Getting a Literary Agent 101: The Call

A.K.A. What the heck to ask a literary agent during The Call???

Welcome to Part Two of my series on Getting a Literary Agent. Part One of this series broke down the basics of literary agents—their place in the industry, who needs one, and how to get one. If you didn’t have a chance to read it, you can find that post here.

Part Two is all about what comes next: The Call and what to ask an agent when they offer you representation. Just like in Part One, I’ll include bits and pieces of my own experience so you can see what the experience has looked like for me, but bear in mind that everyone’s publishing journey looks different, and your mileage may vary.

What is The Call?

The Call is exactly what it sounds like—getting on the phone or Zoom with a literary agent so they can talk to you about your book and offer you representation. This is definitely something to celebrate, because it means you’re clearing a major hurdle! But as soon as you’ve finished squealing and happy dancing (or, if you’re like me, feeling numb and like you’re about to throw up), it’s time to buckle up because this is when the real work begins.

What should/shouldn’t I do during The Call?

When you get on the phone with an agent and you’re pretty sure they’re going to make an offer of representation, it’s best to do your homework ahead of time. The Call is when the tables officially flip. It’s when you become the one in power, and the agent you’re speaking to becomes the person trying to get you to pick them.

Pull the lever, writers. You’ve earned it.

You owe it to yourself to come to this call as prepared as you possibly can. This is potentially a person who will be representing you, your work, and your career, remember, so treat it like an interview. What’s most important to you and your author career? What are you looking for out of your agent/author relationship? 

Only you know the answer to those questions, but below are some questions I asked on my Calls, which should get you started building your own list.

What questions should I ask during The Call?

Current Work/Submissions Process

  1. What did you love about my manuscript? Why did you offer to represent me?

Now’s the time to bask in some praise, because you’ve worked your ass off and you’ve earned it. This part feels so good, but it’s important to be strategic here as well. A friend once told me that an agent he spoke to commended the fact that there was no romance in his manuscript—but the book was clearly setting up for a romance in book two, so that comment felt like a red flag to him. Do you feel like the agent understood the story you were trying to tell?

  1. What’s not working/what changes need to be made?

When an agent tells you some of their editorial vision, make note of the changes they suggest. How do those changes sit with you? Do they match YOUR editorial vision for your work or do they take it in a different direction than you want it to go?

Some agents may tell you that nothing needs to be changed—to me, this is a red flag (albeit one that feels pretty nice to hear!) because as an editor, I can tell you that virtually every manuscript could use edits. Some authors feel differently though, because not every agent is editorial, so this is a “your mileage may vary” moment!

  1. Thoughts on this genre in the current market and in the next couple of years.

This question was important to me since the book I signed with falls under a newer genre that is still getting its feet under it. I wanted to make sure the agents I spoke to felt the genre had longevity and this book would sell, considering how slow the traditional publishing process is!

  1. Where do you see this ending up? Do you have specific editors in mind?

Big 5 publishers, a smaller press, etc.

Try and get a specific sense of editors here—a lot of agents won’t give you names but some of them will. Either way, make sure you’re paying attention to whether they have a real plan for your book or they’re just blowing smoke to try and land you as a client.

  1. Have you sold a lot of books within this genre? 

If you have $25 to spare, I definitely recommend grabbing a one-month subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace so you can check out the agent’s sales record before you get on the phone with them!

  1. What’s your ideal timeline for going on submission with this book?

This is a related question they may have answered already. Try to get a sense of timeline or number of rounds of revisions before the book will be ready to send out to editors.

  1. Will I have any input on the imprints you submit to?
    1. Do you prefer to reach out to editors with whom you already have a relationship or do you also submit to new editors?
  2. How often will I hear from you during the submissions process?
  3. What kind of a timeline can I expect?

Note that timeline is often outside of the agent’s control—but a good agent will have examples, strong connections with editors, and be confident that they can sell your book!

  1. What happens if the book doesn’t sell?

Agenting Style

  1. Tell me a little about you and what you’re like as an agent.
    1. How long have you been an agent?

New agents have more bandwidth and energy, but often have fewer connections. Veteran agents tend to have more connections and a better track record, but may not be as hands-on, or could be less likely to prioritize you when they already have big-name clients. Figuring out the balance here is a totally personal decision.

  1. Do you do this full-time?
  2. What do you love most about agenting?
  3. What sets you apart from other agents?
  4. What genres do you represent?

This question is extra important if you plan on writing books in different genres. I spoke to some amazing agents who I ultimately had to say no to because I didn’t see them as a solid match for my entire career beyond this one book.

