When you sign with a literary agency, consider the contract (or agreement) that bears your signature to be the owner’s manual for your relationship with your agent. The terms under which the literary agency operates—everything from how and when you are paid to how and when you can sever your agreement—are governed by your literary agency contract.
So before you sign a contract with a literary agent, be sure you know what you’re getting into. We could spend a lot of time talking about the infinite details of a literary agency contract. There are many books available to writers about intellectual property law and publishing industry agreements.
But for now, we’re only going to touch on the main parts of a literary agency contract and give you a brief overview of what you can expect from your future partnership.
Keep in mind that all literary agencies are different and may have different contracts. A few literary agents may not use a written contract at all (but we recommend that you consider these agencies with caution).
The Parts Of The Literary Agency Contract
- The Parties Involved. The first clause of your literary agent contract simply states that you and your literary agent(s) are drawing up the agreement.
- Representation. This clause spells out the terms of representation (that your literary agent has the exclusive right to represent your interests to publishing houses and other companies, and to negotiate on your behalf).
- Term of contract. Most literary agent contracts are in full effect for 12 months. Does that mean your agent will ditch you in a year? Not necessarily. We explain further below.
- Commission. The standard commission for a first rights sale is 15%, and foreign rights are usually 20%. Read more here: Literary Agent Commissions.
- Renewal. Most literary agency contracts stipulate that the terms of the contract are automatically renewed once every 12 months unless they are terminated. In other words, even though your contract is technically only for 12 months, the terms of your contract will automatically renew unless you terminate the agreement.
- Termination. Most literary agency contracts request 60 days written notice prior to termination. Also, many literary agents will retain the right to commissions earned based on any work they did on your behalf. Learn more about this issue: Should You Fire Your Literary Agent? The 10 Signs That It’s Time To Say Good-Bye. You can also read: How To Fire Your Literary Agent.
If You Don’t Understand Something About Your Literary Agent’s Standard Contract, Ask Questions
Your literary agent has a “standard” contract (like this sample literary agent contract). But if you feel uncomfortable with any concept or terminology, feel free to ask for changes. Most literary agents expect that you might ask for a change or two.
If you’re not sure what something means, trust your instincts and ask for more information. If your future agent gives you a very clear explanation of what a given phrase will mean to your career, then you may feel comfortable moving on. However, you may want to ask a literary attorney to review your literary agency contract to make sure you are protected.
Ideally, your literary agent is on your team and will look out for your best interests. But it’s always good to get a professional legal opinion when you have so much at stake.
Want to learn more about negotiating your literary agency contract? Check out our article: Negotiating Tips For Writers.
QUESTION: As a writer, would you be willing to work on a “handshake agreement” without a written contract?
What I have even had nightmares about more than anything else over the years is submitting a story to an agent and having my work published by someone else under my name. Maybe that’s an uncommon paranoid fear. I don’t know.
Hello! I am about to enter into contract negotiations with an agent and, while I want the agent to represent most of my books to publishers, I still want the freedom to self-publish in case some of my books/genres don’t find a publisher. A backup plan, if you will. How would you recommend I phrase this or suggest it be phrased in the contract?
We are not lawyers, so we cannot give legal advice. We advise contacting a lawyer that has experience with the publishing industry for your question.
If you don’t want to get screwed, go to https://www.storiesforpublication.com to see what this smaller publisher has published. Completed manuscripts, once edited are published within weeks and not years like the large publishing houses.