WMW Introduces Charlotte Jane Ivory

Charlotte Jane Ivory, a writer of Historical Mysteries, Gothic Thrillers, and her own brand of "Victorianoir". She's a living, breathing warning of what happens when you have one foot in the twenty-first century, and one in the nineteenth. Represented by the Donald Maass Literary Agency, her current projects include a Victorian London murder mystery, a noir thriller about London gang wars during the mid 19th century, and - surprising even to her - a satirical fantasy novel.

Ten Questions to Ask The Agent Before You Say “I Do”

Gentle Reader,

So you’ve sent out what feels like dozens of query letters for your novel – hundreds of them, perhaps – and, finally, a literary agent has come back with some good news: She’s read your manuscript, and she wants to represent you.

First of all, try to peel yourself off the ceiling. Grab a paper bag and take deep, calming breaths. Sit down and have your significant other make you a cup of tea. And, of course, pat yourself on the back.

Meanwhile, you have an agent waiting on your reply. Perhaps she’s on the other end of the phone, or waiting for an email. What are you going to say?

Naturally, after all the rejections you’ve gotten from those *other* agents, this agent is going to stand out like a shining beacon of sense, in an ocean of unreason. This agent has shown a delicacy of taste, an ability to recognise greatness, that none of the others have displayed. So of course you’re going to take her offer, quoting Pride and Prejudice’s Jane Bennett: Yes. A thousand times, yes. Right?

Whoa, author. Slow down.

Remember that paper bag I mentioned earlier? Why don’t you reach for that again.

The first thing to remember about an agent-author relationship, is that it is a legal relationship. While we may accept the offer of representation like a dying man in the desert accepts a glass of water, it is important to remember that we’ve entered into a whole series of responsibilities and commitments that we need to be aware of.

The second thing to remember, is that in most cases you can only have one agent representing your work at a time (there are some exceptions to this, but they’re not common). This means that all your hard work, all your writerly hopes, dreams and aspirations, will be placed in the hands of this one person. Surely it’s sensible to take some time to get to know that person.

So I’ve compiled a list of questions to ask before you tell the agent “I Do”. Naturally there are many other questions you can ask, but these are the ten I think will make a good start during that all-important first conversation.

1. The Job Interview Question
Ugh. We hate it when we’re job hunting and we hate it now. It’s the “tell me a little about yourself” question. But it’s really important, because you will learn a lot about the agent that you couldn’t glean from all the internet background checks you did earlier. Here are things that the agent should be open to telling you:
·         How long she has been a literary agent
·         Which agencies she’s worked for before
·         What genres she represents
·         Other authors she represents/how many clients she has/how many books she’s sold
·         What her future career direction is
·         What she hopes to do with your novel (“sell it”, obviously; but she should be able to give you an idea of where it will be placed in the market, which countries it will sell well in, etc)

2. The “Legal Eagle” Question
Ask the agent: Do you have a written contract that we would sign?

Even today, some agencies prefer oral contracts with their authors. Others, however, choose to have written contracts so that expectations are recorded clearly and (hopefully) understood by both parties. It’s a matter of preference, of course, but you need to be comfortable with the agent’s way of doing things. It can be reassuring to have a signed contract that you can refer back to. If the agency has a written contract, you can get them to send/email it so you can read and mull over it for a few days. It is also advisable to get a legal expert to look over it.

**It is important to note that an oral contract is just as binding as a written contract: what you agree to do in an oral agreement, you must do. However, it is often harder to prove what the parties actually agreed on, and this is where troubles may arise.

3. The “Show Me The Money” Question
Yes, we’ve probably all been taught that it’s rude to discuss money, but this is a business relationship. And your agent is a professional. She knows that you may be tickled pink to get published, but that doesn’t mean you don’t care about the do-re-mi.

Ask the agent: What are her commission rates? Commission means the percentage the agent will keep from whatever advances she negotiates for selling your book, and from royalties of book sales. These will usually vary, depending on whether the sale is made in the domestic market or foreign market. As a general guideline, many agents charge about 15% for sales in the domestic market, and 20-25% in foreign markets. The higher amount is because they have a foreign agent who needs to be paid, too.

