Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Signing Contracts Without an Agent

I'm about to sign a book contract with a mid-size nonfiction publisher. The book could easily sell to a larger publisher b/c of its mainstream appeal and large target audiences (and my platform). However, I am confident that this publisher knows how to sell in this area, and I'd rather have long-term sales and see my book stay in print than a big advance.

My question is: the publisher approached me and asked me to put together the proposal. I don't have an agent. Am I making a mistake doing this by myself? I would like to write other books, and do foresee having an agent in the long-run.

You have to realize that for some very obvious reasons I’m pro-agent, so it’s going to be difficult for me to ever say that you should go ahead with a book contract without an agent, and, in this case, yes, I do think you are making a mistake. Do I think you’re going to ruin your career? No, the contract is probably fine and probably won’t hamper the possibility of future book projects with other publishers. Of course, I wouldn’t know that for sure without seeing it. That being said, I have seen nonfiction authors ruin any potential career by signing contracts that basically tied them in to small or mid-sized publishers for life. Having an agent would have prevented that.

Since the publisher came to you it would be tricky to sell the book to another house; while not illegal, it is unethical. Of course, it’s also done all the time, especially if an agent feels the publisher is trying to low-ball the author. My concern here isn’t so much the fact that you are going ahead without an agent, although that is a concern, it’s what I feel are your misconceptions. There is no guarantee that a larger publisher equals a larger advance and no guarantee that a mid-sized publisher means long-term sales.

You also mentioned wanting to build a career. If that’s the case, why aren’t you getting an agent now? In other words, what are you waiting for? Building a career can happen at any time, not necessarily when you thought it would. If you are getting a book offer it sounds like you are already building that career. Do you want an agent or not? Use this offer as a way to prove your viability in the market and find an agent who will help guide your publishing career from day one rather than one who has to come in and tidy things up and then build it, possibly from scratch.

Whatever you decide, congratulations and good luck!



Shaun Carney said...

If you decide to go without an agent, then for your own protection, at least have an attorney look over the contract to make sure you are not binding yourself to something you will want to get out of later.


ChristaCarol Jones said...

Good advice Shaun. But I agree, I could be wrong in my assumptions, but wouldn't almost be easier to find an agent when you already have an offer on the table from a publisher?

Mark Terry said...

In my somewhat limited experience, book contracts are mine fields. And any number of authors--Tom Clancy, Tony Hillerman, for example--have had to go back and fight publishing houses over some minor-seeming clause that tried to tie up the rights to characters or work forever... get an agent. It's definitely worth the 15%.

Kate Douglas said...

After reading the contracts I've been offered, there is absolutely no way I'd sign one without an agent or at least an attorney familiar with the terms to explain it for me. Things that might appear totally innocuous can come back and bite you in the butt.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious to know if the author already tried to find an agent.

This reminds me of one of the rants last week. Authors are passed over by agents who later want to represent them AFTER they land the book deals themselves. The authors feel like the agents are only interested in the easy money. Otherwise, they would have recognized their books' potential when they originally queried.

Anonymous said...

I hear you anon 11:08. Might appear like the agent is looking for the easy money. But keep in mind the agent would actually be working -- negotiating a (much) more favorable contract than the publisher originally offered and sending the ms to other publishers etc. He/she'd negotiate all those "hidden" clauses other posters have mentioned would. The agent is not just looking out for this specific book either -- he/she's looks at the clauses in the initial contract that mention subsequant books etc, and negoitiates accordingly.

I know I've seen posts on this blog (and others) before about attorneys vs. agents. Gotta say I'm pro-agent (full disclosure --I have one) and nothing against attorneys, but if they are not in the industry day-to-day the way agents are, they are not the best route.

I'm sure the author would also trust his/her gut --- any conversation that the author has with the prospective agent will give the author a good idea of whether or not the agent is simply in it for the "easy money" or has the authors interests at heart. The author should go with agent that gives them the best "vibe", has the best rapport, thinks future writing path etc. All IMHO, of course!


Sookie said...

I think it's a terrible mistake to navigate the literary world without an agent.

If you want to know the truth, negotiating contracts sends chills up my spine. I'd rather leave that job to the experts and get back to writing cozy mysteries.

Funny thing, my characters seem so brave. Isn't fiction great!

Shaun Carney said...

