The agency contract, Part III: double indemnity?

When last we spoke – electronically, that is – I was waxing poetic about the need to take a close gander at an agency contract before you sign it, to prevent unpleasant surprises down the line. (I know, I know: we should all have such problems. But by preparing you for them now, my hope is that you will be a happier camper in years to come. Or sooner, if you’re lucky.)

While you are looking over the contract, check to see whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. 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?

My friend May, for example, found out too late that her contract was with her agent, not her agency: amazingly enough, no one filled her in on the possibility until after her agent had actually passed away.

Something of a surprise, as you may imagine; May hadn’t even known that she was sick. (After you’ve hung out around represented writers for awhile, you will start to notice how often authors are NOT informed about illness, imminent life or career changes, or sometimes even the firing of their agents and editors. We writers always seem to be the last to know.)

May was very sorry, of course, because she had liked her agent very much, but it never occurred to her that she no longer had representation. Until she received a letter from the agency, a couple of weeks later. Seems that the agency had hired a replacement agent – who did not represent May’s kind of work. So sorry; best of luck elsewhere.

No offer to help her find another agent, nothing. Just goodbye and good luck. Incredulous, May checked her contract and, sure enough, she hadn’t signed with the agency at all, only her late agent. She was back on the querying junket again.

Why the distinction? Well, it actually has more to do with the internal structure of the agency than your agent’s relationship with you — or any other writer, for that matter. 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. (May’s contract was the former.)

And 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?

My friend Katherine, one of the most talented writers I know, was thrown for an unexpected loop by such a move, and at least in the short run, her book’s marketing prospects suffered for it. Her contract left the issue a bit ambiguous, specifying that Katherine would be represented by Agent X AT Agency Y. So when Agent X, without any advance warning, suddenly decided to leave Agency Y to start her own agency, Katherine actually had a hard time learning whether she was still represented at all.

Remember what I said earlier about the writer’s always being the last to know?

And, to make the situation worse, at the time, a respectable number of editors at major publishing houses had their hot little hands on Katherine’s excellent book. Naturally, she did everything, short of turning up on the doorstep of her NYC agency, to find out what was going on with her contract.

After several highly frustrating weeks of telephone and e-mail tag, she learned that she had only three options: break her contract and sign a new agency agreement with Agency Y, but be assigned to a new agent whom she did not know (and about whom they would tell her nothing); break her contract and sign with Agent X in her new agency, or break her contract and seek representation somewhere else.

While the book was still out with editors. No matter what, her old contract was more or less defunct. Through absolutely no fault of Katherine’s.

Since, like so many of us, Katherine had spent years upon years seeking the perfect agent for her work, none of these possibilities seemed particularly appetizing to her. Option 1 would involve leaving a well-established agency for a brand-new one (which generally means living through months of office-transition disorganization); Option 2 would leave her and her book orphaned until someone at her agency decided to pick her up. And, since she had long experience with querying, Option 3 sounded a lot like putting her hand in a meat grinder for fun. She ended up following her agent – which, if her contract had not been ambiguous, is probably precisely what would have happened anyway.

My point is, unexpected things can happen. If you understand your contract, you will be much better prepared to deal with emergencies as they arise. Again: ask.

I shall wind up my series on agency contracts tomorrow, but in the meantime, a heads-up to those of you who have material out with important agents and/or editors at the moment: the Frankfurter Buchmesse – that’s the Frankfurt Book Fair to those of us stateside – has just ended, which may well mean that the agent or editor who should be reading your manuscript is either on a plane or abroad at the moment. A hefty proportion of the industry’s heavy hitters attend, often grabbing European vacation time on either end.

As a result, guess what piles up on NYC desks every October?

What this could mean for you: a slower response time than usual, in an industry already notorious for slow response times. Don’t panic; I assure you, the delay is not about you or your writing. Sit tight.

And keep up the good work!

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