Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Conference Review: Contracts with Agent Jenny Bent

Jenny Bent, founder of The Bent Literary Agency, graced the Pennwriters Conference with her expertise and shared pages of information with us on contracts. Her presentation was the first I attended on Friday and it was dizzying.

I didn’t keep count but Jenny had a favorite phrase and used it repeatedly when asked a question. “It’s so complicated.”

And she was quite correct. Jenny has over 15 years experience in the publishing industry and has seen many changes but also some things that stay the same. She brought along two thick handouts to help us understand. One was a seven page checklist for contracts written in ‘everyman’ terms instead of legalese. The other was a 19 page sample contract from Simon & Schuster, Inc. That’s nineteen pages of six point font.

I have notes written all over the pages but let me hit the highlights. First off was the granting of rights. I learned publishers always want audio, first serial and a few others. These you can’t negotiate but some you can such as foreign rights and even foreign rights can be complicated by such distinctions as British Commonwealth or World English rights.

Then Jenny discussed separately the digital rights and the scramble of the publishing industry to keep up with expanding technology. As many of us already know or can guess, the publishers try to grab everything they can. Some of them also try to pay the same percentage royalties for ebooks as they do for print. Don’t let them do that. Also don’t let them ask for rights to any future technology that might be used to produce or sell your work.

The other contract item Jenny spent a lot of time on is the option clause. Usually publishers want some type of option to see the next work of an author. It is very important to make sure the wording is as specific as possible to include only one more book in the same genre and of the same length. Also the amount of time the publisher gets for its first look at a new work should be specific and limited.

Jenny briefly mentioned how more publishers are paying advances in three or four segments instead of the traditional two payments.

Many of us working with small publishers plow through the contracts as best as we can and fear to negotiate in terror of losing the sale. Jenny pointed out things we must all consider to make sure a tight contract doesn’t impede our career.

Have you ever negotiated a change in an offer without the help of an agent? Have you ever been stuck in a contract you regretted signing? Do you believe publishers are giving authors their fair share of ebook royalties?


  1. This points up how important it is to have an agent who is knowledgeable and will fight for you. If you don't have one, there are lawyers who specialize or know these kinds of contracts.

    Straight From Hel

  2. Great post, Susan. It's so important for authors to read - and understand - the contracts they sign. Thanks for sharing tips!

  3. You are so right, Helen. Another agent pointed out what great help a lawyer could be if they are experienced in publishing.
    I'm sure you understood much of what I said, Cate, as you've seen more contracts than me.

  4. Yikes! These are not waters I want to swim alone - I definitely want help as I go along on this journey.

  5. Me too, Jemi, but so far I've had more luck finding a publisher than finding an agent. Still trying.

  6. However, for authors who do not have agents, there is another possibility.

    Hire an intellectual properties attorney to help you. You will pay their fees upfront, but you won't be paying them a share of your royalties on the book forever.

    And, attorney fees are a tax deductible expense.

    Is an agent's share of royalties a tax deduction? It's never occurred to me to ask before.

  7. PS.
    I've always been very happy with the IP lawyers at Bodman LLP

  8. Thanks, Rowena, for the suggestion. I have this in a later blog as a suggestion from an agent but it's nice to hear from a writer who has experience working with lawyers and contracts.

  9. At a recent conference, a NY editor stated succinctly that she doesn't bring up reversion of electronic rights if the author doesn't. So having an agent (or intellectual property lawyer as Rowena suggests) would be invaluable to an author right there.

    I think a lawyer whose services are tax deductible and who doesn't require a percentage of royalties through the life of the work is a godsend. I've yet to find an agent who wanted to negotiate a contract for me...even after I performed the legwork of acquiring said contract...but those lawyers will go to bat for you if you're paying their fee.

    From Sandy Lender
    "Some days, you just want the dragon to win."

  10. What you say really makes sense, Sandy. And by the way, some days I want the dragons to win too.

  11. All of my publishers have so far been very good about changing language to be more clear or specific, changing terms to suit me, etc. My last one (which closed before they launched, unfortunately), even changed some of their boilerplate stuff at my suggestions.

    So education like what Jenny Bent provided is SO valuable!

  12. You're so good at standing up for yourself, Natalie. I'd prefer and agent does all that talking for me.

  13. Well, me, too, but it's easier when it's e-mail, and the contracts have not been complicated or onerous. The changes I wanted weren't "battle" type changes, you know?

    A little further up the ladder, I'd have more trouble.