Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Firing an Agent

Some months ago I asked my agent about the possibilities of getting my novel adapted as a graphic novel. He dismissed the suggestion, saying that those particular rights belonged to the publisher. After examining the contract, I realized that those rights are mine alone with all the other derivatives (film, dramatic etc). Recently I have found an agent who specializes in Graphic Novel who was interested in selling it, but asked that I get a waiver from the agent of record, since she is not willing to split her commission.

Without telling my agent about this I asked again about graphic novels. After the publisher acknowledged that those rights are mine, he responded that there was no point in trying to sell a graphic novel adaptation, since the graphic novel business was "nascent." Like the movie rights, which he has farmed out to an agent who has done nothing in two years. He admitted that he is content to wait for something to drop from the heavens and refuses to waive any of those rights.

As far as he is concerned, the novel he sold is a spent property, since the publishers is neither going to give up rights or put out any subsequent editions as long as they have a couple thousand unsold hardbacks in their inventory. He is also not interested in representing my current project as it is something the editor doesn't care for.

My agency agreement does not say anything about him keeping hold of unsold rights. Can't I just fire him and take my rights back?

I want to take a step back here. I recognize that you are frustrated and angry and I don’t blame you. That being said, I want to explain some things so that readers don’t get confused about what’s really wrong, or seemingly wrong, and what’s probably really happening. I’m going to address the movie rights first and then I’ll move on to the graphic novel rights. You say that your agent “farmed” the movie rights out to another agent who has done nothing. It’s very typical for a literary agent to work with a co-agent on movie rights, foreign rights, and other types of sub-rights. Just as a literary agent specializes in books, and certain genres of books, there are agents who specialize in certain territories or in movies. I can’t weigh whether or not this movie agent is doing anything, but I can tell you that it’s very, very difficult to get a movie option and not having one doesn’t necessarily mean nothing is being done.

Okay, on to your original question. I’m concerned that your agent didn’t seem to know what rights he held on your behalf. Certainly that’s not material I have in my head for every contract I’ve negotiated, but it’s easy enough for me to find out by reading the contract. To me that’s a red flag.

As to moving forward, if your agency contract says nothing about him keeping unsold rights, and you’re sure of this, then I see no reason why you can’t fire this agent and move forward with any rights in any way you want. What I might suggest, to keep things clean, is that you spell this out in your termination letter. In other words, you say specifically that you are terminating your agreement and that you are free to move forward with any unsold rights with no obligation to him.

Keep in mind, your agent still has the right to receive commissions on any contracts he did negotiate on your behalf and on any rights you licensed in those contracts.



Anonymous said...

I just want to state (in a hopefully non-kissing-uppy manner) that this was a great response to the question. No, I didn't submit this to you. But I like that you read between the lines and responded calmly. If this were me, I'd probably be calmer now. It's nice that you listened and gave sound advice.
Awesome post.

Anonymous said...


I am the guy who submitted the question and I am calmer. I really appreciate the thought you gave to answering my question. I need to remain anonymous for the moment. I do often post here, sometimes under a variety of names.
My agent hasn't sold a lot of fiction before me and I doubt he's done much since. Ultimately he saw it as an easy sell, which it was. Maybe he feels like he lost points on it because he got a big advance for it, but it didn't make a lot of sales. Now he's keeping himself in the publisher's good graces by being their poodle. I get the short end. Tough turkey, right?

A sense I get about a lot of agents is that they are maybe too conscious of their limitations and they prefer to stick to their particular comfort zones. Selling a graphic novel would be going well out of his expertise, and maybe even sticking his neck out. He doesn't want to do it, particularly not for me.

Who knows? I don't. All I know is I'm about to start looking for a new agent. And Imo send this bird a polite termination letter.

Hey Kim, innerested in a novel about God, the devil, and goat testicles?????

Suzan Harden said...

Jessica, thanks for adding another point to my list of things to discuss when I get an offer from an agent. There's so much out there that can be done with the written word.

Sheila Cull said...

Jessica, I say whoever wrote that letter is in a fortunate position. Tell her to stay loyal. Hey, that's great advice!

KeithTax said...

Writing is a business and firing employees, contractors, or vendors is part of the deal. The real issue is the agent did not know and did nothing to verify. If you are in the game to turn a dime, then you better run it like a business.

Glynis Peters said...

Interesting and informative, thanks. Good luck to the Anon commenter who posted the question.

The Swivet said...

Graphic novel rights aren't always cut and dried. Many publishers will not actually allow wording into a contract that releases graphic novel rights, as they see them as another format (like mass market or ebook). It is only recently that agents and authors have been insisting on language that clearly delineates graphic novels as a separate subright.

Additionally, graphic novels rarely sell film options unless the graphic novel had achieved blockbuster sales status (aka, Scott Pilgrim, most DC & Marvel franchises) or a cult following (American Splendor).

Anonymous said...

My editor said, that the publisher retains a certain authority to approve the words actually being taken from the text and used in the graphic novel.

The real point being that the agent doesn't want to do the work and on the off chance that something might get generated, he doesn't want someone else to get it. He's a jerk and must be chucked!

Anonymous said...

In a perfect world, your new agent would handle this for you.

Find a new agent (for total career representation) first. Discuss all this with the new agent and come to agreement about your future.

Then leave the old agent. Any rights the old agent cannot legally claim move to you and your new agent. Your new agent should know what is what.

It's clear you don't have a two- or three-book deal with the first book's publisher. This is good.

Most option (to consider) clauses in publishers' contracts for subsequent books do NOT tie these books to the agent/agency who negotiated the contract.

Leaving an agent is tough to do without some residual hard feelings. Because of this, your new agent should be your intermediary with your former agent AND with your original publisher.

Personally, I would suggest you follow up your initial success in being published by doing it again -- rather by clinging to the hope a sub-sale for a graphic novel based on your first book will somehow rocket your career.

The best way to get your first book turned into a graphic novel is to have your second book sell well and your third book blow readers out the door onto the lawn on their backs, legs kicking wildly in the air.

Okay then, fourth book.

Listen, the secret in any career is to do Job One well. And then do it again. And you should get better at writing and hitting the market with each book.

Do the next book. And, for the heck it, pull out all stops and make it your best book. :-)