Thursday, April 29, 2010

Author-Agent Agreements

What if a writer on her own gets offered a contract from a small or university press with little or no advance? And what if that writer wants to protect her rights by having an agent look over the contract? Would an agent then agree to taking a small fee from the writer (if the writer wasn't offered an advance)? Would an agent then also agree to represent that writer with any foreign/film/subsidiary rights?

Since there are no real “rules” when it comes to author representation, anything is possible. If you find yourself in this situation and would like an agent to represent you, I don’t think it would hurt to ask the agents you’re interested in, those who are presumably interested in your book along with the small press, if they would take a deal like this. That being said, I think you’re really selling yourself short, and your career short, by doing something like this.

This is one of those questions that reminds me how narrowly many authors see any agent’s job. When querying and submitting to agents it’s easy to focus on the next step (finding an agent so you can submit to publishers) and to forget the bigger picture. If you get an offer from a smaller press you have the opportunity to find an agent who can use that offer for bigger things. Why would you find an agent and pay a flat fee to negotiate a contract when you could offer a standard commission deal and have the agent submit that book to the major New York publishers, possibly turning that small press deal into a big press, bigger deal? Sure, it’s possible the agent won’t sell it to a bigger house, but remember, submitting your book is networking. Maybe an editor she sends it to will love your writing, and while she doesn’t feel she can offer on that book you’ve made a connection, she’s now watching your career, and, since you already have an agent, you’re ready to go with your next project, which you and your agent will already be working toward.

Getting an agent should be about a lot more than submitting your book or negotiating a contract. It should be one step toward building a career, and hopefully that’s the way you’ll want to treat it. Wouldn’t you rather sign an agent on commission to build a career than treat her like a one-book trick? By paying her a fee rather than commission you aren’t asking an agent to sign on for your career, you're simply asking her to do one task. I also think that by giving the agent an interest in your book and future sales you make her more invested in you as the author.

And last, if you’re trying to get off cheap and you’re getting little to no advance, you could actually pay the agent less by paying commission than you would by paying a “small fee.”



Kimber Li said...

"If you get an offer from a smaller press you have the opportunity to find an agent who can use that offer for bigger things."

None of this is obvious to me as an aspiring author. I think there is a disconnect in communication.

When I query an agent, I assume she never wants to hear from me again on that project if she rejects. So, why would I ask her about a Small Press deal? Or even if a Big Press offers and I need an agent? She didn't like it before, so why would she like it now? Aren't we told to find an agent who loves the story as well as the money?

Besides, we're always told how agents are doing this for the money and there's very little money in Small Press. So, how would I know she might want to take it on to get a bigger deal with a bigger press?

Unless you told me.

Which you just did.

Had no idea.


Anonymous said...

Kimber, I have to agree with you here.

I spent years querying agents, who often asked for partials, others requested a full, only to come back with 'you write well, but I'm not enthusiastic enough about your story...' Then, after a writer friend insisted I directly query publishers, I was offered a contract straight away by a small press.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful today, just what has been on my mind...thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by this line:

"possibly turning that small press deal into a big press, bigger deal"

Are you saying an agent would submit to bigger presses and make the small press wait? Or even turn the small press down all together for the chance of a big press? Or if you publish with the small press, an agent can still submit and make a deal with a big press regardless of first publishing rights?

Could you please explain...

Thanks, PLJ

Anonymous said...

My understanding has always been that agents aren't interested in negotiating small-press contracts. Which is probably why this writer asked the question about simply paying a fee to an agent for contract help.

I know several writers who were able to secure small-press deals--some after an unsuccessful agent search, some because they knew their book was better suited for a smaller press. Those writers then tried to approach agents, figuring a deal in hand would open some doors. Nope. The advances were simply too small to be worth the agents' time. (And I don't say this with any snark. It's a business reality.)

I think this writer asked an excellent question, and I wonder if a lawyer who specializes in publishing contracts would be the best route in this case--presuming the writer has already queried the heck out of the book.

Suzan Harden said...

