Signing on the Dotted Line: Working with your Agent to Get the Best Deal Possible
Let me preface this post by saying, this isn’t a post about getting six or seven figure advances. I know. You want to know how to make the big bucks. I don’t blame you. We all want to be paid for our worth, plus extra. Suffice it to say, if you get a publishing deal with one of the Big Five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan), it is a given you are going to get a pretty generous deal.
Now, are you going to get Stephen King money or J.K. Rowling money coming out the gate…probably not. But will you get “take a breath” money if you get a deal with a large size or medium size press? Yes, I can just about guarantee you that you will get an advance that will allow you to breathe (even if only for a month or two), and for writers, that is so very important. Most of us have never known the freedom to just write for a period of time. Most of us have only known writing in fits and starts. Writing before everyone gets up to start their day. Writing before going to the job. Writing during the train ride or bus ride to and from the office. Writing during lunch breaks and coffee breaks. But very few of us have known the joy and pleasure of wearing the writer’s hat only.
For me, the advance I received from Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins afforded me the opportunity to NOT teach this summer and teach part-time at my university for the next upcoming year. I’m also going to splurge on a new computer and then save the rest for a rainy day. But again, this post isn’t about the advance my agent was able to get me. This post is about something far more important.
A good agent is not just thinking about the advance. Now they ARE thinking about it because that is how they get paid, but they are also thinking about things that will have long-lasting impact beyond the check the publisher cuts soon after signing day. They are thinking about your long-term needs and goals as a writer. They are thinking about the next project and all of the ways your current project can be affected by the terms of the contract.
As authors, we just want to sign. When we found out Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins was interested in my book, I would have signed that very day. But thankfully, my agent, albeit excited too, understood, a book deal was only as good as the negotiation that took place. So, I forced myself to turn my attention back to writing, and stand back and allow my agent to do the job she signed up to do.
Rather than try and paraphrase some of the negotiations that took place, I reached out to my agent, Alice Speilburg at the Speilburg Literary Agency, and asked her, besides the money, what were some of things she fought for when negotiating my contract with Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins. This is what she said.
For your particular contract, I fought hardest for the following:
- Your ability to do other writing work outside of the confines of this project. This means narrowing what the publisher has an option on, or retaining subsidiary rights on this story, but also, narrowing the competition clause. Publishers want to make sure your book has the time and space to succeed, and that makes sense, but sometimes they ask for too much time and space. I removed a line in the contract that limited your ability to submit any other books to other publishers while you’re writing these books, and that prohibited any other publications until 6 months after the final book in the contract. That would likely be in 2023. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered in the end, but contracts are all about the "what if" scenario. Who knows what you would be inspired to write in the intervening time?
- Your approval of EVERYTHING. In this case, we licensed a lot of subsidiary rights to the publisher, and I wanted to make sure they would use them only with your input and approval. If your publisher wants to do a derivative project based on your book, or an adapted version, or an abridged version, or anything like that, they need author approval to proceed. They need author approval if they're going to put ads on the book (or ebook). They need author approval if they want to make a change to the text of the work for reasons other than fixing typos, grammar, and punctuation. Basically this allows you to maintain the integrity of the work we submitted.
- Keeping the agreements separately accounted. When I negotiated the initial offer for your book deal, the terms were this Agreement would be separately accounted from future agreements. That way, if this series is wildly successful and a future book hasn't earned out the advance, you don't have to wait on that book before you get paid for this one. I made a point to request that up front because they often won't agree to it at the contract stage. Sure enough, the contract had language saying that sums owed can be deducted from this Agreement or any other agreement between the author and publisher. So I had to remind the contracts department that the agreements are separately accounted. They cut that line and added the separate accounting note to clarify.
To be fair, these are things I have to add into most contracts. It's very rare to get a contract boilerplate that covers these items. Sometimes the things I fight for are much worse. Sometimes we cancel the deal because the terms are unreasonable and we can't reach a compromise. Other times I only have to add in deadlines for the publisher to respond to your manuscript or make a payment, and probably redefine the out-of-print clause that allows you to terminate the contract.
I wouldn’t have known to fight for these things. THAT is why an agent is so beneficial. Not only are they there to fight for your advances and payments, they are also there to fight for the things we as authors don’t know, and if the truth be known, don’t really need to know or want to know. My agent’s job is to make sure I can focus on the writing. That is my job. Her job is to make sure we get the best deal for what I write and what I learned through this process was the money was part of the negotiation but it wasn’t the part that meant the most to me, at the end of the day.
Maintaining the integrity of my work IS the most important thing to me. I built these characters from the ground up. I cried during their saddest moments and I laughed and celebrated during their happiest times. I am their Creator. I believe in them and will fight anyone to make sure they get the best opportunity to shine when revealed to the world. I needed an agent who had the same level of passion for those characters as I did and thankfully, Alice was that agent for me.
Finding the right agent is so important for a writer. For me, I wanted someone who could talk to me about my work AND negotiate like a pro. Not everyone is fortunate enough to find an agent who can do both. I was.
I have friends who only want a negotiator. They feel secure in their writing and they don’t desire their agent to do much more than sign off on the completed manuscript and then start fighting for the best deal. As I previously stated, I wanted a bit of both. I liked the fact that Alice and I could talk about my writing on the macro and micro level. I liked the fact that she saw things in the story that needed teasing out. I liked the fact that she loved books. Not every agent loves books, and I know that sounds strange but it is true. I know people with agents who never read the book their client writes. These non-reading agents give their client’s work to an assistant, the assistant works with the author, and the agent makes the deal. In essence, the agent is more like a legal strategist or lawyer (and there are agents out there who are lawyers…some use the name “literary attorneys.”).
I didn’t want that. So, if you are looking for an agent, think about your needs. Think about the kind of relationship you want to have with your agent. Don’t just sign with the first person who says they want to represent you. Ask pertinent questions like: What type of support do you offer your authors? Tell me about the last book you sold? How many clients do you have? Will you be working with me on fine-tuning my novel/book or will an assistant? What publishers do you feel would be a good fit for my work? What made you want to work with me?
Obviously, you want your agent to get you the best monetary deal, but really, you want someone who is going to do more than that. You want an agent who sees more than dollar signs when they see you. You want someone who sees the importance of your work and will fight like the dickens to make sure the world gets to read your words and you get the freedom to tell more stories, because after all, isn’t that what we are really after? The freedom to tell another story.
For more information about me and the books I write, click here. If you are looking for a writing mentor, click here.
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