How to Interview a Literary Agent Who Offers to Represent Your Book - 20 Questions to Ask



When an agent is excited to represent you, he or she will often telephone you to make an offer or send you a personal note. Every writer knows that finding an agent can be a difficult process. Many authors simply sign a contract with the first agent who offers representation. Selecting an agent is a serious business decision and should be carefully considered. You want to ensure the agent is the best one for your book and the right match for your writing career.

Many of your potential questions about your prospective agent (such as the size of the agency, how many books she’s sold in the past year, her specialties, the different publishers she has worked with, and how long she has been in business) will already be answered before you receive an offer of representation (you would have garnered this information from the research you conducted prior to approaching her.)

After you have received an offer of representation, other important questions will arise. The responses you receive from the agent will help you evaluate if you should sign with her.

Schedule an appointment via telephone or in person to discuss your questions. The discussion should be a balanced exchange of information, you do not want to appear to be “grilling”’ or “interrogating” your prospective agent by reading from a long list of prepared questions. Let the exchange unfold naturally and choose to ask only a handful of the most important questions (based on your individual needs). Here is a list of questions you may wish to ask:

1. Are you a member of the Association of Author’s Representatives?
There are many excellent agents who are not members of the AAR but lack of sales and charging fees are two reasons an agent may be denied membership. If the agent is not a member, ask him why he is not and if he still adheres to their ethical guidelines.

2. How do you feel about my book and its potential?
The response you receive will help you gage her enthusiasm for the project. You need an agent who will champion your book and not give up after receiving a few rejections.

3. Do you feel the proposal needs edits before you begin pitching the book to publishers?
Her response will give you an idea of the scope of edits she is expecting and how long it will take to make the changes before she actually begins selling the project. It can also help you decide if you agree with her comments and are willing to make the requested revisions.

4. How do you plan to market my book?
The agent should be able to provide a clear strategy to sell your book. Will she pitch to several publishers at once or only one at a time? How many editors will she approach and what publishing houses will she submit to? If she cannot illustrate her plan, then she may be a disorganized and ineffective salesperson.

5. How often should I contact you?
It’s best to have an understanding of expectations regarding communication before entering an agreement with the agent. If your hope is to be able to contact her once a week and she implies that anything more than once per month is inappropriate, then she is probably not the right agent for you.

6. How often should I expect to receive updates?
It is important to determine if you are a match regarding correspondence. Are you comfortable receiving an email update once every two months or do you prefer contact by telephone at least twice per month?

7. Will you forward copies of rejection letters to me?
Obtaining copies of rejection letters from publishers is one of the few tools you can use to determine how productive your agent is in pitching your book. Some agents do not send rejection letters to their clients, but instead provide a monthly or quarterly summary of their marketing efforts. If you have a specific preference, be sure you select an agent who will deliver what you need.

8. How many authors do you currently represent?
If she represents a small number of clients, she will likely have plenty of time to focus on you and your book - but do ask why she has so few clients. If the number of clients she represents is large (more than 50), ask her how she manages so many authors. Does she have assistants and sub-agents? Find out how she plans to provide the attention necessary for your book to succeed.

9. How many of your current clients are published?
The percentage of authors for whom she has actually landed a book deal can provide insight into her sales ability.

10. On average how many [insert genre] books do you sell a year?
If your prospective agent represents a variety of nonfiction genres but she has only sold business books and you write cookbooks, it may indicate that -- while she may be enthusiastic about cooking and want to represent you -- she may lack the experience and connections to garner publishing deals for your genre. In such a case, if you decide to proceed with her as your agent, ensure she has a strong marketing strategy in place for your book, not simply an enthusiastic attitude.

11. What commissions do you charge?
The standard industry commission is 15%. You should not be charged a higher rate. For foreign rights, translation rights, and film rights, the agent may use a sub-agent and the commission may increase to 20% to 25%. If the agent offers a “reduced commission” plus a small “representation fee” - run fast in the other direction because such an “offer” is a scam.

12. Am I responsible for any other expenses?
Some legitimate agents may charge a nominal fee for photocopies, priority mailing costs, and faxing services. If an agent charges any other type of fee it is an indication that the agent is not reputable.

13. What subsidiary rights have you sold for your clients and how is that handled?
You want an agent who is competent in selling different types of subsidiary rights - book clubs, film rights, foreign rights, audio, serial rights, etc. If your agent lacks this skill, you risk losing potential profits and exposure you would otherwise acquire with the sale of subsidiary rights.

Some agencies have in-house departments that exclusively handle subsidiary rights. Some agents sub-contract other agents to handle the sales of these rights. For instance, your agent may work with a literary agent in Hollywood to handle selling film and television rights because the Hollywood agent has better connections in the entertainment industry. It is always to the author’s benefit to have subsidiary rights retained by the agent. If your prospective agent informs you that she usually allows the publisher to retain the rights, you need to consider how such a policy will impact your long-term career.

14. What is your procedure and timeframe for payment of authors’ royalties and advances received from the publisher?
All payments due to you from your publisher will be paid to your agent. Your agent deducts his or her commission and any additional agreed upon expenses from the publisher’s check and then issues you the remaining balance. An ethical agent who follows standard business practices should have a non-interest bearing “holding” account for client monies that is entirely separate from the agency bank account. You want to deal with an efficient and organized agent who will issue your payment to you in a timely manner. Her response to this question should indicate that she has good business practices and a well-managed system in place for sending authors’ payments.

15. Do you issue an IRS 1099 form at the end of the year?
The Internal Revenue Service requires businesses to provide an annual 1099 form for each individual (who is not an employee) to whom the company has paid a certain amount of money. Your prospective agent should be set up to easily produce these forms each year. If she is not, it is an indication that her accounting practices are lax. 

16. If you do not sell my book within a specific period of time, what happens?
Will the agent drop you as a client, allow you the option to find another agent, or continue to work with you to create another project to pitch?

17. How involved are you with guiding your clients’ careers?
Your prospective agent’s response will indicate her level of commitment to an author’s career. 

18. What happens when a publisher makes an offer, do you handle all the negotiations or do you consult with the author regarding the particulars?
Some authors prefer to be involved in every detail, while others are comfortable allowing their agents to control all the terms. Choose an agent whose method is right for you.

19. What happens if you go out of business, leave the agency, or pass away?
If it is a large agency, will another agent take over your representation, or will you have the option to hire an agent elsewhere? If the agent moves to another firm, will the agent take you with her to the new agency? If the agency closes, what will happen to your royalty statements and subsequent payments? You want to obtain a written agreement that outlines every possible form of exit.

20. Do you have an agent-author contract?
Some agents do not work with written agreements. It is unwise to hire an agent without a written contract. You are entering into a legal business partnership. A contract protects both parties by outlining goals, limits, and responsibilities.