This is one of those no-perfect answer questions.

To the questioner: If you have your heart set on publishing with this small press and only want an extra pair of eyes on the contract, contact a literary rights attorney.

That said, I have to agree with Jessica. What's your long-time goal, and will a (what sounds like) one-shot deal move you along on the path that will get you to your goal?

The Swivet said...

I think it becomes a problem only when the author has formally accepted the small press offer. Once you've accepted, it looks very bad for an agent to come in and take it away. But if you get an offer and you say you need to think about it, and then look for an agent, you may be doing yourself a service. I took an offer that a writer had gotten from a small press and sold the book at auction to a very large publisher.

But I think perhaps what is left unsaid here is that it has to be a.) a project that the agent likes and b.) a project that the agent thinks actually has potential outside of the small press. Not all do.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Jessica, please elaborate on Anon 11:27's question about this line:

"possibly turning that small press deal into a big press, bigger deal"

thanks so much

Bernita said...

"When I query an agent, I assume she never wants to hear from me again on that project if she rejects. So, why would I ask her about a Small Press deal? Or even if a Big Press offers and I need an agent? She didn't like it before, so why would she like it now? Aren't we told to find an agent who loves the story as well as the money?"

Kimber An, I think it might depend at what stage the agent rejected an MS.
On a full, I agree, but at the query stage and agent might reconsider ( poor query, bad day, etc.)

Kristin Laughtin said...

Kimber (et al.), I think in this case the author did not query agents, but went straight to the publisher and got the offer. Thus, the agent never rejected the project--the agent's never even seen it. From what I understand, this isn't that uncommon in the academic presses, and happens occasionally in fiction as well (you know, that *one* author who's pulled from the slush pile at some publishing house, where the manuscript sat in a stack to the ceiling...).

That said, I basically agree with what Suzan Harden and Colleen Lindsay said.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


I did a quick search of the archives because I assumed that was something I had previously covered. Doesn't look like it. I'll answer briefly here, but I'm also putting your question in my queue for a later post.

Yes, what I'm saying is that the agent could very likely submit to larger presses and make the small press wait, assuming you haven't accepted the offer and have followed the advice of my other posts on how to find an agent when you have a publishing offer in hand.


Stephanie McGee said...

Interesting question and post. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I am an editor at a medium sized press,and any agent or writer who uses my offer to "leverage" someplace else is immediately dismissed and the offer withdrawn. In this case, I think this blog is giving poor advice to writers, especially in these hard times.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 5:32:

There are many ways that business is done and I think suggesting that authors need to take whatever offer they have, no matter what, or fear the consequences is unfair.

There are also, as you know, many ways to make a great deal. More then once I've taken a deal from a smaller or medium size publisher (whatever that means) over the deal from a larger publisher for more money because of what the smaller publisher had to offer (more enthusiasm being the biggest).

It is in the author's best interest to explore all options, not necessarily as leverage, but to build the best career. It's never in anyone's interest to take a deal simply because someone threatens to pull it.


Kimber Li said...

I don't know about the rest of yas, but this is scary. I wonder how often agents and editors look at things from the aspiring authors' point of view.

We spend many months, or years, toiling away on our novels, researching, revising, Tendonitis, all the while knowing ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine percent of the time when our query shows up it's going to take all of *two seconds* for the agent/editor to go, "What? No (insert trend here)? It'll never sell." And hit the delete button. (God bless agents who respond, regardless.) This can go on for years and many novels. We gradually move up the scale, requests for Partials, then Fulls, Personal Feedback, and then one glorious day we get an offer.

And then stuff like this happens.

I haven't gotten this far, but I can see how an author who has would just sit down and cry. And then grab the deal and run and to heck with the politics. More money? So the heck what? Publication finally after all that heck!

I can only imagine the stress.

Ericka Scott said...

