You hear a lot of buzz words in query circles about agents, like "editorial" and "book vs. career," and of course the elusive "fit." But why does finding the right agent fit for you matter, and how do you even know what to look for? Let's start with WHY fit matters.
The author/agent relationship is a professional one--while both parties involved (you and your agent) of course love your book, you are both in the business of your career. And it is your career. When seeking out and ultimately agreeing to work with an agent, you should consider what you're like as a person, how you prefer being treated and communicated with, and how your agent might complement you.
Some things to consider:
Editorial vs. not so much
Some authors assume all agents are editorial (they are not), and that all editorial styles are created equal (they are not). First off, do you even want an editorial agent? If you are an experienced/adept writer with a robust network of critique partners, you may not need a heavily editorial agent. A non-editorial agent essentially expects you to submit submission ready work. They may read your book and give you light feedback, but they won't act as your editor would.
Editorial agents, increasingly becoming the norm, on the other hand, run the gamut in terms of style. Some agents are heavily editorial, and will do multiple rounds of revisions with you, making pointed suggestions (they expect you to follow, for the most part) and having a heavy hand in guiding the direction your book goes in. This is to ensure the book that goes out on submission is exactly the way the agent wants/needs it to be so they can pitch it. This is why it is very important to discuss any editorial changes an agent wants on the call, and specifically to ask how stringent they are, re: your taking their suggestions. Some agents will not sub a book they are not 100% happy with. An agent you don't see eye to eye with editorially is not a good fit.
The majority of agents are light to middle-of-the-road when it comes to editorial style, and they have strengths/focus areas like any editor will. You should ask questions like "do you do a lot of line editing and copy editing?" and "will you give me Big Picture feedback but leave me to figure out how to implement changes, or will you make suggestions for how to fix issues?" Know what style you prefer (from critique partner relationships) and/or where your CP circle doesn't provide as much coverage.
To give you a personal example, my agent provides Big Picture feedback but leaves me to implement specific change, and she copy edits like a BOSS, which is a weak area of mine. I find her editorial style complementary to mine.
How do you prefer to communicate? Talk on the phone? Email? Skype? Do you want to hear frequent updates? If you have to wait more than 48 hours for a response, is that a big deal? You should know these things about yourself, and ask the agent how they communicate. Some flexibility may be required: you have to talk on the phone *sometime*, and many agents prefer to deliver news via phone. But most use email as their primary means of communication, so it becomes a matter of style and frequency.
Falling under this category, too, is what you can expect from your agent in terms of reading style and feedback. You should ask how long it typically takes for them to read and respond to client manuscripts. One week? Three? More than a month? If it's going to bug you that it takes your agent four to six months or more to read your book, it may not be a good fit. (and admittedly, most agents, if they are this slow, will not admit it to you--talk to existing clients!)
While there are some "book only" agents, most agents aim to be career agents for their authors, and most authors want to be with their agents forever. Sometimes life happens and that doesn't work out--you can't be psychic at the start of a relationship. But, regardless, it is important to think beyond just the book you are querying/signing with, so you can aim for the best case scenario.
Do your due diligence to find out what the agent's m.o. is. Do they typically sell big, commercial books? Do they champion quirky/weird books and seem to stick by clients writing quirky/weird books, no matter what? Is their bread & butter one specific genre (or sub-genre within genre), and does that align with your career plan? What imprints and publishers do they typically sell to, and do they appeal to you? Do they have a large or a small list (and how much attention do you want, especially editorially?)?
Know what books you write and what you want and compare against the agent's tendencies. You can dream of a big name or agency and come to realize they're a terrible fit for you. And that's OK!
Another misconception is that all agents operate in exactly the same way when it comes to submission, book deals, etc. Even I had this misconception until friends of mine started getting book deals (and I went on submission, myself). There are some key variations on style when it comes to submission and book deal related things, which may be a dealbreaker for you (and the agent) if you don't see eye-to-eye.
Some things to consider:
Do you want to know which imprints and editors you are being submitted to, at the time you go on sub?
How involved in the pre-empt/auction process do you want to be?
Once you have a book deal, how do you want communication with your editor to work?
I mention these key things because some agents provide you with a complete list of editors you are on sub to... some pointedly do not. They won't reveal to you which editors you were out to until either a rejection or an offer comes. Many authors don't mind the latter style at all... others don't like it one bit. When you have the call, simply ask. Agents who do withhold editor lists have very good reasons to do so, but if you don't like that style, you don't have to sign with that agent.
Agencies also manage offers/pre-empts/auctions differently. You should ask "what decisions will you, the agent, make on my behalf?" Some agents will make decisions in auctions for you... others will check in with you on every step and defer to your decision. Know their style before you sign. With either style, things move slowly in publishing until they move *fast*--so if you are at the offer stage, be clear/open with your agent about your preferences so they can best represent your interests!
Once you have a book deal, some agents stay involved in the relationship with your editor (needing to be copied on every email), some step back completely/only need to be copied on major emails (such as revised drafts, etc.). Either style is normal, and is down to your preference.
This one seems obvious, in that of course you want to consider personality fit! But I'm talking about business personality, and how that can impact your career. Your agent is, of course, always your advocate, but as you can imagine, personality and style ranges in terms of how they advocate for clients. Your personality and style matters here, too.
Will your agent negotiate hard for you to get the best possible deal? Do they have the personality to push back against a publisher on a bad contract clause? Will they play "bad cop" for you when needed? Think about how editors and publishers might perceive your agent (and their style)--is that what you want?
A friend of mine put it in such a way that has stayed with me. She was choosing between two top agents, both amazing at their jobs... but one was more of a "good cop," the other more of a "bull dog." My friend knew she could be a real people pleaser, and thus she opted for the bull dog, to complement her own style.
You don't always have to go with the opposite of you--I have more in common with my agent than otherwise--but considering how an agent might work for you is important. And there are degrees in style. The last thing you want is for YOU to be intimidated by your agent--if someone's style is so aggressive, you are afraid to email them, that's not good.
Ultimately, go with your gut after The Call, but try not to let preconceived notions of "dream agents" and the like flavor your interaction. Go into any agent call with an open mind and see how you click. Always consider the intersection of how much they love your book with their business acumen/ability to *sell* that book. Not all agents will gush on the phone, but they wouldn't be offering if they didn't think they could sell it. An agent not gushing doesn't equal less love for the project.
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#HowToAuthor: Agents & SubmissionNon-Fiction
Advice for writing book-shaped things and getting them traditionally published. This series will cover everything from querying to agent fit, to building a platform and marketing yourself.