{Between the Lines}

The Agents of Books & Such Literary Management Muse About Books, Publishing, and Life

3 Ways Agents Negotiate a Deal

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Agents tread where authors fear to go. That’s the observation I’ve made over the past two decades. Authors are more concerned about their relationships with publishers than agents are.

Not that we agents don’t care–we do. After all, if a publisher doesn’t want to work with a certain agent, deals can go south quickly. Or never even appear on the horizon.

But the truth is, publishers will work with an agent if that agent has a project the publisher really wants. Even if the publisher doesn’t like to work with the agent.

I certainly strive not to be “one of those agents” with any publisher. But I’m also aware that I spread my relational risk with a publisher over many projects and many clients. But an author has just his or her projects to offer the publisher; so the project-risk ratio is quite different for an author. For an author, it can feel like a long way to fall, if the relationship doesn’t work out.precipice

Today I’m going to talk about three ways that an agent pushes a publisher on behalf of an author. These examples will help you to see when an agent pushes and when an agent backs off–and why. This information will help you to see a more subtle side of what an agent does, as well as why an author would be reluctant to tread where agents rush in.

Agents Negotiate Deals over Single Paragraphs

Recently, I was negotiating a contract for a best-selling, highly-successful author. So you can see from the get-go I had some room to press the publisher.

As happens fairly regularly, the publisher had asked its attorney to revamp the standard contract. Agents don’t generally operate using the standard template. Instead, each agency has its own template with that publisher, which reflects the changes the agency has successfully made on details it is especially aware can be troublesome to authors. That’s why a seasoned agent or agency can be more beneficial to an author than a brand-new agent starting out on his/her own.

In this particular instance, two of the contract’s changes were especially troublesome. One more so than the other.

The Negotiations Begin

When I asked for adjustments, I was told no in both instances. In the spirit of negotiating, I accepted one but not the most worrisome one. Instead, I suggested ways to put limits on the paragraph, ameliorating some of the potentially damage to my client.

The publisher said no.

At that point, my client, despite understanding the type of damage the paragraph could do, asked me to accept the contract as is. I suggested one more round of negotiations. I did so knowing that the publisher valued my client and wouldn’t want to hurt the relationship. Also, I knew that if I reworked the paragraph’s language and really pressed the publisher to make some adjustments, I was likely to get a yes. The sense of how hard to press had come from years of negotiating experience.

The Negotiated Deal.

The publisher agreed to the new language, my client was more sheltered from the paragraph’s potential effects, and the paragraph became a part of our agency’s template with that publisher. And, most importantly, my client’s relationship with the publisher remains good.

Agents Negotiate Deals over Creative Differences

A good agent will make sure the contract contains a provision giving the author the opportunity to give feedback on the cover design. But the author sometimes fears expressing her opinions.

One of my clients always responded to the proposed cover designs without ever asking me to be involved. I never was a part of the conversations.

After a couple of designs showed up on her printed books and were not the type of covers that would compel potential readers to be drawn to the books, I asked my client to please always make sure I saw the design and had a chance to give input. (Some publishers fail to send the proposed cover to the agent as well as to the author. If I don’t know a design is being discussed, I can’t participate.)

Avoiding Being “One of Those Authors”

The author then told me that she never liked the covers but didn’t want to be seen as “that trouble-making author,” the one the publisher wants nothing to do with. So she always simply thanked the publisher for the cover but never gave feedback. I promised to take the role of the negotiator the next time we saw covers.

A short time later, we received a cover design that both the author and I agreed lacked the little twist of humor contained within the book that lightened up the complex content.

When we gave our feedback, however, we experienced consider push-back. Not only the designer but also the editor explained why they liked the current cover direction.

The Agent Negotiates for More

At that point, the author asked me to acquiesce. But I wanted to see what I could negotiate. I sensed we could make some minor adjustments that could improve the cover.

After several more rounds of emails, the publisher agreed to some changes that helped to convey what the author had in mind. But the truth of the matter is that the publisher saw the book one way; the author and I saw it another. My goal had become to make as many adjustments to the cover as I could, and then the author and I were going to have to live with the cover.

I console myself that it’s a brighter, more engaging cover than before the negotiations began.

Agents Negotiate the Money

This is the most obvious part of the deal and the first most writers think about. But, like the other examples in this post, the agent  knows when to push and when to relent.

In one instance, my unpublished client became so excited about having a contract offer, that she sent an email to her large subscription list, announcing the publisher and the release date.

That seems like just the right thing to do, doesn’t it? Only problem is, we might have received an offer from the publisher, but I hadn’t accepted it yet.

I grasped a detail the author didn’t get–the publisher most likely was willing to increase the offer. I wanted to press a bit for a stronger offer.

The author, fearful of losing the contract, resisted. But I asked the author to trust me, which she eventually decided to do.

The Agent Negotiates for More

I hoped none of the publisher’s employees was on my client’s mailing list because the author had, in essence, expressed that she was fine with the offer. I asked the publisher for a significant increase in both the advance and the royalties.

We didn’t get everything I asked for, but the offer definitely was improved. And apparently no one had seen my client’s announcement. Whew!

As you can see, agents bring a refined skill set to the negotiating table, whether the negotiations involve a contract, an offer, or the publishing creative process.

Which of these instances would be hard for you to trust the agent in? Can you think of other ways authors need to trust their agents?


A behind-the-scenes view of a lit agent negotiations. Click to tweet.

How lit agents know when to negotiate and when to quit. Click to tweet.

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