Just what am I getting myself into? Part VII: but what happens if an agent says yes? (After the celebration dies down, that is.)

Those are jolly images, are they not? And not a moment too soon, I suspect: after our recent determined march through some hard realities faced by writers hoping to get a book published in the current hyper-competitive literary market, I shall be devoting today’s post to a much, much happier topic: what happens after an agent decides to sign a writer to a representation contract.

Actually, let’s kick off the festivities by talking first about the offer itself. First, it will not be in any way ambiguous: few interpersonal communications in the English language are less susceptible to misinterpretation than, “I love your manuscript, and I want to represent it.” Second, a writer is under no obligation to respond to such an assertion with an equal lack of ambiguity, or even to say yes or no throughout the course of the entire conversation.

Although truth compels me to say that the most common writerly instinct is to blurt out an instant “Oh, God, YES!”

Already, I spot some hands in the air. “Um, Anne?” inquire the many, many writers shy enough to prefer communication in writing, “when you say conversation, you don’t mean that I’ll actually have to TALK to the agent of my dreams, do you? One of the reasons I chose to query by mail/e-mail, rather than by marching into a writers’ conference and giving a verbal pitch, was so I could let my pages speak for themselves, while I remained at a safe distance.”

Some agents share your preference, shy ones, when it’s a question of querying or day-to-day agent-writer communications, but in practice, it’s relatively uncommon not to have an actual conversation prior to signing. 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. This means, unfortunately, that this particular bit of good news seldom arrives in a SASE — that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the querying game, and it should be included in every mailed query packet you ever send.

Lest that scare any of you into resolving never to open a returned SASE again: other types of good news do in fact regularly arrive in them. The most common: a request for manuscript pages or a book proposal, based upon that stellar query packet.

But you’re not thinking about that SASE, are you, oh shy ones? You’re thinking about that interminable moment immediately after you pick up the phone and realize that it’s the agent of your dreams.

Why interminable, you ask? Because if you’re like most aspiring writers, you’ll be straining every nerve to prevent yourself from shouting “Oh, God, YES!” before the agent actually has time to make the offer. That’s why, if you have manuscripts out circulating amongst agents, it’s a good idea to give a little advance thought to what you might say during that conversation.

Other than…oh, you know your line by now. Unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it would be prudent to prepare for this moment.

Seriously, it’s to your advantage to have a few discussion points prepared. When the agent of your dreams calls to offer to represent your book, 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.

Another that surprisingly few writers think to ask in the moment: “What do you like best about my book?” This is not just an ego-gratifier: to an agent, this is a marketing question, an invitation to talk about target audience and why your book is likely to appeal to it. (For a few other questions you might consider asking, check out the posts under the obscurely-named WHAT TO ASK AN AGENT WHO OFFERS TO REPRESENT YOU category on the archive list at right; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list on its website.)

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!” Unfortunately, of those dozens, quite a few had manuscripts out with more than one agent at the time; as soon as they stopped being giddy, they realized that they had shouted that all-important syllable of agreement not to the agent they were convinced would be the best fit for their respective books, but simply the one who asked first to represent them.

Yes, yes, I know: it sounds like a problem that every aspiring writer would like to have. But what does that writer do a week later, when another agent calls with a similar request?

This is not the right time to inform an agent who has been reading your manuscript that another agent is considering it, by the way; trust me, it will not engender a pleasant response. If more than one agent is reading your manuscript pages or proposal, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that all of them are aware of it as soon as the situation arises.

How, you ask? How about mentioning it in the cover letter you send out with submission packet #2, and every submission thereafter? While a bread-and-butter statement like please be aware that other agents are also considering this manuscript might not win any points for originality, it will get the job done. As will simply sending an e-mail or note to Agent #1 just after you popped a requested materials in the mail to Agent #2, saying something like I just thought you would want to know that another agent is now also considering my manuscript.

Trust me, Agent #1 will want to know.

Another way you might want to occupy yourself and all of that nervous energy between submission and acceptance: doing a bit of homework on what agents actually do — and cannot do — for a writer. Most aspiring writers have only a fuzzy idea what the representation relationship entails, over and above simply selling one’s book to an editor at a publishing house. In reality, the writer-agent relationship is quite a bit more complicated than that — and the clearer your understanding of it is, the more fruitful that initial conversation with your new agent will be.

Why, here’s a brief overview of what that understanding might entail now. Who could have anticipated that?

Some things a reasonable writer should expect a reputable agent to do:

*Present the 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 the client on how to make the manuscript or book proposal more marketable to editors,

*Negotiate the terms of the publishing contract, including royalty percentages, serial rights, electronic rights, and foreign rights, as necessary and appropriate,

*After selling the book, handle all of the financial arrangements between the publisher and the writer,

*Provide both the client and the appropriate tax entities reliable and accurate statements of yearly earnings,

*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 your caller 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,

*Guarantee a certain minimum advance for the book if it sells,

*Dictate when the publisher who acquires the book will release it or speed up the publication process at will,

*Force the publisher to drop requests for manuscript revision, or

*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.

