Back in my publishing infancy I was negotiating a contract with an author. I was an editor at a major publishing house and the author opted not to get an agent despite my suggestion that she do just that. I was even willing to provide a list of reputable agents I thought would be a good fit.
The initial negotiations went fairly well. We agreed on an advance, rights and a royalty rate. Everything was fairly standard (although she probably could have gotten better terms with an agent). It was during the negotiations with the publisher’s contract department that things went bad.
In contract negotiations it is typical that an agent will first negotiate upfront terms with an editor. These usually include things like the advance, royalty rate and which rights you’re offering the publisher (foreign, audio, etc). Once those terms are finalized, things are turned over to the contracts department. This is when your agent negotiates what I like to call the nitty-gritty of the contract. The details and wording that seem small, but can make a huge difference in your future.
The author of this tale was very upset about some of the wording in the contract. She had decided, after talking with her family lawyer, that it put her at a liability risk and needed to be changed or deleted. Any agent will tell you that this particular wording is standard and no publisher is going to delete it, although there might be small ways it could be changed. The author was calling me and asking me to talk to the contracts department on her behalf. I talked to people in our office to get a better understanding of what was going on, and I tried to make this deal work, but in the end I worked for the publisher, not the author. I was not in a position to negotiate her contract for her.
The author ended up walking away from the contract and, to the best of my knowledge, never received another book deal. To this day the story still makes me a little sad.
What made me think of this so many years later is that I just recently finished a contract negotiation with an editor and publisher I both like and trust, but the emails for this negotiation were terse at times and made me think how hard it would be for an author to deal with this directly, and how badly it would impact the relationship between the editor and the author if I were forwarding emails that essentially said, “sign this or else”.
Negotiation is not for the weak. In a good negotiation everyone with some of what they wanted, but rarely everything. That’s the way compromise (and negotiation) works. An agent’s job in a contract negotiation is to get her client the very best terms possible and allow her to go into the editor/agent relationship feeling excited and good about working with her editor. She shouldn’t go in feeling like her editor pushed her into something she wasn’t comfortable with or didn’t fight for her. Just one of the many reasons why an agent can be good for your career.