In a previous post, I announced that Harper Voyager had made me an offer to publish my novel, titled The Stolen. If you missed it, you can read about it here. After receiving the offer, I had three choices ahead of me. I could negotiate the contract terms myself, I could hire a literary lawyer, or I could find an agent.
- 1. Represent myself.
I do contract work for a living, which means I have a reasonable understanding of contracts, at least in my field of expertise. However, I also know the limits of my knowledge and understanding. I’ve done lots of research, as I’ve demonstrated in my previous postings, particularly “Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing.” I know what the normal royalty rates are, but that’s the limit of my understanding. As just an example, I don’t know what’s normal in terms of the length of time for which a publisher keeps the various rights to your work, such as print, audio, digital, etc. So, knowing my own limits, I’m not prepared to negotiate on my own behalf. Perhaps at some point in the future I will be, but certainly not now.
- 2. Literary Lawyer.
As you might’ve guessed, this is a lawyer who specializes in the literary world, offering contract review and sometimes, but not always, negotiations. The upsides to this option are:
- You’re getting someone whose living is made by understanding the legalese of contracts.
- The person will have a clear understanding of what rights you should retain and for how long you can reasonably expect to relinquish them.
- You’ll be paying them only for the work they do, which means once their work is done, all of the advance (if you get one) and the subsequent royalties go to you.
There are of course disadvantages to this choice as well, which include:
- The lawyer has no skin in the game, meaning he or she don’t benefit by securing for you a better deal. That’s not to say he wouldn’t get you a great contract, just that she wouldn’t suffer if she didn’t.
- The person might not even offer contract negotiations as a service. Some will only review your contract, explain the terms to you, and give you advice on what kind of deal it is within her or her scope of understanding.
- Hourly rate. Yes, I said it’s an upside that you’ll be paying them only for the work they do, but that work doesn’t come cheap. Based on the research I did, you can expect rates to start at $150 an hour. The review shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, but then the negotiations could drag on, which means the bill can climb high and fast.
- You have to trust the person implicitly. This seems obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. You should choose the lawyer carefully because you are truly at their mercy.
- 3. Literary Agent
Odds are that if you’re reading this blog, you know what a literary agent is. I’ve covered them in a number of previous posts: “It’s Not You, It’s Me. Okay, It’s You,” “In the Face of Adversity—Dealing with Rejection,” and “Writing a Query Letter (The Subtle Art of Begging)” to name a few, so let’s just go right to the benefits of choosing an agent.
- No money upfront. If you find an agent who asks you for any money, run away. An agent isn’t paid unless, and until, you are.
- They DO have skin in the game. Since your agent will receive a percentage of all proceeds from the deals she or he negotiates, typically 10 to 15 percent, he or she has a vested interest in getting you the best deal possible. They more you make, the more they make. This also has a side benefit: they can look to secure sales on rights that aren’t sold to the publisher. For example, if your publisher takes only the print and digital rights, your agent can sell the audio rights to another company that could produce an audiobook, or your agent could find a network or studio to option your story for a movie or TV show, and there are also translation rights.
- If the agent agrees to represent you beyond a single manuscript, you’re one step ahead when your next book is ready to be shopped around. You don’t need to send any query letters, just contact your agent.
Now, let’s look at the disadvantages.
- The percentage the agent earns is on ALL income for the deal they negotiate, forever. If you sell a copy of your book fifty years from now, they get 15 percent (or whatever rate you’ve agreed upon). There is a caveat here, though. In time (as I said above, I don’t know the normal span), the right revert back to you and you can shop the book around to another publisher, or self-publish it, and the agent will get no proceeds from those sales, unless they negotiate that deal as well.
- As with the lawyer, you have to trust that the agent is looking out for you. You can take comfort in this disadvantage being balanced out by them only earning a percentage of what you make.
I need to make a note here. There are two ways to acquire an agent. You can sign with one before an offer by submitting queries and finding one who will accept you as a client. Or, you can be offered a deal by a publisher first and then find an agent to negotiate that single offer for you. With the first option, you have an agent who will (hopefully) represent you for more than just one book. The second option might net you an agent for future offers, but in general it’s just for the one. You’ll have to go through the query process again for your next book.
So, what path did I take?
At first, I was leaning towards going with a lawyer. The idea of working with someone who wasn’t going to get a percentage of all future sales for an offer I brought to them felt more “just.” I did however contact several agents, and frankly, I was surprised how few were willing to make, what was for all purposes, an instant sale. A few explained they don’t like representing work they don’t feel passionate about, which I respect. After thinking about it though, I decided on an agent. I wanted someone who has a vested interest in my success, even if just for this offer, which meant giving up a percentage of sales, but there’s give and take in everything. I also wanted someone who would look for a market for those rights not bought by the publisher. This was the right choice for me. As with information I’ve posted in other articles, I can’t and won’t suggest which way you should go. I also ask that you please find other sources of information to rely on besides just this blog.
As an update, some months later, I can tell you I’ve never once regretted my decision to go with an agent. I’m represented by Inklings Literary Agency, specifically, Margaret Bail. She’s been wonderful, and a fierce advocate on my behalf. I’ve learned a lot and she’s been supportive through some trying times, particularly waiting for the gag order (though it wasn’t legally binding) to be lifted. I’ve plied her with questions, some undoubtedly simple, but she’s always answered in a respectful and supportive manner.