Did I Just Make a Rookie Mistake?
December 18, 2014 8:42 AM   Subscribe

I just signed my first publishing deal after the publisher approached me directly. I had been noncommittally talking to an agent before this--no representation agreement or anything, just hypotheticals and suggestions. When the publisher contacted me, I just jumped for it and didn't tell the agent until it was done. Did I just screw over that agent, or is this just business?

I never reached out to agents or publishers with these books (or others). As noted, the books were out as self-published works, and I've done really well with that. Both parties found the books on their own and came to me. There are two books out (in series) so far, and I'm working on the next with plans for more.

The agent was a super nice guy and all, and definitely from a reputable agency (I checked). He gave the first book a read, contacted me, and then did another read-through with notes. This all happened in November. His notes were all about massive structural changes--turning the first act of the first book into a series of flashbacks rather than a linear narrative, making other changes, etc. He didn't say this was all a requirement, just that he believed he could sell the book better if it flowed differently. I wanted to chew on it.

About a week or two later, I got the first email and then phone call from an editor. She wanted the books pretty much as they are. I had a handful of other concerns going in and found pretty much right off that those concerns weren't issues for the editor. I showed the deal to an author friend (after ensuring that this wasn't confidential) and a lawyer and everything came up good, so I signed.

I let the agent know in an email, and I was of course apologetic for his time. He said it was a massive disappointment and that I should have had him in my corner. He was not the first agent to contact me, but he was the first to say or do anything serious--and yet, again, it's not like we entered into any agreements.

Still, I keep wondering: did I just screw this guy? I'm satisfied with the deal I got. But I can't tell if I made a serious rookie mistake at someone else's expense by not telling him this was going on, or if this is just how the business rolls and I'm making more out of this than I should out of rookie naivete.
posted by scaryblackdeath to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: No, you didn't. You had no contract and you didn't even need him OR his advice to get your book published. He didn't bring you the deal, they came to you.

He can be disappointed all day long, but if he wanted to sign you and rep you and get you a deal, then he should have secured you under a contract.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:47 AM on December 18, 2014 [10 favorites]

As Ruthless Bunny said, you didn't screw him. He knows there was no guarantee of return on his time investment. But he may have been able to get you better terms or a more prestigious publisher or something like that.
posted by the_blizz at 8:54 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I should add, though, that there's a certain amount of nicey-nice in the publishing world, which can be very small, and where relationships are built on more than contracts. So I do think you made a professional error there.
posted by the_blizz at 8:57 AM on December 18, 2014

Honestly, the person you may have screwed here is yourself. True, you got a deal, and it's a good thing that you checked with a lawyer (hopefully a publishing lawyer? publishing contracts can be pretty arcane and lawyers really need to have experience in the field) and another author to make sure you weren't getting royally screwed on the contract.

However, if you had made the changes -- who knows? Your prospective agent may have been able to take your book to auction and get you a much better deal. That kind of action doesn't just mean a larger advance for you -- it also means more buzz around the book, a higher marketing budget, etc.

I think ethically you're in the clear -- you hadn't signed with him, and you hadn't made his changes before submitting to the editor. But I also wouldn't be surprised if you would have had a shot at an even better deal going with the agent.

For future reference, you can always call an agent once you have an offer from a publisher, explain that you have an offer in hand, and ask them to rep you. Now that you have a deal, it also may be worth finding an agent to rep you for future deals.

Congrats on the deal, btw!
posted by pie ninja at 8:58 AM on December 18, 2014 [11 favorites]

No, you did not screw him. You didn't owe him anything. I'm sure he is disappointed, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it's disappointemet in the hope that he had placed in securing a relationship with you under his initiation, and that has nothing to do with you.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:09 AM on December 18, 2014

You didn't do something illegal -- there was apparently no contract in place so there's no breach of one. But he put a lot of work in and you blew it off without even notifying him, which is at a minimum discourteous. At least you didn't apparently use his input to strike your own deal.

I doubt you are really so naive as to think it's OK to agree to have an agent work for you and then cut them out when you get a chance. I think you didn't like his proposed changes and that's why you conveniently failed to let the publisher know you had an agent or tell your agent anything until after you made your own deal.

This is sharp practice by you, and it is hard to know if it cost you anything. I'm glad for you that you are to be published but I hope reflection helps you not do this again. You may not pay a price but a breach of trust like this is likely to negatively affect this guy's supportive approach to other authors and their ability to get representation without a formal contract.
posted by bearwife at 9:24 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think it's just how "the biz" rolls. I mean, I understand why he might take it as rude, and it might have been good to let him know in advance, but what you were supposed to do, obligate yourself to bring this guy in on a deal he had no part in finding or securing? He has got to be used to undertaking this type of risk.

