I’ve recently gotten a number of reports about a literary agent with a major agency who is offering representation with a “handshake” deal: representation based on a verbal commitment, rather than a binding author-agent agreement or contract.
There are a number of reasons why authors should be wary of such offers.
1. A handshake is not today’s professional standard.
Decades ago, so-called handshake deals were common in the agenting business. You and your agent agreed that the agent would represent your work to publishers; once your work sold, the agent’s right to receive commissions and to act on your behalf was formalized in the agency clause of your book contract. Before publisher consolidation created the mega-houses, before the digital revolution and the array of new rights and markets it has spawned, before authors’ backlists became valuable, most authors, agents, and publishers deemed this to be enough.
But the present-day publishing landscape is far, far more diverse and complicated than it was then. There are more rights, more avenues to sell and re-sell them, and–at least potentially–much more money. In this increasingly complex environment, a simple, informal handshake and an agency clause are no longer regarded as sufficient. While there may still be some long-time agents who work on a handshake basis, author-agent contracts have become the professional norm.
2. A handshake doesn’t protect you.
Oral contracts do carry weight–if they can be proven. For authors, though, the concern isn’t so much proving the relationship exists as it is setting out the terms of it.
As noted above, publishing is far more complicated than it used to be. As a result, so is agenting. Myriad issues need to be addressed when agreeing to representation–from commissions and payments, to expense reimbursement, to termination provisions, to what happens after termination or if the agent goes out of business.
It is very much in your interest–and also in the agent’s–to clearly and precisely lay all of this out at the outset of the relationship. Otherwise, you not only lack a clear understanding of what the agent can and will do for you, you have severely diminished recourse to demand accountability or to take action if the relationship goes bad.
3. A handshake may be a warning sign.
And not just of a lack of professional knowledge or practice. Putting it bluntly: a handshake deal makes it easier for an agent to get rid of you.
Maybe the agent doesn’t want to bother with clients whose work doesn’t sell in the first submission round. Maybe the agent isn’t all that enthusiastic about you and is hedging their bets in case there are no offers (and if there are offers, is this really the agent you want representing you?). Maybe the agent has one publisher in mind and is up for a quickie sub but not a longer-term commitment. Maybe the agent only offers contracts after a manuscript finds a home, so they can disavow the authors they aren’t able to sell and look like they’re batting a thousand. (Be especially concerned if the agent works at an agency where contracts are the norm–as is the case with the agent I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.)
Over the years, I’ve gotten complaints from authors who’ve experienced all these things as part of a handshake deal. As these authors know, it’s incredibly hard to walk away from an offer, even if the offer isn’t a good one. But if the offer is a handshake deal, you just might want to make that very tough decision.