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Querying 101: The Agent Call


I have been getting so many requests for query-related posts and videos lately. Well, good news! I have a guest post and YouTube collab coming your way, which both deal with different aspects of the query process. Today, though, I am talking about something that many writers worry and wonder about… “the call”. If you have ever heard people use this term, but have no idea what they are referring to, don’t worry! “The call” is where an agent, after receiving and reading a writer’s full manuscript, decides that they may want to offer representation, and therefore sets up a phone call to discuss the writer, their work, and their future. It is an opportunity to gage the relationship, the writer’s professionalism, and career goals/vision. It is one of the first major steps towards signing with an agent. But, as we will discuss, it is not a guarantee.

Before we begin, I think I should share with you all why I even feel like I can discuss this topic. After all, I’m still un-agented. How do I know anything about “the call”? Well, let me share something that I don’t talk about very often…

I once got an offer of representation.

And it both started and ended with “the call”.

I am not going to be delving into all the nitty gritty specifics, but I am going to be honest about why I chose to turn down that offer, and what in “the call” was a red flag. I am mentioning no specific names, because I have nothing but respect for the agent with whom I had the opportunity to discuss my work and career. I have nothing but respect for the process. But, turning down that offer was, in the moment, probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my writing journey. However, I am 100% positive (even more so now, months later) that I made the right choice.

I’ve mentioned that I got an offer before on my blog, but I’ve never faced it head on and really opened up about it. I’m finally ready to now, and I truly hope it will be beneficial to all of you writers out there who are curious and unsure about this stage of the process.

Let’s get started.

First, a little background about me and my experience:

I had been querying WHAT LIES ABOVE (for the second time) for several weeks, when an agent contacted me and said they had seen a short summary of my novel on my website and was interested in seeing a query. I sent it, happily, and soon after, they requested the full manuscript. A few weeks past, and then one evening, my phone dinged. I checked it, and saw an email from said agent. She had loved it, and wanted to pursue representation. Was there a time we could speak on the phone (aka “the call”)?

*insert flailing and squealing*

Needless to say, I was incredibly excited! This was it. I was going to have “the call”! I was going to get an agent!

(We’ll come back to this part later in the post)

On the day we had set up, I sat at the kitchen table, my list of questions ready, my hands shaking, my phone in front of me. And then, almost perfectly on time, my phone rang. I thought I would be nervous. I thought I’d stumble and forget my words. And at first, I was very nervous. The more we talked, though, the more comfortable I became. It was like a business call, but less stiff. We laughed and chatted and got along very well.

Then we began to talk about me. My book. My career.

And this is when the red flags popped up. Now, these red flags were things that I personally did not like. They may not bother anyone else. A very important thing to remember is that every writer wants something unique and different for their career. What I may be bothered by might not bother someone else.

First, let’s start off with the questions I asked. Now, I really wish I could show you all my exact list, cut and pasted from my computer. Unfortunately, I had an old laptop back then, and I do not have access to the file. But do not fear! I remember all (or most all) of the questions I asked. The memory is still very clear in my mind. (It was my first agent call, after all!)

Here are some of the major questions I asked throughout the conversation.

QUESTIONS I ASKED

  1. What stood out to you about WHAT LIES ABOVE? What made you want to offer representation?

  2. What publishing houses are you considering sending to? Do you submit to any of the big houses, or focus more on small presses?

  3. Are you a career-agent, or do you sign per project?

  4. How editorial are you (in other words, how involved with revisions and critique are you)?

  5. Do you already have any changes you want to suggest for the manuscript, or do you feel it is close to being submission-worthy?

  6. How many clients do you have?

  7. Can you tell me a little more about yourself? How did you become an agent? What is your background/experience?

  8. You are a junior agent. Can you explain that relationship to me? Will I be signed to you or your senior agent? (P.S. this agent has since become a full-fledged agent at her agency)

You can also find a variety of other sources online by doing an internet search for “the call”. I found many good questions this way!

Now, let’s get into some of the answers, and why they were red flags for me. If you are not interested in hearing my experience, you can scroll on down to the section on tips and advice for handling the agent call!

THE RED FLAGS

1. The agent had not even read the full manuscript, even though I sent it along weeks prior

The first major thing that stood out to me was that, after I asked what it was that she really loved about the manuscript, she answered that the few first chapters were really solid. However, the way she described things seemed a little off, so I asked if she had read the whole manuscript, to which she replied no, she had only read the few first chapters. But, she said she could tell from my writing that the book would be strong.

Let’s discuss this a little. [Again, let me preface by saying I have no hate or negative feelings towards this agent. I am not writing this to uncover all of these things, embarrass anyone, or vent frustration or anger. I share this for educational purposes only. Also, please note that is has been almost a year since this happened. If I had wanted to vent, I would have done it before now!]

