What should I look for when signing a contract with a literary agent?
February 24, 2014 8:50 AM   Subscribe

After a long search and several meetings, I've finally found a great NYC-based agent for my non-fiction book. Yay! But tell me pitfalls about the contract -- what kind of clauses might I regret signing?

Agent is from a very reputable firm, and I've spoken to other happy clients. So I'm not worried about him being a scoundrel at all. But I don't know anything about contracts (or business), and reading it, I'm just not sure where I could get tripped up. For privacy reasons, I'd prefer not to share the actual contract, but I would love if anyone had any advice on pitfalls to look out for. What might I regret down the line?

posted by EtTuHealy to Work & Money (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think you might regret not spending a couple hundred dollars to have a real, actual lawyer look at the thing.
posted by bfranklin at 8:55 AM on February 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

I agree, this is what lawyers are for.
posted by Dansaman at 9:01 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

What might I regret down the line?

Not running it by a lawyer.
posted by jon1270 at 9:08 AM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have a great NYC-based agent for my non-fiction work who's part of a big, reputable firm. I just went back and looked at what I did when I originally signed with him, and it looks like I didn't ask any lawyers, but I did run the agreement by a couple of friends and acquaintances who were literary agents (but who were in no way candidates to represent me, so there was no conflict of interest) to make sure all the language I didn't understand was standard to the business. There were a few special clauses I wanted in the contract, and the agency had no problem writing them in.

I've been with this agent for more than a decade and it's been terrific. The great thing about having an agent is that once you have one person in the industry you really trust, you lose all your stress about questions of this kind, whether this or that contract or agreement is reasonable, because you can just ask your agent! At least that's how it's worked out for me. Congratulations!
posted by escabeche at 9:22 AM on February 24, 2014

I agree with above suggestions to let a lawyer look it over. The contract I signed with the publisher for my two books was boilerplate--the one thing I really regretted is not retaining more control over the design of the books. One was and ABC book and one was a 1...2...3 book and for the second, the designer picked a hideous, unreadable font for the numbers (they looked like they were covered in feathers) and we couldn't get them to change it. We got nailed on that in reviews.
posted by agatha_magatha at 9:23 AM on February 24, 2014

If you get a lawyer to look at it, be sure that the lawyer in question is familiar with this sort of contract--my experience has been that lawyers who don't have that experience will flag a lot of bog-standard, non-alarming things as OMG WTF because publishing is weird and the norms that you'd find elsewhere don't always apply.

That said, I know many many people who have agents, and very few who actually had lawyers read it over. Make sure that you understand the whole contract, and if you don't, you should definitely seek clarification and possibly legal counsel. Research standard percentages and make sure that what your agent is asking for is in line with that. (I can't imagine that it wouldn't be, but every once in a while...)

Also, the bit that no one likes to think about, but double-check your exit clause. What do you have to do to get out of contract with the agent? Is it a fixed term, or a simple upon request kind of deal? If it's a fixed term, is there a mechanism in place for leaving before the end of the term, and do you feel that it's reasonable? This is a thing that can burn you in the future--no one wants to have to wait out a contract that they feel isn't working for them anymore.
posted by MeghanC at 9:34 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


I am an author and friends with many more, and I don't know a single one who had a lawyer look over their contract before signing. However, in every case we're talking experienced agents at well-respected agencies with public or semi-public personas, with numerous deals reported on Publisher's Markeplace, and recommended by sites like Preditors and Editors. You said the firm is reputable and you've heard from happy clients (who have sold, hopefully?), which is fantastic. MeghanC's advice about the exit clause is great, and I think that's the only thing I had my agent tweak when we signed ~5 years ago, switching notice from 60 days to 30. Of course, if consulting a lawyer makes you feel better, by all means go ahead.

Now, contracts from publishers -- those are big ol' messes. But that's what we have agents for.
posted by changeling at 9:45 AM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure what goes into a literary agent contract rather than an actual publishing contract (not familiar enough with this area), however, one thing I've heard around the legal-world-water-cooler is to watch out for clauses dealing with being "out of print." The law on ebooks is just starting to develop, but essentially the hazard is that with an ebook edition out there "somewhere," your work is never technically out of print so your rights under those clauses are basically nullified.

You might want to see if an organization like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts can refer you to someone pro bono or low-cost; they also have a legal hotline and clinics.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:57 AM on February 24, 2014

The Authors Guild is full of resources for first-time (and long-published authors) including The Writer's Legal Guide
posted by pocketfullofrye at 9:57 AM on February 24, 2014

Additionally having writers look at it would be good for just like "oh yeah this is right basically" or "oh what could go wrong is this," not as a legal read, which you should definitely also do at VLA or the like.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:38 AM on February 24, 2014

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