This photo looks as if the tulip were growing inside an aquarium, doesn’t it? Not so: there actually are that many different colors of stone shards in my yard at the moment. (The WWL is noted for uncanny ability to pulverize seemingly solid rock.)
It’s my first tulip of the year, a good month later than usual, due no doubt to the unusually late snow. (As in a few days ago.) Oh, sure, I’ve enjoyed some minor dalliance with an early daffodil or two, and my snowdrops lost their reputation a month and a half ago, but this is the first honest-to-goodness tulip. This brave little bloom seemed like a great emblem of my topic du jour, which is all about new beginnings: what happens after an agent decides to sign a writer to a contract.
After the celebration dies down, that is.
Wait — let’s back up a moment and savor the moment of the author. Typically, if a US-based agent is offering to represent a North America-based writer, the agent will telephone, rather than send a letter or e-mail. (Agents tend to be in a hurry pretty much all the time.) She will undoubtedly have a few questions for you, so you should feel free to ask a few of your own.
To pull one at random out of thin air: “How are you planning to go about trying to sell this book, and to whom?” This is likely to elicit important information, such as whether the book category you selected for your manuscript or proposal was a good fit.
Another that you might consider blurting out: “Are you going to want any changes to the manuscript/book proposal before you start sending it out to editors?” The answer will almost certainly be yes, incidentally, but at least you will have broached the issue politely yourself, rather than having it come as the intense surprise it generally is to those new to the agent-having experience.
If these sound like far more intelligent questions than are at all likely to occur to someone totally overcome with joy, well, you’re right: I know literally dozens of now-agented writers who were able to stammer out little more than a well-nigh-incoherent, “Yes!”
So unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it would be prudent to prepare for this moment. (Oh, and in case I forgot to mention earlier in this series, this is not the right time to inform an agent who has been reading your manuscript that another agent is considering it, too; it will not engender a pleasant response. For tips on handling requests for materials so you never need to find yourself in a position to make such a shame-faced confession, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)
While an agent is reviewing your manuscript or book proposal, work off some of your nervous wait-time energy by coming up with a written list of what you want to know. You’ll find a few suggestions in the posts under the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT category; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list on its website.
Even if you already have a fairly clear idea of what you would say when that much-anticipated phone call comes, I would strenuously recommend that anyone who might be in a position to be on the receiving end of one anytime soon — like, for instance, a writer who has just popped a submission packet into the mail — check out either these posts or another reputable source prior to having a conversation about one’s work with an agent, if only to clarify in one’s mind what an agent can and cannot do for a writer.
Some things a reasonable writer should expect a reputable agent to do:
*Present a client’s manuscript and/or book proposal to editors at large and medium-sized publishing houses (even if a writer has more than one book ready to go, most agents will prefer to work on only one at a time),
*Advise a client on how to make the manuscript or book proposal more marketable,
*After selling the book, handle all of the financial arrangements between the publisher and the writer,
*Act as the client’s advocate in any subsequent disputes with the publishing house, and
*Serve as a sounding board about future book projects’ marketability.
Some things an agent cannot do (and you should start asking many, many questions if he says he can):
*Guarantee in advance that he will be able to sell a particular book to a publisher,
*Guarantee that he will be able to sell a particular book to a particular publisher,
*Dictate when the publisher who acquires the book will release it or speed up the publication process at will,
*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.
I can sense some of you squirming in your chairs — you’re not completely comfortable with the notion of cross-examining someone offering to represent your work, are you? “What if I do my homework really, really well, Anne?” I hear some of you wheedling. “If I quadruple-check in advance that the agent is legit, why will I need to ask questions at all?”
Excellent question, seated squirmers: because every agency operates slightly differently.
For instance, a very well-known agent or one at a very large agency might have a junior associate act as a first-time author’s primary contact, rather than the agent himself. (For a comparison of how large and small agencies can operate differently, please see this archived post and this one.) Some novel-representing agents prefer to approach editors one at a time, giving each a nice, long look at a manuscript (and a chance to reject it) before moving on to the next, while others favor submitting simultaneously to eight or ten editors.
If asking about such things seems a bit confrontational for a first conversation with someone you really, really want to like you, don’t worry: your agent honestly does need you to understand how her process works. As long as you don’t take umbrage at any particular piece of news and try to argue about it (“What do you mean, a royalty of 20% for foreign sales is standard? I challenge you to a duel, sir!”), this is all simple factual information that you have a right to know.
Which has long caused philosophers to ponder why all such details are not necessarily spelled out in the agency contract. In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague.
