Rocking THE CALL

Today, the Publishing 101 series takes a look at what happens when that query leads to a full read and the reading leads to … THE CALL.

For those of you unfamiliar with publishing-ese, “THE CALL” (usually all-caps) refers to an agent’s suggestion that (s)he and an author talk by telephone. The call usually — but not always — means the agent has decided to offer representation.

Sometimes The Call serves another purpose: the agent does not offer representation, but wants to give the author advice on what the manuscript needs to reach the mark. I’ve had this version of “The Call,” and though it always disappoints, authors should not undervalue an agent taking the time to speak in detail about the author’s work. The agent who called me (years ago) explained that my historical manuscript needed help with character development and more concrete detail – she saw my potential and wanted to help me reach it. I listened to her, worked on my prose, and appreciated her advice even though she didn’t offer representation for the work.

If you get “The Call” that isn’t … remember that the agent liked your work enough to want to help you. Be professional. Be polite. And listen.

Most of the time, however, when an agent asks to speak by phone there’s an offer of representation coming. And most of the time, an author taking the call looks more like an overexcited, weak-bladdered chihuahua than the regal lion (s)he’d like to be. Let’s face it – THE CALL is a dream come true. So how do you handle it properly?

Let’s look at some pointers for how to handle THE CALL:

1. Make a list of questions for the agent in advance. (Trust me, you won’t remember them off the top of your head when the moment comes.) Remember to ask about business issues:

Does the agent want to represent the author generally (all works) or just the single work in question?

Does the agent have a written contract (he or she should), and can you receive a copy for review?

Does the agent charge any fees aside from commissions? (The answer should be “no” or “approved expenses only.”)

Does the agent anticipate a cycle of revisions to your manuscript before sending it on submission?

Does the agent offer revisions himself or herself, or does (s)he advise authors to work with an outside editor?

There are other questions too, and I’ll post a more thorough list here later in the week. Basically, you’ll want to ask enough to get a sense of the way the agent does business – remember, this is a partnership which should last many years. Some authors prefer to work with “editorial agents” who offer lots of input. Others prefer an agent with a more hands-off approach. The key is finding the agent whose style meshes with your own and The Call is often the author’s best chance to discuss this.

2. Schedule the call for a time and place where you can focus. Don’t take this kind of important call in a Starbucks, or while waiting to pick up the kids from school. Your instincts will be screaming “DO IT NOW BEFORE THE AGENT CHANGES HER MIND” – but do not listen. Pick a time when you’ll be at your best.

3. During the call, talk, but also LISTEN. Pay attention to the agent’s style, the way (s)he speaks, the tone of voice. This is the agent’s time to learn if he or she wants to work with you – and also your chance to evaluate the agent. Many authors forget that The Call is a two-way conversation and choice is a two-way street.

4. Most importantly: Do Not Freak Out (even though you will). After The Call, you’ll probably remember a thousand things you forgot to say, wish you’d asked, or feel idiotic for saying. Totally normal. You can email the agent … your agent … with questions if you remember them after the fact. Remember to review the agent’s contract carefully before you sign. Have it reviewed by an attorney if you can.

Assuming The Call goes well – and it often does – and the agent’s style seems a good fit with your own, when The Call is over, you’ll actually have a literary agent. The thrill of stepping through that particular looking glass, and finding yourself in the Land of Represented Authors, lasts quite a while. As well it should – you’ve worked hard, you queried smartly, and you survived THE CALL.

However, The Call is not the end of the journey – in fact, it’s when the agent’s work begins. Join me next week when we look at what the agent does BEFORE your book goes on submission.