Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It's not you, it's me. Okay, it's you

I do actually have an agent, who took me on nearly five years ago based on producer interest in a film project of mine. Nothing came of it, or other projects that followed, so the agent prepared a lot of contracts for no income. True, they were riddled with typos and missing clauses, but I didn’t feel like I was in any position to complain.

I’m not sure the agent is the biggest fan of my writing, either, based on the fact that some of my scripts elicited no response at all when I submitted them for feedback, and I think they only sent one to any producers (who did end up optioning it).

Then, last year, I was commissioned (not as a result of any agent involvement) to develop a TV series, generating enough commission to compensate (I think) for that earlier unpaid work. Karmic balance and all that.

Relations were cordial. Until the agent forwarded me a contract to sign, saying it looked “fine”, even though it was 18 pages long and the agent had received it literally 10 minutes earlier. I found some unfavourable terms in there that had to be renegotiated.

So. Is switching agents frowned upon in Australia? Would I be assumed to be a high-maintenance client, best ignored? Am I expecting too much?

Switching agents isn't exactly applauded (in any country) but it's not verboten either - it's a business decision, and you have to do what's right for your business. There are a handful of things which suggest that your existing agent perhaps isn't right for your business:

1. The contracts riddled with typos and missing clauses. Typos are one thing - I've seen contracts from publishing companies and film studios with typos, and I've also made typos in my own contracts - they happen to everyone. But missing clauses are another - the intent of a contract can still be clear if there typos but that's harder to say if there are missing clauses. As for preparing contracts for no return - well, that's the risk film agents take. Literary agents do a lot of work on manuscripts and that's the risk we take.

2. Not appropriately reviewing the latest contract. It may not take the agent long to look at contracts - those of us who have seen a lot of them tend to hone in on particular clauses and, therefore, don't give the same scrutiny to all clauses (e.g. the 'governing law' clause doesn't get reviewed as closely as the 'subsidiary rights' clause). But in light of your earlier experience with missing clauses, it's not great - especially as you picked up on those unfavourable clauses. 

3. Lack of engagement with your writing. Even if your agent is primarily a deal-making type of agent - and each agent is different - writers still want to feel as though their work is appreciated by their agent or, at the very least, that the agent is paying attention. I don't always give my clients a gold star - sometimes they're asked (nicely, of course) to do an amount of work or even to start again. And when I say 'asked', I mean I make a suggestion, not give a directive. So they may not like what I have to say, but they do know that I'm paying attention. Most agents pay attention to the work - the work, after all, is the reason for the agent-client relationship to exist. If your agent was doing everything else right apart from paying closer attention to your work, perhaps you'd be prepared to overlook that omission. But in light of everything else, it all seems to add up to a situation where you don't feel as though you have an agent who is as supportive of you as she or he could be. 

In short: you're not expecting too much to want to have your contracts scrutinised or to have attention paid to your work. These are standard services to expect from your agent. But I would suggest that you give the agent a chance to either redeem or explain him- or herself, just because you do have a relationship and it's good to end things nicely, if they're going to end. Ask a direct question: 'It's been good to work with you but I have the feeling that you're not wild about my writing - is that the case? I haven't ever received feedback from you when I've sent scripts to you.' The agent may say that they do love your writing but don't personally feel qualified to give feedback - they just might not have wanted to admit that to you. You may still think that they're not properly supportive anyway, in which case you need to leave. If, however, you think there's hope there, perhaps you want to try to work out the contract-reviewing issues. If you don't, though, it's quite okay to change. Just make it clear it's a business decision - you're not the right client-agent fit. Wish them well, if only because you want them to wish you well. Also because they may turn up at the next agency you go to ... 

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