My previous entry dealt with contracts and assumed that you were working directly with the publisher, sans literary agent. In this entry, I'll introduce you, briefly, to what a literary agent does and doesn't do. I won't, however, spend any time telling you how to get a literary agent to work with you. There are numerous books published and revised on the subject every year, along with guides such as Literary Market Place that are updated annually with details about publishers and agents. Also, I've never tried to get a literary agent for myself, so I'll spare you all the presumption of knowing what the hell I'm talking about in that arena.
A literary agent is someone who often has previously worked in publishing and thus has a great knowledge of both literary markets and the workings of the industry. An agent is an author's representative and acts as a liaison between author and publisher. Both parties stand to benefit from the agent. The publisher benefits because the agent acts almost as a screener, scouting for and determining what manuscripts are worth buying, saving the publisher time. In fact, the nature of the business is such that pretty much all major houses and many smaller ones now don't even bother looking for material themselves, instead relying on what they get from agents. The author benefits because the agent becomes his advocate, looking out for him and many times also being the only steady person during the whole transaction. Publishing has a rather rapidly spinning revolving door as people move on to other positions and companies, so an author may suddenly find his book "orphaned" at the publishing house, meaning that the editor or person responsible for it has left and the new person taking it on is probably not paying much attention to it. Having an agent helps because she will make sure to keep track of the book, often by pestering the publisher and the staffer's predecessor about it. An agent also often gives editorial advice to the author to help improve his manuscript and also helps the author develop new projects.
Both parties benefit from a literary agent's involvement because the agent handles the negotiation of the contract, which saves the publisher the hassle of dealing with an author's inexperience and saves the author from the potential of getting royally screwed due to ignorance. The agent also handles the money from advances and royalties and gives it to the author after taking her 15% commission first. And the agent is often well-connected to others to whom she can then sell sub rights. It's in the agent's best interest to sell as many rights as she can for the author, since she gets a cut of it all, so having an agent is really helpful, especially for inexperienced authors.
So let's say you've gone through the querying process and found an agent who wants to work you, Abby D. Agent. "Leave it to me, kid," she says knowingly, after showering you with glowing accolades about your manuscript masterpiece. "I'll make you a star."
"Great!" you say, enthused. You can hardly believe your luck! This person believes in you and your work and is going to help you sell it and, if not get rich off it, at least make enough extra bucks to afford going out to dinner once in a while or getting a new couch to replace the old one your cat peed on. "This all sounds great. Where do I sign?"
"Oh, there's nothing to sign," says Abby breezily. "We're all friends here. Besides, there'll be enough paperwork once I get you that nice publishing contract. Let's not kill anymore trees."
A little feeling of uneasiness settles over you, but what do you know about the pub biz? This must be how they do it. And the environment is a hot-button issue these days. Maybe saving trees is a good idea.
While some agents do operate under this no-contract policy, depending on how casually their offices are run, many do offer simple contracts or at least letters stating the terms of your working relationship with them. Even if you find an agent who doesn't seem to believe in adding more paper to her life, you should still get your agreement in writing. If your agent doesn't offer you a contract, suggest that one of you will write a letter or email outlining what the agent will do for you, how long the agent will try to sell your work for, how either of you can terminate the agreement, what happens if the agreement does get terminated, and how the agent gets paid and handles your money. When it comes to someone dealing with your intellectual property and eventually hopefully with your money, it's always wise to get it on paper.
Let's assume that you have convinced Abby Agent to draw up an agreement for the two of you to sign. Obviously a contract with an agent is not as in-depth or lengthy as a contract with a publisher (I'm starting to wonder if anything on Earth ever could be), but here are some of the basics it should cover.
A grant of authority and limits. This clause dictates the power that an agent does and doesn't have. For instance, Abby Agent may be the person responsible for negotiating and selling your rights, but you want to have some idea of what's going on. This clause would say that you want to see and approve of all deals and contracts rather than just letting Abby sign the contracts on your behalf. Let's face it: you may trust your agent with your life (and your rights), but you should still be the one to put pen to paper.
An agent's obligation. Naturally when you sign on to work with an agent, you are putting your trust in that agent to sell your rights, but you don't want to be waiting around forever. You also want some guarantee that the agent is working in your best interests. This clause usually includes phrases to the effect of the agent making her "best efforts" to sell your work and using all "commercially reasonable" means to get you a deal. The agent should submit to you all offers made on your work, even if she thinks they suck, so that the two of you can decide what's best. And your agent should keep you informed of all rejections and feedback, too, allowing you to see rejection letters if you request them and passing along comments editors have made that may help you improve your work. Your agent should work hard for you, but she can't work miracles, and you aren't her only client. Expect her to put in a very valiant effort, but don't expect her to move mountains. Expect regular communication, but don't expect daily hour-long chats. She's busy and should be using her time to sell your work, not counsel your every editorial move. However, if she seems like she's seriously slacking, puts you off, doesn't give you any time or advice, or is not upfront with you about things, it might be time to call it quits and move on. (See the length of relationship and termination clauses below.)
