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Inside Traditional Publishing: A Tale of Two Authors (A Cautionary Story)

05/08/2015 04:42 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

In a perfect world, every literary agent would be a fearless negotiator, working tirelessly to get the best possible book deals for his or her clients. Kristin Nelson, president of Nelson Literary Agency, has written extensively on how agents negotiate a publishing deal. According to her article "Negotiation Tactics of Good Agents,"which is well worth a read for any author involved with or considering traditional publication, not only do good agents negotiate the size of the advance, they also:

* Only grant rights that are commensurate with the advance level being offered.
* Only sell World English or World rights if the subrights splits are standard.
* Don't sell the publisher world translation rights or audio without reversion clauses.
* Only sell rights or do deals with publishing houses that offer standard royalties.
* Pre-negotiate "tricky" contract clauses in the deal memo stage.

But the world isn't perfect. And sometimes an author's career goes off the rails because their agent doesn't have the knowledge, skills, or tenacity necessary to negotiate well on the author's behalf.

Author #1 had a six-figure offer from a major publisher for the first three books of his self-published middle grade series. He also had no agent. The publisher recommended several, and the author signed with one. Sadly, the agent did not negotiate better contract terms. This meant the author now had to give the agent 15% of the exact same six-figure deal he'd set up himself.

The author hoped the agent would earn his commission going forward by advocating for the book during the publishing process. But in time, the author realized his agent wasn't doing anything he wasn't already doing himself. He terminated the relationship, and negotiated the next three-book deal without an agent.

As the time neared for the next contract, this author still felt he could get a better deal if a savvy agent negotiated on his behalf. He interviewed carefully, and signed with an agent with an excellent reputation who was also a fan of the author's work. The agent soon learned what the publisher hadn't yet told the author: sales were soft, and there wasn't going to be a third offer. The agent pitched a new series, but the publisher wasn't interested. Neither were the other publishers the agent submitted to because of the author's declining sales record. He and the agent parted ways, and the author's dream of supporting his family with his writing was over.

This author is convinced the outcome would have been different if his first agent had been a tougher negotiator--not only in regard to the size of the advance, but in the thousand and one ways his agent could have run interference at the publishers to ensure that the author's books got the in-house attention they needed and deserved. This agent may have been afraid to rock the boat, but it was the author's ship that sank.

Author #2's agent got him a 2-book deal with a well-known mass-market paperback publisher. The contract included joint accounting. Nelson explains in her "Think Like an Agent" series why joint accounting can be a very bad deal, as this author was about to find out.

When his first book published, it sold reasonably well. Meanwhile the author was busy writing the second. To his surprise, the publisher rejected the book. The author wrote another, which the publisher also rejected. The author wrote a third book, which the publisher rejected when the book was half finished.

Are you keeping count? Two and a half books written over who knows how many years in a valiant effort to deliver the second book of his contract. Meanwhile, because these two contracted-for books were irrevocably linked due to joint accounting, even though the first book was selling well, during all that time, the author didn't see another dime.

If you're wondering where the author's agent was through all of this, so was I. Why didn't the agent run interference with the publisher? Why was this author forced to spend years writing multiple books without getting paid for them? Surely there was something a savvy agent could have done.

The author wrote a fourth book which the publisher finally accepted, only to drop the book after Borders went bankrupt. Eventually the author got the rights back to his books and self-published these novels along with the ones his publisher had rejected. All of his books have been very well received by readers, and the author is now with a small publisher with an excellent reputation. Most important, the author feels that his career is finally on track.

Admittedly, much of what determines the success or failure of an author's career is beyond the author's and agent's control. But holding out for an agent who is a fearless negotiator can be the author's best defense for an author in a challenging, uncertain business.

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