I would be more concerned about whether you miss out by not having an agent to fight for you during the rest of the process. For example, when I went through a publishing experience, agent-less, I really wished I'd had someone to advocate for stuff like better cover art.
posted by johngoren at 9:36 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bearwife, scaryblackdeath didn't have an agent; she had been pitched by a number of agents, corresponded with one, signed with none, and then made a satisfactory deal without representation. Maybe she could have done better on this deal, but with a deal in hand maybe she can sign with an agent who can do more for her later.
posted by nicwolff at 9:39 AM on December 18, 2014

You're fine. Don't worry about it.

But for the future, I will say that my experience is that agents pay for themselves, both in actual cash and in solving problems down the road.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:40 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I pretty much came in to say what Pie Ninja said above.

You were rude to this agent, but nothing awful. You may have made things harder for yourself in the long run. Being represented by an agent is about more than just finding a publisher -- a good agent will be your advocate for the entire life of your book, as well as an ally in your overall career. I haven't seen your contract and I don't know what publisher you're working with. I don't know if the lawyer you talked to specializes in publishing, or if your author friend knows what they're talking about. I don't know if you signed away rights that you didn't need to relinquish, if your advance or your royalties will be less than they could have been, any of that sort of thing. That said, I assume that you're happy with the terms, and that counts for a lot.

My main worry is that, if you want to sign with an agent in the future, this will make that process more difficult. As others have said, publishing is a tiny world and you wasted an enormous amount of that agent's time.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:41 AM on December 18, 2014

You didn't screw this agent over, and I think he was rude to you, but it would have been polite (and the usual thing to do) to give him a heads-up before signing the contract with the publisher. You could have said something like, "I just wanted to let you know that X contacted me unsolicited and gave me an offer on the book as-is. I've thought about it, and I think I'd prefer not to make major changes at this point. I'm planning to accept the offer, but I really appreciate your time and your feedback."

Then, you could have waited a day before accepting, just to give the agent a chance to make his case. Who knows -- he may have had something useful to say, and you may have decided you wanted an agent even with a book deal in hand.

However, the fact that he worked on the book without a contract didn't obligate you to sign with him. I can assure you that many agents and editors offer substantial feedback pre-contract, as well as frequently requesting substantial changes from an author pre-contract. In all cases, this work is being done by both agent/editor and author with an understanding that a contract may not follow.
posted by cider at 9:50 AM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also: be wary of friends and such who have no experience in the publishing world and want to offer you advice about this kind of thing. For better or worse, there's a Way Things Are Done in publishing. I've been doing this for a while and I still screw up or get confused sometimes. Of course, there's an argument to be made for breaking away from the status quo and pushing for what seem like better practices, but it's better to know what that status quo IS first.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:51 AM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had this experience with an agent earlier this year, and when he also chewed me out for electing to move forward without him, I told him that his unprofessional treatment of me now for doing what was best for me was a really good indicator that he wasn't going to be the right person to represent me or my interests. Truly professional and competent agents do not throw shit fits when they don't get first bid. He needs to grow up. Obviously YMMV here, but for me, working with someone who would treat me poorly when I do something wrong rather than dialogue with me respectfully = a no go, no matter what they offer me.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:08 AM on December 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

The people who say you didn't screw him over, but you may have screwed yourself over a little are right. I think some of it comes down to whether you feel his suggestions would have made your book better. It was obviously good enough to get a deal as is, but if the changes he suggested would make your writing better, then you've missed out on a chance to bring someone on board who would position you for more success in the future, as well as someone who would know how to leverage your current deal into better deals down the line.

Now if you don't think his editorial suggestions would make your writing stronger, you probably wouldn't have been happy with him long-term anyway, but if he's someone who could give you valuable feedback, then your decision was a little short sighted.
posted by MsMolly at 2:48 PM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agent here. It was rude - you should have dropped the agent a quick note saying that the editor had been in touch and did the agent now want to sign you? That's all.

Do you have lots of publishing contract knowledge? It takes years to acquire the kind of knowledge and negotiation skills that I use to protect my authors from publishers who want to take advantage of them. Things like high discount royalty rates (hello Amazon), what accounting periods they are allowed to take a reserve, how you are paid, etc. etc. All really, really important for the lifetime of your book. If you haven't already signed a contract, I suggest you contact an agent stat.
posted by meerkatty at 1:43 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

You own your work. This agent is unprofessional. Suggesting major changes & a rewrite -- making a narrative structure non-linear etc is major. Now if it was an R&R with an implied resubmission that's a different story. Then you broke professional courtesy. That's the key here in terms of faux pas- if the changes were so far off your original - then you can move along. It's all up to you. Up to you in developing relationships. A short note would've been courteous but you're not obligated. Agents reject writers often with form letters as SOP. That said, next time just think about the relationships you want & be courteous.
posted by litgrl at 7:51 PM on July 19, 2015

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