An author's obligation. Yes, you have an obligation to your agent, too. (What did you think, that contracts were a one-way street?) Many agents want their authors to enter into an exclusive agreement with them, meaning that while Abby's trying to sell your work you won't also have agent Betty trying to sell it too. Read this section carefully. Some agents want to represent all their authors' works, even works that the author wrote before working with that particular agent (this means retroactive commissions, which to me seems unfair, but you need to decide what you think is fair). Some agents want commission on every work their authors sell, called an "exclusive sale" arrangement, even if the author sells those works entirely on his own. (Again, you can decide if this is fair or not.) And some agents just want to opportunity to represent all their authors' future works and receive commissions from them. If you already have connections directly with editors at, say, magazines or newspapers and have sold or intend to continue selling works directly to these editors, consider whether giving your agent a commission on these works is worthwhile to you. On the other hand, if you don't already have connections with editors at periodicals but would like them so you can try your hand at the occasionally lucrative world of magazine writing, having an agent can be helpful as she can forge these connections for you, can handle contracts with the periodicals, and take care of hounding them for your money (after all, she wants her commission just as promptly as you want your payment). When it comes to this clause in an agency agreement, you need to consider how you want things handled. Personally I think it sucks for an agent to expect compensation for work she hasn't done for you, and if you think it sucks too then don't agree to it. It does seem ridiculous, but an agent's authors are her bread and butter, so she's going to try to exploit all of you as best she can.
Commissions and payments. Most agents nowadays charge a 15% commission on all money you receive from sales they make. Many times this royalty increases to 20% for the sale of sub rights because your agent is selling the work to another agent and the commission must be split. I'm putting these numbers out there so you understand that they're industry standard and are considered fair. Some agents also charge their authors for extraneous expenses: for instance, long-distance calls made on the author's behalf, excessive photocopying or mailing, etc. In publishing, it's typical for a publisher to issue payments and royalties directly to the agent and for the agent then to manage the author's accounts. It's a good idea to let your agent handle your accounts because she understands the intricately complicated web of royalties statements better than you, or even a rocket scientist, could. She'll take her commission out and then issue the remainder to you. Your contract should stipulate how much time you should expect to pass between her receiving the check and you receiving yours and any other pertinent financial information pertaining to your agreement (such as how agency expenses, if any, will be billed). Make sure the commissions structure here makes sense to you, especially that involving the employment of other agents to sell sub rights. If anything is unclear, ask. Don't take chances when it comes to your money and stay informed of what to expect.
Warranties and indemnities. This is sort of like that clause from the publishing contract, stating that you have the right to your work. It also protects the agent if you do something foolish, like sign two exclusive agency agreements simultaneously. You sign on thinking that the two never have to know about each other and that this just increases your chances of selling your work by doubling your work force. So let's say Abby sells your work to Pancake Press on Monday. You're elated. You decide to break things off with Betty. But before you can do, Betty calls you on Tuesday. "I just made an offer to Peacock Press, and they want to buy your work." Shit. Now what do you do? Two presses cannot simultaneously publish your work, so you're going to have to back down on one of the offers. But since Betty made good on her promise to sell your work, even if you decide to remain with Abby for the long haul, you still owe Betty her commission for selling your work. And Peacock Press could hold her liable for selling her a work she was no longer authorized to sell to you; since your contract with Betty also contained this clause, you are obligated to stand behind her in this situation. So, my advice is to do yourself a favor and never need to worry about these potential messes by sticking with one agent at a time. Polygamous relationships in publishing can often get very messy.
Length of relationship. Obviously, both you and your agent want a long, beautiful friendship. It works for you because you've got someone on your side to watch out for you, negotiate the best deals for you, and otherwise help usher you through what is hopefully a long and illustrious (or illustrious enough) publishing career. It works for your agent because she's got someone who will provide her with a steady enough source of income over the long term, from either your backlist items that continue to sell or from your new works (though publishing new works often revives the market for your older works). However, sometimes a relationship with an agent just doesn't seem meant to be; for whatever reason, she simply cannot sell your work. If this is the case, this clause will dictate the amount of time the agent will devote to trying to place your manuscript. Usually this term is a year. If after this year your agent hasn't been able to sell your work and she's exhausted all her avenues, it's probably time to call it quits: she wants to move on to clients whose work she can sell and you want to give it another go, either on your own or with another agent. A year may seem like forever, but remember that book publishing is a very hurry-up-and-wait kind of business, meaning that brokering deals can be very time-consuming. Give your agent at least this year, which is a reasonable amount of time, in which to sell your work.
