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FAQ #2c. Should I get an agent?

The decision to be an agented or unagented writer depends a lot on your personality, your knowledge of and connections in the publishing business, your ability to negotiate, and your willingness to either go it alone or empower another person to sell your work for you. I worked as an unagented writer in the computer industry for many years before deciding that I needed an agent to represent my non-computer work. You may reach a point in your career when you believe an agent can help you achieve a greater level of success. Especially if you're writing fiction, you'll want to at least try to get an agent, because these days, many publishing houses won't even look at unagented fiction from unpublished or unknown writers. On the other hand, it's better to have no agent that the wrong agent. And yet on the third hand, a good, reputable agent is well worth the 15% commission, and much, much more.

If you're thinking about looking for an agent, start by reading Jeff Herman's book, "Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents" (Prima Publishing), which I mentioned in FAQ #2a, How do I get published?.

Beyond that, following are a few questions, some obvious and some not-so-obvious, that you might want to consider as you search for the right agent.

Category of Agents/Books

First off, does the agent handle the type of books you currently write?

Does the agent handle the type of books you'd *like* to write at some point in the future?

Does the agent have regular dealings with the publishers who publish your type of book? Ask to see a list of publishers with whom the agent negotiated contracts in the past year.

Is the agent equipped to handle the promotion and sale of the appropriate subsidiary rights to your work? For example, if you only write computer books, you probably don't have to worry about getting an agent that has contacts in the film industry, but you would want an agent who has the ability to drum up foreign rights and new media sales for your book.

Does the agent attend trade shows such as the BEA (formerly called the ABA), the Frankfurt Book Fair, or other trade shows that are pertinent to your particular type of book?

Who are the agent's other clients? Do you know them? If not, go to the bookstore and buy some of those clients' books. Do you like their work? Is it the kind of work you envision yourself doing?


Does the agent charge a reading fee? (Most respectable agents don't charge reading fees.)

What is the agent's commission on domestic sales? (Some still charge only 10% but most agents nowadays charge 15%.)

What is the agent's commission on overseas sales? (Usually 20%, as the agent often has to pay a 10% commission to the overseas agent.)

Does the agent or agency charge you for expenses, such as photocopying and long-distance telephone calls? If so, what level of expenses are incurred in a typical six-month period?


Does the agent work on a per-project basis, or will the agent represent all of your work for a specified or unspecified period of time?

What happens if one of you decides to terminate the relationship?

Does the agency agreement consist of a written contract, or a simple handshake? (Surprisingly, a lot of well-known agents still work from handshake agreements.)

Is the agency well-respected?

Is the agency large or small, and how many other clients does your agent have? If the agency is large and well-known, is your agent a junior agent or one of the muckety-mucks? (It's often better to have one of the junior agents in a larger agency, as you're more likely to get personal attention with a junior, hungrier agent. OTOH, it's nice to have one of the top agents in a smaller agency.)

How does the agency as a whole operate? That is, do the agents work as a team, sharing information with each other, or do they operate separately and/or competitively?

How many deals did the agent close in the last year? What sums of money were involved in some representative deals?

And most important:

What is it like talking on the phone with the agent? Do you feel as if the agent is paying attention to you?

Does the agent repeatedly put you on hold or have other conversations while on the phone with you?

Does the agent return your phone calls, e-mails, or faxes within a reasonable period of time?

Do you get the sense that the agent genuinely likes writers? Or are there certain nuances that make you think that the agent has a certain disdain for writers?

Is the agent excited and enthusiastic about your work? Do you feel confident and optimistic after having contact with the agent?

Does the agent have a plan for selling you and your work?

Do you feel as if you can trust the agent?

Is the agent skilled and experienced in dealing with creative personalities?

Does the agent exhibit strong sales skills, knowledge of the publishing industry, and knowledge of publishing contracts?

Do you have faith in the agent's negotiating skills?

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