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How to Read a Book Contract – Somebody’s Gonna Die

12 October 2019

Per a request in the comments, from an earlier post on The Passive Voice

Let’s assume you are an author represented by a literary agent. If Passive Guy asks you who your agent is, you’ll respond with something like “Suzanne Jones” or “James Davis.”

Passive Guy is certain Suzanne and James are wonderful people, but they’re going to die.

This is not a threat, simply a statement of biological reality.

Who will your agent be after Suzanne dies? Will it be someone you choose or not?

You selected Suzanne because she had a great reputation for helping authors build good long-term careers. Your career isn’t built yet. Who’s going to help build your career if she’s gone?

These are not hypothetical questions. One of the comments to a recent essay about agents by Kristine Kathryn Rusch described the story of Ralph Vicinanza, a literary agent for Stephen King, the Dalai Lama and others, who died in September, 2010, at age 60.

Here’s a bullet-point description of what has happened since Mr. Vicinanza’s death, according to the comment (which fits with other accounts PG has found):

  • The other two agents in the Vicinanza agency quit their jobs
  • A letter was sent to all authors advising them to find other agents and promising to continue to pay royalty checks
  • The executor of the Vicinanza estate intends to keep receiving payments from publishers and collecting agency fees from the authors
  • Other agents are asking Vicinanza authors for more than 15% to handle titles the Vicinanza agency handled, presumably because the estate will claim the first 15%

Contracts with a large organization should differ from those with an individual or small organization. A large organization, like a big publisher, is not going to disappear. It may go bankrupt or be sold, but it will have enough value so someone is likely to keep it running in some form or fashion.

However, if somebody in a large publisher dies, another person will replace the dear departed and business will continue as usual. An author has a relationship with a big publisher because the publisher can jam a lot of books into bookstores, airports, Wal-Mart, etc. The jammers may change, but the jamming continues. (PG knows about author/editor relationships, but you can hire an editor without hiring Random House.)

In a small organization, like a literary agency, a death of an individual can result in the death of the agency. PG would suspect many of the clients of Mr. Vicinanza’s agency signed the agency contracts because of Mr. Vicinanza, and quite possibly, only because of Mr. Vicinanza. PG would have signed if Mr. Vicinanza promised to turn him into another Stephen King.

It appears the executor of Mr. Vicinanza’s estate is his sister, Louise Billie. Passive Guy did a quick Google search and couldn’t find any evidence that Ms. Billie is a literary agent or has any experience in that business. Yet, under the agency’s contracts with authors, Ms. Billie, acting on behalf of the estate, is handling royalties and, presumably, retaining 15% plus, perhaps, expenses.

What’s the contractual solution to problems like this? It’s much simpler than stating the problem.

If the services of a particular individual are a key value to you, include a provision in the contract that gives you the right to terminate the contract:

  • if that person dies,
  • becomes disabled and unable to perform his/her normal work, or
  • leaves the agency for any reason

As far as what happens to the agency percentage on book contracts the agent negotiated while alive or working at the original agency, PG would push for a provision that says those end when your agent goes.

A possible compromise would be that the agency percentage continues to be paid to the agency for one or two years after termination, but PG doesn’t like that because, at least according to the hypothetical value proposition of an agent, the agent’s services are continuing and overlap from book to book. The work an agent puts into your third book also enhances sales of books one an two.

The Vicinanza experience demonstrates that other agents are not willing to accept authors under standard compensation terms if they have to share compensation.

If agents boohoo about this, Passive Guy would simply point out that, if an attorney dies, the attorney is entitled to fees earned up until he takes his last breath and no more. A client is always free to hire another attorney at any time, whether the attorney is alive, partly dead or all the way dead.

Someone is bound to ask why the author should receive royalties forever while the agent who negotiated the publishing contract doesn’t receive agency fees forever.

The answer is that when the author wrote the book, she created an asset, recognized under copyright law, that will exist for a long time and is capable of generating income in a variety of different ways over its lifetime, some of which are recognized today and others of which won’t be conceivable for another 50 years.

The author owns the asset, the agent does not. The agent was paid for a service provided. PG would argue if the ongoing services of a particular agent were the key value to the author, when those services are no longer provided for any reason, the author shouldn’t be required to make any additional service payments.

Agents, Contracts, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

3 Comments to “How to Read a Book Contract – Somebody’s Gonna Die”

  1. “Hi! Even though we didn’t represent your previous work—and had no involvement whatsoever with the negotiating of it’s contract—we’re going to charge you more than 15% to ensure we make something from those deals too!”

    Sounds like a crook to me.

  2. “A partly dead attorney” . . . not my favorite thought of the day.

  3. I’ve outlived three attorneys and a stockbroker and I’m not even 60 yet. When my patent attorney passed after a period of dementia and internet sweetheart scamming diverting funds, my basket of patents he’d been handling were all rendered worthless because he’d missed filing deadlines.

    My stockbroker developed dementia and a criminal record before he died. He lost records for several clients before “resigning” from his firm.

    So yeah, don’t put all your eggs into one basket with any professional acting on your behalf. People not only die, they can decline mentally and younger family members or partners cannot be trusted to notify clients because they don’t want to lose cash cows.

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