I was prepared to give you a whole list of topics from a Day in the Life to how I sort through query letters, when you took me by surprise. Three of you wanted to know why I would work on a handshake.
"Hey, welcome to the blogging world! ...I knew deals with publishers were usually sealed with handshakes, but I didn't realize there were agents expecting the same from authors. I can't imagine going into any business relationship without a written contract. What happens if the author insists on one? They can't be faulted for that, can they?"
As someone who has worked in the business for 20 years, I can't imagine a writer who would want otherwise, but I think it really depends on what stage you are at in this business.
So, I guess one of the things I'm wondering is what writers think a writer/agent contract involves? You can't force someone to work for you, sell your book or even do a good job for you (there is no regulatory agency that covers this like the Bar or the AMA), but an agent can tie up your book or all your work without ever selling anything for as long as the contract lasts.
The reason I don't use a contract is that I once worked for an agent who used one requring a writer to give the agent exclusive rights to all their written sales for a year, and if a sale was made, the option book from that sale. This agent interpreted that contract to mean any sale the writer made during the year under contract, so the agent took a 15% commission on every short story, magazine article and reprint deal any author made, even if the agent wasn't involved in it. The agent spent a lot of time suing authors and chasing down the missing 15%. I resolved that I did not want to represent someone who didn't want me to represent them, and I could put that energy into selling someone else.
While working for that agent, I had a client for whom I had gotten a six figure book deal. Unbeknownest to my boss, my client had had a drinking problem, and after selling his work, he went back to his drinking problem. When drunk at 4:00 a.m., he found it necessary to call our office and make disparaging remarks about my boss' ethnic origins. I recognized his voice, but thankfully no one else at the office did. When I informed my boss that I no longer wanted to represent him, my boss went ballistic. "Do you realize you're going to let $15,000 walk out of this door? (this is not true. The deal stayed at the agency. It was the imagined future deals my boss was referring too, and, as a now raging alcoholic, it turned out there were no future deals)." My answer was yes. "If I can find one hundred thousand dollar novel, I can certainly find another," and that's why I don't want to sign a contract. Occassionaly, agents let clients go too. Not often, but sometimes it's just not right and neither one of us should be bound by a piece of meaningless, albiet well-intentioned paper.
Publishers do not work on a handshake. The deal points are negotiated (by your agent) and then followed up with a long and detailed contract. In it, there is an agency clause that binds the book to the agency for the life of the contract. This is where I tie myself to your work, but you are only bound to me (and my agency), if I do my job and actually get you a deal. I think that's really fair.
For those of you who don't know this, I've written a book on being an agent, THE INSIDER'S GUIDE TO GETTING AN AGENT (Writer's Digest). There's a sample writer/agent contract in there, which I'll use if someone is desperate for a contract.
Most agents do use contracts. I just would rather sell you than sue you.