how to interview a literary agent

I’ve been asked this question quite a bit since I wrote my series of articles on read post, how to find an a great agent for your children’s book. It occurred to me that I never provided detailed information on how to execute the agent interview. But before I get into that, here are the conditions under which you will need to interview an agent.

  • An agent has contacted you and she’s offered to represent your work
  • An agent has let you know they would like to speak with you further about your work. You talk to them, answer his questions, and he offers representation

These are cases for an interview.

General tips before we get down to the nitty-gritty

  • Be polite
  • Be confident that you have the right to ask these questions (because guess what?! YOU DO!!!)
  • Try not to sound scripted. In other words, don’t read this line for line or you’re going to sound like a robot. Let the conversation flow naturally IN YOUR OWN WORDS. Feel free to digress, (feel free to show your sense of humor as well, if you have one) so you two can get to know each other a little better. But do stay on task.
  • Listen to the answers. Rephrase them back to the agent if it helps you process the conversation.
  • And most of all, Have a paper and a working pen ready!

Here goes…

It’s nice to lead in with some small talk (not how’s your cat? kind of talk but simple niceties before you get down to business).

The Starter (AGAIN, PUT THIS IN YOUR OWN WORDS)

  • Hi, So and So, I’m so glad to talk to you! I am very excited by your offer (or I am very excited to have a chance to speak with you at last!) (Agent feels flattered, says something nice back). Then you say, so I just wanted to ask you some questions so I can make an informed decision. Shall we begin? (Agent says, Shoot!)
  • First I’d like to start off with questions I had about the manuscript….

And you go from there. The main point of the starter is to…

  1. Acknowledge the agent and her genius for finding you
  2. Establish you are a polite person.
  3. Establish you are also a smart person.

All of these things will help open the agent up to talking more freely with you.

The Interview (be sure you jot down the answers because you might not remember what was said after you ask a bunch of questions. Feel free to tailor this list of questions as you see fit. And if you don’t understand why you should ask the question, let me know and I’ll explain.)

Your manuscript and what the agent is looking for

  • What are the manuscripts strength and weaknesses? How ready is it? (how much revision will it take to get it ready?)
  • What makes my manuscript unique in the marketplace?
  • Which houses do you think this manuscript would be a good fit for?
  • How do you decide which works you want to represent?

Your potiential working relationship

  • When you receive a manuscript from a client, how long does it typically take for you to respond to the client?
  • When you submit a manuscript to an editor? What is your expected turnaround time for the editor to respond? If a manuscript languishes, do you nudge and when?
  • How do you prefer to send out a manuscript? Exclusively or Simultaneously? And why?
  • What is your willingness to represent other kinds of work from the same client (for example, will you represent a picture book manuscript from a novelist? Or a chapter book? Easy Readers? Etc.,?) How would it be handled if you don’t represent children’s works you feel are outside of your scope? (Ask this question if you plan to write other kinds of works besides the kind your agent wants to represent).
  • How are clients notified of responses from editors? And how timely is the notification (i.e., rejections, etc.,)?
  • What do you expect from your clients? Name your top three expectations. Or tell me what you think makes a good relationship with a client?
  • How do you expect or a hope a client will communicate with you?
  • How are fees and charges for submission charged to a client? What kinds of charges should a client expect to pay? And how is it accounted for? (withdrawal from royalties?)
  • What is the process for terminating a relationship? How long is the expected commitment? What might make you want to terminate a relationship with a client?

Your potential agent’s work experience

  • Can you tell me a little bit about your current client list? How many clients do you personally handle? How many do you wish to have on your list?
  • In what ways can one of your clients get better terms from a publisher than he would have without your representation?
  • In what ways do you distinguish yourself from other agents?
  • Can you tell me about your recent sales? (if you can’t find this information on your own, like through Publishers Marketplace).
  • Would it be possible to speak to any one of your clients? (agent may be hesitant to provide the information for fear of bothering the client, so don’t be upset if they don’t offer this info to you)
  • How long have you been with your agency? Or how long have you been agenting? What do you love about the job? What do you dislike about it?
  • How involved does your boss or your coworkers (if agent is new or belongs to a larger network of agents) get with your own transactions? How do they help you?

Closing the Interview (You’ve finished the interview and now you invite the agent to ask questions.)

  • Well, I think that about wraps up my questions. Is there anything you’d like to say that we haven’t covered?
  • Do you have any questions for me?