Trust me: this is generally for convenience’s sake, not to confuse prospective clients. Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs for both parties, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get permanently stuck in an arrangement you don’t like.
In fact, representation clients tend to be rather short-term, specifying that the agent will either handle the entire selling process for a single book or all of the client’s work a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, incidentally, not the author. Some contracts, however, have a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year.
Find out which, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year.
If you are planning to write more than one book (or already have), do be sure before you sign a per-project contract that your agent is at least willing to consider representing everything you want to write. A time-based contract minimizes this concern, but do be aware that often means that the agent has right of first refusal over everything a client writes during the agreed-upon period — i.e., you must allow her to decide whether she wants to represent an additional book before you may show it to another agent. So either way, writers with many projects going at once will want to make absolutely certain to ask about future projects.
The agency contract will also specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. Typically, in literary agencies, the cut is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%.
These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so you will not asking about them up front and/or examining your contract in order to gain haggling ammunition: it’s to prepare you for the day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. And no, a lower percentage does not usually mean a better deal for the author – it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.
Just so you know, the timing cutting the check for the agent’s cut will not be left up to the goodness of your heart and the burnings of your conscience. If you are represented by an agent, he will see to it that your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will automatically have the agent’s percentage deducted from it.
See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person?
Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my novel takes off in Lithuanian.) The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has an outpost in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it will subcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who take their cut as well.
So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.
“Um, Anne?” I hear a small, confused chorus out there piping. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”
Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convoluted explanation.
Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.
Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes: from the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America, those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. Of the three, only those in the first category are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales.
There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense…
So, perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Before you laugh out loud, I should tell you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. (Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.)
This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales – it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author.
Why? Well, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this discussion seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)
I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after he’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort all of this out later?”
Well, of course you could — and truth compels me to say that most aspiring writers just blurt out “Oh, God, YES!” before finding out anything about the terms to which they’re agreeing at all. I can completely understand this, even if I deplore it: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent YOU.
Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything nefarious. As I mentioned above, agents move from one agency to another all the time (if this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent; either is possible), and it’s not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts.
This is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. Then pick up that piece of paper, get yourself to a telephone, and start asking.
If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent (as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements), do make a point of asking the agent for a brief overview of its major points. Again, it’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.
Because, you see, by being cautious, you’re not calling the agent’s integrity into question, but making sure you know precisely what she is proposing that you do together. After all, the agent almost certainly will not have been the person who wrote the contract; the agency will have an established boilerplate. Naturally, it is in an honest agent’s best interest for a prospective client to understand the contract-to-be well enough to abide by its provisions.
Allow me to repeat something I dropped into the middle of that last paragraph, because it comes as news to a lot of newly-agented writers: unless your future agent happens to own the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship. The agent who is being so nice to you on the phone may not be the only agency employee who will be dealing with your work.
What might other people’s involvement entail? Well, among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.
Remember, your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to your agency, not to you personally. (I talked a bit earlier in this series about how writers get paid for their work, but for a more in-depth examination, please see the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the list at right.) If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours – and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically. And the agency is also going to be responsible not only for keeping the government informed about all of these transactions, but also preparing those messily-carboned royalty forms that you will be submitting with your taxes.
That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it?
Did I just hear a giant collective gasp out there? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but many authors never meet their agents in person; it’s not as though the agency will fly a prospective client from California to New York just to get acquainted. Since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, face-to-face contact is seldom necessary.
The result? Well, it’s not a scientific sample, of course, but I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)
Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous. (Which you already know that no agent cannot legitimately promise up front, right?) So perversely, while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially INCREASE the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road.
Do find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. As I mentioned in passing above, agents move around all the time, and some agencies can have pretty short lifespans.
If your agent retired, for instance, would you still be represented? What about if your agent started an agency of her own? Or, heaven forefend, died or decided to scrap her career and follow the Dalai Lama around for a decade or two?
Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking.
Again, agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.
Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not. If your agent has a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that this is a contractual arrangement that may affect your life pretty profoundly?
Be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing, but you should definitely talk to a lawyer before you attempt anything so zany), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 3-plus years, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established. Protect yourself.
Do assume, however, that you may never see another copy of the contract again after you sign it. Make yourself a photocopy — yes, even before the agent has countersigned it — so you may refer to it later.
I know that this post has occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors, but I am only trying to get you to put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript to just anyone. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers – but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us all to be cautious.
Please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you.
I had meant to get to what agents do with manuscripts after the contract is signed, but I seem to have run long. It will have to be a topic for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!