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How To Pick an Agent (and Live Happily Ever After)

by Christina Dalcher

Warning: I can get over-excited with my blog posts and pull an Agatha Christie sort of “I will make you wait until the very end to see the take home message.” Here it is, up front:

Ask agents offering you representation for at least three client references. Contact them.

And now for the long version:

I’ve said it before: not all literary agents are created equal. But tons of them are really effing good. If you’ve already done your homework and queried or pitched to agents who

  • a. don’t charge reading fees

  • b. set up their agency sometime before, say, last night

  • c. represent your genre/target audience and (not or)

  • d. are actually open to submissions

…then you’re already on the right track. And if you’ve gotten an offer of representation from just one of them, you’re golden.

But what if more than one agent comes knocking on your door? Too good to be true? Maybe. But it happens. It happened to me.

It could happen to you.

[insert mind-numbing animated GIF of well-known actress or talk show host waving hands frantically]

So what now? What do you do with multiple offers of rep from agents you’d love to work with? Believe me, it’s not the happy-amazing-wonderful-fantasyland you might expect (although it is a very nice feeling). The hours leading up to Decision Day were, for me, more nerve-wracking than writing the bloody novel, revising said novel, querying agents, waiting for responses, and explaining to my husband why, once again, I was in no condition to cook dinner.

But, as those kilt-wearing, Toledo Salamanca-wielding highlanders said, “There can be only one.”

[seizure-inducing animated GIF of MacCleod decapitating Fasil in the belly of Madison Square Garden goes here]

How, then, do you choose?

There’s that whole vibe thing they talk about (they talk about a lot of things, don’t they?). There’s small agency vs. big agency, editorial vs. hands-off (more on that in a future post), newbie vs. been-in-the-business-longer-than-God, and so forth. You’ve also looked up the wooing agent’s client list and recent sales on Publishers Marketplace (you did, didn’t you?). Any or all of these might sway you in one direction or another. Or not.

You might end up, as I almost did, with a patent-worthy agent-picking algorithm. Or a poster-sized matrix of pros and cons. Or a tarot deck. (For the record, I do not own a tarot deck, and I have reservations about its utility in business matters. Tea leaves, on the other hand…)

Your next step is simple: ask each and every agent offering you representation for a short list (three, at a minimum) of existing clients and their contact information. Write them nice emails. Put together some thoughtful questions. Here are a few:

  • What led you to sign with Agent X?

  • What do you like most about working with him/her?

  • How editorially hands-on is this agent?

  • Does your agent communicate with you regularly?

  • How interested is he/she in discussing future projects?

You’ll find a range of responses to these, as I did, and in every case Client Y will say nice things about her agent and agency. Now it’s time to read between the lines:

  • Did Client Y’s response have the look of a form letter? Hmm. That would raise a red flag for me.

  • Were Client Y’s responses to your questions (I do hope you asked questions!) specific? Now’s not the time to be vague.

  • Does Client Y have any unique experiences that lend more weight to her evaluation of Agent X? Not that the word of (for instance) John Grisham matters more than the word of [insert brand new author], but a client familiar with the ins and outs of the publishing business might be someone you’d like to pay a bit more attention to.

I’m guessing you get the picture, even without all those wiggling GIFs.

Every client I communicated with gave a glowing report. That said, some were brighter and shinier than others. And a few were surprisingly honest in their stories of how the X-Y agent-client relationship came to be, what the client’s former agent experiences were, and what to be wary of when making the Big Decision. One or two even sent me their phone numbers and invited me to call (you bet I took them up on the offer).

In the end, I made that decision in my head. Not my heart; not my gut; not the tips of my toenails. Are there times when I wonder “what if…?” Sure. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. These doubts have nothing to do with my über-fantastic agent–they’re internal doubts, insomnia-producing speculations on whether my book would have turned out differently, whether I did the right thing in yanking (politely) my manuscript from umpteen agents who had requested the full, whether I should have taken more time to make that all-important (and somewhat permanent) decision.

Those are the times when I go back to my querying folder and read through the back-and-forths I had with my agent’s clients.

They still glow like a white-hot star.

Guest post contributed by Christina Dalcher. Christina has a Ph.D. from Georgetown University in Phonology and Phonetics. Check out more of her articles on her blog.

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