What You Need to Know Before Deciding on an Agent

Chip MacGregor is the president of MacGregorLiterary, a full-service literary agency on the Oregon Coast. A former publisher with Time Warner, he has worked with authors as a literary agent for more than a dozen years, and was previously a senior editor at two publishing houses. An Oregon native, Chip lives in a small town on the Oregon coast. Chip is also the author of a couple dozen books and a popular teacher on the craft of writing and marketing.

If you were
having a medical problem, you’d undoubtedly want to get the problem diagnosed
so that you can see a specialist who can help resolve the problem. (No sense
going to an Ear, Nose, & Throat doctor for a kidney problem.) If your car
is having trouble, you want someone to tell you what’s wrong before deciding on
the solution. (No sense getting new spark plugs if your timing belt is busted.)
If you were planning a party, you’d want to know the details –occasion, theme,
setting, number of attendees — before jumping into action and ordering the
food. Everything we do requires some planning. So if you’re an author who
is deciding on an agent, could I offer two simple suggestions for you to
consider as you make your plans?
First, before
deciding to sign with an agent, figure out who you are and what you need. 
What
are your strengths? (That will help you talk with a potential agent about your
future.) What are your weaknesses? (A good agent should assist you with those
areas.) What are the opportunities you have? What are your goals? Specifically,
what things would you like an agent to assist with — contracts? negotiations?
editorial help? marketing? talking through your story? speaking? handling your
career? Once you have some clarity as to what help you need, you’ll be better
prepared to find the right agent.
Second, before
saying “yes” to the first agent who offers you representation, find out what
that particular agent brings to the relationship.
 
Do his or her skills match up
with your need? What do other writers have to say about his work? What do
editors and publishers think of the agent?
Take a look at
the authors he or she represents. Look at the types of books he has contracted.
Research the number of books she has represented, and the houses those books
have landed at. You’re trying to find someone who is a good match for you, and
who can help you with the things you deem most important.
Here’s a tip for
interviewing an agent… When you go to meet him or her face to face, ask the
prospective agent to talk about an author they’ve helped grow. Bring in some
specific career questions to discuss. If you want, bring a royalty report and
ask them to decipher it for you. Or bring a marketing plan and ask the
individual to make comments and suggestions. Or bring in a chapter and ask the
agent what, specifically, could be done to improve the writing. What works?
What doesn’t? Getting some solid wisdom from an agent in an interview setting
can help you see who might be a fit for you, and who may not be the person you
want to work with.
I’ve found that
most beginning authors tend to be a bit cowed by agents — even brand new agents
who don’t have much experience, or crummy agents who give bland advice. Don’t
be. If you’ve spent time figuring out who YOU are and what YOU need, that
allows you the opportunity to interview the agent about who he or she is, and
how they can best help you reach your goals.
Interviewing
agents is a two-way street — the agent is looking for writers with good talent
who are going to be successful, and the author is looking for a wise,
experienced agent who is going to help move them forward. Be ready for the
conversation to swing both ways by knowing who you are and what you need.