I sensed some of you squirming in your chairs as you read through those lists — 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, and one that fully deserves an answer: because every agency operates slightly differently. You actually do need to know your future agent’s — and future agency’s — quirks in order to work with them well. Don’t rely upon the agent to mention these preferences spontaneously in your initial conversation, however: remember, to the people who work within a particular agency, their way of doing things may seem so normal to them that it doesn’t call for explanation.

If asking about particulars seems a bit confrontational for a first conversation with someone you really, really want to like you, don’t worry: this isn’t a negotiation. You’re asking how this person would like to work with you, that’s all. And that’s completely appropriate, because your future agent honestly does need you to understand her process.

You will also be happier if you understand it, especially if you are lucky enough to be juggling competing offers of representation. It’s entirely possible that nice Agent #1, the one who is calling today, embraces a quite different selling strategy than that delightful Agent #2 who is still reading your submission. For instance, 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 the common nonfiction approach of submitting simultaneously to eight or ten editors. Nor is that the only possible variation from agency to agency: 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.

This is all simple factual information that you have a right to know, by the way; as long as you inquire politely, a legit agent should regard these questions as routine, both up front and after you have a copy of the representation contract in your hot little hand. It’s also factual information that is unlikely to be on the agency’s website, so asking about procedures, practices, or what the representation contract actually calls for may be the only way to find out.

At least at the point when you will be called upon to make a decision; it’s not at all uncommon for the writer to accept a representation offer without knowing all (or most) of the agency’s specific expectations about what representation would entail. Or even — brace yourself — without having seen the agency contract.

How could that happen, you gasp? Quite simply: an agent calls a writer, and the first words out of the latter’s mouth are, “Oh, God, YES.”

In case I’m being too subtle here: before you pant out those words, or any remotely similar, you can and should inquire about any part of the process you don’t understand fully. Yes, even if it’s a matter I’ve covered in this discussion, because — wait for it — every agency operates differently. (Besides, I am a writer and editor, not an attorney, so none of this should be construed as legal advice. If you have serious legal questions about the agency contract in front of you, I would urge you to consult a lawyer who specializes in such matters.)

So when the phone rings, take a nice, deep breath, reach for that list of questions you have so thoughtfully prepared, and start asking. Keep your tone respectful, please, and remember, you’re doing this to gather information, not to try to wrangle your way into better terms.

Whatever you hear, 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!”) Remember, too, that you are under no obligation to say yes or no immediately. If you have lingering questions, want some time to think about what you’re hearing, or would like to see what the other agent(s) who has your manuscript have to say after you tell them that there’s an offer on the table, it’s perfectly legitimate to put off a decision.

Or even, on the off chance that the phone rings before you’ve had a chance to work up a solid list of questions, to say, “Gee, Agent #1, I have a million things to ask you, but I’m just on my way out to a doctor’s appointment/work/my nephew’s bar mitzvah. Could we set up a time to chat at greater length?” You could then, in theory, hang up the phone, frantically do some research about the agency, and be prepared to have a productive conversation by the arranged chat time.

Speaking of questions, I sense that some of you are harboring a major one. “But Anne, if I honestly do need to know about the agency’s practices, I still don’t get why I have to ask. Shouldn’t such details be spelled out in the agency contract?”

Ah, that is a question that has long caused philosophers to scratch their heads in wonder. In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague about what the agent will actually do with the manuscript. This is generally for convenience’s sake, though, not to confuse prospective clients. Especially in the current volatile literary market, an agent may well need to change strategy in order to sell a particular book.

Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs for both parties, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get stuck permanently in an arrangement you don’t like. Since they do vary (out comes the broken record again), it’s up to you to check precisely what those terms are. Representation contracts 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.

Had I mentioned that this wasn’t a negotiation? Or that it would be prudent for you to know to what you are agreeing before you say yes?

Some contracts 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, you are going to want to know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year, for your own protection.

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, how and when your agent takes his percentage 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 the agency, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will already have the agent’s percentage deducted from it.

See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person? Or that you ask questions about anything you don’t understand in the representation contract before you even consider applying ink to it?

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 memoir takes off in Lithuania.) 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?”

Well might you wonder. Before I launch into the extensive and rather convoluted explanation required to answer that excellent question, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

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 she’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 — if you I may have mentioned, 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.

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 he shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship. To put it another way, 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. Also, the agency is 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 decided to scrap her career and follow the Dalai Lama around for a decade or two? Or, heaven forefend, died?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking.

I can only reiterate: 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?

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 or proposal to just anyone. The vast majority of agents honestly are nice people who love good writing and want to help writers –- but as in every profession, there are a few practitioners who are not as scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients as one might like. 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’m still spotting some furrowed brows out there. “But Anne, let’s assume that the conversation you mention goes swimmingly, and I do say yes. What happens after that?”

Another good question, brow-furrowers, but one that will have to remain unanswered until next time. Keep up the good work!

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