I encourage you to look around at other people's perspectives on agent excellence and questions to ask them if you are hoping/planning to find yourself in this situation soon, but here is my list of Ten Things to Consider when searching for or signing with an agent. Huzzah!
- Appropriate Enthusiasm. It's probably best to sign with someone whose enthusiasm for your book shows. Are you comfortable with how into your work the agent is? If an agent offers on your book, they will probably say something specific about why they're in love with it, and you won't have to prompt them in your call to talk about what they love about it. (If they don't volunteer this and simply offer with no apparent connection to the material, you may ask about this and make sure the agent digs it. You want your representative to the publishers to be very excited about your project, because they'll make a better advocate.)
- Similar Vision. Make sure the agent is on the same page as you are about what you're doing with the book itself and with its publication options. If you were thinking Big Five and your agent says "no, let's just go to a small digital-only," it's better to find another agent rather than keeping silent and believing their vision is superior to yours just because they're an agent. (Usually they want to go as big as they can too, of course, since they'll benefit from that.) You may also want to compare notes on whether the book needs minor or major changes; whether the book will be pitched as a series or a standalone; and what kind of comparison titles and specific editors/imprints you'll be considering.
- Agenting Style. Are you comfortable with your communication with the agent? Can you establish a precedent for the type, medium, and frequency of communication that you're happy with? Will your agent be open to representing other projects of yours? And how will that work? Do you feel like you'll get enough attention to your project? Do they have a relationship with other agents at their agency with whom they share your work, and are you comfortable with that? Will they send your work out often enough/to enough editors to match what you want/expect? You should be able to bring up questions and concerns with an agent and make sure you're not uncomfortable with any major part of how they do business. If you don't know--or think you know but aren't sure--about an agent's agenting style, ask some of their clients.
- Comfortable Rapport. Let's be honest: you don't want to work with someone you don't like. Do you like the agent? If not, it will be kind of a bummer to work with them. If there's something they say or do that you think can be fixed by discussing it, great, but sometimes you just have no connection, nothing really in common, and don't really feel like you'd get along as people or as friends. Your agent really doesn't have to be your pal, but consider how important it is to you that you like your agent, and act accordingly.
- Track Record. Obviously this is a biggie, and obviously this is obvious. I probably don't have to say much about this, but you want to know the agent has sold or has the potential to sell your book, because . . . that's why you're working together! Most agents have this information available on their websites or through Publishers Marketplace. If you can't find any sales, that's obviously a red flag. The exception of course is if they are a new agent, but if they are, they should be training with an established agency and the senior agents there should have sales. It's nice if they've got a huge impressive client list, but many of the smashingly successful agents aren't taking new clients (or are only doing so by referral), so don't necessarily expect huge fireworks. Just a couple sales to publishers similar to the ones you'd like to sell to is fine.
- Additional Rights. Your agent is obviously trying to get you a book deal, but what about audio rights, film rights, foreign rights, etc.? You want to know that they can/will handle these, and you'll want to know HOW it is handled at the agency--does your agent personally sell/negotiate those rights, do they have a foreign rights specialist, etc. It's good to know that they think broadly and to have some sense of your agent's workings within the agency.
- Social Media. Do you feel okay with what your agent may or may not be doing on social media? I’ve seen some agents behave in a way that I would not want to be associated with on Twitter, forums, and blogs. (Most notably, I've seen flame wars and poor spelling/incorrect information, which was a red flag and made me not submit to them.) If you like how they interact online, that can be a good sign. If you like to connect through social media, are you comfortable with how they seem to interact with their other clients? (For example, many agents and publishing professionals are casual, even crass, on social media, and that's fine if you are too, but not so fine if you're not. Or it might be the opposite: your agent is strait-laced and you're uncomfortable with tweeting where they might see it because you like raunchy content, or something like that.) Will they plug their clients' work on social media without being spammy? Do they understand how it works? Do they post mostly industry-oriented content or is it dominated by personal drama? None of these are WRONG ways to act on social media, but you need to be comfortable with their choices, because they represent you.
- Submissions Transparency. Some authors prefer to sign their lives away to their agents and then hide under a pillow, asking to be awakened only if there's a book deal. That's rare. Most of us want to know what's up, what's going on?? So for the majority of us, openness about submissions is important. If you want to know who you're pitching, what imprint they're with, and what exactly they said when they requested your manuscript or rejected it, make sure your agent is willing to share as much of that with you as you want. You should also be allowed to know what your pitch materials contain, though agents generally don't CC you on e-mails to publishers or anything.
- High Standards. Perhaps this sounds weird, but you want an agent who rejects a lot of people. That seems like a kind of jerk thing to say, but you don't want to get signed with someone who will take just about anyone who can string a sentence together. You want to know your agent is picky so a) you know your book is of saleable quality and b) you know the agent isn't picking up clients willy-nilly and will run out of time to dedicate to you. You can see some stats on QueryTracker, and what you should look for is a low acceptance rate and comments detailing polite rejections. If they are accepting writers by the truckload, your work will get lost in there--especially if these high client acceptances are correlated with low sales. There are occasional failtastic startup agents who think they will succeed by building a huge client list and playing the numbers game, but that is a bad deal for you, the author.
- Community Engagement. Is your agent active in the publishing community? You probably want an agent who is decently in touch with the buzz in publishing and well connected with other professionals. Find out if they go to conferences, check out if they read the publishing news and post links of interest online, maybe occasionally participate in social-media-based opportunities. (Do they watch #mswl—Manuscript Wish List—on Twitter? Do they participate in pitch parties or contests? Do you want them to?) Some more established agents aren't partying it up online with blogging communities or trending hashtags, but they should be clearly involved in other ways--maybe they release articles for well-known author-advice websites, teach workshops at conferences, or participate in professional organizations.
Not all of these items are equally weighted, either. You may find that you don't really like your agent in a friend-type way, but you're convinced they'll be a fantastic advocate for your book, so you are okay with not having your agent as a buddy. You may wish your agent was more active on social media but their private enthusiasm for your work outweighs that. You may be uncomfortable with a few things and just agree to try it the agent's way--and that's okay too, because they've been here before and you probably haven't, so you may trust them. (And let's face it--publishing is pretty uncomfortable no matter what your relationship is with your agent.)
So consider these questions, write down some of the questions you might have for when you get your first call from an agent, and really consider what your dealbreakers and must-haves are. If you get an offer from an agent and it will require you to tolerate something you find unacceptable, remember it's actually true: no agent is better than a bad agent. (Plus you can use their offer to tempt other agents who are considering the manuscript; you have options!)
What did I miss? What should querying agents consider when agent-shopping? What are you wondering right now? Ask away!