What REAL Agents Do…Part 3

Here’s post number three in my series on “What do REAL agents do?” In this post I’ll answer the question posed in the comment section, plus cover some miscellaneous tasks most agents do:

First of all, the question: What happens to a writer’s book(s) if his/her agent dies or retires? First, we have to make a distinction between books that are still in print and those that have gone out of print and whose rights have reverted to the author. In most cases, when the rights revert, the publishing contract is no longer in effect, and the agent no longer has any interest in the book until he or she sells it again. When we talk about an agent of record, we’re only talking about books whose contract the agent negotiated that are still in effect.

With that in mind, the answer to the question is: it depends. In general, it’s dependent on what was agreed to in the agent/author contract, if there was a contract. Not all agents have written contracts, but these days, many do, and even the ones who don’t will usually agree to a contract if the author insists. In the agent/author contract, what happens in the event of the agent’s illness, death, or bankruptcy should be spelled out. In general, the book(s) the agent represented will remain with the agent’s agency, transferred to another literary agent, IF the agent belonged to a multi-agent agency. But, what about agents who work solo, as a one-agent operation? If the agent dies, (and keep in mind I’m not an attorney) generally speaking, the book(s) would become part of his/her estate, unless some provision to transfer them had been made prior to his/her death. In the case of retirement, often a conscientious agent will attempt to place his/her clients with another agent. I’ve heard of cases where one agent actually sold an author to another agent before he retired. When a solo-operating agent goes bankrupt, your work could be treated like any other asset of the business and distributed by the bankruptcy court.

It all comes down to what the contract spells out. So, if you sign with a one-person agency, read your contract closely, and if it doesn’t address this question, then make sure you ASK, and, depending on the response, add in a clause to the contract that will cover these contingencies. Remember, if there’s no written contract, the odds are pretty good that you won’t have any control over what happens if the agent dies or the agency goes bankrupt.

If you’re an author whose agent has become ill or incapacitated, and the agent is a one-person operation, you can request that your publisher separate out your money from the agent’s commission, and have it mailed directly to you. I’ve heard of this being done rather frequently. But remember, if it’s not spelled out in a written contract, that makes your position to request this much weaker.

My husband found an article that’s related to this question that you might be interested in reading. Here’s the URL: http://www.authorsguild.org/news/burdens_agency_outweigh.htm

Okay, on to some miscellaneous things real agents do:

1. Career counseling. My agent was the first to suggest that it was time for me to do a series (The StarBridge series, which by the way, will be coming back into print in omnibus editions with a couple of new books added; reprint rights have just been purchased by the small press, Meisha Merlin), a fantasy trilogy (The Exiles of Boq’urain), plus other suggestions regarding career strategy. Real agents have their finger on the pulse of what’s hot and what’s not, and several times my agent has given me excellent advice regarding my career path.

2. Serve as your advocate when dealing with publishers. Agents run interference with editors when books are late, or deadlines are missed. Agents remind editors of excellent “sell-throughs” (the percentage of books that actually sell as opposed to the quantity ordered) in order to justify a higher advance. I know of at least one author whose agent was able to get a publisher to make extensive alterations to a proposed cover, when the publisher’s choice of a cover was unsuitable.

3. Serve as a business contact. I don’t put my home address and phone number out on the internet, do you? Probably not! But people in the publishing industry who want to do business with me will know who my agent is, and will often get in touch with her for things like speaking engagements, writing workshops, etc. (And when my publishers receive such contacts, they will automatically forward them to my agent.)

4. Review and critique manuscripts before submission to publishers. Note: this one doesn’t apply to all agents! Not all agents are good editors, and not all agents want do this, or have time to do it. Some do, however, and their clients tell me their feedback can be most useful when revising. My agent doesn’t usually read my manuscripts prior to submission any more, but when I request that she do so, she will, or will have her assistant read the ms., and get back to me with comments. And do I have to remind you that if a real agent reads a client’s ms, and offers feedback, there is NO CHARGE for this? I didn’t think I had to…

Some things REAL agents DON’T do or require: create a website or display site where the author’s work (or an excerpt from it) can be posted on the internet, demanding that the author create a marketing plan for his/her book (that’s up to the publisher), ask for author photos (the publisher will do this after acquiring a book), or ask for extensive biographies from the author (the publisher often will, as a marketing tool). Scam agents, in order to keep authors too busy to question why their books aren’t getting sold, will often require authors to do lots of these kinds of tasks. But real agents don’t.

I think that’s it for today. The next, and final, post in this series will be on SUBSIDIARY RIGHTS. If anyone has further questions on anything I’ve covered so far, do pose them, and I’ll respond in the blog.

-Ann C. Crispin


  1. Thank you for your guidance.
    In your opinion, should an unpublished author begin searchng for an agent to represent them before a work is complete or wait until finished?(By unfinished meaning- complete but undergoiing editing, final revision)

  2. Actually, Anonymous, what you’re describing sounds uncomfortably close to the “display site” Victoria describes in her next post, so I’m not really comfortable with the notion of agents “advertising” unpublished authors and their works on their websites.

    I mean, what’s the point of doing that? We already know that publishers don’t surf the internet looking for authors and books for them to publish.

    And if the authors in question are unpublished, it’s not like the agent would be keeping their fans apprised of their upcoming publications.

    So…I don’t think it’s appropriate for agents to do that, no.

    -Ann C. Crispin

  3. Some agents have bios and pix of their authors on their websites as well as a line or two about their unpublished novels. That’s okay too, isn’t it?

  4. A published author…

    Yes, I was talking about fake agents putting up “display sites” to “showcase” the work of unpublished clients, telling the authors that publishers regularly surf the internet, looking for works to publish.

    (Which may have a tiny grain of truth in it from time to time, but, is, in the main, a vile canard…)

    And to Anders:

    Yes, I think it’s a good idea if there is a written contract between author and agent that covers how they’ll do business, and what happens should one or the other die, leave the business, etc.

    -Ann C. Crispin

  5. Some things REAL agents DON’T do or require: create a website or display site where the author’s work (or an excerpt from it) can be posted on the internet

    You’re talking about unpublished works, right? Because many, many legitimate agents display the covers/blurbs/Amazon links of their published clients on their websites, both as a testament to “recent successes” and as publicity for their clients’ books.

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