1. No requests for money up front
A proper literary agent asks for no money up front. We have heard of countless variations on the money-up-front scheme, including “administrative fees” and “reading fees” and such. We're not buying it. In the many years we’ve been publishing books, we’ve never dealt with an agent who asks for anything up front from authors. An agent gets paid only when you get paid. (And that cut is rarely more than the standard 15% in this industry.)
2. Success stories and greatest hits
We’ve seen too many authors who are just so happy for representation that they sign with an agent who really has no weight in the industry. It takes nothing to call yourself an agent. And there is no governing body, so authors need to do their homework and discern quality for themselves. Ask potential agents about their successes and bestselling books as well as what publishers and authors they’ve worked with. A good agent will always be forthcoming and may even let you speak to other authors he or she has represented.
3. An expiry date — just in case
Once you sign with an agent, you have given that agent the exclusive right to represent you and your work. You have to then trust the agent to place the work somewhere, but you also need to protect yourself in case your agent -- whom you are contractually obligated to -- isn't working too hard on your behalf. We’ve heard stories of authors who got so fed up with their agent not doing anything that they signed a contract from a publisher themselves, only to find out later that the agent, contractually, gets 15% of the take even if he or she did absolutely nothing. So be sure your agreement states that if a particular number of months pass with no offer of a contract, you have the right to dissolve the agreement with your agent.
4. Personalized representation by an agent who knows you
Whether the agent is a one-person operation (many great ones are) or part of a conglomerate, each agent represents a certain number of authors. You have the right to ask how many authors the agent is actively representing. This is a case where more is not better. Many agents will take on hundreds of authors and projects because they play a numbers game by throwing all the projects against the wall and seeing which one sticks. Usually, the more successful an agent is, the smaller the number of clients he or she will have (although the clients themselves will often be ridiculously high profile). But there are always exceptions to this rule, and there are no magic numbers here. Just be aware.
5. Bargaining on your behalf
Agents should bargain for the best deal for their client — not just for money and royalties but also for marketing budgets and ad placement and provisions like that. Sometimes, however, agents try to justify their role by overreaching and bargaining for rights that really aren’t in your best interests. So you’ll get an additional 30% royalty for Mongolian rights? Well, that’s lovely, but we’re talking about $12 or so — and that’s if someone in Mongolia wants your book. Why not haggle for a bigger ad budget instead? An agent should tell you what he or she is negotiating for and why.
6. A dissolution clause in your agreement
Your agent is your agent for the life of the book and will continue to get a 15% cut for that length of time. But even great friendships often end and sometimes author-agent partnerships also end. So be sure you have a clause in the contract that allows the two of you to dissolve the partnership without any financial backlash. Even famous authors have suffered without having these terms clearly defined in an agreement.