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When Agents Offer Representation...

Here at AQ, we'd like all our AQ users to be prepared for the best case scenario: that all their hard work and research will pay off in the form of an offer of representation from one or more agents.

It's not a fantasy. It can and does happen, and we've certainly witnessed it more and more, especially now that so many agents are reaching out to so many new writers through our website by updating their profiles and letting writers know exactly what kinds of work they want to represent.

We often receive emails from our AQ users, asking for advice about the exciting, esoteric, and coveted process of receiving an offer of representation. And now, AQ offers the following answers to all writers: everything you've ever wanted to know about getting an offer of representation, but were afraid to ask...

When an agent wants to offer representation to me and my book, how will I know?

When an agent wants to offer you representation, they will contact you and say so.

Often an agent will email a writer and explicitly say, "Hey, I want to discuss representation. When would be a good time to call?" Other agents will simply call and let the writer know that they are making the offer at the beginning of the phone conversation.

However, some agents call writers and conduct a casual "interview" conversation before formalizing an offer. These agents want to discuss the manuscript and "feel" out the writer. And guess what? That's okay. Go with it.

Agents who call to discuss a writer's manuscript before offering representation simply want to learn more about the writer. They want to gauge your personality. They want to see if there's a connection. Remember, this is likely your first experience working with an agent, but it is not the agent's first experience working with a writer.

Many agents want to hear how the writer sounds on the phone before they officially extend an offer: does the writer have a professional demeanor? Can the writer eloquently and passionately talk about their writing? Is the writer a one-hit wonder, or do they have plans to write more books? Does the writer have realistic expectations about the agent-client relationship? What about realistic expectations regarding the potential for a sale and the estimated $advance$?

Some agents will hold back on making the offer until they assess the initial vibe of the first conversation. And at the end of this conversation, it is always the writer's right to come right out and say, "So, now that we've had a chance to discuss my work, are you interested in representing me?

However, most of the time, agents rarely beat around the bush when making an offer. When they want to sign a client, they know it. And they let the writer know it, too. For more on the agent's perspective of THE CALL, please read our symposium series, When Agents Call...

What happens if I receive an offer of representation from an agent, but I am still waiting to hear from other agents who also have my full manuscript? What do I do?

This happens more than you think, and writers are notoriously bad at handling this situation. The first thing that you need to know is that Ms. Offering Agent won't be offended if you don't accept her offer of representation right away after the initial phone call. Ms. Offering Agent will only be offended if you accept her offer of representation, and then one month later, change your mind because your real top-choice agent finally calls and makes you an offer.

For this reason, it is very important that you not accept the first offer you receive from an agent until you've had a chance to alert all the other agents who are still considering your full manuscript that you have an offer...

Yes, you should still take the time to speak with Ms. Offering Agent on the phone. Ask questions. Feel her out. Consider the chemistry. Get a sense of her personality. Is she someone you can trust? Does she sound easy to work with? Do you both have the same view of your project? Will she require a rewrite that you agree with?

However, at the end of this initial conversation, you should let Ms. Offering Agent know that you are excited about her offer, but you'd like to take some time to consider it. Also, let her know that other agents are still considering your full manuscript, and as a professional courtesy, you'd like to alert them that you have an offer and give them a chance to respond. Tell her you are very interested in working with her, and that you'd like two weeks to think over your decision. End the initial phone conversation with Ms. Offering Agent on good terms, and agree to touch base again with her in two weeks regarding your decision.

Sounds simple, right? But you wouldn't believe how many writers botch this part of the process up. Not accepting an agent's offer—right then and there—is not offensive to the agent. It's business, and she knows it. In fact, she'll likely respect your honesty and professionalism because all agents have been on the other side of this fence, finding out that a writer has accepted an offer of representation without first giving them the chance to make a counter-offer. Agents really hate that.

As a result, it is a professional courtesy to let the other agents know that you have an offer, and give them a chance to respond. Ms. Offering Agent will respect that, even encourage it, because good agents want to make a good agent-client match. They want their prospective clients to feel happy about their decision, and they want to work with clients who want to work with them. If a writer regrets their decision a month later, or feels bad about jumping at the first offer they've received, then nobody wins. Agents are smart enough to know this, and will respect writers who understand this as well.

Once an agent has made me an offer of representation, how long can I keep them waiting for my decision?

It is important to know that you should not make Ms. Offering Agent wait forever. You should be able to make a decision in two weeks. Three weeks tops. If you have put Ms. Offering Agent on hold because you are waiting for your "first choice" agent to get back to you, and over and over, she doesn't, then Ms. First-Choice Agent might have a problem making a decision of her own.

