Hey Janet!The first thing you need to know is most agency contracts for representation are boilerplate. That is, they're the same for all clients. Don't expect to start negotiating the finer points. I've had some pretty serious wrangles with folks who brought lawyers in to review my agency contract, only to find out I wasn't prepared to change anything.
I have an offer from an agent I'm super excited about (hoorah!) and I'd love to know what authors should look for (or look out for!) in an agency contract.
I have a sense for the standard commission, but beyond that, what positive or negative things should I be scouring that contract for?
Also, I know that some writing orgs provide contract review for authors. Do you think that's worthwhile (I'm not currently a member of any org that provides this, so I'd have to join and likely pay a fee in order to take advantage), or should we be able to suss things out on our own?
The ONE thing I will do is carve out areas of representation. I have a client who writes a very niche kind of book in addition to the more trade-oriented books I sell for her. Our agreement specifies that I do not rep her for those niche books.
I recently read a well-intentioned article about author/agent agreements that instructed writers to get an exclusion for work they pitched and sold themselves, and used the example of an author who pitched an editor at a conference and got an offer.
After I stopped laughing, I had to really sit on my hands to not write a letter to the organization saying "ummm...this is REALLY bad advice."
The reason it's bad advice is that you should not plan to be pitching your work to anyone if you have an agent. It's the REASON you have an agent.
If a client told me she'd been pitching editors at The Pitch Fork Slam DunkWriters Conference, I would consider that grounds for termination. Instantly.
Which is why some of the advice from writers organizations is well-intentioned, but not practical.
The commission rates are pretty standard: 15% on domestic sales, 20%-25% on subrights.
Some things you want to include: IF the agreement is ended by either party, the unexploited rights return to the author in a specified amount of time WITHOUT prior notice required.
I have a client whose unexploited rights are tied up with his former agent for the life of the copyright. She's not doing diddly to sell those rights. I can't unless my client wants to pay the commission twice. It irks me to no end.
Make sure there's a way out of the contract for any reason at any time. 30 days notice by either party is the norm.
And make sure you understand whether the contract is for a specific length of time, or it's until either party decides to dissolve it.
I know a couple writers who found themselves pretty surprised when their book didn't sell and the representation agreement expired, and the agent said "so long, snookums."
Agents should be able to explain the terms of the agreement to you, in a way you understand, and tell you WHY the wording is the way it is.
You're not expected to suss it out on your own.