Thursday, January 11, 2007

Author/Agent contracts

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.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I get it now. Sounds reasonable, but only from someone with 20 years and 2000 titles under their belt. Any less and I'm hiding a tape recorder in my breast pocket over lunch. ;) Thanks very much for the info!

And please, a Day In The Life or How You Sort Through Query Letters are welcome topics as well. By all means.

Adrienne said...

Hey, I'm the anonymous poster from last time who mentioned the thing about the colour of your blog (I now have a name). Just wanted to say thanks for changing it! It makes a world of difference!

(still enjoying the blog btw)

Marcia Colette said...

Wow. You're one smooth chic to work on a handshake. :) I like your philosophy.

Stacia said...

I love you already.

Please tell us how you sort through queries! And more fun stories about anonymous authors behaving badly!

Camille Alexa said...

Dear Agent in the M.,

I hope you get back to your query letter sort post, much as I would join Ms. Quinn and others in reading more AABB crash-and-burn stories.

[Anonymous Authors Behaving Badly--I'm going to start dropping those in conversation as "Double-A-Double-Bs"].

Kay Lockner said...

Welcome to the blogosphere, Lori! We're featuring your "New writer questions" post on the AuthorMBA Best of the Biz report ( Thanks for the great posts!

Kay Lockner
Founder, AuthorMBA

Rashenbo said...

It does sound reasonable. I think it would create an open and positive working relationship. I actually hadn't thought about the detail of working with an agent yet. I'm not finished so I am not quite so focused on the intricacies of finalizing an agent deal!

Thank you for the information. It is very appreciated.

Katey Coffing, Ph.D. said...

Hi Lori! I'm one of Jenny's clients, so when she mentioned on her blog that you've started one yourself, I trotted on over.

By the way, The Insider's Guide to Getting an Agent is a terrific guide for an author's career. I recommend it to my own writing clients and have mentioned it in my blog. Thanks for writing such a useful book!

Anonymous said...

I'm of the old school and was brought up on "handshake" contracts (not author/agent). In my experience they actually place more onus on both parties to act honourably than modern written ones do.

The lavender background is better, experiment with coloured fonts to see if you can find a nice one that stands out. Certain shades of blue, orange and cream work quite well. :)

writtenwyrdd said...

Thank you for the clear explanation. I was raising a questioning eyebrow over that same issue, but you make sense.

Anonymous said...

Hi, LP. This is the female half of the 'science of' duo. Your blog is a great idea.

For readers of this blog - I've been with LP since 1996, and she's represented all of my 17 books. We've done everything via trust. I don't think we've ever shared so much as a handshake. Though we have shared a few interesting drinks & stories along the way...

Anonymous said...


So wonderful to see you've put up a blog. I appreciate all the new information since I read your terrific guide to getting an agent. Looking forward to reading your posts and insights into the nature of the beast (publishing world).

Best, Rob
R.J. Crowther Jr.

Anonymous said...

Contracts are only as powerful as they are enforceable. Since most authors don't have the means to sue others to kingdom come...

People are either going to screw you or they're not. A piece of paper won't make a difference.

Zoe Winters said...

hehehe. This makes so much more sense now! Thank you for taking the time to blog in response to this. I definitely would prefer to be sold than sued lol. ;)

And I just added your book to my shopping cart. :)

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