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.