How does this whole literary agent thing work?
March 5, 2013 1:45 PM   Subscribe

I've been contacted by a couple of agents to see if I have a book project after I wrote an article in a magazine. I do. Yay! But how do I know what to look for?

Anyone out there with advice about finding the best literary agent? Do I want someone young and enthused, who might want to build their career with me? Someone older, with a long roster? Pick the best known agency? I'm not concerned about unscrupulousness -- these people are definitely legit, I just need to know how to gauge the one who would be best for my career.

Any suggestions at all or ideas for places to look? Many thanks!
posted by caoimhe to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think that the decision is ultimately a personal one. Any of those options could work for you, and you're probably going to have to go with your gut. I suggest googling something like "questions to ask a literary agent" to come up with a list of things to consider discussing with them in order to determine if you're a good fit. Here's one list.
posted by cider at 1:51 PM on March 5, 2013

It's pretty much all three. You don't want someone who is completely new. But you don't want someone who is too comfortable either. And you don't want to go with an agency no one has ever heard of...

But mainly, Cider is right. It's a personal thing. Take a bunch of meetings and go with the one that lays out the best strategy for how they see building your career.
posted by ryecatcher at 2:01 PM on March 5, 2013

My only hesitation with a "young and enthused" agent is that you probably don't want somebody who's only agenting part-time and still trying to build up a client list and might well ditch the whole agenting thing entirely if things don't work out. But there are also disadvantages to being the upstart newbie on the list of a high-profile agent who always has more important clients to take care of than you; those are things you've got to weigh carefully.

Things to discuss:

-Is the agent a very editorial, hands-on agent? Or do they leave the creative end more up to the writer? Either approach can be a good one, but if you have any sense of what you'd prefer from an agent, that can be helpful to know.

-Does the agent represent all the genres that you might like to write in the future? I do know of authors who have separate agents for their children's work and their adult work, for example, and if you want to write both cookbooks and literary fiction it will be hard to find any agent who represents both, but if you want to write in two similar genres having one agent makes the paperwork easier.

In the absence of some clear objective criteria that makes one agent better suited for you, I think it's important to have an agent you really click with on a literary level and ideally on a personal level -- there are lots of people who are good at negotiating a contract, but an agent who's going to help develop your career will be enthusiastic about who you are as a writer, and will think of you first when they hear about that new anthology, and will help brainstorm ideas with you -- it's about a personal connection as much as anything concrete.
posted by Jeanne at 2:35 PM on March 5, 2013

I've been through three (THREE!!) agents in my career. The first time, I was just thrilled anybody wanted me, which I don't recommend. The second time, I picked the agent whose agency seemed the most important. I also don't recommend this.

The third time-- and I really do feel like the third time is the charm-- I went with the agent who made me feel comfortable. Ask questions about how they work. Ask if you can talk to some of their clients. Then SERIOUSLY talk to those clients. Find out if they are hand holders or task masters or distant figures in the tower. Ask what their submission process is like. Ask, ask, ask.

Anybody who makes you feel hesitant about asking questions? That's the agent to strike off your list. Anybody who makes you feel like they're doing you a favor by taking you on? That is an agent to strike off your list.

This is a partnership and you should never feel beholden, or like you're bothering your agent, or like your agent is your boss. (Nor should you feel like your agent should grovel and beg for scraps of your glorious attention.) It is a partnership and it should feel comfortable and natural and equal.
posted by headspace at 5:24 PM on March 5, 2013

I'd ask: what books similar to mine have you agented? Which publishers published them? What kinds of advances did they get? (The royalty structures will likely be pretty uniform, so there's not much point in asking about them). Which rights were you able to sell? Where did the first serial go? How did the book sell? What kind of marketing and publicity did the publisher line up for the author?
posted by pocketfullofrye at 6:55 PM on March 5, 2013

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