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Gigi Will Know: Should writers consult with a lawyer prior to signing a contract?

Also: What should writers offer their agents, and what should authors reasonably expect from agents?

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I have been writing for some time and hope to submit to publishers and magazines this year. Would you please help me with an area of concern?

In the ads section of The Writer magazine, readers are urged to “use caution when entering into a legal contract with a literary service offering agenting-like assistance.” Should I consult with a lawyer prior to signing a contract? What should writers offer their agents, and what should authors reasonably expect from agents?

Thank you for your kind advice!

—Wondering in L.A.

Dear Wondering,

It is so great that you feel like you’re ready to submit! Giddy-up!

Ah, the legal bits. There are, unfortunately, a number of unsavory actors out there who will claim to offer “agenting-like” assistance while not actually doing agent-appropriate things. They might say some of these services include introducing you to editors, sending your work to editors, providing editorial advice in terms of the form of your work.

However. Although these services might be “agent-like,” some of these people are not actually agents. Therefore, the disclaimer. Now. Your question is more to the point: Should you consult with a lawyer before signing a contract? It depends on who with. If someone approaches you offering to “represent” your book, which is agent-talk for sending it out to editors at publishing houses and potentially working with you on some editorial aspects of your book while also looking after some other parts of your career like your book’s subrights (film, television, audio, foreign, to name a few) and maybe even your next few projects, and if that agent has a track record with clients you’ve been able to speak to, then really it’s up to you as to whether or not you consult external legal counsel. It’s not a bad idea to have a second set of eyes on a contract that involves a lot of legalese, but it can be expensive. You can also look into membership at the Author’s Guild, which does provide legal services to authors if you’re a member.

Most reputable agents I know, though, provide good contracts that don’t necessarily need another legal eye.

Authors can reasonably expect that an agent will represent their book to the best of that agent’s capacity. Things like how often you’re in touch with the agent, the length of time that the agent will try to sell your book to a publisher for, and whether or not an agent has right of first refusal on any additional books are things you might ask about when you’re speaking to an agent about possible representation.

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If someone offers to represent your book in exchange for a tidy sum of money, then you haven’t found an agent; you’ve found a scam artist

As to what authors should offer their agents: A cool head. The best work you can produce. Patience. In other words, the very same things you’d want in any professional relationship. And one more thing: An author should never, ever, be expected to offer their agent money. That’s a huge no-no in publishing: If someone offers to represent your book in exchange for a tidy sum of money, then you haven’t found an agent; you’ve found a scam artist: agents get paid when you sign a contract. They get 15% of your advance and your royalties. Never, ever pre-pay. Continue your search.

Wonder no more,

—Gigi

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