The day an agent offers you representation is one of the most incredible moments in your publishing journey.
I’ll never forget when my agent, Catherine Drayton, called me to offer representation for Jacob Wonderbar. I had doubted myself nearly every step of the way before that point and hadn’t even told my friends and family I was working on a novel. But suddenly there was someone else who believed in my novel’s potential! A publishing professional, no less!
With that inevitable rush of euphoria, all the more reason to plan out your strategy for handling that offer ahead of time. Don’t immediately yell, “YES, DEAR LORD YES” even if you really want to. Take your time to make sure it’s the right fit.
This is a crucial conversation. A bad agent (or a bad relationship with your agent) can do more harm to your writing career than having no agent. If an agent sends out your work to publishers, that’s your shot. You don’t get a second one with the same project. So make absolutely sure it’s a good fit.
Having been on both sides of this phone call, as both an agent and as author, here’s my advice for how to handle an offer of representation from a literary agent:
Thank the agent and set up a different time to talk
Even if your agent calls to give you the good news, sure, have a conversation with them, thank them for believing in you, but schedule another time to talk through the logistics.
You’ll probably need some time to mentally prep for the conversation, as well as to handle any necessary follow-ups with other agents who have your manuscript (more on that in a sec). Give them a time-frame for the conversation that accounts for these follow-ups.
Don’t worry about putting off the full conversation, you’re not going to offend the agent. They expect that you’ll take some time to think it through and make sure it’s a good fit. (And if they’re putting pressure on you to decide, don’t necessarily run away, but be wary).
Also don’t worry about the agent thinking you’re weird for being a blubbering, excited mess. They’ve seen it all (and they’re excited too).
Follow up with the other agents who have your work
If other agents have already requested your manuscript, it’s customary to give them a heads-up that you have received an offer of representation and give them a reasonable time frame (7-14 days) to consider your work.
Opinions vary a bit on whether to follow up with agents who only have just your query and haven’t requested your manuscript. I don’t personally advise this, but some agents do expect it, and if you have a dream agent on that list, it’s not likely to kill your chances with the first agent if you are getting back to them in a reasonable time frame.
Regardless of what you decide on that, I wouldn’t advise taking that offer from the agent and blasting out a million new queries to everyone else on your list. That’s not cool. Be respectful to the agent who jumped first.
Also, follow through with the outreach on this step even if the agent who offered you representation is at the very top of your wishlist. You’ll benefit from the additional conversations even if you go with the original agent, and you’ll be more confident in your choice.
Triple-check once more that the agent is reputable
You should have already done this step when you researched your list of literary agents, but it couldn’t hurt to check again.
Make sure you know your rights as an author.
Prep your list of questions
It’s okay if you have a million questions. Here are the ones I think are especially important:
- What did they like about your book? This is such a simple but crucial question. Hopefully the agent already communicated this when they offered you representation, but if they didn’t: ask. Why? 1) If they’re faking their enthusiasm you’ll know it (and if they’re a scammer or bad agent they’ll probably stumble through it) and 2) Their answer will help you make sure they “get” you and your book.
- What is their communication style? This one is super important. Agents vary greatly in their approach to the information they communicate to their clients and how often they communicate it. Some agents share everything, including all rejection letters, some check in at periodic intervals and just share a summary. Some agents get back to you in 24 hours, some take a month or two. And some give their clients discretion over what they see. Try to suss out their style and make sure it works for you.
- Is there an author/agency agreement? Most agents (though not all) have author/agency agreements that you’ll need to sign in order to become a client. Make sure that you understand and are comfortable with everything in the author/agency agreement and that there’s a reasonable termination clause if things don’t work out. Note that most agents will have the right to receive commission for deals they initiated even if you then part ways (so you can’t get a deal and then just bounce on them to avoid the commission). PLEASE NOTE: I’m not an attorney and don’t construe this as legal advice. Consult a publishing attorney if you have any questions.
- What’s the normal time-frame for remitting advances and royalty payments? The author/agency agreement (as well as your eventual agreement with a publisher) will likely have a provision that will direct the publisher to pay the agency, who will then subtract your commission and pay you the balance. Find out how long this turnaround usually takes.
- What incidental charges will you be responsible for? As you should know by now, agents shouldn’t charge you anything up front (they get paid when you get paid). The exception is that they may recoup incidental charges (like copying and things like that). Make sure you know what these charges are and that you’re comfortable with them.
- Are they interested in you for just this book or for others as well? How will that work? This isn’t necessarily the time to pitch the agent on the seventeen manuscripts in your drawer, but you should understand whether the agent is interested in more projects from you no matter what happens with this particular book. They may well want to focus on this first one and see what happens, but find out how and when they want to discuss future book projects.
- Do they plan to only submit to the major publishers or will they submit until the bitter end? I’m a little hyperbolic with that last part, but this is really important. Bear in mind that an agent receives a 15% commission on any advance, and small presses may well only offer in the low $1,000s of dollars. Multiply $1,500 x 15%, calculate the hours involved in submitting a project for the agent, and you’ll see they’re lucky to crack minimum wage. Some agents are still willing to go to small presses in the hopes of building up an author over the long haul, others may want to stop at the majors. Make sure you’re satisfied with the agent’s approach.
- How does the agency handle subsidiary rights like audio and film? Some agents have in-house departments to handle film rights, some will work with other outside agents. But make sure you understand how it works.
- Does the manuscript need any changes or are you good to go? Some agents are hands-on and will work with an author on revisions, others only take on projects they think are ready to go. Don’t be alarmed at either answer, but if they do want changes, make sure they’re consistent with your vision for the book.
- Can you talk to some of their other clients? Bear in mind that almost by definition, these authors are going to be happy with their agent. So don’t look to these conversations to help you with an overall verdict, but do try to suss out or double-check some of the things that are important to you, like communication style.
- Anything else that is important to you. Seriously. Now’s the time.
Go with your gut
Try to be as calm as possible for this conversation, be honest and transparent with everyone throughout the process, listen to what the agent (or agents) have to say, and the answer will become clear.
And then you’ll have that advocate who believes in your work.
For a more lighthearted take on this step, check out The Publishing Process in GIF Form!
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Art: Gerard ter Borch – A Lady Reading a Letter