Once you inform the other competing agents that you have an offer of representation, they will often ask for an extra week to read it and decided whether or not they want to make a competing offer. (You wouldn't believe how fast agents can read a full manuscript when they want to, even after sitting on it for months). If these same agents do not come back with a response within a week, then it's important to move on, and perhaps revise your expectations of who you thought your "first-choice" agent would be.

Otherwise, if you wait longer than a month to make a decision, Ms. Offering Agent is likely to feel dissed. There is a point, after all, when decisions need to be made, and not making them becomes a sign of unprofessionalism.

Okay, so I understand that I have to alert the other agents who are reviewing my manuscript that I have an offer? What's the best way to contact them?

The moment you have an offer of representation from an agent, you should alert all the agents who have requested your full manuscript (and even partials).

Contact these agents via email. In your email, use a very clear subject line: OFFER OF REPRESENTATION—Title of Project. Then draft a very brief email, letting these agents know that you have received an offer of representation. However, tell them that you have not accepted the initial offer. Instead, out of professional courtesy, you are checking in with them regarding the status of your manuscript.

Within hours, we guarantee the remaining agents will email you back with one of two possible answers.

First possible answer: Thank you so much for alerting me about your offer. I apologize that it has taken me so long to review your manuscript, but I am still very interested, and if possible, I'd like a few extra days to read it. Please let me know if this will work within your parameters.

Agent are competitive. When they find out a manuscript, which has been sitting on their desk for months, has suddenly received an offer of representation, then that manuscript moves to the top of their reading pile. Agents can read your manuscript in two days if they know there's a chance that a great manuscript might get scooped up by their competition.

Second possible answer: Thank you so much for letting me know about your offer of representation. I apologize that I have not had a chance to review your manuscript, and I wish you the best of luck with your new representation.

Translation: they aren't interested in throwing themselves into the agent rat race.

There is a third possibility: you won't hear back from some of the agents at all. In this case, we suggest calling after you've sent an email, especially if Ms. Silent Agent is one of your top-choices. If you can't get her on the phone, leave a detailed message, citing the fact that you've received an offer of representation, and you are alerting all the agents who are still considering your work before you accept the initial offer. After the phone call, if Ms. Silent Agent gets back to you within a day or two, great. If not, Ms. Silent Agent is silent for a reason. Move on.

An agent has called and left me a message to call him back. Does that mean he is going to offer me representation?

If an agent calls you on the phone and leaves a voice message, do not jump to any conclusions.

Yes, most of the time, if an agent reads your full manuscript and calls to discuss it, it's a good sign. But it may not always be the call.

Are you freaking kidding, you say? What the heck do you mean it's not THE CALL?

We have known a fair number of writers who have received THE PHONE MESSAGE, which is not the same as THE CALL, although it can be deceivingly similar to newbies.

The PHONE MESSAGE goes something like this: Mr. Agent finally has read your manuscript after sitting on it for months. He calls and leaves a voice message, saying that he wants to discuss it. However, what Mr. Agent doesn't say in his voice mail is why he'd like to discuss it. Mr. Agent makes no mention of wanting to discuss representation. He simply says he wants to discuss the manuscript.

The good news is that the agent finally called, right?

Uhm...sort of. As writers, our little literary hearts flutter any time an agent calls. We've been waiting for THE CALL for so long, and here it is!

The bad news? Mr. Agent is not calling to offer you representation. He's calling to discuss all the reasons why he cannot offer representation.

Yeah. Exactly. It kinda makes you want to find the nearest window.

We can’t explain why some agents feel compelled to do this, we just know that it happens. Maybe the agent wants to call the writer, to be "encouraging" (although in the moment, it usually feels like the exact opposite). Maybe the agent really likes the writer's voice, but the story isn't for him, but he wants to "encourage" the writer to query him again with her next project. Maybe there’s been a long history of email back and forth between the writer and the agent, and the agent feels obligated to let the writer know—voice-to-voice—why he can't take her on as a client. Or maybe some agents just feel really bad about rejecting writers, and they want to let us down easy. Kinda like inviting the neighborhood teenager to present his entire steak knife pitch, then waiting until the very end to explain why you can't buy any new steak knives because you already have three sets.

Bottomline: we don’t really care the reasons why agents call writers to reject them. We just know that writers often confuse THE CALL with THE PHONE MESSAGE, and we don't blame them.

THE CALL: when an agent calls to offer representation, what do I say? What questions do I ask? How can I make the best impression possible?

Assuming that the agent is calling to offer representation, THE CALL is perhaps the best chance you'll have to determine your compatibility with Ms. Offering Agent. (unless you live near NYC, in which case, agents will often ask to meet).

You should definitely ask questions—during the second-half of the conversation. But for first-half, we recommend letting the agent drive the conversation. So if you're nervous, let the agent do the talking. Truly. Agents like to talk. They like to engage. And they're usually the ones making the first move by calling you to discuss your book, so let the agent set the initial agenda of the conversation, especially if you're insecure about what to say.

