Q4: The Call

(This question is part of a larger subseries called Perpetual WIPs: Literary Agents. For the remaining questions, see here.)

What are “must discuss” topics of conversation when you have The Call with a potential client?

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There are a few questions I always ask: What would your ideal writing career look like? How do you envision yourself working with an agent? What other projects are you working on? I also want to get a sense of their personality and how we might mesh together, so I’ll ask about their jobs, families, etc. I’ve never had a call with an author who was anything other than lovely, but I know agents who have decided not to offer representation because they didn’t click with the author personality-wise.

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I like to talk expectations. What do they THINK I do and what do I REALLY do. Often it’s just an opportunity to see if our personalities are a good match.

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I always talk about what I love about their book and what I think may need work, and strategy, and I ask them what else they are working on and what their career goals are, etc. And I talk to them about the agency agreement, and a bit about myself and the agency and how we work. And I answer all their questions.

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  • Expectations—What does the author expect me to do, what do I expect them to do.  This discussion can head off a lot of potential issues at the pass.  If the author has expectations that are unreasonable or outside the norm (like a daily progress call, etc.), I need to know about it so we can discuss it.  Our mutual expectations should work together, not be in conflict.
  • Long/short range goals – What do you want this year, what do you want in 5 years? Some authors are happy to take more risk with their careers, others prefer a steadier path.  Some want a single publishing contract and others may want to pursue multiple contracts
  • Communication style—I prefer to conduct almost all business via email but I have clients who like to chat on the phone instead.  If we know each other’s communication style, we can figure out a compromise if we aren’t on the same page.
  • Agency agreement—what’s in it and what does it mean
  • Self-pub—Does the author expect that they may want to self pub at any point?  Will that be a part of the agency agreement?  Will the agent assist?  This comes up ALL THE TIME and I have some authors who work with me on self pub and some don’t.  Whether you and the agent agree to work together on self pub or not, the agent needs to be in the loop on those endeavors.  What you do in the SP realm can have an effect on contracts you have signed or will sign and it is a time commitment which will have an effect on the author’s schedule.

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Communication methods and styles (what I like & how I work vs. what she/he likes/how he/she likes to work), career goals, next projects the writer may be working on/thinking about, the current project and any editing I feel needs to be done to get it in shape, how much or what type of editing the agent usually does, how we handle subsidiary (foreign or dramatic) rights, what level of information on submissions and rejections the agent usually provides.

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Our agency agreement and minor revision notes. Also answering any questions that the client may have.

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Well first, I want to know if you’ll accept my offer, and if you have any other agents interested.  We really can’t proceed until that’s worked out.  After that I want to know how you feel about the readiness of the project you submitted, and whether we agree that it’s in the shape it needs to be in for submission to publishers.  Depending on the project, I could have a few suggestions, or I could want a total rewrite, and I need to know if how comfortable you are with making changes to the manuscript.  If we disagree on those fundamental matters, then there’s no way we’re going to be able to build a professional relationship.  After that, I like to know what you’re working on next. Because if you’re a professional, you should always be working on the next thing.  Ideally what I’m looking for in a potential client, is someone who has career goals, and knows which books they want to write and publish next year and the year after that.  Then I like to lay out what my general process is for submission, and correspondence, and make sure that you’re comfortable with the way things are going to work.

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Some of my “must discuss” topics are different than what a potential client’s should be. They should ask questions about sales and the agency’s history and the agent’s experience, although they should also know much of that from the internet. From my side, the biggest questions are “are we an editorial fit?” and “do I want to work with this person for the next few decades?” I don’t actually ask those questions, but a good long conversation can at least help me lean one way or the other, and that should be the case for the author, too. There have been a few times I’ve gone into a phone call with a mind that if it went well, I would offer representation to that client. Sometimes that’s exactly what happened. Sometimes it went the other way.

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Revisions are a big one for me. I often start with a revision request before I offer representation, largely so that I can see how hard a writer is willing to work to make it better and how well they respond to editorial suggestions. It’s also good to discuss how they see their career going: what other books do they have in the pipeline, and are they a match for what I like?

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I ask potential clients what else they’re working on, what type of relationship they want with an agent, and what type of career they see for themselves. A lot of writers, I’ve found, don’t think that far ahead. They write a book; they want a book deal. That’s part of why agents are important. We look beyond that one deal and try to build a steady fan base and career out of it.

What writers should ask agents during The Call: Where does the agent see their work in the marketplace, what types of publishers do they have in mind, what is their publishing history (e.g. what success have they had in a particular genre, how long have they been in publishing, etc.), and what type of relationship they have with their clients. Different business philosophies could end up ruining the relationship, so it’s good to see if you’d get along professionally.

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When I call to offer representation, I have to figure out if we are on the same page. Maybe I like a book and think it would be a great beach read. But if the author thinks it’s a serious literary masterpiece there will be problems down the road. We have to have the same vision. I usually have possible revisions in mind, and I need to see if the author is okay with that. I also need to see if this is a person I could work with long-term, which means I hope we “click.” I also ask about ideas for future books, so I can see down the road. And I leave a lot of time for questions, which are always different, but always must discuss topics. The agent-author relationship is a two way street!

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