Asking for a Reference – or Not

Throughout my career I have occasionally heard that writers looking for an agent should ask an agent’s clients for references. My advice? Reconsider that advice.

Why Not

I don’t say this because I’m afraid of what my current clients will say to a potential client. I’m far from perfect, but I do hope that if there was a misunderstanding, we worked it out long ago so all of my clients would offer good reference should they be asked.

Rather, I say this because by the time you and I are talking seriously about representation, you should have vetted me and not feel the need to ask for any references. Asking for references is working backwards, in my view.

How References Normally Work

Think about it. When do you use references? When you are a stranger to a company, writing a resume or CV, you list references. With this document as your introduction, you approach a company where you are unknown and they need to call up previous employers to be sure you show up to work on time, and you aren’t lying about your responsibilities with them or your education, etc. By this time, your resume is likely to be one of three or four out of a stack of hundreds that has been culled. Contacting references is a matter-of-fact part of the hiring process in this scenario.

How to Find Me

Not so with a writer looking for the best match in an agent. You can find information everywhere. An Internet search I just conducted of my name yielded 24,900 results, and a search for The Steve Laube Agency yielded 116,000 results. I’m on Facebook and Twitter almost every day. And our web site is full of biographical information and hundreds of blog posts which reveal a lot. In other words, I’m not hiding.

And of course, there are other ways to find out about agents. Attend writers conferences. Join online or in-person critique groups. These will not only help you grow as a writer, but will give you a chance to connect with other writers and ask about their experiences with various agents.

What Asking Tells Me about You

An author asking for a formal reference suggests the author is:

  1. isolated and doesn’t talk to anyone in the writing industry. Ever.
  2. not connected to me in any way and hasn’t learned who I am.
  3. not on social media.
  4. a bit paranoid and could be difficult to work with down the road. (Maybe.)

Time is Money

Also consider other people’s time when you make this request. Unlike many a salaried supervisor at a company, authors work on their own time. A telephone call or email from you asking for praises or dirt on any agent interrupts the author’s day and takes away from the author’s writing time. In other words, by not doing your own research, you are costing authors money. As a working author under contract and deadline, would you appreciate having your day interrupted by a stranger who should have found out the information on her own? If you think answering a reference question won’t take at least a half hour, think again.

Current Clients

I know it’s unlikely an Internet search will yield information such as, “This agent ignores my emails.” So it’s understandable that you may want to talk to the agent’s current clients. It’s really not that hard to get authors to talk about their agents, especially to other authors seeking agents. Vetting informally through natural networking is much less off-putting than going the formal route, and will yield information that is just as good, if not better.

Happy searching!

Your turn:

How did you find your agent?

What is the main question you would ask a potential agent?


24 Responses to Asking for a Reference – or Not

  1. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 1, 2015 at 6:13 am #

    I’m thinking referrals here…which may be different from what you’re driving at…asking a writer to mention my work to her agent to garner an invited query. If I am misunderstanding the topic, I ask your pardon. (I can understand a desire to check references, though. Eight years ago I had a dreadful experience with an agent. It was a pay-for-review agency, and I didn’t understand that once they got my $125 along with the full they requested they would have nothing to do with me. My stupidity.)

    I’m still trying to find an agent, so anything I say here needs to be taken with that proviso, but here goes-

    Asking for a referral to a writer’s agent is, to me, a big no-no. I have writing friends, and a couple of them are quite prominent.

    First, it would make it look like I sought that friendship to gain back-door entry to an agency. I value friendships far more than I do any career.

    Second, it seems to me that references to one’s agent are limited coin in the writer’s pocket; she can only do that so often, and it should be her right to offer a referral, and also her right NOT to be put on the spot for one.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray October 1, 2015 at 8:21 am #

      Andrew, I was addressing an author asking an agent directly for references but you do bring up a good point. Thank you.

      I would think referral offers might stem naturally from genuine friendships. If so, great. If not, so be it.

      A client can definitely abuse the referral process. This hasn’t happened to me, but if a client were to bring me every casual acquaintance able to key in a few random words on a laptop because said client is a nice person, I would soon discern this and review accordingly.

      Even a client bringing me carefully vetted references would still experience more careful vetting from me. Ultimately, I have to make the decision about offering representation. I am obligated to ask if this would be a valuable partnership. A client referral will add weight, but for me to make automatic offers based on client referrals would be doing everyone a disservice.

