Getting Offers from Multiple Agents

A reader asked about what a writer should do if they happen to get offers of representation from multiple agents. First of all, congratulations are in order. An offer of representation is professional validation to a writer who has, most likely, not really gotten such praise and confidence from an expert source. A lot of writers, though, think this is an embarrassment of riches and a great problem to have. It’s not. It’s a really stressful situation where you have to make a major business decision under time pressure, all while being wooed by really nice, really encouraging, really savvy people.

When you first get an offer of representation (see a previous post on this topic), send an email to all the other agents who have your partial or full. More often than not, in today’s really busy climate, you’ll probably get another offer by doing this. Agents want the hot commodity and will likely chase a writer they know already has an offer — that means someone else thinks they’re good, too! (Occasional truth: some busy agents screen their slush pile by focusing on the writers who email to say they’ve gotten offers…that way the agent knows which projects are worth reading.)

So now you, the writer, have multiple offers of representation. The first one feels great. The second one starts to feel confusing. By the third, you’re queasy. Who to choose? They all love your book, or should. If you get a lukewarm offer, that person is just playing the game, most likely, and can be cut from consideration. They all have editorial advice. They all have enthusiasm for you and your career. Well, what now?

Talk to each of the agents. Get a feel for their passion level and for their ideas for the manuscript. Try not to let the gushing or hype or big promises go to your head, even though it’s hard. What do you want as a writer? An agent for the long-term or for just this project? An agent who gives editorial notes or one who is more hands off? An agent who communicates openly or who just gives you the verdict after the submission round is over? An agent who communicates by phone or by email? An agent who does small, careful submission rounds and waits to hear editor feedback or an agent who submits you all over town in a huge, splashy round?

You are hiring this person. Let your needs and your feelings and your understanding of what’s right for you guide your questions. Good questions to ask:

  • How many clients do you have? (You may have trouble getting a straight answer here.)
  • How big do you want to grow your list?
  • What houses do you work with? (It’s the agent’s job to make connections, so if they only know or sell into a few houses, that might be too narrow.)
  • What is your submission style?
  • How often do you follow up once on submission?
  • How much editorial work do you do?
  • How do you see us growing my career together?
  • How often do you communicate? How do you best communicate?
  • Are you receptive to questions from me? How quickly do you respond? (Some agents are more standoffish, others do a large amount of “hand-holding” and support for their clients.)
  • Do you share submission lists and rejections as they happen? (Figure out if you want to know this…some authors love transparency, others like not hearing bad news.)

As about your agent’s path to becoming an agent, where they see themselves going, what their hopes are for your project. Ask them for client references if you think talking to one of their existing clients will help you. This definitely helped me eliminate a few agents when I was in these shoes.

From an agent’s perspective, this is our time to feel you out, too. How open are you to our editorial ideas? (I will often give three big ideas but save most of my editorial notes for later. I don’t want to overwhelm the writer but I also don’t want to give them some of my best ideas in case they go elsewhere with their project but still use my notes.) How savvy are you (in terms of being part of the publishing scene, having an online presence, knowing how the business works)? Do you have stars in your eyes or are you realistic about the marketplace and about how much work it is to be a published author? What are your career goals? How high-maintenance or easygoing are you and how easily would we work together?

The question you’re seeking to answer, as a writer, and the question I’m seeking to answer, as an agent, is this: Would we have a long-term, profitable, communicative, respectful, productive business partnership?

Now, this is a difficult question to answer. It comes down to a combination of gut feeling and your impressions of an agent and their prestige and record. You can check an agent’s sales in Publishers Marketplace. For $20 a month, month-to-month, you have access to a deals database that is pretty comprehensive (some deals aren’t posted there for various reasons, but you do get a pretty good picture) for each agent and agency. Agency reputation is really important. Has the agent’s agency been around for long? Have they brought many books to market? Are they known for the genre or age range for which you want to write? Publishing is a business of relationships and reputation.

You also need to take the agent’s rank into consideration — are they a newer agent with the agency or pretty senior in the organization? How long have they been agenting? There are pros and cons for a younger agent vs. an established agent, and I think that will be my next post.

Of course, if you ever have multiple offers from agents and I am one of them, you go with me, obviously. :) But very seriously, this is a big decision. And multiple offers from agents are becoming more and more common, from what I’m noticing (a post on this later, as well). For every writer in this position, I just want to say: this is your decision. Take your time and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Agents are intimidating to a lot of writers but, at this level, you really are in control. Use it.

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  1. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    “Of course, if you ever have multiple offers from agents and I am one of them, you go with me, obviously.”

