What happens if you get a book contract before you have an agent? What if, by some miracle, an editor sees your work and wants to publish it? (1) would having a publisher interested in my work make an agent much more likely to represent me, and (2) would it be appropriate to try to find an agent at that point (when a publisher says it wants to publish you)? My fear is that querying an agent and receiving a response could take several months, but I’d need to accept a potential contract with a book publisher right away (I would think). Is it appropriate to ask the editor to speak with an agent on your behalf to speed the process?
This is a great topic, but there are a few questions within the question. Let me try to break it down.
How do you let the agent know of this situation? Believe me. An agent is likely to read an email (even if originally sent to an assistant) that has a subject line with the sentences, “Contract offer in-hand. Are you interested in representing me?“
Many times we have had authors approach us with contracts in hand and seeking representation. Usually a ready-made deal will get an agent’s attention, but there are questions we will ask:
(a) Who is the publisher? There is a big difference between a major company and your local independent publisher. Not all publishers are created equal. (Do some serious due diligence concerning your particular publisher.)
I remember a situation where the publisher who had made the offer to the author was not well known in the industry, they appeared to be a startup, and the terms in the contract were onerous. This was not a publisher we could recommend the author work with. We declined to represent the project. The author signed the contract anyway, without an agent. A few years later the author came to me detailing their regrets and wanted my help to get out of the contract they signed! Not a happy ending.
There are also packagers, subsidy publishers, and vanity presses that can easily confuse a new writer into thinking that their contract offer is similar to getting a contract offer from Penguin Random House. This is not a criticism of those companies but merely to present their contract offers as a contrast to what is offered by traditional publishing. Do your due diligence and practice discernment.
It is one reason why The Christian Writers Market Guide has one section for “Book Publishers” (aka traditional) and another section for “Independent Book Publishers” (aka nontraditional).
(b) Is this a real contract offer or an editor who said they were interested? This is a big difference. I once had a writer literally beg for representation because an editor had said they were interested at a conference (and when I wrote “literally beg” I meant with all the fullness of what that phrase suggests–on their knees pulling at my arm). Found out later the editor had been stopped in a hallway and after hearing the author’s pitch said to the writer, “Sure, I’ll give it a look if your agent sends it to me.” (FYI: That is not a contract offer.)
(c) What is your content? To maintain our integrity, we would still need to see your book. We never will represent someone’s work without seeing it first. Our company becomes associated with that material. If your contract offer is from a major house, trust that we will not sit on the content for long. There is no need to ask the editor to get involved at this stage. It would put them in an awkward position, especially if they would prefer working with a different agent! Also do not ask the editor which agent they prefer. I repeat, you would be putting them in an awkward position. Better to ask, “I’m thinking of working with Steve Laube as my agent. Are there any red flags that you feel comfortable sharing with me?” (I anticipate a few jokes in the comments with that set-up line.)
(d) Who are you? We may have never met or talked. We need to find out if you are who you say you are. If we have met in the past, remind me of the context.
If your first book was contracted and the publisher is talking to you about a second book, but you now think you should have an agent in your corner, please contact one. There any many instances where the first book was done solo but the subsequent deals had professional help.
I have a client right now whom I met at a conference. The writer pitched their idea and I thought the idea intriguing, but I challenged the writer to “blow me away” with their sample material and send it to me. At the same conference the writer connected with an editor at a major publisher. That editor became quite enthused and worked directly with the author for a few months refining the project. I did not know this was happening and was simply waiting for the proposal to arrive at our office. Good news is that the editor and publisher offered a contract. The author immediately contacted me with the deal in hand. I asked a few questions, including:
(a) “Can you send me the material that got the editor so excited?”
(b) “Have you agreed to contractual terms yet?” Fortunately the answer was no. NEVER agree to terms with a publisher if you want to have an agent become involved. If you do, the agent is handcuffed in their ability to adjust certain rights and terms to your benefit.
(c) “Why do you want an agent? You already have a deal in hand!” The author said, “Steve, I know my limitations. If I were to represent myself, I would have a fool for a client.” We signed and have been working together ever since.
I also want to make sure the writer knows what an agent does for a client beyond the sale or the book deal. It is a myth that all an agent does is have exotic lunches and influence editors with their wiles and force of personality. In today’s publishing labyrinth, an author needs a guide. I firmly believe that every author needs a good agent by their side. But that is a post for another day.
[An earlier version of this post previously ran in March 2012.]