LITERARY AGENTS AND THE DEVIL IN THE DETAIL - SHERIDAN WINN
It might not be the most optimistic note on which to start the New Year, but I offer this cautionary tale on the subject of agents and rights. If I have one piece of advice to give – and this applies to all creative people, not just writers – never give away your rights unless you absolutely have to, and when you do give them carefully and in small pieces.
I have always tried to live my life being fair. In contract negotiation, I aim for a win-win outcome. I like to build long-term relationships and would never shaft anybody, because I believe that what you give out you get back.
In January 2007, I had the idea for the Sprite Sister books and approached Brenda Gardner at Piccadilly Press. I had worked with her before when she published my ex-husband’s first picture book in the 1980s. She liked the idea of ‘four sisters, four elements, four powers’, and a few weeks later offered me a contract for the first Sprite Sister story.
The Society of Authors helped me negotiate this, along with the second contract. I kept back the subsidiary rights such as e-book, film and television rights, which Brenda Gardner was happy about.
Then, in January 2008, as I was about to begin the third book for Piccadilly, I had an offer for a film option. This was from a producer I knew – had written a number of business features about her. However, having gone through the process of negotiating film contracts with my ex-husband for our newspaper cartoon character, I knew I would need an agent to help me. I approached three agents, all recommended by friends, and they were all interested.
As my first book hit the shops, I met with one of the agents and I liked her. She said she loved the books and would be ‘honoured’ to represent me. I was very pleased and believed we had a long, sound business relationship ahead of us. She set to work on the third book contract, but was not happy that Piccadilly had world rights to the Sprite series. Having worked for 25 years on picture books, I was accustomed to publishers having world rights: it used to be the only way they could fund the cost of colour printing. I understood that, as a small independent publisher, Piccadilly needed to make money from its rights sales. It was a break point: Brenda Gardner would not have offered the contract without world rights. That said, I had no idea of the overall ramifications of the world rights scenario.
My new agent got a slightly higher royalty percentage, but the work of placing the book had already been done. I turned down the film option offer, as I didn’t feel it was good enough and it would have tied up the books at an early stage
Fast-forward to June 2009: I was about to write the fifth Sprite Sister title, which Piccadilly said would be the last in the series. Though the books had gone down a storm in Germany (Piccadilly sold the rights to Fischer Verlag), they had not done so well here.
At this time, I was not at all well. I was having a breakdown and suffering from what would be diagnosed in 2012 as a serious and rare gastric disorder. My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my daughter was also very unwell. A few years before, I had gone through a bankruptcy and divorce, lost everything, and was still struggling to pay the rent. Every hour of the day was spent trying to write to survive. It was fraught – but it would pass.
On 22nd June 2009, I received an email from the agent saying she no longer wished to represent me. It came out of nowhere. There was no discussion. I mailed back, asking for compassion – but the door was shut.
It was a staggering blow, but I would cope. The long-term problem would come from the financial clauses in the contract.
You would think, would you not – from a moral point of view – that if an agent dumps you within less than 18 months that they would relinquish the right to their percentage of your royalties. Not so.
I called the head honcho at the agency and argued my corner as hard as I could. We keep the financial interest in your book rights, he told me. That is the way it is. What, even if Piccadilly sells the Sprite Sisters to the US in five years time, I asked, dumbfounded. Yes, he said, even then. But that’s not right, I said. If I dumped her, then fair enough – but she dumped me! It will preclude me getting another agent!
I could hear his shrug down the telephone.
The Society of Authors agreed with the head honcho. It was tough, but that was the way it was. The agent retains a financial interest in any rights they sell, even when the contract is terminated, they said. In my case, because Piccadilly owned world rights, it meant that any further foreign rights sales would also pass through the hands of the ex-agent. The agency financial department would check the royalty statements each year, but the ex-agent would not have to lift a finger.
In 2010, I set out to find a new agent. I approached six at literary agencies big and small and was turned down by them all. The rights situation with the Sprite Sister books was too complicated, they said. It felt as if my ex-agent had screwed me right and proper.
I knew I needed to break free of the ex-agent’s financial claim to future sales and to do that I would have to get back all the book rights. The German rights would stand: she would get her share of those sales and I would have to bite the bullet.
In Spring 2012, the first Sprite Sister book, The Circle of Power, went out of print. I asked Piccadilly if they would reprint. They said no and in the early summer agreed that the rights of all five titles would revert to me. In lieu, I bought up the remainder stock of 2000 books. At the same time, Piccadilly asked the agent to relinquish her rights in any future sales of the books and she agreed. I was free at last.
I set about re-packaging the titles, publishing print-on-demand paperbacks and e-book editions – and selling abroad.
I will have to give the agent a substantial amount of money every year for as long as the Sprite Sisters sell in Germany – and the signs are good with sales of 270,000. The experience stills galls. In October 2012, when my royalties came through, the financial chap at my ex-agency mailed me cheerily, saying, ‘We love your German sales!’ Yes, I thought, I’ll bet you do. Not bad for a year’s representation with no titles to place . . .
But I must look to the future. Recently, through the Society of Authors, I approached an agent in Japan, who is keen to sell the Sprites there. Last week I mailed an American agent recommended to me by a friend. One way or another, I will find a US agent and get them to sell the US rights.
This is an upside-down approach. Don’t have one agent – get several. Get a different agent to represent you in each territory. It means none of them will have a claim to all of your book rights.
If you have a UK agent, they will probably use subsidiary agents to sell foreign rights and you will lose another slice. If you go direct to the foreign agent, you have one slice taken off.
Brenda Gardner and I get on well and she has wished me luck in my venture. I am eternally grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to write five books for Piccadilly Press.
Occasionally I have to mail the agent and am polite. But if I ever see her, I hope she hangs her head in shame.
A few tips on rights as I see it:-
· Read the small print: when offered a contract, get as much professional advice as you can.
· Keep your subsidiary rights: don’t bundle them in with the book rights.
· Negotiate a fair termination clause (if I had known, I would have tried to get a clause in which the agent relinquished their rights if they dropped me).
· Self-publishing gives us the freedom to choose how and where we sell our work: use it to your advantage.
· Never, ever, sign everything with one agent unless you have a very good termination clause that works in your favour, as well as theirs.
· Be a buccaneer in your approach to self-publishing: fast, light and responsive.
· If you agree world rights with your publisher and they sell foreign rights, it is unlikely you will see the advances from those foreign deals until the whole publisher’s advance has been earned out. Nobody tells you that beforehand.
· If you value your sanity, remember it’s all a learning curve and there is no one ‘right’ way.
· If you are working on a book and need financial help, ask The Royal Literary Fund. They helped me, and I thank them.
Sheridan Winn is a freelance journalist and author of the Sprite Sisters stories