Termination of agreement. Breaking up is hard to do. But it shouldn't be impossible. Barring the length of relationship clause, you and the agent should both have the freedom to end your relationship at any time for whatever reasons you may have. Maybe you just don't seem to get along; maybe she's lost interest in the kind of work you're producing or you think you could get better service from another agent you met at a cocktail party who seemed excited about your work and with whom you meshed well. So it's time to break up with your agent. This clause usually stipulates that either of you can terminate the agreement by putting the decision in writing and giving thirty to ninety days of notice. This amount of time is only fair to allow both of you to tie up loose ends and make the transition smooth. This clause will also indicate what will happen if the agent has sold some of your work and what will continue to happen regarding commissions. Perhaps your agent will continue to receive royalty payments for works she sold for you and will divvy out your share to you. If your parting with your agent is amicable, you may be okay with this, but if there's animosity there, you should consider having royalties paid to you (or your new agent) and then disbursing your agent's commission. Or your new agent may decide that she'll be the one to handle all royalties from past and future sales and their divvying up from here on out. Make sure you understand how commissions and royalties will continue to be handled if the two of you should split up because after all, money does cause the most grievances in relationships. Don't let it cause you angst in this one and get it all in writing.
The right to assign you to another agent. This clause is somewhat straightforward. Many agents work for agencies where there are other agents (sometimes a few, sometimes dozens depending on the size of the agency). This clause states that the agent has the right to transfer you to another agent of her choosing, typically within the same agency. If you're not comfortable with this idea and would prefer this not to happen, speak up and don't allow for this clause to appear. But if you're fine with transferring agents, just state under what terms it would acceptable to you: the agent must be at the same agency, or it must be an agent that you both mutually consent to. If this clause doesn't appear in your contract, ask your agent what her or her agency's policy is on the matter.
The right to represent your competition. You're a mystery writer, and mysteries are what Abby Agent sells best. It's a match made in heaven. But as you look through her client list, you realize that Abby's got quite a few other clients who write mysteries very similar to yours (say, involving telepathic animals or little old lady detectives). It's within her right to do so. By taking you on, Abby isn't going to forsake all these other writers who write similar subject matter to yours. In fact, it's to your benefit if she represents other authors who write the same sort of thing. It means she's had success selling work similar to yours, which means there's a market for it--which means your odds of a sale are that much better. Don't begrudge your agent her right to represent however many of whatever kind of client she wants.
The right to multiple agents. Some agents have relationships with sub rights agents and will thus handle these deals for you. But sometimes an agent doesn't want to deal with certain sub rights, like foreign sales or film sales. This clause will spell out if she's okay with you hiring these agents on your own. Be sure you understand how the commission structure works here; your agent will usually want a piece of the sub rights sale pie, no matter how small. It's wise either way to find out how your agent deals with sub rights sales before you enter into an agreement with her since sub rights can often be quite lucrative.
As you can see, there's actually quite a lot more that goes into an agreement with an agent than the blind faith that she'll sell your work. This is why it's wise to get an agreement with your agent, even if it's just a letter laying all these things out. If any of these parts are missing, talk to her about it and insert them if necessary. Understanding how the relationship works before you even begin will save both of you a lot of time, confusion, and grief later on.
For more information on literary agents (let's face it, if you want to get one, inform yourself thoroughly of what they do and what they want from you), try some of these books:
Literary Agents: A Writer's Introduction, by John F. Baker. This is a great book featuring profiles of many leading industry agents reflecting on the business and offering tips for writers as to how to get and keep an agent.
Mastering the Business of Writing and How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, by Richard Curtis. Curtis is a big-name agent who's been at it a long time and he's got a lot of good things to say. Any work by him is quite helpful, and it helps that his style of writing has some humor sprinkled throughout.
How to Get a Literary Agent, by Michael Larsen. This book has tips on how to get an agent and keep them written in a friendly, accessible style.
And for listings of literary agents, try the annual literary agent guide published by Writers Digest Books, Jeff Herman's annual guide to publishers, editors, and agents, or the annual edition of Literary Market Place (check your local library for this one, it's pricey and of an unwieldy size).