So You Are Wondering About Getting an Agent?

Questions to Consider and Ask

(With a Few Proposed Answers)

by Stan Gundry, Zondervan Editor-in-Chief

Authors often ask Zondervan editors and publishers if we think they should get an agent, or even more specifically, if we would recommend an agent. Since we sit across the negotiating table from agents, it would be inappropriate for us to give a definitive answer to either of these questions; and if we were to do so, our answers would be highly suspect.  

However, we do think we are in a position to suggest some questions that you should ask before signing with an agent, questions that will help bring clarity to your thinking. And we’ll make a few comments of our own, indicated by italics.  

·        Questions to consider before speaking with an agent:

o Why do you want an agent? Make sure that you think this one through carefully. If you don’t, you could discover later you had unrealistic expectations of the agent or that the agent you signed with was not prepared to deliver what you expected. Sometimes, we wonder why authors whose books have been successful and have very favorable publishing contracts suddenly decide they want an agent. But to be fair, there are also times when we also think, “That author could sure benefit by having an agent.” So, think it through, “Why do you want an agent?”

§ Do you want more money?

§ Do you need help in putting together a publishing direction and plan?

§ Do you need help in preparing book proposals?

§ Do you hate selling your ideas to publishers only to have them rejected? Besides, it is hard enough for you to find the time to write, let alone have the time to try to sell your ideas to publishers?

§ Do you think publishers will take you more seriously if you have an agent? In fact, you have heard some publishers will not even consider unagented book proposals?

§ You are not a good negotiator or just do not want to deal with that side of things?

§ You don’t understand contracts, and don’t think you want to?

o What services do agents provide? This is another important question and is a natural follow-up to the questions above. The answers will vary from one agency to another, so it is important to find out up front just what you can expect. Services that literary agents commonly provide include:

§ Help with developing a publishing plan.

§ Assistance in developing a good book proposal.

§ Counsel on which publisher(s) might be best suited for you and your book proposals.

§ Approaching the publisher(s) and presenting the proposal.

§ Negotiating the terms of the contract.

§ Follow through on the terms of the contract.

§ Collaboration with the publisher on matters of release date, marketing,publicity, etc.

§ Possible, but somewhat less likely:

·        Legal counsel.

·        Tax advice.

·        Booking agent for speaking/appearances.

o What do agents charge for their services?

§ Most agents representing authors in Christian publishing charge a 15% commission on all advances, royalties, and subsidiary rights income...

§ More recently a few agents have begun charging 20%.

o Will an agent get you more money than you can negotiate on your own? Fifteen years ago the answer to that question would have been an almost unqualified “yes.” But now that agents have become so common even in Christian publishing, and now that most Christian publishers have improved their operations and refined their accounting and business practices, the publishers have a better understanding of what they can afford to pay by way of advances and royalties. And they realize that there is little to be gained by making a poor offer and a lot to lose if they stretch too far in making a high offer. Of course there are exceptions, and an agent will likely prevent you from accepting an offer that is too low. But such cases will be the exception, not the rule. In other words, in our judgment, it is unlikely that for most books an agent will get an author significantly more money than an author could negotiate on their own. In fact, you may be fortunate if the agent can consistently negotiate enough extra to pay for their fee. Of course there are exceptions, such as for that blockbuster book that everyone hopes to write.

o Are there disadvantages to having an agent? Do you really expect a publisher to give an unbiased answer to this question? Well, perhaps the fairest response is that there are advantages and disadvantages, and that the balance between the two depends on your own needs and situation, on the agent whom you choose, and the publisher you chose to work with. In other words, there is no simple answer to this question, and a one-size-fits-all answer does not work. But for the sake of the discussion, let’s assume that you feel you need an agent, and let’s assume that you find one where there is a mutually good fit. There are still a couple of things that should concern you and that both you and the agent should work hard to alleviate.

§ Traditionally there was a lot of loyalty between author and publisher. Contracts were relatively simple, and neither side thought it was necessary to spell out every possible detail or to provide for every contingency. Authors assumed that the publisher would do well by them, and publishers assumed that if they did their job well, the author would bring them their next book. Disagreements and misunderstandings were resolved by a phone call and a handshake. Out of loyalty to their authors, publishers would usually publish books by their loyal authors even if they were not convinced it was the best next book to publish, and authors were usually loyal to publishers who did well by them. But when publishing became really big business, and when agents began representing authors and shopping them to the highest bidder, much of that changed. Loyalty and trust do not thrive well in a relationship that has an element of the adversarial in it; nor do loyalty and trust get nurtured on the auction block. Our advice is that if you choose to have an agent, choose one who believes that loyalty and trust still have a place in publishing; and the two of you should then choose a publisher who feels the same way.