I wasn't advocating atty. over agent. On the contrary, I agree, an agent is best, especially (as mentioned previously) to get you the best deal possible. An agent will know the deals that are being signed in similar fields/genres and will know if you are getting a good deal, fair deal, or the short end.

An attorney won't necessarily know these same things, but can explain the contract to you in plain language. Any attorney with experience in contract law can do that. My comment earlier was, if you are going it alone (not that I recommend it), at least protect your future and have the attorney explain the contract to you.

Anonymous said...

"I'm about to sign a book contract with a mid-size nonfiction publisher. The book could easily sell to a larger publisher b/c of its mainstream appeal and large target audiences (and my platform)."

At the risk of sounding too honest, I don't quite get this at all. I don't know anything about selling non-fiction, but it seems like something is missing here. How does this person know it can sell to a larger publisher? How many agents were contacted so they could sell it to a larger publisher? How many times has it been rejected? If the platform is so good we've probably heard of this person already, so why waste time with a "mid-sized" publisher? I really don't get this one.

Anonymous said...

As good as you and some other agents are, I don't think a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate here. Some people in the non-fiction field operate at a pretty rarified level and know what their expertise is worth. For them, an attorney and/or a publicist is more appropriate than an agent. For others, an agent is certainly the way to go.

For the record, in my own situation, I'd be inclined to seek an agent.

Anonymous said...

Good topic. i doubt it's an issue of agents having to do little work for a pub deal.

For my nonfiction I've twice now been asked to rewrite or write additional material other than sample chaps included w/ proposal - so that the agents can get a better feel for my voice/style. I have to admit that, despite the fact that I did the work without representation, it was a terrific exercise in tightening my writing and polishing my voice.

The best part is that they're interested in requesting more (and that they're still considering the work!).

Nancy Beck said...

at least have an attorney look over the contract

And make sure it's a lawyer who's familiar with publishing contracts - because publishing contracts are weird, specialized animals (that is, you need someone with that particular specialization).

You might also want to check out Kristin Nelson's blog:

She did an entire series of what an agent looks at when looking over a contract. True, it's geared towards fiction, but it might give the writer an idea of what to look for in the contract she/he's offered (or make her/him decide to get an agent instead!).

Either way, good luck! :-)

Julie Weathers said...

This makes me cringe.

I was in real estate for a while and I don't know how many times I had people come to me after the fact to "fix" contracts they drew up. Saving the X% sounds good, but it can be very costly in the long run.

I wouldn't even sell my own house. That extra layer of objectivity is very important.

This is the perfect time to find a good agent to represent your interests. Let them take care of the business and you focus on the writing.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

I hired an attorney to work on my novel contract. I would have said "review," but it was a lot more work than that. But after three unusual agent experiences (read that any way), and waiting sixteen months for a rejection once, I wanted to get the deal done. It got done. The book comes out October 1.

ryan field said...

Lorelei Armstrong said,"But after three unusual agent experiences (read that any way), and waiting sixteen months for a rejection once, I wanted to get the deal done."

Sorry to hear about your "unusual experiences" but I had to comment because this month I've had three very peculiar experiences with agents, too. Are there more of us out there? We should start our own blog :)

Lorelei Armstrong said...

There's an idea...

But I have now gone from three agents who would never submit my work anywhere to heading to the BEA Saturday with my publisher.

This is better.

Ellen Guon said...

I didn't use an agent for the contract on one novel, but that was an unusual circumstance... fourth novel in a series, with the same publisher I'd published with before. It worked out very well. But, again, an unusual situation.

Kitty said...

This post reminded of what Lori Perkins posted the other day:
We also sat in on the agent panel at the conference, where I learned that the best-seller YOU'LL NEVER NANNY IN THIS TOWN AGAIN was a self-published book that sold in auction to a major house.


Picks by Pat said...

Having an agent is definitely an advantage when dealing with publishers. However, getting a book offer did not seem to help in my search.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

I'm the person who sent the original question. As an update, an agent contacted me this afternoon saying she was interested in representing a book if I was interested in writing one.

I'd heard the advice that if you want to write nonfiction books, you should get out that and do really good work in a really visible way. Then, wait for the offers and interest to come to you. That's basically what I've done, and so far it's working out.

I'm not sure what I'll do, but I'm glad I put in the effort to build my platform.