Why you might want to consider hiring a literary agent to help you negotiate your next textbook contract

Michael Lennie

Michael Lennie

Authoring Attorney and Literary Agent Michael Lennie, of Lennie Literary & Author’s Attorneys, answers some questions about the advantages of hiring a literary agent to represent you when negotiating a textbook contract:

Q: How often are you hired as an agent for textbook authors?

Lennie: “A rough estimate would be 5-8 times a year, and the number is slowly growing.”

Q: When is it appropriate to use an agent, and why should an author consider hiring an agent? What are the benefits?

Lennie: “There are several reasons for a textbook author to retain the services of a literary agent. An agent will canvas a number of publishers to find the best publisher for you and your work. A good agent will be tenacious in this regard. An agent will provide advice regarding preparation of a proposal, and review and, if needed, assist in editing your proposal. An agent will negotiate a contract in your long term interest. The agent will act as a buffer between you and your editor and the publisher in taking firm positions regarding the contract. The agent will take a more holistic view of your career and provide guidance in this regard. An agent will likely have better access to publishers and editors than you. Many publishers prefer to work through agents, although this is more true in trade publication than text, where the concept of an author represented by a literary agent is more recent.”

Q: What is the difference between an agent and a “literary attorney”? Do you need both?

Lennie: “A literary agent works on a commission, usually 15 percent* of the royalties (including advance) received by the author. An attorney works on an hourly fee basis. Whether or not you need both depends on the legal knowledge and negotiation skills of the agent. There are a few literary agents who are also literary attorneys, in which event the author receives the legal knowledge and negotiation skills without paying an attorney hourly fees. However, most literary agents come from publishing houses. Some of these have acquired the legal knowledge and skill to effectively negotiate author/publisher contracts. However, many others, lacking the legal knowledge, and having “grown up” accepting the publisher’s perspective regarding contracts, do not do an effective job negotiating a contract.”

Q: Should a textbook author be represented by an agent or by a literary attorney? 

Lennie: “The answer varies depending on the circumstances. Some authors say it is as difficult finding an agent willing to represent them as it is finding a publisher willing to publish your work. If you are a young, first time author seeking publication of a work with limited market, this may well be the case. On the other hand, if you are a young first time author dedicated to writing multiple editions and/or multiple titles, a visionary agent may be willing to represent you in hopes of continued representation for future titles. Depending on the potential sales of your work, you will likely pay less overall hiring an attorney and paying what may seem like a lot of money paid as his/her services are incurred. The author needs to decide whether the additional services offered by the literary agent are worth the likely additional commissions paid over the lifetime of the work.”

Q: How much does it cost to “hire” an agent (on average)?

Lennie: “Since there are no upfront costs to hire an agent, the answer is that it costs nothing. This, of course, is one of the attractions of hiring an agent on commission as opposed to an attorney on an hourly fee (including a retainer fee paid upon retaining the attorney). However, over the course of the time your work remains in print, the author will pay 15% of royalties earned. For example, if the author publishes a textbook that is not revised, and over a four year period of sales, earns $15,000 in royalties, the commission paid to the agent is $2250. While that may sound like a lot of money, it is fairly marginal for the agent if divided by the number of hours the agent worked on placing the work with a publisher and negotiating the contract. On the other hand, if the work earns $100,000 in royalties over its lifetime, the agent’s fee is $15,000, more in keeping with the number of hours the agent should have spent on the project.”

Q: What can an agent do for you that you can’t do for yourself?

Lennie: “If you are knowledgeable in the specialized law of author/publisher contracts, a skilled negotiator, and have good contacts with the publishers in your discipline, probably nothing. Even assuming you do possess the requisite knowledge, skills and experience, it is necessary to ask yourself “Is my time better spent finding a publisher and negotiating a contract, or writing a book?”

Dr. Cynthia Arem shares her experience working with literary agent Michael Lennie of Lennie Literary & Authors Attorneys to negotiate the contract for her book, Conquering Writing Anxiety.