    Um, obviously. YES.

    Mary’s right about the queasy feeling, too. When all the agents are nice AND fab, it’s tough.

    But…sometimes you just know, right from the get go, that an agent is the one for you.

    Mary IS the one.

  2. creepyquerygirl’s avatar

    this sounds like a dream situation for any aspiring writer. If this ever did happen, at least I’d have a place to come when my nerves are screaming JUST SAY YES and Mary’s words of wisdom will keep me from making the wrong choice out of excitement. Thanks:)

  3. JR’s avatar

    Great post, Mary! Your comments made me think about a number of questions. Here come the falling rocks! :^)

    How many is too many clients for an agent to have? When is an agent spread too thin and when are they lacking in experience or connections?

    I’m guessing agents take on more clients than they can actually place. So what’s a good ratio in terms of authors represented to books sold? Is it 50%? 75% Lower?

    How many books sold in a year is considered decent? 6? 12? More?

    And, finally, based on your comment — An agent who does small, careful submission rounds and waits to hear editor feedback or an agent who submits you all over town in a huge, splashy round? — what is the smarter path for an agent to take? And how and why are some books auctioned?

    Yes, I’m like a kindergarten kid asking a parent questions about astronomy. How many planets are there now anyway? I’ve heard rumors about Pluto.

    Thanks,

    JR

  4. Mary’s avatar

    Jenny — Hush your mouth, you flatterer! :)

    JR — Your questions are impossible to answer conclusively. Some agents have other agency duties, like foreign rights sales, so for them a smaller client list will keep them plenty busy. Other agents only handle their own clients and don’t do any administrative/subrights duties at the office, so a larger list will be just right.

    There’s no way for you to find out an agent’s sold/unsold client ratio unless they post all of their clients online or volunteer that information. That kind of thing is really not publicly available in most cases.

    Books sold per year is also subjective. How senior is the agent within their agency? How big their client list? Are they selling multiple books for few clients or one book for many clients? Note that not all deals are reported on Publisher’s Marketplace, etc.

    As you can probably tell, I do smaller submissions, unless I know, from my perspective on the market and from reactions I get to my pitch, that a book is going to be big. An auction happens when multiple houses come in with offers, but not all such scenarios end in an auction. It’s really complicated and not something to address in comments. It’s also rare, and that’s why I don’t really spend a lot of time talking about huge deals and auction situations — it’s really easy to get stars in your eyes but I wouldn’t worry about selling your book at auction…I’d worry about selling your book.

  5. JR’s avatar

    No stars in my eyes, only spurs in my feet! Many thanks, again.

  6. Krista V.’s avatar

    Great post, Mary! One follow-up question, if you have a moment: If you do contact the agents’ clients, what sorts of questions should you ask THEM? LIke, is it kosher to ask about the specifics of the deals their agents negotiated?

  7. Marybk’s avatar

    Fantastic bits of information in this post, Mary. I almost wish I could know some of these things before querying an agent.

  8. Franziska Green’s avatar

    I don’t want multiple offers. I JUST WANT ONE! Sob.

    Great post, Mary. Somehow doubting it’ll ever apply to me. Another sob.

  9. Molly Hall’s avatar

    This blog is so awesome. Thank you for posting things that writers might be curious about! Especially potentially awkward things! It really helps. I know that it would be a “great” problem to have, but I can imagine how dreadfully stressful it would be too. You’re suddenly wondering if you’re going to hurt somebody’s feelings, or make a wrong move. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective.

  10. June’s avatar

    Wow. What a timely post. Over the past week, I’ve had a couple of agents ask to see my pages and I really felt a resonance with both of them. I’m nowhere near being in a position of choosing between multiple offers, but it did make me think about it. Your post helps. It isn’t something I’d look forward to deciding. Almost makes you wish you could work with more than one person, especially when you feel that certain connection and they seem to really “get” your book.

  11. Natalie Aguirre’s avatar

    Great post. I hope it applies to me one day. I’m going to save your questions. They are really good ones to ask. I’d be too nervous to remember them all. I’m looking forward to your next post on this.

  12. Tricia’s avatar

    Thanks for the great post. Don’t you ever take a day off? Hope you had a great holiday.

  13. Robin’s avatar

    I’m so glad you posted this. I actually had a question about the pros and cons for a younger agent vs. an established agent. I cannot wait for this post!!

    Thanks again,

    Robin

  14. Buffy Andrews’s avatar

    Thoughtful post, Mary, with valuable advice and insight. Great questions, too. Here’s a question: what if you had two different manuscripts (fulls) out to several agents and get offered representation by one agent (who read ms X) and another agent (who read ms Y). Both want to represent you and the book they read. So now you have two agents who want to rep you but for two different books. And I will add that the books are very different. Lets say that one is a humorous MG and the other a YA. What would you advise in this situation?