      I am not picky about how an author finds me. I’m just happy when we make a great team!

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 1, 2015 at 9:18 am #

        I guess that the thought of asking an agent for references was so beyond the pale for me that I simply didn’t see it!

        Personally, I will not send a query to an agent unless I’ve had the opportunity to interact through social media. In a way I may be a special case; with some fairly serious health issues, I would not want someone I approached for a long-term professional relationship to be unaware of the potential for my early death.

        It would be a terrible thing to do, I think; to go through the query process, potentially take the agent’s time and effort in reading a partial and a full, and then dropping the information that, hey, before we sign, you may want to know this…

        I mean, it’s not something you can put in your initial query.

        And the worst thing would be withholding that information. That would seem to be quite unethical, as it could materially affect the agent’s professional life. A large part of your working capital, as an agent, is time; I would not want to put that at unknowing risk.

  2. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka October 1, 2015 at 6:32 am #

    Your points make a lot of sense. It seems like, if a writer is interested in an agent, he/she should be in the habit of visiting potential agents’ sites and learning about the agent.

    I think one question that is a good one to ask a potential agent (among many others), is how they prefer to communicate with their clients. Knowing this will ease uncertainty for a writer as he/she enters into a relationship with an agent.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray October 1, 2015 at 8:23 am #

      Yes, and I am asked this question by just about every potential client. I’m always happy to answer that I try to be extremely prompt with emails during the business week but am not shy about using the telephone when that makes more sense.

  3. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield October 1, 2015 at 7:21 am #

    Tamela, This question made me smile. I’m a consultant who works for my clients completely via email and phone. I provide in-depth substantive, teaching critiques using Word Comments balloons, notes, and emails. I bill by the hour but don’t charge for “quick questions” by email or phone. I’ve found that the one question I would like to ask them before I sign a contract to consult, but don’t, is something like, “How much personal attention will you require?” Most clients only contact me when they send me parts of their manuscripts to review and for the occasional quick technical question while they are writing. Occasionally, however, I get one who seeks almost daily encouragement and/or answers to all sorts of questions. One checked in constantly, and one day, sent more than a dozen email “quick questions” that really weren’t even quick! So based on my own context, I think my question to a potential agent would be something like, “I take constructive criticism really well (I give it for a living), and I’m not going to need much, if any, of your attention to write, edit, rewrite, or meet deadlines. Would either or both of those influence your decision to represent me?” Thanks for asking, Tamela, and I’d be very interested in how you’d answer my hypothetical question. (No ulterior motive–I don’t write in the genres you like to represent–I HAVE checked you out.) 😉

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray October 1, 2015 at 8:24 am #

      Linda, you sound very low maintenance to me. Quite ideal, really. Sure you don’t want to write a Christian romance novel? 🙂

      • Avatar
        Linda Riggs Mayfield October 1, 2015 at 5:13 pm #

        LOL! I thought I HAD written an historical romance, but at a recent conference I was told that it didn’t qualify as “romance” because my heroine was a newlywed and therefore a “married woman” ( I tried to figure out how to make that term look shocking, negative, and forbidding, but couldn’t ;-D). Hmm. Of all people who keep love and romance after marriage, shouldn’t we Christians be the models??? But what do I know? I’ve only published articles in the academic and Christian press and a newspaper column, not books. I HAVE been happily married to a wonderful man for a long time, though, so I do have a context for writing about romance. I’ll have to give some thought to writing about singles aspiring to be otherwise when I finish y current series about my poor, to-be-pitied-for-lack-of-romance, married (!) woman. then watch out– I’ll be looking for a conference you’ll be attending so I can pitch it to you. ;-D

    • Avatar
      rochellino October 1, 2015 at 10:33 am #

      Linda, I had to chuckle when I read your post. One of the companies owned by our extended family provides limousine and custom (including armored) motor coach transportation to the professional music industry (taking entertainers on tour), political campaigns, (taking candidates on tour), public corporate events, wealthy individual transportation, corporate hospitality, etc. (Haven’t done a cross country book tour yet, hmmmm.)

