Thursday, March 3, 2016

On What To Ask A Prospective Agent's Clients by Joy McCullough-Carranza

You’ve gotten an offer of representation! Huzzah!! Perhaps you’ve even gotten more than one offer!! And you’ve had your call and asked the agents all the questions you’re supposed to ask. (If you need a list, my wonderful agent recently wrote a blog post listing those questions you should ask.) And one of those things you’ve asked the agent is for referrals to a couple clients you can talk to. This is important whether you’re deciding between multiple offers, or only assessing whether or not to accept one offer. It can be such a struggle to get an agent offer that it’s tempting to accept any offer, but an agent who’s a poor fit for you really is worse than no agent at all.

So you’re going to do your due diligence with the offering agent’s clients. And hopefully, when you asked for referrals, you also specified that you’d like to talk to someone whose book has not yet sold. Left to their own devices, agents are likely to point you toward clients for whom they’ve sold lots of books! And that’s great! But…it’s extremely likely those clients are happy. The real clincher is finding a client whose book hasn’t sold who STILL thinks the agent is terrific. If the agent only refers you to established authors, you can seek out those not-yet-published clients. If the agent is active on Twitter, checking out who they interact with is one way to find their clients. If the grapevine leads you to a client who was formerly represented by an agent, they may also have some interesting information for you, and there’s nothing wrong with asking former clients if they’d be willing to answer a few questions. (Just respect if the answer is no: It’s a small industry and some people may not want to be forthcoming about why they split with an agent.)

So you’ve got that client phone number or email address in hand—what do you ask? Before we get to my list of questions, let’s be clear that there are no right answers to any of these questions. For example, you may want an agent who’s all business, or you may want one who’s a bit more nurturing. You may hope for a heavily editorial agent, or want one who’ll simply try to sell what you give them. The main thing is to assess what you want out of your agent relationship and see if client experiences reflect the relationship you’re hoping to have. 

Because poor communication is one of the main reasons agent-client relationships fall apart, it’s one of the most important things to evaluate when signing with an agent. When you talked to the agent, you probably asked them how long it takes them to respond to emails and read client manuscripts. But you shouldn’t necessarily take the agents’ word on this.

It’s not that they’re lying to you—at least not intentionally! During The Call, an agent is nervous too. In a situation of multiple agent offers, they’re trying to convince you to partner with them. So when they get asked how long it takes them to respond to client emails, they may tell you how long it takes them under perfectly ideal circumstances, or what they shoot for, or how long it took them when they were first starting out. The reality, however, may be a bit (or a lot) different. So this is where talking to clients about their actual experiences can come in handy.

Here are a few key things to ask about communication:
  • How long does it take the agent to respond to your emails?

  • How long does it take the agent to read and give revision notes on client manuscripts? 

  • Does the agent answer questions about your bigger picture career path, or only the manuscript at hand?

Editorial Feedback
Another important part of the agent-author relationship is editorial feedback. Some agents are very hands-on, giving in-depth editorial feedback on manuscripts from the earliest stages, some give line edits on every misplaced comma before going on sub, and others are much more hands off, submitting the manuscript more or less as the author turns it in to them. So in that vein, you should ask clients:
  • How editorial is the agent?
  •  At what stage do they like to read a manuscript and begin to offer input?

  • Do they do line edits, editorial letters, both, or neither?

  • Whatever their feedback style, is it clear? Do you understand what they’re asking? Do you know how to proceed after you’ve received and digested their revision notes? Do you feel comfortable asking clarifying questions about their notes?

  • Does the agent read pitches and give feedback on which new projects to pursue, or do you write a whole new manuscript before showing it to your agent? 

Submission Approach
Going on submission is an exciting and nerve-wracking part of the publishing journey. There’s little info out there on how it happens, in part because agents vary widely in how they handle the submission process. Here are a few things to ask their clients:
  • How does the agent approach submission? Do they submit in rounds to editors? How many in each round? When editors pass, does the agent send out new subs on a rolling basis, or wait until all the passes are in and then send out a new round of submissions?

  • How does the agent communicate about editor responses (ie, forwarding them in their entirety as they come in, waiting until all the editors in the round passed, or something in between)?

This is something you’ll get a feel for when talking to an agent on the phone, but you may be so nervous that you can’t assess it as well as you otherwise would. The agent may be nervous, too! So talk to clients who’ve worked with the agent for a while to get a feel for these things:
  • Is the agent all business, or more personal?

  • When things are rough, is the agent warm and encouraging and/or does the agent give tough love as needed?

  • Do you trust your agent’s business instincts and experience?

  • Are you comfortable telling your agent what you need, asking questions, and expressing concerns?

I’m sure there are many more questions to ask, and feel free to add yours in the comments, but this is a good starting point. If you’ve had an agent, what’s the number one thing you think writers should ask clients when evaluating whether or not to sign with an offering agent?


  1. Such a tricky subject. Great questions.

  2. Excellent, excellent. Sharing this link on my blog and elsewhere.

  3. Great article, Joy! Especially for new authors who have no experience with having an agent, it's important to ask these questions and have realistic expectations. Wish I'd had this when I was considering offers (though I'm thoroughly satisfied with who I ended up with!). Great stuff and you don't see this sort of advice often. Good work, Joy!

  4. Joy, this is a fabulous post! If you write across genres, I would also add about asking the agent if they represent different genres. I also had several pitches on hand of other books/ideas I was working on to see if the agent had an interest in those (that were in different genres).

    And as a follow up to your excellent advice, here is an article I referenced when I had The Call, from the Literary Rambles blog:


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!