Friday, April 24, 2009

Death of a Contract II: The Hypothetical's Revenge

Dear Rejecter:

How about this scenario: Agent sells author's first novel to a well-known house and a well-regarded editor. Agent then leaves agency for another line of work, and is succeeded by another agent from same agency, who is not nearly as committed and energetic. Editor who bought book jumps to another house without taking the book with her. New editor clearly doesn't understand the manuscript, dislikes it and sends a lengthy letter essentially demanding a stem-to-stern rewrite with major changes to key characters that will destroy intent of said novel. Agent is useless and apparently has not even read the manuscript. After some more dicking around, editor cancels contract.

Heard that one often?

Usually when I'm answering questions, they're not so much theoretical as situations the author is in or heard about. Here we have a situation that's pretty far gone in the theoretical area, but I'll look at it anyway. The situation is: author gets book contract via agent, and then both agent and editor abandon her.

(1) The agent. You can fire your agent if you don't like them. Most agents work only off a verbal agreement with their clients anyway (though a contract is not unusual) so all you have to do is say, "I don't want you to be my agent anymore." The tricky thing here is that the agency's name is undoubtedly on the contract. The agent represents the author, so though the author's name appears on the contract and it requires the author's signature, somewhere in the first few paragraphs of a typical contract is a notation making it clear the author is represented by the agency, and all monies will go to the agency address and not the author's address. If you have a legitimate reason to fire your agent, but their name is on a contract, they may fight to keep it there and collect their 15% on future royalties. I'm not actually sure how you would go about solving this situation if you felt the 15% wasn't deserved, as I've never had this come up before. In this case, though, the 15% is deserved, as the agency did make the deal, even if it wasn't that particular agent at the agency who made the deal.

There's some issues between agents that go on for years, usually not involving the author. For example, my boss used to be a subagent at another agency when she was starting out. Her boss got a cut off her earnings. When the contracts were signed, they had the agency name on them. Now it's been a few years, but there are still some royalties being earned by authors who have followed my boss when she formed her own agency, but as her old boss had a part in the original contract, the money still goes through her old boss and has to be passed on to her. We get a lot of mail with that agency's letterhead on it. You would think agents wouldn't fight over pennies (in this case it's not a fight; it's a completely mutual agreement that does not subtract from the author's cut in any way) but sometimes they're not pennies. You never really know if a book is going to succeed wildly or get a second wind (especially if it's a political book) and royalties are going to be rolling in; the agent and their old boss have it worked out as to who gets what and where before the check is cut to the author, still at the rate of 15% for the agent(s).

(2) The editor. This may be a problem and it may not be. If the book was fairly far along in the process, it might not be a big deal. Editors work on things they don't care for all the time, either because they got handed someone else's workload or because they're an assistant to a bigger editor or a long list of other reasons. Editors are editors; their responsibility is to edit, which can be as minimal as "let's see if there's any huge inconsistencies before it goes to the copyeditor." If the deal is done, and the advance has been paid, and the publisher has already invested money in publicity for the book and hours of editorial, then the publisher has a good reason to go forward with the book and the editor has a good reason to just do their job and push the book to the copyeditor's and be done with it. If the editor decided to kill the book, there would need to be a really legitimate reason to justify all the time/money already spent on it. If the editor doesn't care for working on the book, they'll probably rush it to the copyeditor, who usually has no emotional investment in the book and is simply doing their job, which is to copyedit the hell out of the manuscript before it goes to layout. Once it's in the copyeditor's hands, it's pretty much going to be published unless something unusual happens, like the company goes bankrupt.

EDIT: So I'm now told this was not a theoretical; it happened long ago. Says the person who emailed me:

It wasn't a theoretical situation -- all of it happened several years ago. The book had already been scheduled (as a paperback original) and the cover design was being discussed. The author in question did drop the agency. A portion of the advance had been paid, and the author was never dunned for it. I've had writers and agents tell me this is the worst publishing story they've ever heard.

I'm not going to change whole post around, but yeah, that is a pretty bad situation. It also is very rare, I'm assuming.


Unknown said...

Seeing as this was a highly personalized, unique situation, that should have been made clear by the letter writer in the original query rather than posed as a(n ambiguous) theoretical. Thanks to the Rejector for answering the question to the best of her ability.

Anonymous said...

catie -- sometimes people say "theoretically" because they don't want their name associated with all the bad stuff going on around them. They also don't want to look like a "bitter" writer as it is bad for their own future in the business.

I've had a terrible agent situation before, one that required lawyers, thousands of dollars in lawyer fees, and months of wrangling until it was settled. It is shocking what this business can hand you.

My heart goes out to this writer. I wish you the best and hope your future books and agenting/editor situation be freeing rather than heart-wrenching.

There but for the grace of God go we all.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I've got a worse story for you.

I had an agent drop the ball on a contract negotiation in the worst way possible (he somehow let a clause in the contract which entitled the publisher to _take ownership of my copyright_ to slip past him; when I saw that in the final contract and raised hell, he had to go back to the publisher, hat in hand, and beg them to take it out.)

Publisher finally agreed to let me keep my copyright after much haranguing (they were obviously pissed off that they didn't get away with that and that the agent initially agreed b/c he "didn't notice" that---his exact words), and they accepted my completed manuscript and paid the first half of my advance. Right after I got my check, the acquiring editor left the publisher, and the editor-in-chief killed my book. No explanation for the kill was ever given. I tried to get my agent to get me some answers, and he dropped the ball (again). Publisher tried to take advance back, but since they killed the book without one iota of explanation less than a week after paying the advance, I refused. They didn't pursue it further.

Agent in question was fired, of course. And that book will now never see the light of day.

Issendai said...

Anonymous 12:50, why can't you take back the rights to your book and sell it someplace else? If the book was killed, surely the rights will revert back to you at some point.

Anonymous said...

two reasons:

1) The book already made the rounds at all the houses that could have published it, and the house that ultimately killed it was the only house that made an offer. So there's really nowhere else it could be sent. It's a nonfiction book on a very specific topic, so there aren't a lot of publishing options for it.

2) When a book is "killed", it makes it even harder to resell. My new agent did give the book a shot on the market again, but it didn't sell, so we have shelved it. I have other deals now, but this one was just a real bitch to swallow.

Anonymous said...

Anon, above, and the original querent seem to have fallen victim to the same thing: and editor who needed to knock a book off a list.

Editors will almost never do that, as a matter of course, but every now and again the corporate overlords ask for budget cuts. Money already spent on the book is not a good enough reason to keep throwing money after it: they don't necessarily show up on the same line-item in the budget.

Heck, they probably don't show up in the same fiscal year, and that's what the beancounters are worried about.

When faced with such a situation, an editor may revert to the worst part of human: they'll get rid of the books that they personally don't like, or whose authors caused a problem (in the editor's perception; whether it truly was the author's fault is a different debate).

It sucks, but thankfully it's rare.