Ask Author Law

How to fire your agent

January 19, 2016

Tags: Agent, Agents, Agency Agreement, Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Publishing, Books, Contracts, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Journalism, Authors, Trademarks

Q: My agent sold my first two books, which are still selling well, but he hasn’t really done anything with my two most recent proposals. I get the feeling he has bigger fish to fry and that my books aren’t the blockbuster types he would prefer. I’ve decided that another agent might be better for me, but I’m not sure how to proceed from here, from a legal perspective. What do you suggest?

A: You should start with a clear understanding of the legal relationship between you and your present agent. Do you have a written agency agreement or a handshake deal? If you have a written agreement, it probably spells out how the relationship may be ended. For example, either party might be able to terminate upon written notice to the other. The contract might spell out the timing of such notice and, perhaps, specifics such as a requirement to use registered mail. So examine the contract and follow the specified procedure exactly. This is important even if your agent says it’s not necessary. It’s very important to be precise when dissolving a contractual relationship. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk to your agent ahead of time to reach an informal understanding. It just means that you should follow up by dotting all the “i”s and crossing all the “t”s. If you have no written agreement, you should plan to give your agent reasonable notice that you’re making a change and you should do so in writing so there can be no misunderstanding.

Be aware that the change you’re making is only for future deals. You will remain obligated to your first agent for any commissions and expenses related to your first two books. He will also probably continue to receive payments on your behalf and forward them to you after deducting what is owed to him. It may be possible to negotiate a different arrangement, but, if you do, be sure to get a written acknowledgement of the new terms from him. Since your books still generate income, the first agent will probably want to remain agent of record. In the future, though, when the income thins out, he might be agreeable to a change.

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

The role of agent and attorney

December 30, 2014

Tags: Author Law, Foreign Rights, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Copyright, Publishing, Books, Contracts, Agent, Literary Agent, IP Law, Intellectual Property, International Publishing

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: In a rapidly changing industry agents indicate one of their values is negotiating international or business relationships. Isn’t this a service an IP attorney could handle for an author?

A: The role of an agent and an attorney depends entirely on the individual relationship with the client. Both agents and attorneys are generally capable of negotiating contracts and “doing deals” on behalf of their clients, but the specific services they offer depend on how they choose to structure their literary agency or law practice.

In general (but not always) an agent markets a work on behalf of her clients and also negotiates the terms of a deal when the work is licensed to a publisher. Most lawyers, myself included, do not market the work of their clients to publishers, but they do negotiate publishing contracts. Agents are usually compensated through a commission (the going rate is 15% -- sometimes higher on foreign and film licenses) on everything the author earns from a particular work. Lawyers usually charge a flat fee or hourly rate, although some may charge on a percentage basis.

The most important difference between a lawyer and agent is that the lawyer-client relationship is completely confidential and legally privileged. A lawyer’s first obligation is to act in the best interest of the client -- even if that means acting against her own best interest. An agent may have many clients working with the same publisher and might be less inclined to advocate vigorously for an individual client if that means antagonizing the publisher.

A useful analogy might be to compare a literary agent with a real estate broker. You need a broker to sell a property, but you also need a lawyer to review the legal aspects of the transaction and make sure your interests are fully protected.

A writer with substantial international sales would benefit by using both an agent and an attorney.