I don’t envy authors when it comes to making a decision about an agent. Sure, it’s one thing to send the queries out, but it’s an entirely different thing when multiple offers of representation come in and you have to decide which agent you think is right for you because, let’s face it, unlike dating, you don’t have weeks, months or even years to get to know this person and rarely do you have the opportunity to sit down in person. Typically the decision is made after a few phone calls and lots of thought on your part.
I’ve done multiple posts on what questions to ask and how to trust yourself and your gut, so I’m not going to get into that again. Instead I’m going to address comments I see regularly from writers who feel that you should base part of your decision of choosing an agent on how that agent responds to you prior to making an offer of representation. The biggest factor seems to be slow response times. Many writers feel that if an agent is slow to respond to queries or submissions (or responds later than a posted respond-by date) it’s a sign that she’s an agent who will also be slow to respond to clients. I disagree. I’m not sure you can judge an agent by response times at all, except when it comes to response times.
I’ve said this before, but a good agent will always prioritize clients first, and sometimes that means that submissions have to sit longer than intended. For an agent there is no such thing as a typical day. Things can be going along smoothly and neatly with all queries, client emails, and phone calls being returned regularly and in a timely manner when suddenly you’re hit with four clients who have fresh proposals or manuscripts that need to be read and responded to (often with a revision letter) or contracts that need to be negotiated and reviewed. All of this takes a lot more time than even an agent can typically expect. I’m often amazed at how much time contract reviews and revision letters take. Hopefully the agent will always put queries and submissions aside to focus on clients first.
On the other hand, an agent who always responds to submissions in a timely manner (and I stress the word "always" here) might be super organized or she might be avoiding what really needs to be done and letting client contracts, proposals, and even checks pile up while she’s busy looking for the next big thing. You might get a timely response because you submitted at just the right time, when things were quiet and she had time to get to it immediately upon its arrival. It might also be a submission she was able to look at and know instantly it wasn’t for her or it was exactly what she was looking for and she put everything else aside to read it.
What I’m trying to say is that how an agent responds to submissions is an indication of practically nothing. It simply means that you got a response. When choosing an agent I think it’s so much more important to talk to that agent’s clients to really find out how they feel about her and to base your decision on the conversation you have with her and the questions you ask. Trust your gut.
All that being said, I do think there’s one thing you can learn from an agent before “the call” is made, and that’s whether or not she’s respectful of authors in general. An agent who treats you rudely or unprofessionally or who has a reputation for unprofessional behavior will probably treat others unprofessionally, and I’m not sure that’s someone you want on your side.