Most agents will say, right away, that they are interested in offering representation. Other agents might wait and feel you out. Either way, the agents will likely have questions, just like you. Let the conversation proceed casually. However, don't get intimidated into silence. Be prepared to talk passionately and eloquently about your book. Ask questions, too. Here are some important questions that writers should ask of every offering agent:

  • What does the agent like best about your project?
  • Does the agent feel that the project is ready for submission to publishers, or will she require revisions before submission?
  • If she thinks it needs revisions, are they small tweaks, or does she want a major plot or character development change?
  • Which publishing houses does the agent believe would be a good fit for your book?
    AQ Commentary: (hopefully the Big NYC Publishers, not just small presses)
  • How many editors does she plan to pitch in the first round of submissions?
    AQ Commentary: ("six or more" is average for most commercial and genre fiction. Less than "three" should give you pause. One at a time is a bad answer.)
  • How often will she update you regarding the status of your submissions
    AQ Commentary: (once a month is standard, although we know some published authors who touchbase once a week and even once a day). But less than once a month, and your agent might be more hands-off than they should be).
  • Is this agent interested in representing only this project, or all your future books?
  • Does the agent use an agent-client written agreement?
  • Does the agency handle the sale of subsidiary rights, like foreign, film, audio, and translation? (or do they have a relationship with a sub-agent who handles the sale of these rights on their behalf)

This is your chance to really find out if you and Ms. Offering Agent see your project the same way BEFORE you commit to working together.

You don't have much time in this initial phone call, so try to avoid squandering precious minutes with basic questions like: What other books have you sold? Are you a member of AAR? Who are your other clients?

Technically, you should already know the answers; that's why you queried Ms. Offering Agent in the first place. Instead, spend your time "connecting" over the work and discussing the mechanics of how your future agent conducts business with her clients. For more on the agent's perspective of THE CALL, please read our symposium series, When Agents Call...

I have received an offer of representation from an agent, but he doesn't use a written agent-client contract. Is that a bad sign?

There are many agencies that do not use a written agent-client agreement. The agent-writer "hand-shake" deal is very much still alive and well in the publishing industry because all publishing contracts spell out the agent's commission and payment terms of the sale. For this reason, some agents feel there's no need to have a written agreement between the agent and client preceding the sale of the client's work to a publisher.

I have received an offer of representation from an agent, but he wants me to sign an agent-client agreement. Is that a bad sign?

Just as many agencies don't use an agent-client agreement, there are many that do. These agencies require all prospective clients to sign an agent-client contract before conducting any business on behalf of the writer.

Don't freak out if you are asked to sign an agent-client contract, okay? Really, it's standard business-world procedure, so get over the fact that you aren't a lawyer. Neither are we, nor do we play one on TV, but that doesn't mean we still don't know that every writer should use common sense when it comes to deciphering the basic terms of an agent-client contract.
Consider the most important aspects of the agreement, and make sure those are kosher:

  • The term of the agreement, or how long the agreement is in effect:
    1. One-year?
    2. Six months?
    3. Best answer: Either party may terminate the agreement for any reason thirty days after written notice.

  • Termination clause: how can you get out of the agreement if you want to?
    1. Law Suits?
    2. Arbitration?
    3. Best answer: Either party may terminate the agreement for any reason thirty days after written notice.

  • What happens if either party to the contract dies:
    1. Your mom becomes the client?
    2. Your ghost is legally bound forever to the agent?
    3. Best answer: The agreement is automatically terminated.

  • What happens if your agent leaves the agency to start her own agency:
    1. You are tied forever to the first agency, not the agent?
    2. You are dropped as a client and no one else may represent your book?
    3. Best Answer: you are free to terminate your contract with the first agency and re-sign with your agent under her new agency's umbrella.

    BECAUSE WE ARE NOT LAWYERS, WE ARE WRITERS we can only imagine a few more basic questions to ask yourself before signing an agent-client agreement.

  • Is the percentage of the agent's commission 15% for domestic rights and 20% for foreign rights?
  • Does the agent-client agreement cover all your writing, or just the single title of the book listed on the agreement?
  • Does the contract require you to pay for "reimbursement of expenses," even in the event that there is no sale?
  • Does the contract require you to pay Agent #1 a commission on the sale of the book, even after you jump ship and switch to Agent #2 and she makes the sale on your behalf?

Again, WE ARE NOT LAWYERS and WE SERIOUSLY KNOW NOTHING about contract law. So if you don't like something that you see in an agent-client contract, hire a contracts lawyer or attempt to negotiate the change in the contract yourself. But don't be afraid to ask. Agents deal with newbiew writers all the time, and the way that she handles your questions now is a very good indication of how she will handle your questions when she snags you a publishing contract.