      Some customers know exactly what they want, when they want it, pay for it and expect delivery of services with no further contact. ON THE OTHER HAND, there is the customer/client that contacts (by phone, email or both) incessantly with questions easily answered on the company website or previously answered for them. This is not even mentioning special (really outlandish) demands to suit their particular image of themselves or their careers. In their entitled vision of their epic talent the world really does revolve around them.

      Many times they are looking for emotional encouragement (particularly new entertainers or inexperienced staffers of political campaigns). We made up a term for this and call it a “hand holding”. This consumes large blocks of unproductive time. It adds to what we lovingly call a customers unofficial “aggravation factor”.

      The business is such that a number of clients have to be declined due to capacity being sold out, particularly in prime seasons throughout the year. Once they “make a name for themselves” in the reservations dept. guess who finds themselves needing to go elsewhere due to the company being “sold out”. Its kinda like in the movie “As Good As it Gets” with Jack Nicholson (as a writer of novels no less), “go sell crazy somewhere else, we are all stocked up”. Conversely, there are customers who are a dream to work with. There is no length that the company won’t go to for them.

      Jack asking his female agent for a favor. Are there really clients like this?

      I imagine some variant of this likely applies to almost any endeavor. In reality I can’t readily think of an agent with more poise, grace and charm than Tamela to work with. Like you, I don’t write in her genre.

      • Avatar
        Linda Riggs Mayfield October 1, 2015 at 5:34 pm #

        Oh, mercy. I watched both clips and am still laughing. I have to wonder why Nicholson plays characters like that so well. Do you think he’s a little typecast because he’s not really acting very much? ;-D I think your family and I do have similar business experiences with our clients, except mine are always nice, the vast majority are extremely appreciative, and none of them are rich or famous (yet).

        • Avatar
          rochellino October 1, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

          Linda, the great preponderance of customers are a joy to work with. Its the, thankfully rather rare, narcissistic personality type that is very aptly played by Jack Nicholson in the movie clip that can be taxing on one’s patience. They are, however, many times highly entertaining. How ironic that Jack’s character is a writer.

          I could imagine a number of female (or male for that matter) agents that may have played a similar scene in real life sometime during their career. I am waiting for THE book where agent(s) tell their career stories INSIDE PUBLISHING. Whenever I think of it I always detect the sweet smell of “BESTSELLER” in the air. Can’t wait to preorder.

    • Avatar
      Sarah Bennett October 1, 2015 at 10:55 am #

      Linda, excellent question to pose to an agent. I like it’s straightforward tone.

      • Avatar
        Linda Riggs Mayfield October 1, 2015 at 2:20 pm #

        Sarah. I sincerely appreciate your compliment. I try to teach my dissertation and author clients to say exactly what they mean, as simply as possible. Being straightforward and living a fully integrated Christian life are related goals I intentionally strive to achieve (Let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay), so I’m delighted and grateful when they spill over into my writing enough for someone to notice. It’s God at work. Thank you.

      • Avatar
        Linda Riggs Mayfield October 1, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

        Thanks, Sarah! I work very intentionally at being straightforward in my life as a believer, as well as my words, and it pleases me that you saw the Lord at work in the words. I think “Speak the truth in love” and “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay” are among the Scriptural principles that directly inform a writer’s craft. I appreciate your kind comment.

      • Avatar
        Linda Riggs Mayfield October 1, 2015 at 5:23 pm #

        Oops! My computer or my eyes are having a problem. When I checked and did not see my first post saying “Thanks” I wrote another one, and when I posted it, they both appeared! Please forgive the redundancy. I did appreciate your comment! 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Nancy Merical October 1, 2015 at 7:34 am #

    While searching for an agent for the first time, I came upon The Steve Laube Agency on the web. I remembered Steve from writers’ conferences and also sent him, a few years ago, a project when he served as editor at Bethany House. His reply, although a no, was very warm and encouraging, and he gave me much information for book critiques and contacting other publishers. I also know Karen Ball from conferences and once presented a book to her. She gave my book a good critique and introduced me to a specific editor at the conference. Another no-no, but an opportunity to have my work seen. They say experience is the best teacher. I also think it is a valuable reference tool.

  5. Avatar
    Angie Dicken October 1, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    I found my agent (hee hee), after attending a couple writing conferences. I heard you speak at two workshops and really liked your knowledge about the industry. We also had an appointment at one conference which solidified that I knew we could work well together.
    I remember being a newbie to the writing world, and sending many queries to agents I knew nothing about. I am glad that I got connected to the writing community first, before signing on with a complete “stranger”! Good post, Tamela!

