Negotiating with a publisher, with & without an agent

Dear Victoria, I’ve just been offered my first book deal by a professional digital publisher. They’ve sent me a deal sheet and asked if I have an agent or if I will be doing my own contract negotiations. As I’m a new author and have been focusing my efforts on writing for ebook markets like Ellora’s Cave and Samhain, I hadn’t given thought to approaching an agent before. Now, I’m getting dizzy looking at this deal and feeling in over my head!

Should I change my mind and query an agent with this deal? Or is it possible to successfully negotiate a contract without one? My concern is that I am not sure where my fiction career is heading after this book. I might continue to write novellas for ebook companies. Admittedly, I have a short attention span—but I also wish to hone my craft and get a few publications under my wings before submitting to larger print publishers. Are there resources for agentless writers? Thank you!Christine

Well, congratulations, Christine! An offer of publication is always a nice thing to have.

I’m glad you asked about this situation, as I think it’s becoming more common these days. And I’ll tell you: I recommend getting an agent.

There are several reasons for this:

1) A lot of digital-only publishers are on the up-&-up. And a lot of them are not. This is because digital publishing can take very little effort on the part of the publisher—depending upon their standards—making it all income and almost no outlay for them. If they get you to sign a contract giving them the bulk of whatever profit is made, they just made their money for nothing more than being smarter than you. Thanks, guys!

The same is true of Print-On-Demand (POD). Recently, a client of mine negotiated without an agent with a small independent publisher who wanted infinite POD rights to her novel. She got a lot of advice from friends and professional contacts and eventually, when the publisher refused to budge, pulled out of the negotiations. She now has an agent shopping her (very beautiful) novel around and is feeling incredibly thankful for having escaped that close call. And she’s not a rube, either—she’s a highly talented and very intelligent writer, with a lawyer husband looking out for her best interests.

Unless you’re already a veteran of the industry, the one way to make certain you’re not tangling with a snakeoil salesperson is to get a licensed agent involved. Reputable acquisitions editors are always gracious about understanding the need for this.

2) A licensed agent has a vested interest in your book being the best it can be before it’s thrown to the lions. Shady publishers do not. Agents are looking at getting 15% of as many sales as they can possibly get out of not only this book, but every book you write from now on. They don’t want 15% once. They want 15% for the rest of your working career. Otherwise they don’t get to eat.

Shady publishers want as much as they can lay their hands on right now, before you wise up and realize you’re giving something for nothing. So they publish a lot of stuff that is simply not ready for publication. Take my word for it: you do not want your name published on your early drafts. Remember what Anne Lamott said? Those early drafts—as much as you might love them when you first write them—are shitty.

3) There’s a lot more to publishing than ebooks. As Donald Maass pointed out in the interview Monday, ebooks are only about 4% of the market, while there’s a whole plethora of such things as territory and sub-rights involved in all types of publishing: digital, audio, print. Do you know what those things are? Because a licensed agent does.

4) Even if you know all about territory, sub-rights, print, audio, and ebooks, are certain your publisher is decent and intends to be completely fair with you, and know for a fact that your novel has been edited by a high-level professional editor into the best shape it can possibly be. . .a licensed agent has the clout of multiple authors and their multiple wonderful, salable books that a single author simply doesn’t have. Make no mistake: the author-publisher relationship is fundamentally confrontational. They have something you want—publication—and you have something they want—a book. Both of you want to get the best financial deal. An agent steps into the breach to represent the author’s interests in a way that no publisher (unless they intend to go broke) ever will.

Now, CAN you negotiate without an agent? Sure, you can. That’s what my co-author and I did with my first book, Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators. Guess what? We got taken to the cleaners by our acquisitions editor at Prentice Hall. Joke’s on us.

However, agent-hunting can be a huge hassle and take forever, especially these days. So if you aren’t interested in that whole song-&-dance, you can at least join the National Writer’s Union. They are extremely helpful and, although they can’t represent your interests to a publisher the way an agent can, they can certainly work with you to make sure you don’t get sold snakeoil.