The 5 Questions I Ask Every Writer When I'm Considering Offering Literary Representation

One of the most nerve-wracking components of searching for a literary agent is the phone call! I know many writers get anxious when an agent asks to speak to them on the phone. After all, asking for permission to talk in real-time is often one step closer to receiving an offer of representation! But the thing is, agents get anxious about these phone calls too. When we fall in love with a manuscript, we so badly want a call with a writer to go well because we want to know that it’s a good fit. The author/agent relationship goes beyond having a great project, so getting to know one another is an important component.

I’ve seen many posts online about what authors should ask agents during this type of phone call… but what sort of information do agents want to learn when they ask to schedule a call? Below are five questions I ask every potential client when speaking to them for the first time.

#1. Why do you want a literary agent? The answers to this question are never the same. Some writers think a literary agent will automatically make them millions of dollars. Others respond with a more modest response, that they’re hoping to find someone to stand in their corner and navigate their way through the many decisions one needs to make in the publishing world. Whatever the initial response, this question allows me to find out what expectations a writer has about agents in general and about me specifically, and it also allows us to have a conversation about how the author/agent relationship works and what expectations I have for my clients.

#2. Are you willing to make changes to the manuscript? Whenever I am considering offering representation on a project, I have a few changes in mind for the story. I like to go over my suggested changes with the author on a call to make sure we’re on the same page about where the story needs to go. And it’s totally okay if an author doesn’t agree with an agent’s suggestions! That just means the agent may not be the right fit for the book. But it’s important to have this discussion so that both the author and the agent know what’s next in line for the manuscript. This question also allows me to find out if the author is collaborative and appreciative of editorial feedback.

#3. What is your writing process? I like to learn the creative process of any potential client. This can tell me how long they spend on a draft, whether or not they make use of beta readers and critique partners (all writers should—even after they have an agent), and how long it might take for them to finish a revision of a manuscript. Some writers write every day, early in the morning, before anyone else in their family wakes up. Others only have time to write on their daily commute home from work. Whatever the situation, I like to know that the author is taking their writing seriously and does have time carved out for writing, and that the act of writing has been explored long enough for some sort of process to take shape.

#4. What is your publishing history? This is a really important question, especially now that so many people self-publish books! It’s okay if an author hasn’t published a book before—that’s not something that will change my mind about offering representation; most agents (including me) love debut writers. But I do need to know if the author has self-published a book, if the author has had a book at a major publisher that didn’t do so well, or even if the author has a best-selling title! The agent/author relationship requires a lot of trust, so it’s crucial that the author is honest and lays everything out on the table so I am aware of the history of their career. I’m also interested to know if the author writes for any online publications, has had short stories published in literary magazines, etc.

#5. What else are you working on? I like to sign clients with their long-term careers in mind, not just based on one project, so I definitely want to know what else they’re writing. Since the writer is querying a finished manuscript, I expect that they are now working on something new. I don’t need to know all the details, but I do need to know if the writer plans to write in specific categories or genres (that I am comfortable representing). A short little “pitch” is always nice to hear, especially when the premise gets me excited about what I’ll get to read next as the writer’s agent, but I never expect to hear a fully-formed story during this type of phone call. This question also opens a discussion about the long-term goals of the writer and how what they’ve written, and what they’re working on, fits into their career as a whole.

There are definitely other questions that come up during a phone call with a potential client, and the specifics often change depending on the author’s history or the project itself. But these five questions come up time and time again, and I imagine the majority of literary agents ask very similar questions as well.

Let me know in the comments what questions you ask (or plan to ask) literary agents when you get to speak with them about your work, or if there is anything you wish agents would ask you when considering offering representation.