Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Tale of Five Agents: Agent #1

Downtown Raleighwood, 2013

My cell phone rang one afternoon in October 2010, displaying a number I didn't know from an area code I didn't recognize.  "Telemarketer," I muttered.  I glared at the number for a moment eyeing the "Ignore" button on the display.  At the last second, I clicked "Answer" instead.

"Hello?" I said in a slightly challenging tone.

"Hi? Is this Tom Franklin?"


"Hi, Tom!  I'm Agent #1 and I want to represent your book!"

I don't know how your mind would handle such a statement, but mine reacted by throwing a rod and seizing, right there in my office.  I believe I said something pithy, witty and charming along the lines of, "Wha?  Huh?  Heh!"

While I was trying to recall how to restart both my heart and my lung functions, Agent #1, in a fine showing of grace, took the chance to say, "Let me tell you a bit about myself."

I managed to restore enough motor coordination within myself enough to close my office door and pull up my Evernote account on my computer to look at my Questions for Agents list.

Agent #1 thankfully went on about herself for several minutes, not realizing she was describing having grown up and lived in places I was familiar with.  We had things in common!  (If only I could regain the power of speech long enough to acknowledge this out loud!)

Within a few minutes I was back to uttering reasonably astute one-syllable answers to certain questions so she moved her part of the discussion into talking about my book.  She actually talked about the things she liked about my book!  She spoke my characters' names aloud, thereby making them somehow more real to me than they had ever been before.  She loved the sense of humor, the voice, the dialog, the plot...

"I tell you what," she said after a bit.  "I'm going to send you a copy of our standard contract in email.  Take some time to go over it and we'll talk again in a few days, okay?  I'm really looking forward to working with you!"

I printed out the contract, then walked around the office for a bit to stop shaking.  Contracts should never be read while shaking.

When I finally calmed down enough, I read through the five pages of the contract... and wasn't too impressed with what I read.  Agent #1 worked for a fairly well-known NYC Agency, one that has represented authors and books you would probably recognize.  I re-read the contract and despite wanting to keep the light-headedness going, my mind was pushing annoying red flags in front of me.  One paragraph, for instance, stated their agency would earn their 15% commission on The Work regardless as to whether they sold it to a publisher or, failing that, I signed with another agent who end up selling The Work.

The jubilation of the early afternoon was replaced by slight hackles rising on my neck.

I'm lucky in that I work for a well-respected University Press during the days.  We have, on staff, someone whose job it is to deal with all author contracts, whether that contract goes solely through the author or through an author's agent.  I called that person and explained the situation.  She said she'd charge me one autographed copy of my future book for her services (sold!) and agreed to review the contract.

Two days later and a call to an agent she had recently worked for, my co-werker summed it up quite succinctly.
"This agency is doing a lot to protect themselves in this contract, and not a lot to protect you." 

I will note that a "standard contract" is rarely synonymous with "this contract is set in stone."  Most agencies/agents will enter into negotiations concerning their contract and will be willing to change language, strike and/or add paragraphs, sentences and clauses.  Having a lawyer or an expert on literary contracts is essential.

To that end, I could have negotiated the contract with Agent #1 to get it more to my liking.  However, after several days I found that I felt quite put off by Agency #1's contract.  We were supposed to be working together for our mutual benefit.  Instead, I felt I was working for their benefit and I didn't get a sense of their commitment to me, my book or my career as a writer.

So, I did something rather remarkable: I turned down their offer.

As it turned out, a second phone call made this decision that much easier...

NEXT: Enter Agent #2!

MORAL 1: You MUST find someone knowledgable and trustworthy to go over any contract with you.  A contract is a legally binding document that you must understand and agree to line-by-line.  To not do so is to do yourself and your writing career a serious disservice.

MORAL 2: Come up with a general list of questions for any agent and save them somewhere where you'll be able to access them at a moment's notice.  You never know where you'll be or when an agent  might give you The Call.

-- Tom