As an aspiring author with my eye on NY, every book I write is sent "down the chain". I query the heck out of agents, then submit to mid-sized publishers that don't require agents, then move to small press. By the time I had the small press offer, I took it and ran. I know an agent that will review the contract but it's $250 and the advance I'm getting from the publisher is no where near that (sigh). Yes, I'd love an agent to pick me up "unpublished" and guide my career...but I was under the perhaps misguided impression that once an agent turned it down I wasn't to send it back. It's interesting to find out that it isn't such a hard and fast rule.

Mira said...

Brava, Jessica! Way to stand up for us writer folk.

And I understand small and medium presses are struggling - so I get that part, too - but please don't squeeze the writer. It's not our fault. And we have bills to pay, too.

Besides, isn't it good for small press to maintain good relationships with agents and writers - good for the long haul? Maybe you'll miss out on one, but then an agent might bring you the next.

And thanks for this post. Definitely food for thought.

Anonymous said...

You act like it's so easy to write a book! Maybe some writers can whip out a book in a few weeks or months, but it's not that easy for most of us.

What if we put our heart and soul into a project that we want to see published? An agent has dozens of books to sell, so they don't spend a fraction of the time that a writer does on their creation--so from the writer's oint of view, that sounds like a waste of time to write book after book trying to please a few picky agents and editors. Why doesn't the AGENT expand THEIR net and work harder to sell their client's books?

Why is it always on the writer's shoulders to keep writing new books until one sticks? Maybe the AGENT is to blame, not the writer! So why shouldn't we try to sell our own books directly and get the best advance possible? I'm game!

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 11:59:

I'm confused by your statement. I don't think it's easy to write more books, but if you want a career you'll need to write more books.

You ended by saying, "why shouldn't we try to sell our own books directly and get the best advance possible." You can sell however you want, but the point of this post was to try to get the best advance possible. I think that's exactly what I'm suggesting.


Term Papers said...

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for clarifying the statement and for adding my question in the queue for a future blog. Your blog is one of the first I check in the morning so I can get a better understanding of the industry.

Thanks again, PLJ

Anonymous said...

I signed for my first novel with a small press myself, sans agent Agents didn't want the book (a technothriller) when I queried traditionally. I think about 6 (seriously) said something to the effect of "I think this will sell but I'm just not that enthusiastic about it." So I sold it to an indie press that gave me a decent advance (between 5-10K). I thought about going back to agents with a contract in hand, but decided not to because I would no longer know if they were truly "enthusiastic" about my writing or if they just wanted to snag 15% of my modest advance. However, should I be offered another contract, I will be going out to the agents again. Because I think to start out maybe a writer can get by without an agent, but to make it in the long haul I believe an agent is necessary, or at least advantageous.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, my point was that if agents weren't interested, then why not try to sell it yourself?

Agents are mainly looking at the bottom line and they don't care about the author's blood, sweat and tears as much as the writer.

So why shouldn't the writer try to get the best deal possible for themselves--without splitting it with an apathetic agent? Not all of us are afraid to negotiate our own contracts--or hire an entertainment or contract attorney on our behalf.

Emma Michaels said...

Wow... Reading this blog I had no idea what the comments would be. I thought possibly some minor comments but everyone really seems to have their heart on their sleeve on this topic. I agree that agents might not put the same amount of time in on individual contracts but I also think there is a great deal authors don't understand about agents and their work. While our novels might be our lives work, (speaking as a querying author) their career is their life's work. They have to meet the right people, make the right relationships and make sure to keep each and everyone of these connections happy with them so that they can be used when the time comes. If this is what you all are feeling just trying to get an agent to hear your voice, your novel and help you, then imagine how the agents are feeling having to do this with large numbers of other agents, editors, publishers and contacts of other types. It can take years to establish these contacts and in some cases even decades and for an agent, that is their life. I understand how many of you feel because, trust me, there are a few times I told my husband I just needed to money for a conference admission and a lasso so that I could round them all up and make them listen but you still have to think about how hard it is for them. All she is saying is that a person should try to go for the deal that gives them the best possibilities for their career. Taking steps like querying agents before publishers and at least trying to aim high before letting your sights fall to smaller deals.

Emma Michaels