Give the agent an opportunity to learn more about you or have his complete say (it’s only the polite thing to do). Some agents will want to know more about you so be prepared for a little pay-back! :)

Questions an agent might ask (now it’s your turn to sell yourself to the agent)

  • So what other things do you have in the works? (Be prepared to answer this question with confidence. Never put down your own work by saying things like…oh it’s this sad little thing I can’t seem to figure out. Talk about it as positively as you can, without going overboard. Like, I have a couple of YAs in the works. And another completed manuscript I am really excited about.
  • How often do you write? Are you a full-time writer? (Be honest about this, but make sure you sound like you’re in it for the long-haul)
  • So what do you think after you’ve heard everything about me? (Be careful not to insult the agent if there is something you really don’t like about them. But be honest. Always start off with all positives. Do express any “small concerns” you have (the agent will try to allay that concern for you). IF this is your first interview and you have no idea how you feel since you don’t have a full-perspective yet, feel free to say that and be sure to compliment the agent on all the positives again. Who doesn’t love flattery?
  • So when will you get back to me? Even if the agent doesn’t ask this question, make sure you let them know this so he or she can expectations are set accordingly. Don’t be rude and leave the agent hanging. This is an important part of showing you are polite.
  • So are you ready to sign up or what? (Some agents will be aggressive. And even if this is your last interview and you know he or she is the one, don’t be tempted to jump and down and say yes. Take a day or two to confirm your decision and get back to the agent. He or she will feel better knowing you were just as thoughtful about the relationship as they were. Of course if you can’t resist and do sign on right away, be sure to let them know exactly why and what about them you valued over the others in competition. Again, who doesn’t love flattery and useful feedback? If you don’t know if you’re ready, say something like….I haven’t had the chance to interview everyone yet. I want to make an informed decision and will get back to you as soon I know. A week or two at the latest. (This, btw, will only make the agent want you more.)
  • Who else are you considering? I’d refrain from answering this question because it can only hurt you. If the agent has some idea of who he thinks is better or worse than himself (and you never know how this opinion is rendered), don’t answer it. Instead say something like… I’m sorry, I would like to keep that confidential. The agents I am looking at were all recommended to me by writer friends or background research I’ve done. You wouldn’t be on the list if I didn’t think you could be a great match. And I know you don’t rep just anyone. I take your offer very seriously. I hope you understand. (Say what you can to flatter that agent and let them know you do realize how awesome they are.)
  • I’d like you to grant me an exclusive. This is where you politely say no with words like, I’d love to grant you an exclusive but I’m afraid I can’t at this stage of my search (if it’s already out to other agents, let them know that). If it’s not, you can also add something like, it’s a bit too soon until I can narrow my list down some more. Give them your expected turnaround time. A good agent will give you as much time as you need. But don’t string them out for more than a couple of weeks.
  • Will you revise the work for me? If the agent wants to offer representation based on a revision of the manuscript, and you are willing to revise, but you still want to know what other agents you’ve queried will do, say something like this, I’m very open to revisions, but I’d hold off on giving those to me until I’ve finished my interviews. That should take about a week or two. (or however long it’ll take, which is usually a week or two to hear back from the others.)
  • The agent may have no questions at all. Don’t take this as an insult. They’ve already made up their mind about you and they LOVE YOUR WORK. So breathe a sigh of relief and move on to the closing.

The End (Now each of you has had your chance to get to know each other. It’s time to do a little housekeeping and end the conversation.)

  • Offer thanks and appreciation
  • Inform the agent when you expect to get back to them, at the latest (if you haven’t already)
  • Ask them if you can email any additional questions if they come up
  • Thank them again, hang up, and give yourself a big pat on the back.

And that’s how to interview an agent in a nutshell. Feel free to practice with someone else if you’re very phone-shy. It will help a lot! And remember you’re doing this for your own good. Not because you have to. So really think about why you want to ask these questions and how the answers will distinguish one agent from another. This is not just a formality one has to do when finding an agent. The information you gain will also set the right expectations for your future relationship. That alone can do a lot for your sanity when you start working together. Plus, a good agent will feel great knowing that after all this interviewing, when she is selected, she kicked some major tail to win you over. She’ll dance around after waiting SOOO LONG to hear back from you. (which is funny to me, since we potential clients usually have to wait much longer than a week or two to hear crap! but anyway, there it is.)

If you’re taking my [crash course->crash course], then [go to step ten->step ten – get a response].

WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS: A CRASH COURSE is now available in paperback!

Happy agent-interviewing,

Cynthea

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2 thoughts on “how to interview a literary agent”

  1. Great article, Cynthea! It’s really going to help lots of folks, including me ;-). I had beginner’s luck and was repped once upon a time (before conditions in the picture book market “changed”). Lordy lord, I was such a naive little cookie back then. Now that I’m all the more “wiser” AND published (via my efforts) I will seek out an agent when the time is just right! I’m definitely bookmarking your article!

    :-) Edna

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