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Agent Symposium Series -- When Agents Call...

When an agent calls a writer to discuss their novel or NF proposal, or to offer representation, what are some positive ways the writer can contribute to this initial phone conversation? What types of questions or comments do you enjoy discussing? What types of questions or comments make you reconsider taking on the writer as a client? How can the writer make the best impression during these initial phone calls with an interested agent?

* agents' responses are listed in the order that they were received

LITERARY AGENT: Byrd Leavell - The Waxman Literary Agency
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Whenever I speak to an author for the first time I mostly just want to talk with them about the project and get an initial read on how we get along. An author certainly has every right to ask as many questions as they want about what the agent sees in the work, what the next steps would be, about the agency's track record, and how the agent plans to approach the submission. This said, you don't want to start planning your kids names on a first date. The best advice I can give is to take it easy on the first phone conversation. Ask a question or two to see how closely they agent has read the work and what they liked about it. The business side of things will play out later and it is more important to see if you two connect on the work before you commit to anything.

LITERARY AGENT: Daniel Lazar - Writers House, LLC
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Short of "um, so why do I need an agent?" there's really not much I've heard from an author to turn me off in that initial conversation. Frankly, I'd rather answer a million little questions up front than have a shy author hold back and just assume I'm too busy. (The only point when it becomes too much is the rare instance when a writer starts asking personal questions about my life or views outside of a project's relevance or work in general.) A writer can make a good impression by being informed about my agency and myself -- as much as possible -- and make it clear that she/he has lots of patience and willingness to be flexible. Beyond that, it's my job to be the business mind etc etc. It's the writer's job to be talented and full of itty-bitty questions.

LITERARY AGENT: Kate Epstein - The Epstein Literary Agency
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I'm mostly looking for a sense of compatibility and a lack of craziness--that I'm not going to dread phoning this person if she becomes my client. I really like it if a prospect has read my website by the time we have such a phone call (actually I wish everyone would do that before emailing me in the first place, even in the case of a referral), mostly so I'm not wasting my time with someone who wouldn't want to work with me if he knew the basic facts about my agency.

In early interactions, whether on email or phone, I try to gauge authors' expectations, and I don't want them to be too high OR too low. Generally saying you'll forego an advance doesn't make me happy because it could put our interests at odds with one another. (Though it's fine with me if a writer says that money isn't very important.) Saying you need to sell the book to pay the rent will make me even more anxious. It's my job as a publishing professional to keep writers' expectations reasonable, with respect to many aspects of the industry and how it treats writers, but I don't want to think that job's going to be really, really hard. (Agents that only work with authors who CAN expect high advances may feel a little differently about this, though I'd wager no one wants to feel your children will starve if they don't sell your book.)

It's OK, actually _I_ like it, to get personal--hey, our kids are the same age!--but let's not get TOO personal--co-sleeping or cry it out? goes a little far. (Except perhaps if it's the subject of your book.)

A weird comment is, I'll change it any way you recommend to make it sell-able. On the one hand I wonder if you have enough passion for the project to care about what it is. On the other, this sounds a little arrogant, as if taking my advice were generous of you. If I'm to be your agent, you have to consider my advice very seriously...and make your own decisions.

A truly irritating thing if you're talking to an agent outside of New York is to use "New York" as a term for "better." It's often appropriate to ask how often a non-New York agent gets to the city, and anything else that *directly* addresses whether it's a disadvantage not to work there. But if you're talking to one of us don't make it clear you assume it's a disadvantage that we're not in New York--agents aren't bagels.

LITERARY AGENT: Miriam Kriss - Irene Goodman Literary Agency
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Before you talk to an agent who's expressed interest in your work, it's important to know what kind book you're writing and which houses publish that material. Than you can both evaluate the agent and prove to them that you've done your homework. Remember, by the time an agent is calling to offer representation, they're no longer evaluating you, you're evaluating them. You don't have to say yes right away (though I wouldn't wait longer than a week) and you should take the time to evaluate your options.

Questions that show you've done your homework and are ready for the next level are my favorite, but any reasonable well thought-out question should be welcome. One of my clients, Jenna Petersen, has a list of such questions posted on the writer's resource site she runs: If the agent you're talking to won't answer these questions you need to rethink whether you want to work with them. When you ask me things that are answered many times over on my website I have to wonder if you're that interested me. But other than that you should be free to ask questions. Don't worry about asking questions that might seem dumb, because answering those question for first time authors is part of our jobs as agents.

