What are the dos and don'ts of talking to a literary agent?
February 27, 2013 8:25 AM   Subscribe

An agent from a very large, well-established literary agency contacted me to say he liked my self-pubbed sci-fi, that he'd seen all the glowing reader reviews, and to ask about my future plans and if I had taken on representation. I answered those questions directly (plans for new books and no, I don't have representation). Presuming he writes back... what do I need to know?

I'm quite sure this is legit. I've gotten scam emails before. This passed the smell test with flying colors, if I might mix metaphors.

My book has only been out on Amazon & other e-book sites for about a month, and it has kicked nine kinds of ass. (I've posted/asked stuff in relation to my books here several times before.) I have not, as yet, worried about agents and publishers and all that. I'd LOVE to get published, but so far I have only worried about writing books and getting better at my craft. Given that I have a day job -- one that I'd love to quit in favor of writing full time, but I have no illusions about how dangerous that could be -- I figure the writing is all I have time for.

But now I've had someone knock on my door. It was just yesterday, and I have no idea if/when he'll get back to me, but even if he doesn't there's always the chance that someone else will. Plus, again, if he doesn't this certainly bodes well for my chances of finding someone if I start pro-actively looking.

So what do I need to know when talking to an agent? How do I make sure I don't say anything to torpedo my chances? (I told him my plans for future books, but I also noted that I haven't made any commitments.) Is it likely that I won't hear from him for a while, or should I write this off if he doesn't get back to me again by the end of the week? I know that paying fees to an agent is a big red flag, but what are the other warning signs?
posted by scaryblackdeath to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This happens occasionally. The only thing that will "torpedo your chances" will be submitting a section of a to him too early.

Don't show a MS to an agent until you're absolutely proud of it and ready to send it out. You can be polite with an agent and maintain a relationship, update them on what you're doing/where you've published...but don't be too quick to jump. Don't let them pressure you. When you're ready and you've got a MS you definitely want to publish, ask this agent if they'd like to see the first 50 pages/few chapters/whatever.

And then research the heck out of them, their agency, and other agents. Finding an agent is kind of like finding a mate.

And don't worry -- if you're good, this won't be your only chance. Just remember to take it at your own pace. You're in control of this situation.
posted by Bluestocking_Puppet at 8:45 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

the SFWA offers great information on shady agent tactics. here's their thumbs down list of the shadiest agents of all.

and seconding what bluestocking_puppet said about not rushing. you could take a few months to send polished work, and it'd be fine. he isn't sitting there with a stopwatch and a slim window. also that this won't be your only chance, if your work is good & your sales are high; you'll just likely need to do the reaching out yourself next time.
posted by changeling at 10:09 AM on February 27, 2013

Response by poster: Well, he already has my sci-fi book, since I self-published it and that's how he found me. Little late to polish it further now, though if he asks for something else I'll absolutely take that advice to heart. :)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:50 AM on February 27, 2013

Can you clarify this, then: is he asking to republish your self-published book, or does he want to publish new, unpublished work?
posted by Bluestocking_Puppet at 11:37 AM on February 27, 2013

Response by poster: To clarify: he wrote me an email in reference to a self-published book I have up on Amazon (which has done very well). He asked what my future plans were and if I had taken on representation. I haven't heard back yet, but it was only yesterday.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:25 PM on February 27, 2013

Best answer: Contacting people whose writing is publicly available and who might not yet be represented is pretty standard agent practice; that's how I got my agent (who is also with a big agency.) I think anyone working with a well-known agency is not a scammer and you don't have to look for red flags.

I don't think you can really torpedo your chances, since he's already read what you've written and he liked it. If he wants to sign you on as a client, the two of you will sign an agreement where you'll agree that he has the right to negotiate deals with publishers for your next book, with the agency getting a percentage of the proceeds. If you want to continue self-pubbing stuff separate from him, you can discuss carve-outs (e.g. I do some work for magazines, which I pitch without help from my agent, and we explicitly agreed that I don't have to pay him a commission for that stuff.)

I guess the only thing I'd say is that you should try to get a sense that the agent is on board with the projects you want to do, and that the books he wants to sell are books you want to write. But again, unless you're planning a radical change from the book that attracted him in the first place, this seems a safe bet.

Congratulations, and good luck!
posted by escabeche at 2:25 PM on February 27, 2013

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