Inside Traditional Publishing: An Agent's Take on Contracts

04/06/2015 04:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Of all the skills a literary agent is required to have, the most important is the ability to negotiate well on behalf of the author client. Authors hire agents to protect their business interests in publishing. How do you know if your agent is a good negotiator?

In her article Fearless Negotiation: An Agent's Most Important Role for an Author, Kristin Nelson, president of Nelson Literary, tells how:

1.) Good agents negotiate all deals.

Good agents don't accept the initial offer from the editor. There is always something that can be negotiated. A higher advance, a better escalator in the royalty break, two books instead of one, restricting the rights, holding or giving audio. The list goes on and on. I share with my authors the original offer and then the final offer before accepting. Does your agent? They should.

Good agents negotiate the deal even if an author brings the publisher offer to the agent. Where the offer comes from doesn't matter. Every deal and every contract is negotiable. Always. There are no exceptions.

Good agents are willing to walk away from an offer if the terms aren't favorable enough for the author.

2.) Good contract negotiation takes time.

Even with a basic boilerplate for my agency in place, most contracts take 6 to 12 weeks to negotiate fully. If a new boilerplate from a publishing house is introduced, then it can take 6 to 9 months to get a new agency boilerplate in place that is reasonable for an author to sign. In the last 6 years, both HarperCollins and Macmillan introduced entirely new contracts. Rumor has it that later this year Random House and Penguin will merge their contract forms into a new Penguin Random House contract boilerplate.

Contracts turned around quickly or that take less time than what I've mentioned above = the agent is not negotiating or is not standing firm on key items until a compromise is found. And compromise can always be struck so both publisher and author are happy. But that takes time and several rounds of negotiation.

You don't want agents pushing through a contract quickly simply because they need the money, or can't be bothered, or don't understand the clauses.

A good agent may be a great communicator or team builder, give great marketing feedback, have good relationships with editors, have good taste in picking projects (all wonderful skills to have), but if they aren't also a good negotiator, then just how valuable are these other skills to the author and their career?


Karen Dionne is an internationally published thriller author, co-founder of the writers discussion forum Backspace, and organizer of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat and the online Backspace Writers Conference. She is represented by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management.

Kristin Nelson established Nelson Literary Agency in 2002. She has represented over thirty New York Times bestselling titles and many USA Today bestsellers.

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