To make the best impression possible during your initial phone calls with an interested agent, just be professional and polite. This is our job and if you're going to make a career as a writer, it's your job too.

LITERARY AGENT: Jeff Kleinman - Folio Literary Management
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When I call a writer - either to ask if I can represent her or just to talk about her project - I guess I expect the call to be friendly, upbeat, and fairly candid. I like to feel like this is someone I could work with for a while - someone I could trust, and who could trust me. I like talking about what I like about the project, and - maybe more important - what I'm concerned about; because if there's something that really concerns me, I like to be able to have a frank discussion with the author pretty quickly, so we can either put our heads together and figure out a solution, or go our separate ways if the author's assessment is significantly different than mine. I'm not sure that making the "best impression" is the way to go - I think I'd rather that the author was just herself, and able to talk to me without a lot of affect or attitude. I don't really think of this conversation as a job interview, where the applicant's trying to impress the boss - it's more like a marriage, so you want to get a pretty good look at your potential spouse - warts and all.

That said, there are certain things that do make me nervous. Clients who are particularly aggressive, or dissatisfied, or ask tons and tons of slightly offbeat questions, or seem very very needy, are people that I try to steer clear of. The publishing business definitely needs authors who are go-getters - who are aggressive at marketing themselves and their book - but there's a fine line between being a go-getter and being a real pain in the neck. Life's too short to work with people who lie, or are unpleasant, or are busy blaming everybody else for whatever's going wrong with their lives.

Bottom line: find an agent whose own personal style meshes with yours. The conversation needs to go both ways, between agent and author.

LITERARY AGENT: Jennifer DeChiara - Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency
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It sounds too simple, but I think the most important thing a writer can do is to be nice! It's amazing how many writers will sound wary and defensive when I call them; they often sound nonchalant, cold, and unenthusiastic. Of course, if you are all of those things, then maybe you shouldn't be trying to break into a business where you will have to deal with people - agents, editors, publishers, and fans (hopefully). If you're none of those things, then you should definitely polish your people skills. If you get nervous and act that way because of your nervousness, perhaps you should think about things you can discuss with an agent if and when one should call; have a "cheat sheet" by the phone, if you have to.

Be pleasant, thank the agent for calling, be respectful of their time (don't keep them on the phone unnecessarily), and sound passionate about being a writer. When I take an author on, I expect it to be a long-term relationship, and if the person on the other end of the line seems indifferent or cold, I definitely think twice about offering them representation. I work closely with my authors, and it's not a lot of fun to have to work with someone who is unpleasant. And when I present a writer to an editor, it reflects badly on me if I send them someone who is difficult.

The publishing world is exciting and fulfilling, but it can also be slow, frustrating, disappointing, and a lot of just plain, hard work. I need to feel that the writer I'm speaking to is in it for the long haul and not going to bail out on me if things don't go their way.

Definitely talk about your publicity plans for your book. Writers need to know that this is their responsibility - regardless of how much a publisher ends up promoting your book (and for most authors, unfortunately, there isn't much support from the publisher in that regard). I love to talk to writers who are savvy about the business and enthusiastic about doing all they can to market their work. As an agent, I feel that it's my job to help and guide them in this process, but I can't do the legwork for them. I have to feel that they are able, ready, and eager to do all they can to sell their book.

A writer should also be open to their manuscript being critiqued and revised, either by their agent or their editor. They should be focused on being the best writer they can be, not on buying that chateau in France or appearing on Oprah.

A lot of writers, even after they sign with an agent, sabotage their own careers by resisting their agent's advice and pushing to do things their own way. If you sign with an agent, trust them to know what they're doing - don't second-guess them every step of the way or make them explain why they're doing what they're doing. Of course you have the right to discuss strategy with your agent and to ask questions, but ultimately you need to let the agent do their job. In an initial conversation with an author, if I pick up a distrustful attitude, I've learned to look elsewhere - it never works, regardless of the writer's talent.

It's certainly okay, and expected, for a writer to ask questions of a potential agent, but there's a fine line between asking questions and grilling an agent and making them feel that the writer is doing them a favor by working with them.

The golden rule about treating people the way you'd like to be treated works for agents as well - we're people too! And we look forward to talking with you.