Thursday, May 25, 2023

Dear O'Abby: What should I look for in an agent?

Dear O'Abby,

I ready your column last week with interest, but it was very focused on finding a new agent once you've already been agented.  I'm about to venture into the trenches and was wondering if you have any advice for us first-timers?  Like, what should we be looking for in an agent?  And what red flags should we look out for?

Thanks so much!

Warm wishes, 


Dear Digger,

That's a very good question, so thanks for asking!

The first thing you should be looking for is an agent who is genuinely excited and in love with your book.  If they have a laundry list of really big changes they want to make to the story and they don't resound with you, that's probably not going to be a good fit.  You want someone who really understands what you're saying and what you want the story to do.  And to love it, even if it is still a little rough around the edges.

You also want an agent with experience.  Or if they are a newer agent, that they have support from another agent with more experience.  As a first-timer, you need guidance from your agent, and if you're with a new agent who has no back up if she hits something she's unsure about, that's not going to be good for either of you.  New agents can be wonderful and extremely tenacious as they build a list, but they do need someone to back them up when they need it.

If you're a writer who writes across genres and categories, you need an agent who has editor contacts across those.  If the book she signs you for is a YA romance, but you want to write adult horror next, you need to make sure your agent will be able to sell both of these.  And anything else you might decide you want to write in the future.

You probably want to make sure your agent knows how to read contracts well, and how to negotiate them.  Some agencies have in-house legal who can help with that, but a good agent will understand contract language and clauses and know which are good and which have to go, and will have the confidence to negotiate for changes on your behalf.

In terms of red flags, the biggest one would be if an agent asks you for money up front.  Legitimate agents don't do that.  They get paid when you do.  I'd also be wary if they try to point you toward any paid editorial or publishing service that may be affiliated with the agency or an individual agent.  I have heard about this happening and that isn't okay either.

The most important thing is that before you sign with anyone, you take time to talk to them, find out if you are compatible.  It's hard if you're someone who likes a lot of communication and your agent prefers to do a bi-monthly check in.  So talk about things like that up front to make sure you're both comfortable with the way the relationship is going to work.  Remember, this person is going to be working with you to help you build a career.  You don't work for an agent; an agent works for you and with you.  It's a partnership.

Hope that helps!  And good luck with your querying.

X O'Abby

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