What's a good author and agent agency contract?
Dave, I'm contemplating signing with an agent to represent me on some book projects I'd like to pursue and am wondering if you have any sage advice on what to look for in an agency contract and what kind of terms are fair and reasonable?
Rather than answer this one myself, I thought I'd pop over to my friend and freelance author agent Matt Wagner. Here's what he has to say on this subject:
Agency contracts are (or should be) pretty straightforward. In fact many agents don't use a contract at all but do a handshake deal and let the agency clause in the publishing contract govern the relationship. At the moment I am working sans contract because by and large I am working with people I know and like and who trust me, and I don't presume that they should be beholden to me if they want to work with someone else on future books. This is a relationship business after all, and if I can't sustain my relationships I should find another line of work.
When needed, I do a deal memo outlining the agent-client relationship. Here's what it looks like: I charge a 15% commission on US sales, a 20% commission on foreign rights sales (where I may use a sub-agent), and in the event the client decides to terminate our relationship while I'm working on a particular project I ask for 60 days to finish up with whatever leads I have. Plus, I reserve the right to invoice clients for copying and/or postage fees on submissions. This is all fairly standard and, I believe, fair.
Someone just sent me a contract for an agency that will go nameless here, but I was amazed to see what some agents get away with. The agent asks for a $500 from his client on signing the author-agent agreement, and further stipulates that the entire agency commission for the advance is taken from the client's first proceeds. So if you have a $20,000 advance and a $3000 signing payment, the agency would take the entire signing advance.
My advice? Never sign a contract with an agent that asks for expense money up front -- there are plenty of legitimate agents who do charge for copying and postage -- but spending hundreds of dollars up front for an agent who hasn't even submitted your proposal is a very bad idea.
And maybe I'm wrong and the practice of taking the entire commission up front is more common than I believe, but if I were an author I would avoid signing with an agent who is paid from first proceeds.
As an agent I have a fiduciary responsibility to my client, and I have an interest in ensuring that my client is paid promptly, paid correctly, and represented in all matters pertaining to the book to the best of my ability. If a book should suddenly go south, an author needs an agent who likewise won't get paid unless the problem is fixed.
My two cents, now that you've heard from Matt: I agree completely. Agent representation should be "pay for performance" because you, as an author never really know if the agent can land you a fulfilling and worthwhile contract, and an agent can never really know whether an author can deliver printable prose at the end of the day.
It's a risk/reward equation. If I had an agent who wanted payment up front, I'd expect them to have a significantly lower percentage than the more traditional relationship.
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