All this is probably very meandery (which today is a word), but I’m sort of giving you the benefit of my experience, and I’m sort of wandering from topic to topic as they occur.
So let’s start today with the agency agreement. This one you have to be careful with. Many agencies require an agreement. Now if it’s any good, it will lay out the terms of how the agent earns money and what the percentages are, what your individual responsibilities are, and it will discuss how to end the relationship and what happens with your works when you leave the agency. This is pretty critical. Once an agent sells a book, she earns money from that sale so long as it continues to be published by the publisher. That means, the money will be sent to her and then on to you. Sometimes you can have that accounting separated out if your business breakup is no amicable and you’re not getting your money on a timely basis, but we’re presuming professional people and so we aren’t going to worry about that.
But the fact is, you want to know what happens when you leave an agency. You want to know how to do it and what they will continue to have control over. For instance, you would notify them in writing that you wanted to leave, but if you were in the middle of negotiating a contract, that agent would still earn money on that book (or books if it’s a multiple book contract). There are some sticky issues and you want to be sure you know what they are and how to deal with them professionally. But at the same time, some newer contracts I’ve heard about have inserted lines in the contract that say something about representing the books into perpetuity. This is not acceptable. Once a book is out of print with a publisher and your rights are reverted, then that sale is over and you should no longer be paying the agent for anything you do with those books, unless she sells them again. Does that make sense?
If you’ve moved on with another agent, you want to be able to let that agent earn money with those books, or you might want to self-publish, which is a new and enticing option in this new publishing world. This is why you can’t be giving away any rights to anything in perpetuity. There should always be a reversion clause.
Some agencies do have handshake agreements. Even so, you want to ask about the break up and the rights reversions and so on. Find out in advance and don’t be afraid to ask. No one wants to think about the end at the beginning, but you have to.
A random sort of addition: it used to be a good rule of thumb to only use agents who were in New York because so much business got done in New York and you wanted your agent to be a part of that. Well, with the net and modern life, that isn’t the case any more. My agent is in Florida. Her agency is in Georgia. They can be anywhere and still do the job.
ON a last note, think about your expectations for an agent. What you see on TV isn’t true. Agents don’t come to your house or call every day or anything like that. Sometimes I don’t talk to mine for months. I do more by email because she’s quick to respond–either by phone or email–and if she’s in the middle of something when I shoot her the email, then I don’t interrupt. If it’s really important, I pick up the phone and usually she’ll make time for me then or before the end of the day. She finds out answers, she handles issues with the publisher and editor so my relationship with my editor is smooth. She talks me off the ledge when I’m freaking out, which happens occasionally, and she stays on top of the business side of things so I can write.