Monday, June 2, 2014

Agency Lessons: why a contract in hand can hurt you

There appears to be a misconception about what attracts an agent. I've seen some advice out there suggesting authors submit to small presses to get a contract and then hunt down an agent to negotiate for them. To be clear, you can do this. Some agents think this is tacky. I think you need to do what feels right for your career. That said, you need to understand how the business works and the potential advantages and disadvantages of taking this route. Because honestly, a contract in hand is not the golden ticket that many authors think it is. Here's why:

If you come to me with a contract, the first thing I'm going to do is look up the publisher. Chances are, it's a small press that I haven't heard of (there are hundreds of these). Many authors mistakenly believe that this offer for publication gives their book a stamp of approval. And it can, but it can also mean diddly squat.

There are some truly wonderful small and indie presses out there. Seriously, some of these guys put the Big5 to shame with how wonderful they are to work with. And then there are others. Just like anyone can hang a shingle outside and claim the title of agent, anyone can set up a small press. Some of these guys will literally take anyone. They operate on a system of quantity over quality, pumping out hundreds of books a year with very little editing and bad covers. Without investing a lot of time in research, unless I've heard of the publisher, I have no idea which type your offer comes from.

If it's a bad publisher, I'm probably going to pass on representing your manuscript. Keep in mind here, this isn't based on the book at all. I'll pass, because a contract in hand from a bad publisher is a no-win scenario.

If I did sign you, I would have to advise you not to sign the contract. No contract is better than a bad one. I have to assume that isn't the only publisher you submitted your book to, and that seriously limits who I could submit to, hurting our chances to get another contract. Finally, there would be an unnatural pressure to sell the book quickly, because I advised you to turn down a contract in hand. Even though the offer was so bad it would have taken your book nowhere fast.

There is no way to win in a scenario like that.

Now, let's say the contract in hand was from a good publisher. If I signed you, I will spend hours working with the acquisitions editor to negotiate your contract. Even good contracts need to be negotiated. Because this is a small press, there probably isn't an advance or it is very small. Because of this, I probably won't see any compensation for upwards of 18 months. Now, that may seem cold-hearted. In fact, I can hear the shouts of "See, all agents are in it for the money". To that I ask, would you voluntarily go in to your office job without the promise of a paycheck at the end of the week? I love what I do and I adore books and authors, but coffee, liquor and sweatpants are not free.

Yet, despite all these potential negatives, I have taken on clients who come to me with a contract and I will continue to do so. If, and this is a big if, I love their work. Anytime an agent takes on a client, it's with the understanding that we might spend hours (and hours) of work on a manuscript, but not be able to sell it. That's why it's so crucial that I really love someone's work to take them on as a client. If you come to me with a contract, even one that is unlikely to earn me much money, I will sign you if I love your work so much I can't stand the idea of another agent getting their hands on it. 

 And really, that's what you should always want from your agent.

19 comments:

  1. This all makes perfect sense. Agents need to get paid too. And it sounds like a lot of work to negotiate the contract whether the publisher is big or small.

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    1. Contract negotiation will probably always be a bugger, but that's exactly why most writers want an agent. Someone who can help them get a better deal. :)

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  2. Yes, that is exactly what I want from my agent, which is good since that's you. :)

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  3. Great post. Something to think about. I hope to have an agent one day, but I think I would prefer an agent before I get a publishing deal. That seems the better way to go. Especially if on my own I can be successful an agent can take me to the next level of success.

    Thanks for this post.

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    1. There isn't a right or wrong way to do it. Just the way that works best for you. Some authors would rather hire a contract lawyer to help them and negotiate on their own. That sounds like torture to other writers. It's all about deciding what you want and then going after it.

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  4. Great article! Always wondered about the various details of this side of the business.

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    1. I try to be an open book. Let me know if there are other aspects of the business you'd like to see a post on.

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  5. So good to see an agent talk about this honestly.

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  6. I love this post! I've been looking for an agent for a long time ( still looking) and I've come across some crazy stuff.

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    1. I am continually shocked by some of the horror stories I hear. I can't overstress the importance of researching agents. Also, a good agent should have no qualms about letting you talk to their current clients.

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  7. I'm so glad I saw this because it is actually quite pertinent to my life. A friend of mine, published with Penguin India, told his editor about my novel in progress. She is interested in seeing it. What should I do? If I send it to her does this hurt my chances of landing an agent here in the states?

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    1. It really depends on what you want. If you would be happy published with them, then go for it. If they pass, it is only one editor that a potential agent couldn't pitch to. That's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Keep in mind though that you are then limiting yourself to only what that publisher will offer you. You won't be able to keep them on the line while an agent pitches to other publishers. Figure out what will make you happy and then go after that thing. Good luck!

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  8. Great post, Sarah. I love this.

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  9. Thanks for this post! I was wondering how to handle the contract-in-hand scenario.

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  10. This post helps so much. Thank you. I have a related question: What if you've already signed a contract with a small press? Will this impact an agent's decision on a different project negatively, positively or not at all?

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    1. For the most part, no, it will not impact future projects. However, and this goes for any book deal big, small, or sel-fpublished, sales rule the day. If you have low book sales for your first project, it can impact an editor's decision for future books. That's why, no matter how your book is published, you want to do everything you can to make it successful. :)

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  11. Thanks for this advice. I have a related question: What if I've already signed a contract with a small press? Does this impact an agent's decision on different projects?

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