November 24, 2017

Before You Sign – The Essentials of Agent Contracts

By Amanda Cabot, Author of A Stolen Heart

Success!  You’ve completed your search for the perfect agent.  It’s taken a while, because you’ve been careful to ensure that you’ve chosen the right one, but the search is finally over.  Now you’re so excited that the moment you receive the standard contract, you flip to the last page, sign your name, and mail it back.  Right move?  Nope! 

The good news is that you have a formal contract.  While some agents may work on a handshake agreement, that’s dangerous.  You need a written contract, because – if properly written – they ensure that there are no misunderstandings about your relationship and provide protection for both of you.
The bad news is that you signed the contract without reading it and understanding every one of the clauses.  A contract is written for the benefit of the party that drafted it, in this case the agent.  To protect yourself, you need to understand what’s included in the contract.  You may also want to negotiate some clauses to make them more beneficial to you. 

Are you shaking your head and saying, “I’m not a lawyer?”  You don’t need to be.  What you need to be is careful and sometimes skeptical.  To get you started, let’s discuss some of the most important clauses in a typical literary agency contract. 

What’s Covered – Most contracts ask you to give the agent the authority to negotiate all rights for everything you write.  This may be what you want, but it may not.  If, for example, you’re like me and write both fiction and non-fiction and already have a relationship with a non-fiction publisher who acquires manuscripts directly from, you might want to grant your agent only the right to negotiate for fiction.  Why pay a commission on non-fiction books when you’ve done all the work?

Length of Contract – Others may disagree, but I advise you not to sign a contract with a specified length, even if it’s as short as one year.  The contract should remain in effect until one of the parties terminates it.  (We’ll talk about termination clauses later.)  Why is this important?  If this agent turns out to be less than perfect, you want to be able to end the relationship quickly.

Payment – There are several parts to this.
·         How much the agent will receive – The contract should clearly outline the commissions the agent will receive.  Please note that performing and foreign rights commissions are often higher than the ones for standard print and eBook rights, since sub-agents may be involved.  This clause is rarely negotiable.
·         How quickly the agent will pay you – Some publishers pay the author his or her share directly, but if the total payment is sent to the agent, the contract should specify when you will receive your share.  While it’s reasonable for the agent to wait until the funds have cleared before paying you, you should not have to wait more than ten days for payment and a full accounting.  That full accounting is important, because while most agents are honest, there are always exceptions.  If you feel that you’re being cheated, you can request accounting statements directly from your publisher and compare them to the ones your agent has provided.
·         What expenses you will pay – In general, agents are responsible for all normal expenses of running their offices.  Some may expect you to pay the costs of copying and mailing manuscripts, and others may charge you an annual administrative fee.  This is often negotiable.  The most important thing is to be aware of what expenses you may incur and to have the ability to approve extraordinary expenses, such as paying a courier to hand-deliver a manuscript to Europe, prior to their being incurred.  This is one area where surprises are rarely good.

Termination – While no one enters into a relationship with an agent planning to terminate it, you may need to change agents.  That’s why this clause is so important.  Like the money-related clauses, there are several aspects to it.
·         Notice period – Thirty days’ notice is typical.  If the agent asks for a longer period, I’d question the reason.
·         Delivery method – How is the termination notice to be delivered?  Registered mail used to be standard, but regular mail may be permissible.  Phone calls and email are not acceptable methods of terminating a contract.  Like the contract itself, the termination notice should be written and signed.
·         Handling of works already submitted – While the contract itself may be terminated within thirty days, most termination clauses specify that the agent will receive the standard commission for any works previously submitted to a publisher if you sell them within a period of up to six months following termination.  Why?  Just as there are some less-than-honest agents, there are some less-than-honorable clients.  This clause protects the agent from a client who terminates a contract right before a deal is ready to be negotiated, hoping to avoid paying a commission.

Other important clauses include dispute resolution and the specific services the agent will provide.  Rather than turn this post into something rivaling War and Peace for length, I’m going to forgo an explanation of them, but I will remind you that it’s critical to read and understand each clause. 
If you have questions, leave a comment, and I’ll give you my opinion.  Another approach is to ask your prospective agent to explain what the clause means and why it’s important.  If the answers aren’t satisfactory, that could be a sign that this is not the right agent for you.   

The bottom line is that agents work for you and that a good contract provides the foundation for a good relationship. 
Amanda Cabot is the bestselling author of more than thirty novels including the Texas Dreams trilogy, the Westward Winds series, the Texas Crossroads trilogy, Christmas Roses, and her current release, A Stolen Heart. A former director of Information Technology, she has written everything from technical books and articles for IT professionals to mysteries for teenagers and romances for all ages.  Amanda is delighted to now be a fulltime writer of Christian romances, living happily ever after with her husband in Wyoming. Amanda’s Social Media Links;

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