It’s been nearly a year since I agreed to work with a literary agent for my travel memoir. My lovely agent has guided me through revisions, helping me strengthen my theme and story arc. She has, no doubt, helped me make my book better, all with the intention of eventually selling it to a publisher.
But until now, I had not signed an agent-author contract; our agreement to work together was entirely verbal. When I asked my agent whether we needed to put the relationship in writing, she said she usually waits to sign paperwork with new clients until they’re close to pitching the book to publishers.
So I asked around to find out whether this was normal. (As we say in the reporting biz, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”) One of my author friends, whose first book recently published, said she never signed a formal contract with her agent; they’ve always worked off a verbal agreement. Another author friend, who has published one book and has a contract for his second, near-scolded me for working with an agent without signing a contract. Of course, he also thought I shouldn’t have written a book without first selling a proposal, and we all know there’s no right answer on that one.
When I really sat down to think about it, I realized that while every newbie author is eager to sign her first contract, not signing an agreement until it’s time to submit to publishers could actually work in the author’s favor. Obviously you hope to love your agent and his or her work and never want to part ways. But if you do want to part ways, and you haven’t signed a contract, you can (hopefully without burning a bridge). Of course, that works likewise for the agent: If she regrets her verbal agreement to work with you, she can ditch out, too.
Except there’s far more risk on the agent’s part. Because by then, she could have invested months of helping you improve your manuscript, and if you leave her, she earns nothing from that. If the agent decides to leave you, on the other hand, you don’t really lose much. You retain the rights to your manuscript, you just have to find another agent. That could be a challenge, but it’s certainly doable. (Call me out if my reasoning here misses any crucial points.)
This all changes when a publisher offers to buy your book, and your agent looks for — and deserves — the standard 15 percent commission. By then, you’ve gotta have a written contract.
But before then? It’s up to you and your agent. Do what’s right for your team. Because as I’m learning, everyone approaches this publishing
monster process differently.