In the last two weeks, we at NLA have offered representation to seven authors, most of whom received multiple offers. All agents are aggressively seeking new talent right now! It’s awesome to talk to savvy authors who have a list of good questions prepared for their initial conversations with prospective agents, questions like:
• What is your communication style?
• How would you describe your dream client?
• What is your editorial vision for my work?
• What would your submission strategy for this work be if you took it on?
• What happens if my project doesn’t sell?
• Are you open to me writing in different genres?
• Can I chat with a current client?
All these are questions you should ask; you definitely want your agent to be a good personality match and share your vision for your career. But you also want that agent to be your best advocate and protect your business interests in the publishing industry. With that in mind, here are five key questions authors should also be asking, but in general I never hear:
1) What is the average duration of a contract negotiation at your agency? At NLA, average time is three or four months, as we’ll stand firm on key clauses until a compromise is reached. We don’t rush it. If a publishing house has recently revamped its boilerplate contract, then that timeframe can more than double, as we’ll have to negotiate the boilerplate contract first, and then negotiate your specific deal.
2) Will I be involved in seeing the original offer and then the final offer from the Publisher? NLA always shares with our clients the details of the first offer and what we negotiated to create the final offer. Clients are always invited to participate in the process and weigh in.
3) Will I have a chance to review the original contract from the publisher as well as all the requested changes documentation, and then the master redline of the final contract I’ll be signing? Can you walk me through any contract clause that I might not understand? At NLA, we share all this documentation, whether clients want to read it or not, so that clients are 100% confident that their deal and contract have been fully negotiated. And I’ve spent many an hour on the phone or Skype, combing through contract particulars with clients to make sure they’re completely comfortable with what they’re signing. Most agencies simply forward on the final contract for signatures, and that’s it.
4) Do you regularly audit royalty statements? How much money has the agency recovered by doing so? At NLA, we’ve recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for our authors because we regularly catch errors when auditing their royalty statements. And we catch errors in almost every accounting period—that’s how frequently it happens.
5) How many non-agent support staff are at your agency? This is important, as it’s very hard for an agent to do all of the above, and do it well, without significant assistance from non-agent support staff. At NLA, we have three agents and a team of six in-house non-agent support staff to protect our clients. Most agencies have a lot of agents and very little, if any, support staff. The agents are expected to be independent silos and handle all of the above plus all agenting duties. It’s not possible to juggle all that without letting stuff fall through the cracks.
Bonus question to ask if you are feeling bold: What percentage of your clients make their living solely from writing? If you ask me this question, I can truthfully say that 95% of my clients earn their living as authors—meaning they earn enough money to support themselves without a secondary job or support from a partner.
Back in the crazy days of the late 2000s, there was a popular agent, active on social media, who landed a lot of clients, posted some sexy six-figure deals, and then disappeared. I ended up taking on a former client of this now defunct agent/agency and realized, to my horror, that the author had been signing boilerplate contracts with no negotiated changes. The agent hadn’t negotiated a thing! The author was new to the business and had no way of knowing the agent wasn’t doing the job. Even though that agent looked hot from the outside, s/he had actually done very little to protect the client’s interests.
You can make sure that doesn’t happen to you. This is your career. Ask the above 5 Qs. After all, these aren’t the sexy tasks, but they do affect an author’s bottom line. Don’t feel uncomfortable or worry that you might insult the agent. If an agent becomes defensive when asked legitimate questions, then chances are that agent isn’t right for you.
Stay smart, savvy, and shrewd. Check out my “What Makes a Good Agent” article series on Pub Rants. You are your own best advocate.
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Chris Potter
Thank you SO much for this!
You set the bar high with the Pub Rants. This one is excellent advice that is greatly appreciated.????
Thank you so much for this powerfully informative post. Such good stuff!!
Thanks for the info. Excellent questions. I would be afraid to ask these questions, afraid they wouldn’t take me on as a client. Now I know I can.
A timely, much-needed post. Thank you! Asking about royalty statements audits would have never crossed my mind until now. With the number of mistakes you’ve caught, that question will now be on my list!
Excellent and hard-to-find advice, thank you! This offers great insight both into the process of finding an appropriate match with an agent AND into what happens next.
New to this contract/agent business and have only had boilerplate contracts and difficult to read royalty statements. Great info and advice that I can use for next time.
Thank you for this. insightful and timely advice.
I had no idea about these issues. Thank so much. And thanks to Nathan Bransford for sending me here.
Thank you so much for this information. Too much at risk.
Thank you so much! Appreciate the honesty and the insight. I ‘m working on several manuscripts. Soon I will need to reach out to someone on at least one of them. Thanks again,
Thank you for your posts, they have been very informative. I recently finished a HF novel and followed a suggestion from a FB group member to submit it to a particular small publishing company. They have published 18 books last year, 60 in total. I am surprised to have the first company I contact offer to publish, after I clean up some writing issues. Is there anything I should be concerned about?
As I read this article, I began to realize how easy it is to be fooled by unscrupulous agents. I actually felt a pain in the pit of my stomach.
Love your posts Kristin