First, I found it very strange that she had not read the whole manuscript, and was basing her opinion off the first few chapters. What if the rest of the book tanked and fell apart? What if I had gaping plot holes or an incomplete story arc? There could be many issues that arise from this approach. I have personally read books that started off fantastic, and then spiraled downhill into chaos. And honestly, at this point in my journey with WHAT LIES ABOVE, the story was not ready, and DID kind of spiral downhill somewhat. I needed someone who knew the story and knew its weaknesses.

Another reason this brought up a red flag was because it showed a lack of investment. As I write this, I feel like I sound incredibly negative and selfish, but if an agent couldn’t even read the full manuscript before offering, how could I be assured they were truly passionate about it? Sometimes writers forget that agents actually work for them. NOW WAIT! This is not an excuse for arrogance. The author-agent relationship is more of a friendship than a business deal, but it revolves around a business… an industry… of publishing. So, in truth, there needs to be an aspect of business. You want someone who will champion your work. Get excited about it. Support and love it. Not because it makes you feel good about yourself, but because this agent will be a huge support and friend for you, and don’t you want someone who is invested in you and your career?

2. The agent was not editorial (at all)

NOTE: This is one of those personal preference things! When discussing #4 above (how editorial are you?), her reply was that she and her senior agent preferred to be more hands-off, but had a system for writers to follow in order to edit their own books. In other words, they gave guidance for self-editing, but didn’t give very much feedback themselves. For some writers who like being in control, this is great! For me, not so much. I have become used to revising multiple times, overhauling, stripping down, and building back up. I don’t want an agent who completely takes over the edits, or who I rely on for that. However, I do want an agent who gives feedback (again, personal preference). The fact that clients were expected to pretty much self-edit was a turn-off for me.

I could probably discuss some more things, but again, this is not to bash that agent, so I will stop here. I feel the need to reiterate once again… This is not me venting. In fact, I considered not sharing any of this, because I fear I will be misinterpreted as upset or out for revenge. But please keep in mind… I made the choice to turn down this offer. I wasn’t snubbed or rejected. Therefore, I decided and accept the result, and have no regret or animosity about it. As I mentioned earlier, it was upsetting for several weeks afterward, but not because I was upset with the agent. I was upset with myself, and I will discuss this is more detail in one of the next sections.

Despite these red flags, and the fact that I ultimately turned down the resulting offer, I learned so much from the experience, and the agent was very kind and supportive of my decision. So, in light of that, what tips do I have regarding “the call”?

3. Always Be Professional, Even If The Call Does Not Go Well

By the end of the call, I had a gut instinct reaction. I knew what my answer would be. Something just didn’t feel right, and even though I tried to explain it away and reassure myself that the right choice was to say “yes”, I knew that I should pass on the offer and continue revising/querying.

Even if you experience a negative phone call, you don’t mesh with the agent, or you know you will be turning down their offer, don’t do anything rash or unprofessional. First, it is simply bad character, and writers must learn how to accept criticism, defend themselves when necessary, but also know when to let it go and move on. Second, many agents are friends, and they talk. Don’t undermine your career before it’s even begun. Some things to never do when interacting with agents (both during actual phone calls and in email):

Cuss

Yell or vent frustration/anger

Name-call (especially derogatory)

Generalize (“all agents are selfish and don’t care about writers”)

Don’t burn those bridges. If you are angry, vent at a family member or friend. Scream into your pillow if you have to. It’s better, of course, to learn how to control that anger and take that rejection, but we can’t always be calm and positive. Sometimes we do cry or scream or get frustrated. Just remember… THINK before you act.

DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK HARD QUESTIONS

So many writers are worried about crossing the line, being too direct, and alienating an agent by sounding like a bossy snob. First, you obviously don’t want to do any of these things, but you also need to ask some hard questions. Let’s revisit my first point above… about the agent not reading the full manuscript. If I had ignored my gut instinct and just let that comment slip by, too afraid to ask her directly if she had read the whole book, I may never have known. It took courage to speak up. After all, this was my first agent call! I didn’t want to blow it!

But one very important thing to consider up-front is that this will be a career-long relationship (unless, of course, this is project-by-project, or you eventually part ways). Generally, most writers are looking for a friend and partner to stick with them through their career. The last thing you want is to keep silent during “the call”, accept everything without question, and then discover a very important thing later on which you were not aware of before.

