Querying With A Deal

What I wish I’d known about finding an agent when there’s an offer from a publisher first.

Finishing a book is a huge accomplishment–and figuring out what to do with that book can be huge challenge. There are so many types of publication right now and the paths to publication are not always straightforward. For example: what do you do if you get an offer from a publisher–but think you might still want an agent?

Tired girl with messy hair and laptop; caption says oh my god I need help.
Me, a lawyer, reading my first publishing contract.

That was me. I wrote a book, queried it, wrote a second book while querying the first, pitched the second to a publisher, got offered a deal on the second, got an offer of rep for the first the next day, spent two weeks contacting agents who had one or both of the books, had more offers of rep, and finally signed with my agent. (Whew.)

The two weeks between getting the deal and choosing an agent was a wild and stressful time. The point of this article isn’t to tell you what path to choose, but to share the things I wish I could have talked about with another author when I was navigating this process.

NOTE: Be careful signing any contract. This article does not address figuring out if a publisher and/or agent is legit. Check out articles like SFWA’s Literary Agents for more on that.

Ask Yourself: Do you want an agent?

I personally did, but it’s not what everyone wants. Some considerations:

  • Do you understand your publishing contract? Can you negotiate it by yourself, or pay to have a one-time review by a lawyer, agent, Authors Guild, etc.?
    • You likely should NOT sign a contract exactly as it’s offered by the publisher, because in most cases it is written to be as favorable as possible to them, not you.
  • If you negotiate to keep certain rights–e.g., audio book rights–will you sell these rights on your own? 
  • Are you able to advocate for yourself? Will you speak up if you’re unhappy about the cover, the editing schedule, the marketing efforts, or anything else?
  • Would keeping 100% of your royalties be worth handling everything by yourself to you?
  • What would you do if things went south with your agent?
  • After this publishing contract is over, what is your plan for future books?
    • How many publishers in your genre(s) will consider un-agented submissions?
    • Are you fine with pitching to publishers by yourself?
  • Where do you want to be in five years? Ten years? How does having/not having an agent fit into your future goals?
Elle Woods from Legally Blonde saying I feel comfortable using legal jargon in everyday life.
Maybe Elle doesn’t need an agent.

If you decide you want an agent, should you sign with the agent before you sign the publishing contract?

If you engage an agent before signing with the publisher:

  • Finding an agent will likely be easier and faster
  • Your agent will negotiate the contract with the publisher for you
  • Your agent will get a cut (usually around 15%) of your royalties on book(s) you, the author, sold by yourself.
    • A good agent should negotiate a better contract then you could have yourself, a contract worth that 15%. E.g., an agent may be able to turn a 1-book deal into a 3-book deal, get an offer from a bigger publisher, eliminate an option clause, or negotiate to keep certain rights associated with a book–foreign rights, graphic novels, audio, TV/movies, etc.–rights your agent then sells to generate additional income.
  • Your agent will step in and advocate for you with the publisher if needed

If you sign the publishing contract before looking for an agent:

  • You will keep 100% of your royalties
  • You will be responsible for the contract as signed and your agent cannot renegotiate.
  • Your new agent may or may not be willing to advocate for you if things are going poorly with a publishing contract to which they have no privity.
  • You may easily find an agent, or even have agents reach out to you–or you may spend months/years back in the traditional query slush pile.
    • You’ll have publishing credits to talk about in your query letters, but you may need to write a new book before agents consider your query.
Confused cat.
Decisions, decisions.

What additional questions can you ask offering agents when you’re coming with a publication deal?

In addition to the more general questions you’ll want to ask, you may want to know:

  • Does the agent have any experience with this publisher?
  • What can the agent bring to this contract negotiation with this publisher that you can’t do for yourself?
  • Has the agent had a similar situation with any of their other authors?
  • If you sign with the agent, what would the next steps be?

A note about feelings: Emotionally, it may be difficult to believe the agents offering representation are actually excited about your writing and aren’t just interested in you for your contract. You want a positive relationship with your agent, built on trust, so don’t be afraid to ask questions about it, such as, what makes you want to represent my books, or why am I a good fit for you?

A note that says "Do you like me?" with two check boxes, YES and NO.

Whatever you decide, good luck–and congrats!

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