You gotta have an agreement first, doggone it

I don’t know if there’s something in the water that makes some people’s brain slip out their ears and gather in a puddle at their feet, or whether they were dropped on their heads at birth, but one thing is certain – thar be denseness afoot in the publishing industry.

I’m not talking about your average, “I know zip, hey, let me be a publisher or agent…or BOTH!”

In as many days, I’ve seen two rather glorious acts of stupidity that leave me gasping for an inhaler. Of course, the affected party is the author – it is always the author who suffers. It’s a lot like Vegas, where the odds are on the house.

The first involves a “publisher” whose submission guidelines include the following:

Sending a Manuscript to us constitutes an initial agreement for publication, with or without response to us (publisher). We reserve the right to hold the manuscript or work to this Agreement for a period of ten days, at which point the agreement will dissolve if no further communication from us is forthcoming.

Some agents have exclusive policies – one that forces the author to take their manuscript off the market for an average of 30 to allow the agent time to consider the manuscript first. It bites stale Twinkie cream for the author because they’re off the market for a month and they have to alert all other agents that so-and-so is requesting an exclusive – which totally pisses off those other agents because the end result is that the agent invariably passes on the project. The only reason for an exclusive is to give the agent unfettered time to read the manuscript. That’s it.

So basically this publisher is enforcing an exclusive. By merely sending them your manuscript, you are agreeing to take your manuscript off the market for ten days and that a publishing deal is in place. After ten days, you either have that publishing deal, or you’re dismissed. Oh…and you won’t necessarily hear anything from them.

What if the author (wisely) decides the publisher isn’t the right choice for them? Do they have the choice to opt out, or are they stuck? And how does that work when the author has  her manuscript to more than one publisher -as is often the case – and is offered a contract by the other (hopefully legit) publisher? Does this rights-grabbing publisher really have an exclusive first bite of the apple? And how does this exclusive impact contract negotiations? Furthermore, how does this kind of thing hold up in court?

I admit there are times when I wished we could adopt exclusives because I was swamped with really great queries and needed a squidge of extra time to review them all – and I didn’t want to lose any of them to another editor. But it’s hardly advantageous to the author to suffer my pile of submissions. Plus, I can think of few agents who would agree to such a silly request. That’s what auctions are all about. Besides, when I get a prod from an agent and plead for more time, I’ve always gotten it.

At any rate, it makes no sense to infer that a publishing deal is in place simply by submitting. There must be an agreement by both parties, not a rights-grabby publisher.

Then there was the agent who made an extremely questionable, unprofessional grab to sell someone’s manuscript to a Print On Demand publisher AFTER she had rejected the manuscript. This means that no relationship exists between that agent and the author – so I’m extremely curious as to why this agent would then pitch the manuscript to anyone – let alone a publisher whose contract is horrendous – and not alert the author she was doing so.

I have had agents pass on a project and still sling it my way because they thought I might like it. But in all those cases, the agent had asked permission from the author. In this case. the contract offer came as a complete surprise because there was no established agreement between author and agent.

It is extremely unethical to act on an author’s behalf when the author has no idea what’s going on and where no verbal or written contract exists. Tossing a manuscript at an editor for a look-see is one thing. Accepting a contract offer is quite another. And to a POD publisher, no less!

So why would an agent make such a crappy deal? Look at it from the agent’s viewpoint. The author who has a good platform for her book. Now, why she passed on representation is beyond me, but for whatever reason, she shows it to this publisher. Why? Dunno. They offer no advance, their books are non-returnable, their books won’t be ordered by bookstores because they’re POD.

So what’s motivating this agent to sell the author to a less than desirable publisher? For starters, she’s sold other books to this publisher. The second factor is the author’s platform. The agent figures the author will be able to sell a lot of books on her own and the agent will cash in on those royalties without breaking a sweat. I realize how scummy this sounds, and it is. But this sort of thing does happen, and authors need to be aware at all times with whom they’re dealing.

It wasn’t until the author read up on the agent that she realized those red flags she’d been batting away weren’t the product of an overactive imagination. They were waving for good reason. Her question was plaintive – how could someone sell my book without my knowledge or approval? We didn’t even have a contract!

In fact, the contract for representation arrived the same day as the publishing contract. Hmm.

It boggles my mind at the manner in which people create new ways to tie authors’ hands and make them jump through flaming hoops. Don’t fall for this kind of garbage. These types are either woefully stupid or clever as foxes. Either way, make sure that things make sense…and don’t ignore your personal red flags. They just may save you from losing your book.

3 Responses to You gotta have an agreement first, doggone it

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    …now I’m starting to think I need a lawyer. Preemptively.

  2. No, I don’t think anyone needs a lawyer. Authors just have to be careful about whom they query. That’s why understanding the industry is so important – it’s very easy to make a decision that isn’t in your best interests.

  3. I want to write something clever but all I can think is, ‘people can me so mean sometimes!’

    Which isn’t clever at all, but it’s the truth. Another truth is that people can be stupid and can be their own worst enemies. While nobody deserves to be treated this way, it is up to the author to learn as much as they can, do their research and read blogs like this – and Writer Beware – and avoid traps like these.

    Never before in the history of human endeavour has more information been more freely available, to more people than right now.

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