One of my greatest joys as an agent is negotiating the contract. I grew up with a father who negotiated everything from my new bike to our refrigerator. What I learned from him is that it never hurts to ask, but it’s all about the way you ask.
Contract negotiations, for me, are always a new adventure into seeing what I can do for my author. I love the back and forth and the challenge of finding new and creative ways to come to an agreement and find a common ground. Despite what many might think, contract negotiations are usually a very civil part of the process. Editors know it’s our job to ask for the sky and will often work with us, while in the confines of what they’re allowed to do, to make this deal happen. The truth is, what we all really want, is to make the deal happen in a way that makes everyone happy. Every single one of us wants this book to be published and we want to be the ones to do it.
To an author, negotiations can feel tense and scary. After all, this is your career and what you’ve been waiting for and the fear that an agent might upset an editor enough for them to walk away is real (although not likely). I get it. It’s also why we don’t include authors in the monotony of the back and forth of negotiations, why we don’t include the author in negotiation conference calls or cc them on negotiation emails.*** It’s also why authors have agents.
Another lifetime ago I was an editor and my job was to find the best books and get the best deals for the publisher. In the contract negotiations, I worked for the publisher which is why if I ever offered on an unagented project (it happened more back then) I always encouraged the author to find an agent first. I even had a list of five or so agents I liked working with whom I recommended (and not all of them made my job easier).
It was during those years that I really learned how important an agent can be to the process. One of those moments involved an author who chose not to get an agent. I think oftentimes those authors don’t want to pay the agent although, typically they also accepted far less than an agent would have gotten for them. In this particular instance, trouble began after the contract had left my hands and gone to the contracts department.
The author, understandably, didn’t fully understand all aspects of the contract and was trying to negotiate points that are standard contract terms and, for the most part, non-negotiable. Something an agent would have explained to her. She was scared and overwhelmed and she came to me for help and support. Except, I didn’t work for her. I worked for the publisher, as did the contracts department. It wasn’t my job to help her in contract negotiations and, frankly, I couldn’t. I couldn’t negotiate the contract for her from the inside. Yet, no matter how many times I encouraged her to get an agent she refused. In the end, she walked away from the deal hurt, upset, and feeling betrayed.
While yes, an agent’s job is most certainly to negotiate the very best deal she can for her client, it’s also to explain the process, the contract terms and what they mean to the author going forward. An agent also understands how to negotiate those “non-negotiable” terms in a way that will protect the author as much as possible. And an agent’s job is, hopefully, to ensure that once the deal is finalized everyone is happy and excited, not feeling worn-out and betrayed.
***While an author will not be included in the back and forth of negotiations, her agent should be keeping her up-to-date on where things stand and discussing details with her along the way.