5 Quick Tips for Writer/Agent Negotiations

Guest column
by Howard G. Zaharoff

Just because you’re excited someone wants to represent you doesn’t mean you should let them take advantage of you. Beware of these red flags when negotiating contracts with agents.

        1. Watch for red flags. Reputable agents don’t charge reading fees or require other upfront payments, they don’t sell (or at least, don’t brag about sales) to vanity presses, and they will readily identify other authors and projects they’ve represented.

        2. Beware of excessive commissions. The norm is now 15 percent for book sales, though it can be up to 20–25 percent for foreign sales (for which the agent works with a subagent) and 10–20 percent for movie, TV and theatrical sales.
        3. Avoid commissions on speaking fees. Most reputable agents will not try to horn in on these, and they really aren’t entitled to, unless they were directly responsible for getting you the engagement.
        4. Keep control over expenses. Ideally your agent will not charge for onesie-twosie copies or standard postage, but only for unusual expenses—long-distance charges, major copying, courier services—and will work within spending limits (nothing over a fixed amount, say $100–$250, without your approval).
        5. Insist on timely payment. Ideally, you’ll get paid your 85 percent directly by the publisher, though many agents insist on collecting the entire amount first. (This is fairly standard but poses risks, especially if the agent goes bankrupt—so some writers push for “split accounting,” which requires the publisher to pay them directly.) Although most publishers still report and pay royalties semi-annually, typically within three months after the semi-annual period ends (so the royalty for a book sold in January arrives in late September!), your agent should pay you promptly upon receiving the funds—ideally within 10 days, but no longer than 30.

This guest column about agents was
pulled from the current issue of Writer’s
Digest (Sept. 2009)  Order it online
to see more queries as well as our exclusive
list of 24 Agents Who Want Your Work.


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3 thoughts on “5 Quick Tips for Writer/Agent Negotiations

  1. Jack Lord

    Talking of scams, I received an unsolicited email tonight:

    Received: from Filmlg89@cs.com

    Attention Screenwriter:

    We’re former Beverly Hills agents who’ve represented ™Academy Award winning and nominated screenwriters. As literary consultants, we help aspiring talented writers with script coverage, story notes, editing, rewrites and adaptations of novels into screenplays. Our experienced and professional staff specializes in packaging and marketing your script to indie producers, executive producers with studio deals, plus foreign and domestic distributors.

    If you’re strictly seeking an agent or manager to represent you, then this might not serve your needs. Otherwise,set aside free time to review our website, filmliterarygroup.com and please fill out the script submission form in the contact us drop down and contact us at 310-556-2040 to discuss submitting your project to interested buyers.



    Film Literary Group | 1901 Ave of the Stars Suite 200 | Los Angeles | CA | 90067 | US


    My reply:

    Yes, I have a screenplay I’ve just completed seeking representation. What are you offering? Is there an up-front fee? If so then we won’t be doing business but if not then we can talk.



    The response:

    Received: from Filmlg89@cs.com


    You need to find an agent who are on salaries so they can schlepp for you and pay their mortgages. We were very clear with our message, we’re former agents. We get paid for by the job.

    Remember, William Morris just merged with Endeavor and upwards of 200 agents were recently pink slipped. So we wish you the best of luck with that arduous task.


    Nice. Apparently an agent’s job is to “Schlepp”. OK then…hey, why don’t those 200 agents get together and start…an agency, how about that?

    OK, little bit pedantic, but I have a question: Why would I go to a “former agent??”

    The guy to ‘allegedly’ watch out for is called Stephen Gray – http://www.filmliterarygroup.com/stephan.htm

    Here’s a thread about them on Done Deal:

    Maybe this is a well-known company and I’m the last to know but I thought I’d mention it.


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