If you were having a medical problem, you’d undoubtedly want to get the problem diagnosed so that you can see a specialist who can help resolve the problem. (No sense going to an Ear, Nose, & Throat doctor for a kidney problem.) If your car is having trouble, you want someone to tell you what’s wrong before deciding on the solution. (No sense getting new spark plugs if your timing belt is busted.) If you were planning a party, you’d want to know the details –occasion, theme, setting, number of attendees — before jumping into action and ordering the food. Everything we do requires some planning. So if you’re an author who is deciding on an agent, could I offer two simple suggestions for you to consider as you make your plans?
First, before deciding to sign with an agent, figure out who you are and what you need. What are your strengths? (That will help you talk with a potential agent about your future.) What are your weaknesses? (A good agent should assist you with those areas.) What are the opportunities you have? What are your goals? Specifically, what things would you like an agent to assist with — contracts? negotiations? editorial help? marketing? talking through your story? speaking? handling your career? Once you have some clarity as to what help you need, you’ll be better prepared to find the right agent.
Second, before saying “yes” to the first agent who offers you representation, find out what that particular agent brings to the relationship. Do his or her skills match up with your need? What do other writers have to say about his work? What do editors and publishers think of the agent? Take a look at the authors he or she represents. Look at the types of books he has contracted. Research the number of books she has represented, and the houses those books have landed at. You’re trying to find someone who is a good match for you, and who can help you with the things you deem most important.
Here’s a tip for interviewing an agent… When you go to meet him or her face to face, ask the prospective agent to talk about an author they’ve helped grow. Bring in some specific career questions to discuss. If you want, bring a royalty report and ask them to decipher it for you. Or bring a marketing plan and ask the individual to make comments and suggestions. Or bring in a chapter and ask the agent what, specifically, could be done to improve the writing. What works? What doesn’t? Getting some solid wisdom from an agent in an interview setting can help you see who might be a fit for you, and who may not be the person you want to work with.
I’ve found that most beginning authors tend to be a bit cowed by agents — even brand new agents who don’t have much experience, or crummy agents who give bland advice. Don’t be. If you’ve spent time figuring out who YOU are and what YOU need, that allows you the opportunity to interview the agent about who he or she is, and how they can best help you reach your goals.
Interviewing agents is a two-way street — the agent is looking for writers with good talent who are going to be successful, and the author is looking for a wise, experienced agent who is going to help move them forward. Be ready for the conversation to swing both ways by knowing who you are and what you need.