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Ask Daphne! When to ask

An aspiring writer asks:

Everywhere I look I’m told to ask an agent plenty of questions before signing on. I get that, and I even know which questions to ask. What I’m wondering is, when in the process should those questions be asked? Waiting until the agent has read the full and offered representation seems awkward if it turns out not to be a good fit, because the agent has already gone to so much work and the author has already waited so long for the full to be read. However, asking earlier, such as before sending in a full, seems premature. So…when is the best time? Does this discussion usually take place when/if the agent calls the author, or later, such as by e-mail?


First of all, kudos on knowing which questions to ask, and knowing that you SHOULD ask questions at all, rather than just blearily signing on the dotted line without a single comment.

The timing’s a little tricky, but I would say you want to wait at least until after the agent has read the full and expressed continued strong interest. For my part, this is about when I send the author an email and say I’d love to discuss the manuscript in more detail — I never finish a manuscript and draft a retainer letter before first having a detailed conversation with the author.

Here’s exactly when you should pull out your list of questions and fire away. The agent is clearly interested, or they wouldn’t clear time for a phone conversation (up to this point, we’ve probably only communicated by email). And they WANT to represent you, or they’d have sent a rejection letter already.

But you should know that the questions don’t only illuminate the agent’s practices for the author — the level of detail the author gets into is also a helpful barometer for the agent as to the type of possible client they’re dealing with. Are the questions covering only the basics? Then your author’s a probable publishing newbie, which may require more explanation of practices and policies. Are the questions getting into the nitty-gritty? Then you’re dealing with someone who’s either been around the block, or is at least informed enough to know the lay of the land, which may allow the agent to use some shorthand for explanations, and provide more detailed responses to the more complicated questions.

At this time, as an agent, I’m also going to ask some questions of the author. What else are you working on? What do you want to see happen with the book? Do you have any contacts/connections? How do you feel about revisions?

This is when you want to iron out any possible bumps in the agent/author relationship, before it gets finalized with paperwork.

So ask away!