The getting-a-book-published basics, part IX: the agency contract, or, what to say to an agent who offers to represent you — other than, “Yes, please.”


Today’s installment of our ongoing series is an exciting one, campers: I’m going to be talking about the happy day when an agent first tells a writer that he wants to represent her. Most aspiring writers have long fantasized about that auspicious event, but what actually happens?

Other than a monumental celebration, of course. I think it’s safe to assume that all of you can picture that part for yourselves.

Let’s back up a moment and savor the actual moment of acceptance in some detail: first, the phone rings. Although some agents do prefer to communicate by e-mail, typically, if a US-based agent is offering to represent a North America-based writer, the agent will telephone.

Why? Well, agents tend to be in a hurry pretty much all the time, and they’re used to using their powers of verbal persuasion. (Remember, most agents will assume that you will have continued to query and submit while they are considering your manuscript; for all the agent who wants you knows, you may already have other offers. Besides, the agent of your dreams will undoubtedly have a few questions for you.

This is also a great opportunity to ask a few of your own. In fact, you should.

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. (Hey, a writer likes to know these things.)

Another that you might consider blurting out right off the bat: “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! Yes! Oh, God, YES!”

So unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it might be prudent to prepare for this moment. While an agent is reviewing your manuscript or book proposal is a dandy time to work off some of your nervous how-long-must-I-wait-to-hear 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 and WHAT TO ASK AN AGENT WHO WANTS TO REPRESENT YOU categories on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list of preliminary questions on its website.

Even if you already have a fairly clear idea of what you would say during that much-anticipated phone call, please don’t put this off, thinking you can wing it when the time comes. Accepting an offer gracefully, like garnering the offer in the first place, usually requires some homework. 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.

What’s that you say, readers? You’re not entirely sure what a good agent can do for you, other than sell your book? Let’s take a gander at the full range of possibilities.

Some things a reasonable writer can (and 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.

*Help a client strategize the order and timing of working on particular projects, to maximize the agent’s ability to sell them.

All of that sound familiar and reasonable, or is the list disappointingly short for those of you who had been picturing the agent of your dreams wearing the cape and tights of a superhero? To help bring hopes into closer alignment with reality, let’s take a look at some common misconceptions about what an agent is actually capable of offering a writer.

Some things an agent cannot do for his clients:

*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 advance if the book does sell.

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

*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.

If an agent offering to represent you claims to be able to do any of the things on that second list, you should be asking plenty of follow-up questions, as well as checking the agent’s credentials with Preditors and Editors or some other credible source. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask to see a list of clients before you decide, or to request a run-down of the sales tactics the agent used to sell the last book he sold in your book category. You may even ask to speak to a couple of current clients, to see how happy they are with his representation, although naturally, few agents will send a prospective client to a dissatisfied client for a reference.

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 before the agent calls and offers to represent me, 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, as well as 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 she works, so that she can do her job well. Most agents actually prefer clients who ask intelligent questions.

And if you say nothing, many agents will simply assume that you’re already familiar with every step in the often long and complicated process of getting a book published. An interesting assumption, given that the vast majority of first-time authors are completely astonished by what occurs. So are most writers new to working with an agent.

Don’t believe me? Ask any writer who signed with his first agent six months ago. Unless his book has already sold — and it’s highly unusual for an agent to be able to sell a new client’s work that quickly — he’s going to be full of wonder about why his agent is handling the book the way she is.

So come up with a set of reasonable questions in advance, and ask them before you sign anything. 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.

I see a few more timid hands raised. “But Anne,” confrontation-haters continue to wheedle, “surely most of what I need to know will be spelled out on the agency’s website. No? Well, then won’t the agent give me some sort of hand-out, explaining how she works? No? Isn’t it even spelled out in the agency contract I’ll be signing?”

I’m sorry to report that the answer to all three questions is not necessarily. (See my earlier comment about the likelihood of agents’ assuming that writers are already aware of what will be required of both parties to the agency contract.) In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague.

Don’t let that make you tense. Trust me: the lack of specifics is generally for convenience’s sake, not to confuse prospective clients. Remember, to make this arrangement work, both parties have to hold up their end of the deal. It’s just not in a good agent’s interest that a writer not completely comprehend what he is being asked to do.

