When is it time to sign an author-agent contract?

May 11, 2011

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.

Each one looks different from the next. (Capetown, South Africa)

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.

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    5 Replies to “When is it time to sign an author-agent contract?”

    • Kim Kircher says:

      Interesting advice. I never would have thought it possible to work with an agent without a contract. I already had a book deal on the table when I signed my agent. I needed a third party to negotiate the contract and also wanted to have her in my court for the next go around. We signed a contract right away, then I signed the book contract about a week later. Not the way it usually goes, I realize. Good luck to you on selling your manuscript to a publisher!

    • Hope Clark says:


      I have a contract with my agent for my fiction series. However, I recently pondered a nonfiction book idea relative to FundsforWriters. She offered to represent me on it. I thought about, and told her yes. We’ve signed no contract. She sent me ideas for book proposals, and when I polish off a proposal and send it to her, we’ll talk contract. In the meantime, either of us could technically move on, but we have a verbal understanding we’ll reduce to paper when the product is ready to present to a publisher. What your soon-to-be-agent told you is what my experience has been. Hope this helps. But you are right. Nothing is uniform in this business.

      Hope Clark

    • Anne R Allen says:

      This is SUCH a useful post. When I was a newbie, I worked with two different agents without a contract. They both ended up dropping me when they couldn’t sell my book. People told me I was an idiot, but I kept telling myself–I’m getting free editing advice from an agent–how can that be wrong? You’re validating what I was feeling at the time–I was getting more out of the relationship than the agent was!

    • Peggy Frezon says:

      I asked myself the same question when I was querying agents, and came across about every possible preference. First, I had an agent asking me for various corrections and additions to my proposal over several weeks, but because there was no contract I figured they were still thinking about representation. Turned out to be kind of a messy situation. The next agent, from a very large and very reputable agency, offered to represent me, and did not work with a contract. The third agent, (who I went with) did give me a contract. So I found that each agent is very different and I think either contract or non can be acceptable.

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