If the agent says she doesn’t want any commission, and all you need to do is pay her $1000 up front – give her a polite refusal and hang up the phone. Reputable commercial agents take commission from the sales they make; they don’t charge authors money upfront. James D. Macdonald calls this Yog’s Law: Money Flows Toward The Writer. If you’re not convinced, ask yourself this: what motivation does an agent have to sell my work if a) I’ve already paid her, and b) she won’t get any more money if she sells it to a publisher?

Unfortunately, in many cases the agent who asks for a fee upfront is a scammer. She’ll take your money and you’ll never hear from her again. Or if you do, it will all be bad news.

4. The “Hidden Costs” Question
Ask the agent: what other fees will you be charged, besides commission?

Some agencies charge fees for direct expenses like photocopying, binding, mailing, etc. It is becoming less common, because many agencies now factor these costs into the commission rate. But don’t be overly concerned if your agent says you’ll be charged these fees. Just be sure to get the following information:
·         Which costs will be covered by these fees?
·         Will you get an itemised account on a regular basis to explain these fees? Remember, you should only be paying for costs that are directly attributable to the work the agent does on your novel.

5. The “Time To Say Goodbye” Question
You might whack me about the head for saying this, Gentle Reader, but you’ll need to know what will happen if either of you wants out of the relationship. At this stage it probably seems incredibly premature to talk about ending it. But it’s important to think about these things.

Ask your agent: What is the procedure if either of us wishes to end our legal relationship? Am I/are you required to give notice about the ending of the relationship?

Also ask: If our agreement ends, what happens to the rights to my work that you have represented?

6. The “Pay Day” Question
Again with the money. You’re beginning to think it’s all I ever talk about, aren’t you? But this is really, really important. Publishers usually pay advances and royalties to your agent, who then collects her share (based on commission and any agreed fees) and passes the rest on to you. Depending on how fast the parties move, you could be waiting a long time for the money to appear in your bank account.

Ask the agent: How is money handled by your agency? How are payments made to authors? How long would I have to wait, after you receive money from the publisher, before I get paid?

7. The “Talk To Me” Question
Communication is really important. But communication can mean different things to different people. Some authors want to have weekly phone calls with their agents. Some authors are happy with the occasional informative email to keep them up to speed.

Ask the agent: How often will we communicate? By phone or email?

Also ask: How will you relay information to me about the submission process? Often the agent will base her actions on the author’s preferences. Think about whether you actually want to see all publisher rejection emails, whether you want to have a list of houses the agent will submit to, etc.

8. The “Future Projects” Question
Perhaps you’ve written your magnum opus and never intend to write another novel. But more likely you’ve got seven further works-in-progress, and a thousand more ideas buzzing about in your brain.

Ask the agent: would you be open to selling this novel as a series? Will you represent my future works in this genre? Will you represent my future works in other genres? If you are not comfortable submitting a future work in a different genre, how will we get around this? For example, the agent may ask another agent within the same agency to represent you for that project.

9. The “Full Disclosure” Question
Depending on your agent’s level of experience, you can probably rely on her good business sense and professional savvy. Let’s face it, if you knew as much about selling novels as she does, you wouldn’t really need her, would you? But most likely you still want to know what’s going on. Open a dialogue about how much you want to be/can be included in the process.

Ask the agent: Will you inform me of any and all offers? How much input will I have in the process?

10. And finally.... let’s talk about my novel
Don’t forget why the agent is offering you representation. When it comes to what works, and what doesn’t, in your novel, you want to know that you’re on the same page (bad pun intended).

Ask the agent: what do you think makes my novel stand out? What do you think I will have to change? The answer to the latter question is very important. If your agent wants you to make major changes to the novel before she begins submitting, you need to be sure you’re comfortable with these changes.

Gentle Reader, I hope this post helps to prepare you for The Phone Call. Feel free to print it out and keep a copy next to the phone (along with a paper bag, perhaps). And never be shy about asking questions – remember that a genuine, professional agent will always be open to answering an author’s questions. 

Thank you for taking the time to share your post with us Charlotte

To learn more about Charlotte Jane Ivory, you can visit her blog Steam & Ink.


  1. Very informative, Carolyn. Now I just have to find an agent to represent my book. :)

  2. Carolyn and Charlotte, you have condensed an incredible wealth of information into one great piece. Every writer should read this before submitting a query.


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