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Due on Signing
For most authors signing with agents for the first time, you just don’t know what you need
I signed with my agents in August of 2020, so consider this an anniversary post.
When I signed with them, I had multiple offers on the table. The ~3 weeks between my first offer and signing was a flurry of nudged emails, anxiety, excitement, and phone calls. I looked up a million blog posts about what to ask on the call. I wrote a list. I thought I was wildly prepared, and then asking questions on the calls ended up feeling so terribly strange.
I was essentially reciting from a list. Asking questions I was supposed to care about but meant nothing to me, truthfully, because I’d never worked with an agent before and didn’t know what it would feel like. I didn’t know what it needed to feel like. I had to use the blogs to decode their answers, too, rather than being able to have a conversation wherein I fully understood what I was asking and what I was looking for. When I asked does your agency handle subsidiary right? I barely knew what they were and why I needed to know. The answer didn’t matter to me that much at that stage, as the book itself hadn’t even sold. When I asked how many editors do you want to pitch the book to in each round? I didn’t know what answer I was looking for. I suppose in the end it was helpful to think about how they answered (did they seem competent and thoughtful?) but I remember feeling pretty lost. Their answers blurred together. I didn’t know what it would be like to revise for 6 months straight, or be on sub for a year and a half, or be on sub with two books, or watch a book die.
There aren’t perfect questions that will net you perfect answers if you don’t know what you need. And for most of us authors signing with agents for the first time, you just don’t know what you need. You ask the full range of recommended questions and read the blog posts to get a sense of answers and try to pick off that, but so often it comes down to vibes. Is this person friendly? Do you think you can learn to trust them? Are they offering you something (Support? Competency? Connections?) that you feel is important? You should ask all of the regular questions and absorb as much as possible (google “Agent call” or “questions to ask an agent on a call” for lists), but I also think you shouldn’t be afraid to ask the ones that really matter to you. The ones that will make or break a relationship, even if you don’t want to seem too aggressive or too negative in that beginning call.
How do you advocate for your authors when they’re up against their editors and publishers?
What is your submission strategy? How aggressive is it?
What methods of communication are best for you? What are your response times?
How will you navigate situations where we disagree on the direction of a book, its pitch, its comps, its marketing?
How will you respond to a book dying on sub? When would we need to part ways?
And more than that, I think it’s okay if you didn’t ask the right questions in your call, if instead you made your decision based on a series of gut feelings without gathering too many facts about a working style. I think it’s important to cut yourself some slack if you get into an agent relationship and are surprised by how things end up working. You should allow yourself grace to grow, change, fail, and succeed. You should make room for questions, for pauses, for circling back to a previous point, for rehashing the boundaries of your working relationship. For changing your mind.
I think that’s how agent relationships work, especially for writers agented for the first time who will have to make strides in leaps and bounds to catch up to the industry knowledge that was previously out of reach to you. You have to have room to grow, together.
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