The Business Side of Writing: Agency Contracts, an Overview

Publishing is evolving so fast that any topic that used to be summarizable (if that’s a word) in one post, is now far too complex for that. Agency agreements were never summarizable in one post, so you can imagine how complex they are now. What I’m going to do here is post an overview, and then we can dig a little deeper next month in whatever aspect of the topic people want. I’m counting on comments here, or else I’ll just be babbling without direction next month (and you, who said, “How’s that any different than usual?” I heard that!) Okay, let’s talk agents.

1) What is an agent? Forget the usual Sunday School lesson on agency (that’s an LDS joke, for those not in the subculture.) We’re going to talk about the legal definition of an agent, which is someone who can act on your behalf, nothing more, and nothing less. A literary agent works with other publishing professionals in your stead. What does that encompass? Well, that can very from agent to agent. Some might take you to lunch with editors, while other’s might negotiate your contract over the phone and then email it to you. The truth is, there’s no legally stipulated role, only some general guidelines, which means you can enter into a variety of agreements on this score. A good friend of mine’s agent has a power of attorney, basically, that lets him even sign the contracts. That one’s extreme, but it fits within the definition of “agent.”

2) What skills does an agent have? There are no rules here, no regulations, no qualifying exam, nothing. Anybody can call themselves an agent. That’s why it’s extremely important to find a *good* agent and vet them thoroughly. A good agent has 1) a good working knowledge of publishing 2) relationships with editors at the top publishing lines in your genre 3) extensive experience negotiating contracts and perhaps most importantly 4) access to a wealth of information about who’s buying what novels and for how much. That last one is absolutely key. Why?

3) What skills doesn’t an agent have? Here’s the scoop: Agents have no magical ability to sell books. None. Here’s another scoop: Agents don’t always sell all the books they represent. So you could have an agent who loves you and loves your book and that won’t necessarily get it published by a traditional publishing house. The only advantage an agent has is more knowledge of who in publishing buys what, how much they pay, and how they like to approach a deal. It can make all the difference, and yet still not be a guarantee.

4) Who needs an agent? There are traditionally published authors who don’t have agents. Really. I’ve met a few and seen them with my own eyes. There are indie authors who have agents. So who needs an agent? Well, not to be trite, but anyone who wants… well.. an agent. Someone else to go do part of the business aspect of publishing, whether it be to sell all rights to a novel, or subsidiary and derivative rights to an indie novel, etc. Some authors have multiple agents, either because they subdivide the rights each one handles, or because they work in such disparate genres that it makes sense to have more than one person handle the business end of things. This is a complicated topic.

5) How do I vet agents? Oh the stories I can tell on this score! The single best way to vet an agent is to talk to their other clients. Any reputable agent will be happy to provide you with their contact info if said agent has made you an offer. Also take any written contract an agent wants you to sign and show it to a lawyer or another writer with good experience with this sort of thing. Finally, you will have to go with your gut. There’s no getting around that at the end of the day.

6) How do I know if I have an agent? No, that’s not a joke. Many agents don’t do written agreements, but rather handshakes, and this can make things messy. What if you’re with an agent who leaves the agency to retire? Do you still owe allegiance to that agency? What if you’re with an agent who won’t answer your calls, even the ones saying they’re fired? Have you gotten rid of them? What if your agent dies and the agency is taken over by an underwear salesperson? (That isn’t a hypothetical; it happened.) Do you have to stay with the agency or does the death constitute a termination of the agreement? Silly as it may sound, this is a real question.

So now I’ll post this and wait for comments. There’s a lot to discuss when it comes to agents. What interests you?

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9 Responses to The Business Side of Writing: Agency Contracts, an Overview

  1. Wm says:

    I can’t believe that there are agents who don’t do written agreements.

  2. Joe Vasicek says:

    Funny that you should post this on the same day as this post on The Passive Voice. In today’s publishing environment, I wonder if it’s better to just avoid agents and big publishers until they’ve adjusted to the new reality that digital disruption has brought about.

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      That is a funny coincidence! Having said that, I still know of many, many very functional, mutually beneficial author/agent relationships.

  3. Andrew Hall says:

    Could you comment on the issue of authors using agents in the Mormon market. As I understand it, Mormon publishers are not very happy when authors use agents in their contract negotiations, as agents regard the terms that these publishers give in their standard contracts as going against the industry standard. Do these publishers refuse to deal with agents at all, or do they just don’t like them?

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      I’ll have to investigate that one. In general, though, the kinds of deals that are normal in the LDS market are far too small time to interest most agents. But yes, there are a ton of terms in LDS publishing contracts that go against the industry standard, and in my experience, asking for more standard terms meets will all kinds of resistance. My publisher, after a few rounds of discussion, refused to return my phone calls for months on end, so they don’t exactly play nice in this regard.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    Interesting stuff — and thanks, Joe, for the additional link. I suspect a lot of the things talked about at The Passive Voice simply aren’t done in Mormon publishing, but have no direct way of knowing that.

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