The second thing is… agents EXPECT authors to have questions. In fact, it shows you have done your research, and are knowledgeable about the craft/business. Now, don’t worry if you are a nervous wreck and your voice shakes. They expect that too. Don’t worry if you aren’t a guru. They know debut writers are going to be learners as well. But don’t come to “the call” and wing it. You’ll be nervous, and having a list can really help when your mind goes blank :)

The purpose of “the call” is to gage the relationship, and part of that is to know the business aspects. Are they editorial? What are the royalties? What publishing houses do they have in mind? Do they already have any edits or changes in mind? If so, what are they?

Be respectful, kind, and genuine, but don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Also, do not go into "the call" believing that you are almost guaranteed to be walking away with an agent. Sometimes, you realize you aren't the best match, or the agent decides not to offer (rare, but it happens). Unlike myself, who built herself up to a level of excitement that soared, only to fall a long ways and slam into the ground, go into "the call" with what I like to call cautious excitement. You deserve to be eager for this. You deserve to be happy and joyful and hopeful and excited. However, do not become so set that this is going to happen that you are devastated if it doesn't.

ALLOW TIME TO CONSIDER / FOLLOW-UP

Let’s say that “the call” goes amazingly, and at the end, the agent offers you representation! Sometimes, they wait and send a follow-up email, but other times, they will offer immediately. You can imagine your reaction… I’m sure each of you would want to go running through the streets screaming. BEFORE you do that, though… politely thank the agent for their time, and let them know you would like a little time to consider their offer. Generally, this time period ranges from one to two weeks. Agents expect this! This is not abnormal. Take a moment to gather your thoughts. Before you immediately say YES and prepare to change your Twitter bio in the upcoming weeks, do a few things first:

1. Consider if this agent is the one

In some cases, like mine, you may realize after a phone call that this agent is not a good match for you or your career. Now, one thing that some writers do is mass-email every agent they can find, with little research. The issue with this is that, if an agent does end up being interested in representation, and you were never interested in working with them, this can create some issues. ONLY QUERY AGENTS YOU ARE INTERESTED IN WORKING WITH. In some cases, it may not work

out. But don’t go in knowing you wouldn’t say yes if they offered.

Sometimes, writers will use other agents as collateral to get more interest in their manuscript. After all, when you receive an offer of representation, it sometimes spurs other agents to read faster. This is a risky (and, frankly, rude) way to go about things.

Yes, getting an agent is hard, and often takes a long time. But taking shortcuts isn’t the answer!

So, only query agents you are interested in working with. After “the call”, though, really examine everything the agent has said. Take notes during the phone call, and afterwards, review them. Do your visions match up? Do they have what you deem as most important in your author-agent relationship? If so, great! If not, you may have to make a hard decision like I did, even if it is the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. Even if it feels like you are killing your own career.

2. Follow up with other agents who have your query or full manuscript

One of the biggest frustrations I’ve seen among agents is when they are reading a query, really love the concept, read the first few pages and love those as well… go to request pages… and get a response from the author saying they already signed with another agent. I can imagine why that would be frustrating! Agents have very minimal time, and spending it on manuscripts that are no longer available is, frankly, a waste of precious time.

If you get an offer from an agent, email all agents who have your query (and especially is they have the partial or full manuscript), and notify them that you have received an offer of representation. Give them a time limit to respond (those one to two weeks, depending on what you worked out with offering-agent).

Sometimes, this will push them to read faster. Sometimes, they will love your manuscript too, and you’ll then have multiple offers! Yay for you! Options!!

However, I once heard an agent say that, when they receive a notice that an author has received an offer from another agent, it will make them “read towards no”. In other words, only if the manuscript REALLY grabs their attention and makes them fall in love, will they enter the “representation bid”. Generally, they will decide to step back. This is another reason why trying to use certain agents to get requests and offers from other ones is a bad plan. The rest of the agents may decide to step back, and then you’ll be “stuck” with the agent you never wanted to work with anyway. And that is simply unfair and cruel for the offering agent.

I know this is a lot of information to absorb, so I’ll summarize this section:

If you get an offer, do not immediately respond.

Kindly thank the agent for their offer, and let them know you will take 1-2 weeks to consider and follow up with other agents.

Send follow-up emails (keep them brief) notifying any other agents with your query/partial/full that you have received an offer.

If another agent responds asking for more or requesting a call, do so if you wish.

Once the 1-2 weeks if over, make a decision. Any agents who have not responded are either passing, or will respect that you at least gave them a chance. This is why I typically recommend two weeks as a good length of time. It isn’t too long, but it gives other agents enough time to read your manuscript or request.

Alright, I think that is all I have for today. This was a lot to digest, I know! And, in fact, there is more I could talk about. Publishing is such a complex and huge thing to discuss/absorb, so don’t get overwhelmed.

Hopefully these tips will help you if you ever get “the call” from an agent.

Have any questions? About my experience? About the agent call, or querying in general? Leave them below in the comments!

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