5 Things Writers Should Ask Potential Agents by Brian Klems

An agent has offered me representation, but I don’t know how to tell if she’s right for me. What are the most important questions a writer should ask an agent before signing? —Anonymous

There are hundreds of questions you could ask an agent, from the sensible “What attracted you to my book?” to the slightly less sensible “When will you net me my first million?” The key is to choose the ones that will get you the most important information you need to make an informed decision.

Here’s a list of the five most crucial questions you should ask any agent before agreeing to join her client list.

1. Why do you want to represent me and my work?

The agent should be able to answer this easily. Agents generally take on projects that they not only think will sell well, but that they personally admire. This question gives the agent an opportunity to express her interest to you.

[Want to land an agent? Here are 4 things to consider when researching literary agents.]

2. How did you become an agent/get your start in publishing?

You want an agent who has a history in publishing, whether as a junior associate at a well-known agency or perhaps as an editor with a small imprint. You need to be assured that the agent knows the business and has the contacts necessary to give your book its best shot. You might also want to ask if the agent could refer you to one of her clients in your genre as well; getting the perspective of a writer who is in the role you’re about to step into can be invaluable.

3. What editors do you have in mind for my book? Have you sold to them before? Will you continue to market to other editors if you can’t make a deal with your first choices?

This is more of a three-part question, but it’s the overall answer that you want. By asking these questions, you’re checking to see if this agent has connections, and you’re also clarifying her overall game plan. This is key. You want to make sure your expectations are aligned.

[Understanding Book Contracts: Learn what’s negotiable and what’s not.]

4. What books have you sold recently?

This indicates whether the agent has a track record of selling books in your category or genre.

5. Why should I sign with you?

You’re about to enter into a partnership that neither party should take lightly. This is an opportunity for the agent to pitch you, just as you’ve pitched her, and convince you that she’s the right person to represent your work.

You’ll have additional questions more specific to your work, so don’t hesitate to ask them. They’ll simply show the agent that you’re savvy about your book’s target market. Agents are used to these inquiries, so they are unlikely to be surprised by any questions you may have. And if an agent refuses to answer anything on the list above, that should be a red flag that something is amiss.




4 thoughts on “5 Things Writers Should Ask Potential Agents by Brian Klems

  1. I hope that my long-winded reply above was too wearying for the time it took to process. In many cases, an agent is superfluous.

    Authors of non-fiction who can sell almost as many copies as they like do not require an agent. Moreover, they may not be interested in a publisher, as long as they are willing to put in the 20 or hours per week to hire an editor, graphic designer, printer and publicist (as well as the additional time required for posting the book on various sites, stocking and restocking retailers or selling the book on her or his own.

    I was once in that position. I wrote a textbook about job seeking skills that I could use with every participant in every one of my dozens of contracts via private practice. I also was able to sell the book as required reading for graduate students at my university.

    The other situation in which an author may not want a major publisher is when that author is already a celebrity or well-known subject matter expert. Just carry your readers into SP and keep the profit.

    Authors of fiction who are not celebrities might wish to attract major publishers. This can only be accomplished via an agent. You see, while small publishers might open a proposal from an unknown author, major publishers never do that. They only accept an unsolicited proposal from a trusted literary agent. Thus the agent is your only way to attract a major publisher. Believe me on this. It’s the way the industry operates. sands of small publishers all over the planet.

    So, write several books. Try to select genres that are popular. With each book, seek a small independent publisher. There are literally thousands of them. Never submit a proposal that is not perfect and adapted to each publishing company’s preferred genre or sub-genre. Look elsewhere in this web site for help with proposal writing.

    Good luck!

  2. Thanks for writing.

    Agents look for a novice author’s platform. Platform, essentially, is every positive article that appears when someone decides to Google your name. In the case of an author, it’s the number of books you have published or self-published, the quality of major book reviews, newspaper, magazine and journal articles about you, your writing and your books, TV, radio and Internet articles/interviews/shows with/about you, book tours, book signings, public speaking events, successful video book trailers, etc. This, and more, constitutes your platform.

    Agents also seek talent that is latent or developing, so that they can count on the talented novice author continuously producing books of ever-increasing quality and readership. Agents also seek marketable books. No agent would have taken on James Michener had he produced a book about how to drink a glass of water. There must be a reasonable likelihood that plenty of readers will find the content enticing.

    If my answer here seems to suggest to you that it is very difficult to entice an agent when the novice author has only produced one or two books, especially if neither one was trade-published. you are correct. While the stigma against SP is not as significant as it was a few years ago, it nevertheless remains. As long as your cat can become a (self)-published author tomorrow, the entire field of SP is looked down upon by agents and more importantly, by publishers.

    Why should we want to attract an agent? Agents and publishers will not chances on a SP author, unless their book has sold tens of thousands of copies. Even then, they may believe that the market for that book has been largely exhausted. SP books are almost never sold in retail bookstores, where about half of all books are sold. That’s an enormous market to give up. SP titles are almost never reviewed by the most compelling and persuasive review organizations. It often takes two or three good books published by small trade publishers before you can attract the best review organizations, significant bookstore sales and the kind of publicity that agents desire. But it is arguably the ONLY WAY to be published by the major publishing houses (Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, etc.).

    Why do you need the big publishing houses? Because they will throw several thousand dollars on your book’s editing, graphic design, printing, distribution, marketing and promotion. They will promote your book at key international book fairs, conferences and conventions. They have deep connections with movie studios and screenwriters. And, major publishers will be anxious to publish your next books. If your agent finds a publisher, you will pay nothing, receive an advance and royalties on each copy sold. If you SP, you will end up paying several thousand dollars with no likelihood of earning it back, or becoming well known in the industry.

    I hope that this helps to answer your question. If not, please ask again in more detail. Unfortunately, most of us fortunate enough to have acquired a good agent did so after producing several books that we sold to small traditional publishers. So it often takes years of effort before we’re ready for an agent. That flies against our society’s desire for little effort and reaping fast success. Alas, there are no shortcuts here. You need talent, marketable books and years of patience. But when you sign that agent contract, it is one of the sweetest moments of your life.

    Thanks again,


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