In a perfect world, every literary agent would be a fearless negotiator, working tirelessly to get the best possible book deals for his or her clients. But the world isn’t perfect. And sometimes an author’s career goes off the rails because their agent doesn’t have the knowledge, skills, or tenacity necessary to negotiate well on the author’s behalf.
Author #1 had a six-figure offer from a major publisher for the first three books of his self-published middle-grade series. He also had no agent. The publisher recommended several, and the author signed with one. Sadly, the agent did not negotiate better contract terms. This meant the author now had to give the agent 15% of the exact same six-figure deal he’d set up himself.
The author hoped the agent would earn his commission going forward by advocating for the book during the publishing process. But in time, the author realized his agent wasn’t doing anything he wasn’t already doing himself. He terminated the relationship and negotiated the next three-book deal without an agent.
As the time neared for the next contract, this author still felt he could get a better deal if a savvy agent negotiated on his behalf. He interviewed carefully and signed with an agent with an excellent reputation who was also a fan of the author’s work. The agent soon learned what the publisher hadn’t yet told the author: sales were soft, and there wasn’t going to be a third offer.
The agent pitched a new series, but the publisher wasn’t interested. Neither were the other publishers the agent submitted to because of the author’s declining sales record. He and the agent parted ways, and the author’s dream of supporting his family with his writing was over.
This author is convinced the outcome would have been different if his first agent had been a tougher negotiator—not only in regard to the size of the advance, but also in the thousand-and-one ways his agent could have run interference with the publisher to ensure that the author’s books got the in-house attention they needed and deserved. This agent may have been afraid to rock the boat, but it was the author’s ship that sank.
Author #2 was with an agent who always sold world and film rights to the publisher. Every client, every deal, without exception. Not every agency has its own foreign-rights department, nor does every agency partner with a foreign-rights co-agent in order to fully serve their clients.
In time, the author realized they had a problem. This author’s books were doing very well in the territories where they were available, but the publisher’s foreign-rights department had only sold them into a handful, and nothing was happening with film. When the author discussed the situation with their editor, the editor recommended the author get another agent—even though this meant the editor would have to work with an agent who was a tougher negotiator.
Not only did the new agent sell the film option for the author’s latest book, but the agent also made sure it was a “complete” offer, meaning that a producer, director, and screenwriter were committed to the project before recommending the deal. Previous film offers that didn’t have all these components in place were rejected because this agent was a tough negotiator who wasn’t afraid to hold the line.
Author #3’s agent got him a two-book deal with a well-known mass-market-paperback publisher. The contract included joint accounting. If you’ve been reading Kristin’s “Think Like an Agent” article series, you know that joint accounting can have negative consequences, as this author was about to find out.
When his first book published, it sold reasonably well. Meanwhile, the author was busy writing the second. To his surprise, the publisher rejected the book. The author wrote another, which the publisher also rejected. The author wrote a third book, which the publisher rejected when the book was half finished.
Are you keeping count? Two-and-a-half books written over who knows how many years in a valiant effort to deliver the second book of his contract. Meanwhile, because these two contracted-for books were irrevocably linked due to joint accounting, even though the first book was selling well, during all that time, the author didn’t see another dime.
If you’re wondering where the author’s agent was through all of this, so was I. Why didn’t the agent run interference with the publisher? Why was this author forced to spend years writing multiple books without getting paid for them? Surely there was something a savvy agent could have done.
The author wrote a fourth book, which the publisher finally accepted, only to drop the book after Borders went bankrupt. Eventually the author got the rights back to his books and self-published these novels along with the ones his publisher had rejected. All of his books have been very well received by readers, and the author is now with a small publisher with an excellent reputation. Most important, the author feels that his career is finally on track.
Admittedly, much of what determines the success or failure of an author’s career is beyond the author’s and the agent’s control. But holding out for an agent who is a fearless negotiator can be the author’s best defense in a challenging, uncertain business.
Karen Dionne is an internationally published thriller author, co-founder of the online writers discussion forum Backspace, and organizer of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat and the Neverending Online Backspace Writers Conference. She is represented by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management. This panel discussion along with the full Backspace Writers Conference video archives are available exclusively to Backspace subscribers and online conference registrants.