A lovely reader reminded me that I said I’d talk about what questions you should ask an agent on the phone. So here we are!
The first rule of talking to agents on the phone is you can only spontaneously call an agent if they are already your agent. You cannot under any circumstances cold call an agency, ask to speak to an agent, and pitch your book. For one, a phone call is not an effective way to show me your WRITING and for two, we don’t have time to take your call. So if you think you’re going to be DIFFERENT and BUCK THE SYSTEM and QUERYING IS FOR SUCKERS and just call a bunch of agents, you’re wrong. Don’t do it. I won’t take your call.
BUT, if an agent reaches out to you, likely in response to your query letter and sample material/manuscript, and wants to chat about your work and maybe even representation FOR GOODNESS SAKE GET ON THE PHONE. Maybe the agent wants to Skype or whatever (I do not do that). Whatever mode of sending voices over cables works for you.
We talked a bunch about what happens when an agent likes your work and wants to chat, but we didn’t talk about what YOU might want to ask THEM. Lots of people have suggestions about what to ask an agent, as if the right combination of questions will unlock the agent’s true nature and you’ll be able to tell if they are your Once and Future Agent. Yeah, no. It’s not like that. You’re asking the agent questions to get to know the agent. That’s it.
The problem is that authors don’t know what they need to know about an agent. Dating/relationship metaphors abound when it comes to writing and publishing, but it’s like, do you go on a first date and say how to do you handle arguments? Are you a screamer or a sulker? No one does that, right? You can definitely ask an agent how they may handle specific tricky things (How do you handle editorial notes on manuscripts? Do you send all rejections as they come in, or save them all for the end?) but even those things are so far down the line that it’s hard to conceive of them when you’re first signing up with an agent. All author’s really want to know is Can you sell this? And Do you think I’m great?
Regardless, here is a list of things I’m often asked on these kinds of calls. Some of the answers may be helpful to you to know. There is no magic set of questions that mean anything more than the answers those questions provide. You don’t get extra points or demerits for asking or not asking these things. They’re just for YOUR knowledge.
Are you an editorial agent? (i.e. do you do lots of edits on manuscripts/proposals?)
What is your communication style? Do you like phone/email/DM?
What houses/editors do you see sending this to?
What have you sold recently?
What answers matter? What answers equal Good Agent? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It only matters what matters to you. If you’re not interested in editorial notes from your agent, then you don’t need an agent who edits a lot. If you have really bad internet at home, you will need an agent who doesn’t loathe the phone. These are all pretty reasonable things to consider.
I don’t, however, put much weight behind asking about recent sales or hypothetical submission lists. 1. what I’ve sold recently had no bearing on whether I can sell your book or not, and I might not even be able to tell you yet about the really big/juicy/amazing things I’ve sold recently. 2. I can rattle off a list of imprinst that I would send your book to and they will probably be mostly meaningless to you! They should be! It’s the agent’s job to talk to you about the submission list, as much as you’re interested in knowing, and it’s important who at those imprints is reading your book. You aren’t really going to know what it means if I say X person at Knopf instead of Y and that’s ok. That’s the agent’s actual job. I’m also not going to rattle off 12 people by name because that is my literal stock-in-trade. Do I think a writer is going to then “steal” my submission list? Not really, but it’s not a productive conversation any way you slice it. So yes, I’m going to send your book to Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Abrams, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and maybe Workman, depending on the genre. And a host of other places. It also takes me like a full day or two do make a list, so I’m not going to do that A: over the phone B: before you are a client. Whew! I guess I had feelings about this! Fun!
So, what questions should you ask an agent? Any ones you want. Any ones that feel important. Any ones that you think will help you get to know them so you can make an informed decision. Anyones that start a conversation so you can get them talking so you can learn more about them. It is not a test so that the agent knows you are the right kind of client. Half the time I don’t remember what a new client has asked me anyway. In the end, you want to feel like you can talk to the agent, that you can likely trust their judgement, that they understand your book and what you’re trying to do with it. Other than that, it’s like dating, you don’t realy know what you’re in for until you’re in.