§ You need to be aware of another potential problem that agents can contribute to. Since their very function is to be the deal maker between author and publisher, some agents can get in the way between author and editor/publisher after the deal is struck. If that is an agent’s MO, editors and publishers are very reluctant to bypass the agent and deal directly with the author. So,if you want direct access to your editor or publisher without the agent unnecessarily getting in the way, make sure you make that clear to your agent up front, and make sure your editor and publisher know that also.

o       Will publishers take your book proposal more seriously if you have an agent? That depends. If you are writing for a market where you are already known and have credibility, if you already are a successfully published author, or if you have good contacts of your own inside one or two publishing houses, you already have a pretty good chance of your next book being given a fair hearing by an editor. However, if you are unpublished, there is no doubt that having a good agent would increase your chances of being taken seriously by publishers. Realistically, though, unpublished authors find it difficult to find experienced agents who are able and willing to carefully consider their book ideas. Successful agents face the same problems that publishers do—scores, maybe even hundreds, of unsolicited manuscripts and book proposals received each year. Agents, like publishers, have to be highly selective and may have no choice but to give unsolicited queries a quick, superficial review and a thanks-but-no-thanks response in a form letter. The challenge for the new author will be to find a good, experienced agent, and that may be nearly as difficult as finding a publisher without an agent. In your initial approach to an agent, minimize this problem by quickly establishing your credibility and why you need to be taken seriously; by including a very brief prospectus of the proposed book and why it makes a contribution; by carefully selecting a short, well-crafted writing sample strategically selected from the proposed book; and by using any inside contacts you may have at the agency (such as one of their clients who knows and likes your writing).

o       Do you want an agent, or do you want an intellectual properties lawyer to negotiate the deal and the contract for a flat fee once you have found a publisher who has accepted your book and made you an offer? If you have a desire to relate directly to your publisher on matters of marketing and promotion, as well as development of your next book idea, an intellectual properties attorney might be a good choice for you.  

·        Questions to ask the agent before signing the agency agreement:

o       What is the unique culture of the agency that sets it apart from others? What are the values that guide its decisions and govern its practices?

o       What is its experience in publishing?

o       What is its experience in Christian publishing?

o       If you sign with the agency, who will actually represent you? How much publishing and agenting experience does that person have? Who are some of their clients (and ask for permission to contact them)? Who have been some of their unsatisfied clients?

o       Is the agency agreement negotiable? If not, why not? Look for at least these items and make sure you are comfortable with them:

§         Is everything in the agency’s favor, or are the provisions balanced and reciprocal, addressing the legitimate concerns of both parties?

§         What is the term of the agreement?

§         Are there reasonable bailout clauses for both sides?

§         Is it clear what the agency is actually committing to do for you?

§         Does the agency rely on the publisher to make the divided advance and royalty payments to the author and the agent (the agent’s commission percentage), and if so, is the agent committed to proactively making sure that the publisher’s payments are made on time and to checking royalty statements for accuracy? Or, does the agency require that all payments due the author be made to the agency which then deducts its commission and pays the balance to the author? And if it takes the latter approach, what assurances do you have that amounts due you will be made in a timely manner by the agency?

§         What percentage of the advance and royalties earned is the agency’s commission?

§         Are there additional fees such as a reading fee, additional charges for putting the book proposal in presentable form for submission to publishers, copying and mailing costs, phone and travel costs incurred by the agent, etc.?

§         If you default on your obligations to the publisher (by failing to deliver an acceptable manuscript) so that you have to return to the publisher the advance that was paid, who is responsible to return the agency’s portion of the advance? You or the agency?

§         Rather that granting international language rights to the publisher, does the agency attempt to retain and sell on its own international language rights? And if so, what evidence can the agency give that it can do so more effectively than a good publisher? And do they actually use subagents who will themselves take another cut out of that subrights income? (One thing you as an author need to be concerned about here is that major publishers are coming to realize that publishing is a global business, and they often become less interested in a new acquisition if they discover that worldwide rights are not available, including international language rights.)

o       Does the agency provide a summary of its submissions to publishers and the responses from the publishers, including positive and negative comments on the proposal?

o       Will the agency actually take your phone calls and return them? And has it done so in your initial stages of contact with them?

o       What services will the agency actually provide for you?

§         Work with you to establish writing priorities and a publishing plan?

§         Preview, refine, and prepare your book proposals? Ask to see several sample proposals they have submitted for other authors.

§         Submit proposals to publishers?

§         Negotiate the contracts?

§         Link you with a writer if you need one?

§         Make sure that the publisher follows through on its contractual agreements?

§         Provide legal and tax advice? And if so, is there an additional charge?

o       Will the agency potentially be put in a conflict of interest situation if it takes you on as client? And, if so, what is the nature of that conflict of interest situation, and how will the agency handle it?

o       Will the agency give you a client list, and what is its track record of placing books with major houses? And has the agency been successful in introducing new authors to major publishers?

o       What publishers does the agency prefer to work with, and why?

o       What publisher does it feel would be the best fit for you, and why?

o       What is the agency’s philosophy in determining what a fair advance is? What does it think is a realistic royalty rate for an author at your level?  

·        A final set of questions:

o       Does the agent understand you and your passion and goals for your writing?

o       Does the agent give evidence of believing in you and your ministry and message?

o       Does the agent have the qualities you would want in a person who would represent you—publishing experience, an understanding of contracts, negotiating skills, a win/win approach to business relationships, honesty and integrity, and a commitment to the same beliefs and values that are important to you?

o       Or, does it appear to be just another business deal for the agent? Don’t ask these questions directly. Get your answers indirectly and by reading between the lines. (By the way, these questions are also important to consider when choosing a publisher.)  


Stan Gundry

Vice President and Editor-in-Chief



Copyright © 2003 by Stanley N. Gundry. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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