  1. How do you prefer to communicate with your clients? (Email, text, call, Slack/Discord, etc.)
    1. How often can I expect to hear from you?
    2. What kind of a response time can I expect?
  2. Do you consider yourself an editorial agent?
    1. What is your editorial style like?
    2. How long of a turnaround time can I expect on manuscript notes/edits?
    3. What happens if we have a different editorial vision on my work or I disagree with some of your notes?
  3. What is your bandwidth like?

This question is particularly important if you’re speaking with an agent who has a lot of big-name clients, a hefty client list, or works another job as well as agenting. What I tried to determine through this question was the agent’s experience vs. their bandwidth, all looked at through the lens of, “Will you be able to sell my book” and “Will my book/my career be a priority to you?”

  1. Can I speak with a couple of your existing clients?

This was one of the most impactful parts of my decision-making process, so don’t skip this step! It can be super intimidating to reach out to other authors, especially if they have names you recognize like they did in a few cases for me! But remember that every one of these authors was once in the same position as you—and that they are all so excited to help you on your way.

Agency Questions

  1. What’s your agency like?
    1. Is [insert agency] a collaborative agency?

“Collaborative agencies” mean the individual agents work together, lend resources/connections to one another, and help each other rise to the top. Personally, I leaned toward agencies that defined themselves as collaborative, but this is not a must by any means!

  1. What percent fee/commission does your agency take?

Industry standard is 15% of domestic sales, and 20% for foreign rights. Remember, an agent doesn’t make money until you do—if anyone asks you for money up front to sell your book, this is a huge red flag.

  1. How does your agency handle sub-rights?
    1. Foreign rights
    2. Screen rights
    3. Audio rights
  2. Can I see a copy of your agency agreement?

For an idea of what you should be looking for in an agency agreement—and some red flags—check out these resources (Resource 1 and Resource 2) from people who are much more knowledgeable than I am!

Future Work

  1. Is this offer for this book or for future projects as well?

If the opportunity arises or if applicable, feel free to tell the agent about other books you have written or plan to write, to see if they are a good match for those books as well. Also tell the agent if you foresee the book they are offering you representation for as being a series.

  1. At what point would you want to see additional projects/new projects? Full draft, partial? Proposal?
  2. Is there work that our agenting relationship won’t apply to? 

This question won’t be important to everyone, but it’s something I wanted to make sure I left open for myself because of the nature of my work and my interests. If it’s something you’re interested in, I definitely recommend asking a question like this because a lot of the agents I spoke with had very different answers! Below are a few examples of “work” that might fall under this category.

  1. Self-publishing
  2. Freelance work like editing, ghostwriting, or article writing
  3. Short stories for anthologies or online publication
  4. Under what circumstances would you part ways with a client?

Additional Questions

  1. When do you need an answer from me?

DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT ACCEPT AN OFFER OF REPRESENTATION DURING THE INITIAL CALL. Industry standard is to give the author two weeks from the time of The Call so that you have time to notify other agents, reach out to references, and most importantly, think so you can make an informed decision—if an agent is asking you to make a decision on the spot, this is a HUGE red flag.

Darn tootin’, Vladimir Putin.

What homework do I need to do after The Call?

You’re off the phone and that two-week countdown has begun. Now it’s time to nudge other agents who have your query or manuscript (so they have a chance to step aside or make a competing offer), speak to the offering agent’s other clients, review the agency agreement, and do a helluva lot of introspection on what the right next step is for you.

There’s a lot more that happens within those two weeks, and if you’re interested in hearing more about it, you’re in luck because I’ve got another blog post all about it right here. (Coming soon!)

Maybe you’ll receive multiple offers, and maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll feel entirely certain in your decision from day one, and those two weeks will be more of a formality. Or maybe you’ll spend the next fourteen days feeling like bees are buzzing under your skin and you’ll make spreadsheets trying to analyze your thoughts and do endless journaling to try and figure out what it is you want and which of your options will be best equipped to get you there and you’ll go for a lot of walks and talk to the people closest to you and feel like a broken record because you really, absolutely, cannot tune your brain to another station. 

Or maybe that one’s just me.

Remember if you have additional questions after The Call, you should always feel comfortable reaching out to the agent to ask. Remember that this is an exciting time. Remember that no matter what happens, you should be incredibly proud of yourself, your writing, and your progress so far. Remember there is still a long road ahead of you. 

Remember that I am here with you every step of the way.


P.S. This blog post first appeared as a newsletter in my Substack, Pen Pals: For Writers Who Mean Business. Want a free, biweekly dose of inspiration and information about writing, editing, marketing, and publishing right in your inbox? Feel free to subscribe here!And if you have more questions about querying, signing with an agent, The Call, or any other part of the writing and publishing process? Drop your questions here and we’ll answer them in future newsletters!