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Everybody knows that literary agents negotiate contracts for you with publishers. But who is going to negotiate a contract with a literary agency for you? Many writers know what to do when a literary agent requests a manuscript. But fewer have taken the proactive step of understanding literary agent contracts before a contract is offered.
As for writers who DO know their stuff even before they’re offered a contract…well, we think that’s a pretty good indicator of future success. So use this article to learn what you’re getting into before you get yourself into it. Then, enjoy the ride!
If a literary agent offers you a contract, which legal terms and phrases should you look out for? Which terms are negotiable, and which ones aren’t? If the agent does not sell your book, how does the law say that you should part ways?
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First and foremost, we’re going to tell you the same thing we did in our article about literary journal contracts: If you don’t understand a contract’s terms, don’t sign it until you do. Never hesitate to show the contract to an attorney. We reiterate: Contracts typically favor the person who drafted them.
Second, do your homework. Would you go on a blind date without Googling your intended? No way, not in this day and age when everything you need to know about a person’s reputation is likely to be online. Before you sign a contract, research in order to confirm that the agent is reputable, experienced, and successful (with a track record of book sales), and has references that (s)he will willingly provide. Unlike the rigorous exams taken to become a doctor or lawyer, there is no test to become a literary agent.
Want to learn more about what’s important to know before you sign with a literary agent? Read this: Nine Questions To Ask A Literary Agent.
Third, know that an agent’s contract will define the scope of the representation: Does the agent represent you for one particular work, or does (s)he represent you for all of your works and future works regardless of the medium in which it is published (i.e., if your book is made into a movie)? The contract should also set a term or time limitation during which the agent will represent you and your work.
What if you discover that you and your agent do not click as a business team, but you signed a five-year contract? Before signing, you need to know the duration of your relationship with this agent. A yearly term, renewable by you after each year, is typical. Look for termination clauses with notice provisions in case either party is unhappy with the relationship. For instance, to terminate the agreement, you may need to provide your agent with 60 days prior written notice, while (s)he may not need to provide you with any.
Last, but not least, beware of fees and charges in a contract such as a reading fee, editorial fee, or marketing fee. Almost all reputable agents charge only by commission, usually 10-15% for domestic sales and 20-30% for co-agented or foreign sales (as a third party is usually necessarily involved in overseas sales). Learn more: Warning Signs: How To Spot A Bad Literary Agent: Part One.
There are many issues and contract terms we could discuss, but these key provisions and matters should get you started. While we can’t offer legal advice, Writer’s Relief submission strategists provide our clients with much-needed information about reputable agents and their contracts.
WRITE IT UP: Tell us about the book that YOU are pitching to literary agents right now.