When I first started agenting, I had no idea how common it was for agents to be approached by authors with deals already on the table. Be it from the outcropping of small presses who accept unsolicited submissions, new e-presses, or conference networking, it’s something that does, indeed, happen frequently.
I’ve spoken to fellow agents on the topic and witnessed several relationships forged out of such a circumstance with grim results; it seems that both sides often neglect to be as cautious as they should in light of temptation.
Here are a few things authors in this position should keep in mind to hopefully prevent these grim results:
-MAKE SURE THE AGENT REPRESENTS THE GENRE YOU WRITE IN
An agent with a background in your genre will know what the acceptable standards are when negotiating the contract. But this is important not just for that book; make sure the agent is a good fit for your CAREER. If an agent doesn’t have a track record, i.e., he or she is newer, at least pay attention to what the agency has represented in the past, and what the agent says he or she is looking for in his or her bio. Just because the agency has represented your kind of work in the past isn’t a guarantee that agent does. A newer agent may be more willing to jump on ANY sure thing, but come time for the next project, they’ll be completely stumped on both any editorial feedback, and who to submit to.
-BE WARY OF AN AGENT WHO AGREES TO TAKE YOU ON WITHOUT READING THE MANUSCRIPT FIRST
I think what authors forget is that they WILL have to keep working with that agent for the lifespan of that book, NOT just for the contract. An agent’s job is to be your advocate; it’s difficult for an agent to be the best advocate for your book if they don’t love it!
More importantly, however:
-BE WARY OF AN AGENT WHO DOESN’T WANT TO SEE ANY OTHER SAMPLES OF YOUR WORK
An agent may not think to ask for more samples; however, YOU should. Why? Because sometimes, the book you’re writing may be an anomaly in the grand scope of your writing, or, as often happens with category romance authors, the main purpose of getting an agent when you already have an offer is to transition into a successful career. If you’ve published 15 category romance novels but want to write single title, make sure the agent likes your single title style!
Finally, have a chat with the agent. Make sure you jive with him or her personality-wise as well; ask the questions you would have asked sans deal on the table, such as response time, editorial style, communication preference, submission style, favorite 80’s hairstyle (that last one’s a deal breaker, I know).
Even with all these things in mind, there’s no guarantee that the relationship will work out; sometimes, things change and you may no longer click. Just don’t be afraid to sever ties if that happens – as respectfully and graciously as possible. No need to burn bridges, after all.
Just don't feel pressured into picking an agent fast. Be upfront with your editor about wanting to try and find an agent and, worst-case scenario, you DON'T find the perfect agent for you, and you find a publishing lawyer (note: PUBLISHING lawyer; publishing law is VERY different from other law, and lawyers not in this field tend to make the process a headache for everyone - take a look at Paul S. Levine; he is a great example of what to look for in a publishing lawyer) or send your contract off to the Author's Guild.
It's not impossible to strike agent-client relationship gold without all these cautionary measures, but hey, it's also not impossible to find the love of your life via a mail-ordered bride.