The agency contract, Part II

Yesterday, I started talking about the importance of understanding an agency contract before you sign it — and, indeed, of learning as much as you can about an agency before getting involved with it. Yes, I know: this reads as though I am talking about dating, and in a sense, I am. During the querying process, you are sending your book out on a series of close-to-blind dates, hoping to it will attract an agent. But not every agent is marriage material, if you catch my drift; writer-agent divorces are more common than you might think, usually on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.

Unagented writers don’t seem to talk, or even think, about this possibility much — after so much rejection, anyone who says yes to you can start to look pretty darned good — but let me assure you, amongst agented writers, the differentials between what we had expected our agents to do for us (send our work out promptly, for instance, or return phone calls within a month) and what they have actually done is a CONSTANT source of animated discussion.

My agent, of course, is a treat and a joy and a pleasure. Seriously, she is — and when a client writer can say that with such assurance in the middle of a fairly hair-raising revision on a tight deadline, it may safely be believed. Maybe I just have an unusually affectionate disposition toward people who make efforts on my books’ behalf, but I have to say, amongst the agents of my kith and kin (who are legion and literarily prolific, I am happy to report), my experience with my agent does seem to be a bit, well, anomalous.

I attribute this partially to the fact that writers are very often isolated from one another. If you don’t know another agented writer to ask, how are you going to know what is and isn’t normal in writer-agent relations? (Yet another terrific reason to join a writer’s group, eh?) For instance, it is not at all uncommon for an agent to be very slow — as in months — in getting a contract to a new client. I’ve known writers to be represented contract-less for a year or more.

Is this an indication that the agent who was wild to represent them a few months ago has cooled off? Not usually — but that is of course the first conclusion the writer tends to draw. Most of the time, agents who do this are just disorganized about something which is to them a rather low priority; from their point of view, all that’s important is that you have given them the right to represent your work, and that they have a signed contract with you before you sign a contract with a publisher. Since the signing with agent to signing with publisher time is often lengthy, what’s the rush?

Yet again, we see proof that writers’ sense of urgency (“I must overnight my manuscript!” or “I must make all of the revisions my agent wants by a week from Tuesday!”) does not always correspond with their agents’ (“I’ll send out that contract today…What do you mean, I said that five weeks ago?”) Moral of the story: try not to jump to the worst possible conclusions right away.

The result of this difference in urgency perception is often, alas, some pretty slow agency contract delivery times. Should this happen to you, go ahead and ask for it, if necessary once per month: believe it or not, agents sometimes think it’s been mailed out when it hasn’t.

The other reason that writers end up dissatisfied with their agents, I suspect, is that writers often do not have a firm grasp of either their new agencies’ policies, their agent’s expectations, and/or the provisions of their contracts before they sign. In the white heat of excitement over SOMEONE in the biz loving one’s work, it’s often hard to come up with good questions to ask.

Especially if you have not yet seen the agency contract. It’s in the mail, really.

This is definitely an arena where it is ENTIRELY appropriate to ask what-if questions, ESPECIALLY if you do not have a contract in hand. You will want to know about the normal MO of the agency — commission percentages, length of contract, how they submit to publishers, etc. — but try to work in a question or two about who your contact person will be OTHER than your agent. An assistant? The agency’s principal? The office tabby cat?

Why is this important? Well, if something happens to your agent — a leave of absence, an accident, a move to another agency, or even just not being in the office when a crucial call from an editor comes — the agency will be handling your interests. So you don’t just need to trust your agent — you need to trust your agency as well.

How might this affect you and your work? Well, put on your jammies, boys and girls: it’s story time.

I had been signed with my wonderful, amazing, devoted agent for less than six months when she had a baby. Miracle that she is, she managed to sell my book AND another client’s practically as they wheeled her off to the delivery room, but for some months, it looked very likely that the contract negotiations for my memoir might end up being handled by another agent. As it turned out, another agent held my hand during the rather nerve-wracking period between contract-signing and book delivery — which, in my case, was only about two months.

I think it’s safe to say that I was not always perfectly happy and level-headed during that intensely stressful period. I was lucky that I had been temporarily reassigned by my agency to a delightfully patient and kind listener.

More seriously, I was also still under the care of my interim agent when the first lawsuit threat came. (It came in waves, one in early July, followed by much silence, then another in early September, and a third the following March. Different allegations about the book each time, I might add, and none textually-based.) If my agency were not full of very competent, very supportive people, I might have been left to face the threat unadvised. Having known other writers who have had to deal with lawsuits over their memoirs (hey, I get around) without the help of an agent, I feel very, very fortunate.

And VERY glad that that I read my agency contract very well before I signed it, so I felt secure about the agency that would be taking care of me. Because, as it turns out, this was not a one-time phenomenon: I have a novel teetering on the brink of a sale now (see my post for September 30th, if you missed the big news), and my agent’s second child is due in roughly two and a half months. She and I seem to be on a similarly prolific timetable.

What might have happened, had my agency not been well prepared for this contingency? Let me tell you the story of my friend Lois, a writer of literary fiction. After a year and a half of quite cordial interactions, Lois’ agent just stopped answering her e-mails one day; returned phone calls became a thing of the past. And because Lois was, like so many writers, long trained in assuming that any silence must have something to do with the quality of the book, she naturally fell into hyper-revising mode. Yet when she meekly submitted a new version of her novel, she STILL heard nothing.

“Have I offended my agent somehow?” Lois wondered. After wondering about it for a couple of weeks, she concluded that she must have. She sent a formal (if vague) apology. Still no word.

Weeks dragged on into months, and after three, Lois had had enough. She called the main number for the agency, and demanded to know how she could terminate her contract with the agent. (She had not read her contract closely enough to have that information already, you see. But you know better than that.)

“Wait,” the astonished receptionist told her, “didn’t anybody tell you? She had to have emergency surgery. Poor thing, she’s been in physical therapy for months.”

Of course, Lois felt really small, but actually, I think that the agency should have been the ones apologizing. That many months sans agent, and the agency hadn’t thought to notify her CLIENTS? A quarter of a year can feel like a lifetime to an author whose book is being circulated.

Dear me, I got so carried away with my examples that I haven’t left room to write about contract specifics, so that will be the task of another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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