Questions to Ask as You’re Choosing an Agent

Lately, I’ve been admiring the craft of representation in my friends and colleagues. One agent with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work has been particularly inspiring. Like many agents, she’s witty, charming, and able to make wise decisions and thoughtfully field questions at an impressively fast page. There’s a subtlety to her manner that I can’t quite describe, except to say that her emails never jar me; never rub the wrong way. Remarkable, because being an agent requires both delivering good news and bad, and often disproportionately. This person has achieved a certain delicacy with both – never over-promising, nor glossing or muddying her words. But what I admire most in said mysterious agent? How lovingly tough she is with her authors. It’s so difficult, actually, to manage not assets, not equipment, but people – their expectations and egos, their behavior and their language. In ways, it’s parenting: teaching right from wrong. (You can’t choose our parents but you can choose your agent.)

I know another agent very well. His brilliance is his unwavering patience, selflessness but not without self-confidence. And acuity. And instinct. When he lends guidance, it’s as if he’s considered all consequences both present and future, and the interests of all parties, then excluded his own to put the author’s first and foremost.

With these two examples, and bearing the conversations I’ve had with writers in mind, I think these are the important questions authors might ask when considering agents:

1) Can I trust this person to put my interests first?

2) Can I respect this person’s judgment?

3) What sort of moral compass does this person have? (It’s not unfair here, to pose a hypothetical scenario to your agent and ask what his response would be to it.)

4) How passionate does the agent seem about my work? If the proposal doesn’t sell at first round, will he be there to see it through a second? A third? (Get this in writing.)

5) Will he be able to edit as well, or nearly as well, as he sells? Or hustle as well as he edits?

6) How attentive will this person be? Will my manuscript get buried on someone’s desk, or will it stay on his radar?

7) Can I imagine having this person in my life for the next five years? (Meet the agent and find out.)

As one author I work with says: “Choosing an agent is a decision weighty with import. Besides selling your books to your publishers he is also going to be the individual who will share with you all the profound highs and lows of a life in the literary trenches. As such, you better be certain that you are sympatico with this person, that you share a reasonably copacetic world view, that he or she can be the best ally you can have.”



James C. Goodale

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