There's been a fair amount of talk on the Kindle Board, and also in a phone conversation I had with another author as to whether you should use a lawyer or an agent. As with most things, the answer is...it depends. The argument I've heard is why spend 15% forever when you can spend a fixed fee. It's a valid point in SOME circumstances but I think there is still a lot of value in having an agent. Let's look at some typical scenarios.
Signing with a small press
In this case I actually suggest: neither
Whenever I hear an author talking about their agent just got them a contract with xyz, and xyz is some small fry publisher , I scratch my head. They really don't bring anything to the table in this situation. The contracts are pretty straightforward. Yeah they'll ensure nothing truly terrible is in there, but they won't be able to negotiate more money (most small presses don't even give advances) and their royalties are usually at or above big-six percentages.
While one would think that a lawyer should look over any legal document - you have to consider cost / risk. That's what a contract lawyer does - looks to eliminate risk. Let's look at Michael's first small press contract with Aspirations Media. We got the contract in and I went to my local Bar Association and several Lawyer referral sites - the estimates I got ranged from $500 - $1500 to review the contract. This wasn't to negotiate the deal, just read all the clauses and point out anything worrisome. But the publisher was only printing up 2200 books (had no plans for ebooks - it was a while ago), and Michael would make $0.75 a book so...even if he "sold out" the first print run he would only make $1,650.
So in this case we "did ourselves" - looked at the contract with a critical eye and asked for changes for some of the things that concerned us the most - mainly under what conditions the rights reverted.
A Medium or Large Publisher Approaches You
This came up on the Kindle board the other day, and what prompted this post. The first thing I want to say about this is...don't do it alone. The fact is, the contract that you'll receive "all by your lonesome" will look nothing like one you'll receive if you're represented. This will be in terms of both money and the clauses (whether they are weighted heavily toward the publisher or the author).
If you have a single book, and it is pretty focused (say non-fiction educational), yeah a lawyer might be the best way to go. It's a fairly one time transaction, the lawyer, if they do a lot of these will know the "going rates" and get the offer increased if he/she thinks its a low ball offer and the likelihood of follow on venues (foreign, movie rights, merchandising) is small.
If you have a series, say fantasy, science fiction, or a thriller than I would suggest an agent. This is body of work with more "legs". The first thing the agent will do is use their connections in the industry to get multiple offers. One of the biggest reasons to use an agent is they have contacts with many editors. Having an existing offer is leverage they can use.
A series also has more potential for subsidiary income: foreign translations, movies, etc. A series has the potential to create a "career" and having an agent to help build it to its maximum potential is, in my opinion, well worth the 15% they will take. A lawyer will work the single transaction and then they are done. The agent has the connections to get additional revenue streams.
You've experienced self-publishing success and want to go traditional
In this case I think an agent is the only smart way to go about this. If you're already earning, you won't have to the query-go-round to find an agent. Pick the ones you are most interested in. Prepare data on your sales, and make some phone calls. If your sales, or rankings are good, I suspect you'll find several people willing to represent you (especially today as authors with an established platform are very marketable).
In this case there agent can bring even more to the table. Most are used to acting as content editors. They'll read the work - suggest changes to make it more attractive (something that an indie author will find expensive and hard to find). It could be that you had a "great start" with good sales, but a little tweaking can turn a good novel into a great novel.
Again, they have many contacts at multiple publishers so armed with a "hot commodity" can make some phone calls and get the ball rolling. This is exactly the situation with Michael's Riyria Revelations series. Our agent put together a proposal, gave it to 17 houses with a deadline to respond with interest in 17 days. She immediately had 7 publishers expressing an interest. Approaching publishers once you have success certainly accelerates the process form the standard approach.
In tomorrow's post I'll talk about agents again but this time "by request" as someone asked me what my take was in the agents as publishers trend.