and your book is historical fiction, you might want to expand your search.

Look at the magnitude of the book deals. Obviously, you can’t know that — the numbers aren’t public. But if you’re a first-time author hoping to get a modest advance, you probably don’t want to work with an agent whose authors are Jerry Seinfeld, Daniel Pink, or Malcolm Gladwell. Conversely, if every book they’ve worked on is small or obscure, it’s unlikely they’re going to help you get a decent deal.

Assuming you get a response, the next step is to interview the agent. In that interview, here are some things worth discussing:

  • What sorts of acquiring editors does the agent imagine sending the book to? Get some specific names.
  • What similar books did they do in the past, and what did they learn from those?
  • What changes would they make to the proposal to help make it easier to sell? If the agent wants wholesale changes, they may not be a good match. On the other hand, if they have no suggestions, they’re not going to help you improve the salability of your pitch.
  • Will they be recommending sealed bids or an auction? (I’ve done both, but its instructive to understand the agent’s rationale for one method or the other.)
  • Can they handle subsidiary rights, such as theatrical, audio, or foreign translations?
  • Do they have legal staff who can review publishing contracts?
  • How long will it take for them to start getting the pitch out to publishers?

You might think financials are a negotiating point. They usually aren’t. All reputable agents will take 15% of advances and royalties. If they want to be paid by you up front instead, that’s usually a bad sign. And if they want more than 15%, why are they out of line with the rest of the industry? If they, oddly, want less than 15%, are they inexperienced or do they have some other impairment that will get in the way of selling the book?

How should you pick? This is a case where your gut is a decent guide. If your prospective agent has closed deals in your genre, seems well able to get along with you, and has good ideas about how to improve your proposal and whom to send it to, you’re in good hands. That’s how my author friend picked — his favorite had the most genre experience, not the biggest portfolio of deals.

Agents are not your content partners

Agents will help you get the pitch ready. They’ll act as an intermediary between you and publishers. And they’ll move the contract along once you’ve closed on a deal.

But the agent has very little interest in helping you on content once you’re working with a publisher. They make deals, they don’t fix manuscripts. That’s between you and your editor at the publishing house.

If you run into trouble with the publisher, the agent may be able to help you. This includes things like jerking you around on the pub date, doing a poor job on cover art, or failing to pay your advances. No publisher wants to piss off an agent, because that agent may just decide it’s not worth it to include that publisher the next time they’re pitching.

But the diversity of works they handle and the small amount of time they spend on each means you can’t realistically think of them as content partners.

So don’t think of the agent as your therapist or your editor. Think of them as an expert on finding and securing book deals. That’s well worth the 15% you’re paying them.

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