An agent calls and tells me she enjoyed my book, but she thinks it still needs some work. We discussed all the revisions that she wants, but she didn't say that she was offering representation. Instead, she said that she would be happy to re-read the revised manuscript. Does this mean if I make the changes, she will make an offer?

Unfortunately, no. Not always. Writers need to be aware that some agents request revisions from a writer BEFORE making a formal offer of representation. Usually, an agent who suggests changes without making an offer believes your manuscript is 75% there. But the last 25% is the deal-breaker, and the agent wants to see if the writer can pull off the revisions before committing to the project. If an agent calls to discuss revisions—without offering representation—then you should hear what they have to say. But please be aware that the agent has not made any commitments to you as a client; they are simply letting you know that they would like to see you make specific changes. After you make those changes, then they would be willing to reconsider your work. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If an agent calls and communicates that they like your work, but would like to see certain changes made BEFORE they formally offer representation, then tread carefully.

We're not a fan of agents who encourage revisions without making a formal offer. It's a murky purgatory for any writer, and at the end of the day, there are no guarantees.

You may choose to make these revisions. You may choose not to. You may choose to make them while simultaneously querying other agents. You are not on the hook to this agent, and they are not on the hook to you because you are not a client—yet. If you agree with the agent's suggestions, then go ahead and consider investing time in making the revisions. But don't stop querying other agents. Yes, Ms. Critique Agent is generously giving you feedback and encouragement. But she hasn't elevated you to client-status, so why grant her the benefit of exclusivity by not querying other agents while you work on her revisions?

What should I expect from the agent-client relationship?

The agent-client relationship is a business partnership. But it's also a long-term professional commitment. And often, a very personable one. Agents and writer should "click." They are going to be playing offensive and defensive as they run the ball down the football field towards the publishing goal line, so it helps if you "like" your agent as a person as well as a literary partner. You're teammates on the same team, after all. (God, we really hate football jock-talk, but hey, it's true).

Some agents provide lots of editorial feedback. Some agents provide encouragement and hand-holding. Some agents go after the big deals and don't let go until their jaws meet. Some agents makes sale after sale after sale for clients that they've never even met.

Every agent-client relationship is different and every one is personal. At the very least, your agent should be communicative about every aspect of your literary career. After your book has been submitted to editors, you should hear from your agent about once a month regarding its status (and if you don't, you should feel comfortable checking in via email and getting a response in a timely manner.) Your agent should give you some idea of how many editors she has submitted to, and preferably the names of these editors and the publishing imprints for which they work. When editors decline to buy your book, if your agent doesn't automatically forward you copies of the decline letters, simply ask for them. Your agent should not have a problem with providing this information.

After six months (and definitely after a year) without a sale, be sure to request a full submission list from your agent. This list should cite all the editors who have reviewed your manuscript, and it will give you confidence that your agent is submitting your work to the right editors and imprints. If it's been a year, and your book still hasn't sold, despite your agent getting it reviewed by many editors, then that's okay. Your agent isn't a bad agent, and you aren't a bad writer. Your book just didn't sell. It happens to every agent, and many, many, many more writers than you'd think. That's why you should always be busy working on your next book as well as maintaining a positive ongoing relationship with your agent.

Also, you should talk on the phone with your agent at least once every six months. Even if you have a great "email" relationship with your agent, you should still schedule phone conversations in order to stay "connected." Writers often fall into patterns of isolationism. It's our tendency, after all, to be alone for long periods of time while we write and invent things in our mind. But don't let this tendency affect your professional relationship with your agent. You must not isolate your agent, or feel terrified to initiate communication. It is a business relationship, and you have no relationship without communication. Touching base once a month is a good standard. But checking in every week (unless your agent is in the middle of a contract negotiation on your behalf) makes you a pest.

That said, we know that there are many writers who fear their agent has lost that loving feeling. If your agent has submitted your first book to more than ten editors (but still no sale), has given you submission updates along the way, continues to respond to your emails, and expresses interest in your new book, then simmer down and stop fretting about your agent-client relationship.

For example, if your agent has done all of the above, and now she has promised to read your revisions or newest submission, and that was weeks ago, and already you're starting to worry that maybe she doesn't love you anymore, then send us an email and let us know. We'd be happy to slap some sense into you, (kinda like that scene in the movie, Airplane.) Get over yourself. Give your agent some space. And check in once a month. Your agent will make you a priority soon enough, and until then, don't blow up the relationship in your mind because of paranoia.

Anything short of the above, (zero email response after you check in every month, not submitting your work to editors (or very, very few editors), avoiding your phone calls, not expressing interest in your new writing), and yeah, it's probably time to find a new literary agent.