What might an agency contract require of my new agent — and of me?
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. Sometimes, a single-book contract will grant the agency the right of first refusal over the client’s next book, entitling them to see your subsequent writing before you show it to anybody else, regardless of how happy you were with how the agent handled your first project.

Read every syllable of the contract carefully before you sign; if you don’t understand any part of the contract, ask the agent. If you don’t understand the answer or anything seems fishy, take it to an attorney familiar with representation contracts.

That may seem mistrustful, but a good agent is already quite aware that what you don’t fully grasp can hurt you, contractually speaking. Some contracts, for instance, will feature 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 up front, 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 — which means what, campers?

That’s right: you must allow her to decide whether she wants to represent an additional book before you may show it to another agent. (I was just checking to see whether your eyes had glazed over while I was going over technicalities.) 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. If this section is vague in any way, start asking questions, fast.

How writers get paid for their books — and how agents get their percentage
Any money you ever earn on books sold for you by the agency will pass through the agency before it comes to you; the agency will take its cut, then mail you a check for the remainder. Paying the agent’s percentage will not be left up to the goodness of your heart and the burnings of your conscience; once 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 already have the agent’s percentage deducted from it. See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person?

Typically, in literary agencies, the agent’s percentage 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 no need to worry that asking about them up front will make you look like you’re haggling: it’s to shield you against the unhappy day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. Or for more time passing than you expected between your publisher’s cutting your royalty check and the agency’s passing along your share to you.

And no, a lower percentage for the agent 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.

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 a branch office in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it will subcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who will need to be paid 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.

I see a lot of raised hands out there, and I’m delighted to see so many of you getting in some practice, speaking up when you’ve got a question. However, you might want to lower those flailing arms; I’m out of time for today.

Hold those good questions, everyone, and keep up the good work!

4 Replies to “The getting-a-book-published basics, part IX: the agency contract, or, what to say to an agent who offers to represent you — other than, “Yes, please.””

  1. I will not hold my question! But I will wait tres patiently for an answer.

    Since I am one-half of a writerly duo (like Wonder Twins, but cuter), I have considered the question of what to do when the call comes. I could not immediately accept any offer without consulting my Twin of Wonder.

    So, do I say something to the effect of, “How wonderful that you called. I’m very excited by the prospect of working with you. I’d like to call my writing partner and tell her the good news. May we call you back at a later time once we’ve chatted?” Basically, expressing excitement, but being non-specific about an actual yes/no response.

    Then, we can get our ducks in a row and both be on the line, asking our intelligent questions.

    1. I think that’s an excellent duck-ordering response, with one caveat: if you have manuscripts out with other agents, you might not want to include I’m very excited by the prospect of working with you, since it implies a yes to the representation offer. Any agent will understand there are a few other agents looking at it, so naturally, I’ll need to let them know about your offer. It’s what the offering agent would want you to do if the situation were reversed, after all.

      But definitely, saying you want time to consult is perfectly acceptable. So is asking for time to weigh your options.

  2. So, to summarise, if I get an agent in Australia and my book is published in Australia, my Australian agent gets 15%.

    But if my Australian agent sells my book to the US or UK markets, they’ll take 20%?

    Is this right?

    1. Before I answer, may I take a moment to say: my, what a visually stunning blog you have, Icy? One of the prettiest ones I’ve seen in a long while.

      I’ve been writing about US-based agencies throughout this series (and I’m usually better about reiterating that; thanks for reminding me), so what I say will not necessarily be applicable outside the US. Offhand, I do not know whether Australian agencies consider UK or Canadian publishers foreign, but it would be surprising if US publishers were not; your best bet would be to direct the question to the Australian Literary Agents’ Association.

      Their website did not address the issue of foreign rights percentages directly, so I can’t tell you if 20% is standard there, but it did address agents’ percentages in general:

      “Most literary agents charge an agency commission on their writers’ earnings. The usual commission is around fifteen per cent, though this can vary. This applies for the life of any contract which an agent negotiates, not for the life of the author!”

      The other way to find out would be to ask an Australian agent directly, of course — but then, you’d want to do that anyway before you signed a representation contract, no? It’s not only unwise to assume that every agent in the world adheres to the same standards; it’s also unwise to assume that every agency within any given country will be set up the same way. When in doubt, check the contract AND ask.

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