  15. Mary’s avatar

    Buffy — Wow. That’s a whopper. But it happens. At this point in the game, I’d be honest. You are one writer and you want an agent who loves all your work. Pull back and tell both agents the situation. They might be a bit annoyed. Share the other manuscripts with both and then ask to resume the representation conversation.

  16. Buffy Andrews’s avatar

    Thanks Mary. Here’s another question. I know, full of them today. What if you have a new manuscript that you are going to query. Do you query those agents who currently have your fulls of another ms (this goes against querying an agent with more than one project at a time) or do you query other agents with the new manuscript, in which case you could end up in the above situation. What should one do? Give those agents who are currently reading fulls of other work the first opportunity? I mean, you’re right. The bottom line is that I want an agent who love all of my work. That’s the goal, anyway. I could sure use some guidance here. Thanks for your help.

  17. Mary’s avatar

    Buffy — I would hold off until you hear back from the agents who have fulls. If they reject but want to see more work, offer your new project. Really do be patient with this, you do want to see feedback before blasting something else out there.

  18. Olleymae’s avatar

    No stars in my eyes, but I admit this is the kind of daydream scenario that gets my heart aflutter. lol.

    I would be really afraid that I was annoying the agent with my questions and coming off as a pain. I guess if an agent made me feel that way, I wouldn’t want to work with them anyways, but the whole industry can kind of make beginners feel that way unintentionally.

    How do you recommend phrasing such an email to the other agents you’ve sent fulls to? Just a short and sweet, “So and so has offered me representation. Any other takers?”

    I would feel so awkward writing that!!!

  19. Hope’s avatar

    I recently had this experience, and Mary is so right. It seems like it would be awesome, but it’s very, very stressful. The worst part is that when it’s all done, you’ll have to send the rejection letters.

    Should you be in this position- absolutely talk to the agents, but DEFINITELY ask if you may talk to some of their clients. I learned MUCH more about the agents’ business styles talking to their clients than I did talking to the agents themselves. Those conversations were the ones that ultimately helped me make my decision.

    Even when the clients are in love with their agent, you can find out if the agent’s style would be a good fit for you. I talked to three clients per agent, and felt really confident about the decision I made.

    The rejections still totally sucked, though.

  20. Buffy Andrews’s avatar

    Thanks Mary for your advice. Have a super day!

  21. Mary’s avatar

    Krista — Ask about working style, how they’ve handled submissions, communication, etc. What that client has liked most…least, etc. I would not ask about money specifics, as every book and every deal is different.

    Olleymae — For a verbatim copy of an email you can send, click on the link referenced in this post.

    Hope — Thanks for sharing your experience!

  22. Joan’s avatar

    I love it when Mary gives great advice like this! I think this post applies to any offer. I would still want to ask the agent questions. Though I only submit if I think the agent might be a good fit, I don’t want to take an offer unless I’m sure we’ll work well together. No matter how much research I do on an agent, there are still things I can’t find out online and will want to know if it comes down to the agent offering representation.

    Multiple offers always seemed like a dream, but after reading this post, I realize it could end up being the stuff of nightmares . . . or at least a few sleepless nights and days of stress. ;-)

    I look forward to reading a post on the pros and cons of an established agent vs. a newer agent. =)

  23. Olleymae’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary!!!

  24. Krista V.’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary. Didn’t seem like a polite thing to ask, but then, I couldn’t think of much else TO ask. This is a much better list:)

  25. Cat Woods’s avatar

    One offer will suffice!

  26. Kate B.’s avatar

    I think I would have a nervous breakdown if I had multiple offers. The thought of getting The Call makes my knees weak, so multiple calls would need small amounts of rum. :)

  27. Seth’s avatar

    How about comparing each agent’s ideas for your novel? Is it prudent to make such a long-term decision based on short-term ideas? In other words, does the agent’s vision for this specific novel impact whether you should sign with him/her long-term?

  28. Mary’s avatar

    Seth — Oh, yeah! Their ideas for your work will show you how they think, how they interpret your vision, and all about their editorial style. Since they’re going to be your first editor for this project and more, you need to mesh on this level. It’s very important. My critique partner was considering going with an agent and liked most of this agent’s ideas for her very literary, very dark manuscript. Then the agent asked, no joke, “Can you make this more like Gossip Girl?” That was going to be a HUGE problem, both short-term AND long-term.

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