  6. Avatar
    Laura Christianson October 1, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    Wow, Tamela, this is a tricky one. As a business owner, whenever prospective clients contact me, I urge them to contact people who have worked with my company and to ask them what their experience was like.

    As an online marketer, I know how easy it is to present whatever persona you want on your website, blog, and social channels. If you are a slimeball, you can easily fool people into believing that you’re a person of integrity. You can even fool people you meet at conferences (I speak from personal experience of being fooled at a Christian writers conference and of knowing several others who got caught in the same trap).

    I understand your point in encouraging people to not ask you for references during an appointment. That’s not the appropriate time or place. But so many writers are petrified when they meet with agents and their brains get muddled about what to ask and what not to ask.

    My caution, as much as I hate to say it, is that there are good people and bad people in every industry, including Christian publishing. Do a thorough job of vetting every person you hire to represent you or to work on your behalf during the book publishing process.

  7. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray October 1, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    Laura, I am so sorry you and others were taken in by a trap. Surely the Holy Spirit is grieved when wolves use Christianity for their gain.

    I’ve been a literary agent since 2001 so my history is long and easy to see. However, I understand why you are skittish. In your special case, I would be inclined to ask my authors to offer references for me if that would make you more comfortable working with me.

    Each relationship I have with every author is unique, and this is a perfect illustration of that.

    Thanks for commenting.

  8. Avatar
    Natalie Monk October 1, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

    Hmm… main question. That’s difficult for me to think of, since your workshop with Steve at the ACFW conference last month answered lots of fun questions like this for me. Incredibly helpful.

    This one may not be the most important but is on my mind at the moment: What does the potential agent think about their client working with a mentor? Does the agent appreciate having a client with the added experience a mentor would bring to the table or do they prefer working with an author without an “extra voice” in the mix?

    I might also ask an agent what parts of the business they enjoy the most, what they look forward to about work every day. Not to imply they enjoy other facets of their work any less, but it would give me deeper insight into the agent’s preferences and let me know where I can improve my end of things to make working together more enjoyable.

    Along the same lines, it might be fun to know a few defining features of authors with whom the agent really enjoys working, other than being professionally courteous and meeting deadline requirements, of course. 🙂 Knowing these traits would give me insight into working with them and goals for me to strive for.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray October 2, 2015 at 5:54 am #

      Natalie, I heartily welcome authors working with mentors! In my experience, most people willing to devote the time needed to mentor a new author are industry professionals who add value. So yes, this is a plus.

      When I meet with authors and tell them I enjoy being an agent, they almost always say, “I can tell!” I’m so glad they say that! I love getting out of bed each day knowing I am privileged to have a job I love. I look forward to weekends, too, but Mondays don’t fill me with dread. I think I especially appreciate this happy situation because in the past I had one job in particular that made me really, really hate most workdays. Not fun!

      What part of being an agent do I like most? Hard to say. I do enjoy working with authors or I wouldn’t be here! The best way an author can make my job easier is to appreciate the fact that I work hard to open doors and keep those doors open. I work hard to keep up with the latest marketplace happenings and help my authors tailor their proposals accordingly, so together, we can submit projects that editors at top drawer publishing houses seriously consider. I try to make the best use of the author’s and editor’s time. An author who realizes I am working for all of us to the best of my ability is a great partner.

      Hope this helps!

      • Avatar
        Natalie Monk October 2, 2015 at 8:54 am #

        Hi, Tamela! Yes, your love for your job definitely shows in your warm smile and personality. 🙂

        Your comment about appreciating those open doors makes a lot of sense. Like passengers embarking on a cruise ship, we new authors do well to look above our own thoughts of what the industry must be like and remember there’s a captain at the helm of every successful author, constantly working to navigate him/her through deep waters.

        Thank you! This helps very much!

        • Avatar
          Natalie Monk October 2, 2015 at 8:56 am #

          *every author’s career*

          Pardon the typo/missing word. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Robert Moon October 15, 2015 at 5:39 pm #

    This is of course arrogant advice. Agents seem to see the process as one-way– research me online while I demand a bio and other info from you. Any one reputable (lawyer, real estate, literary agent) should be willing to provide a reference.

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