Sobel Weber Associates, Inc.

Choosing an Agent

Click here to read A Literary Agent Reads The Reviews by Nat Sobel.

In the more than 25 years since this literary agency was started, much has happened in the world of publishing. There are fewer publishers, many fewer independent booksellers and fewer editors, but more agents than ever.

Choosing an agent to represent your work is an important and serious step. If you are approached by a number of agents because of a published short story or article, how should you go about making a choice? Should it be the first one who calls or writes you? Or should you ask the agent a number of questions, and then, depending on the answers, make your choice?

Here are a number of questions that should be asked of an agent. 

How long have you been in the business?
With nearly 8000 recorded agents available, an agency that has been around for a while establishes the contacts and continuity essential to stability and growth. We have been around since the early 70's.

How many people on staff?
Many agents are one-person operations. For a writer, that means many areas of sales, such as foreign, magazines and films, cannot be covered adequately. There are five of us at S.W.A. And each one of us has a specialized area of sales as his or her responsibility.

Which publishers do you deal with?
In our years of business, we have dealt with all the major trade publishers, as well as many small independent publishers.

What special services do you offer?
In the highly competitive area of literary agenting, we like to think we are one of the best in offering writers a number of free services that few other agents provide. For one thing, we edit nearly all the manuscripts that pass through our hands, before submission to publishers, whether it is the writer’s first or third novel, a collection of stories, or a proposal for a non-fiction book. The basic editing is done in our shop. This is of growing importance, as editors change jobs or lose jobs in the current market. The writer needs to have a sounding board on which he or she can depend. We have found that less and less editing is done by editors. In fact, a whole coterie of free-lance editors has sprung up, many of them experienced editors from an earlier era. They charge for their services - we do not.

What are the services that a good agency should provide?
Aside from the initial editing process as mentioned above, we make the submissions to the most likely editors, negotiate the contracts, collect the monies, and send you the proper tax form at the end of the year. These are all basic services that any agent should perform. In addition to these, we send every client a copy of every rejection letter we receive. We think it is important that the writer get as much input as possible.

How long do you stay with a manuscript before giving up?
We have discovered that this is a very important question to ask as a number of times we have been approached by writers with books on which another agent has given up after making 3,6 or 12 submissions. If we love a book (and we only take on books we love) we have sometimes made more than 30 submissions. And sometimes sold books after 25 rejections.

How long should the submission process take?
Because of our editing commitment, we do not take on that many new writers each year. We must be able to give each book the attention it deserves. For a launch to the publishers we try to create some excitement before sending out the manuscript and generally have the book sold in one month, but we will stay with a book as long as we need to. For novels and short stories, the editing process may take longer than the selling process. And to create this buzz we have developed a system that is uniquely ours though I suspect that other agents may eventually catch on.

Should I sign a contract with an agent?
We do not ask any writer to sign a contract with us. Our philosophy is that if you are not satisfied with our representation you can leave at any time. Conversely, if we do not think your next book is publishable, we will turn it down. It’s the writer’s career that is our concern.

How aggressive are you in foreign sales or film sales?
In both areas we put a great deal of time into building such sales. We work with a number of Hollywood agents on a non-exclusive basis and split our commission with these agencies. Among films based on books that we have sold are “L.A. Confidential” and “Nobody’s Fool.”

As for foreign sales, for certain kinds of fiction and nonfiction the total foreign sales can be greater than the original American sale. To reach this market, Nat Sobel, Judith Weber and others attend the major publishing conventions. At these fairs the agency has its own table and meets with editors and co-agents from many countries. We have co-agents represent us in each of the major countries. In addition, we regularly meet with visiting foreign editors in New York, and throughout the year we prepare promotional mailings on our books for distribution to the network of foreign agents and scouts.

Whom do you represent?
Many of the writers we represent have come to us as a result of our query letters after reading a story or article in one of literary magazines we subscribe to. Richard Russo, for example, was first spotted in Mid-America Review (circulation: 500 copies). We have a wide range of interests in fiction, including: Pulitzer Prize-winners Viet Thanh Nguyen and Richard Russo; Stuart Neville; international best-seller Peter Swanson; and best-selling fantasy writer Robert Jordan, and every year we launch several talented first novelists and short story writers. Our interests in non-fiction are equally wide-ranging.

What is your commission, and do you charge any additional fees?
Our agency commission is the standard 15% on all domestic sales, including film sales. On foreign sales it is 15%, in addition to the commission of the foreign co-agent. This is still well below what publishers charge writers on foreign sales when they control world rights. We do not charge a reading fee or ask for reimbursement of expenses such as photocopying and messenger delivery. (Some agents do, so be sure to ask about this.)

Is there anything else that is special about Sobel Weber?
We are very much a hands-on agency. Because the two principals, Nat Sobel and Judith Weber, have held a number of jobs in publishing including publicity, promotion, editing, sub rights, marketing and sales and have even run two bookstores, we have a pretty good idea of how publishers think. We ask to see and have input on everything from the book jacket art to the catalog copy. We even try to come up with marketing ideas. Our job does not end with the contract signing.
We think our greatest strength is problem solving. There are too many opportunities for things to go wrong on the road to publication. Every writer, these days, needs a good problem solver in his or her corner. Believe it.

Are you a member of any agency group or listed anywhere?
We have chosen to stay independent and only list our agency in the directory of publishing, THE LITERARY MARKETPLACE. We prefer to pursue writers whose talent has attracted us, rather than be inundated with unsolicited material. This has enabled us to stay small and strong.

How available are you to clients?
A number of writers who have approached us have complained about their inability to make contact with their agent or agency. We are available to writers by phone, fax and e-mail every day. And we return all calls, quickly. Call us to chat about your work and address any questions that have not been raised in this material. Your call or letter to an agent and how he or she responds to your questions will not only tell you a good deal about the agency, but will also offer a good idea of the kind of chemistry you will have with that agent.