Agency Agreements: Single versus Multiple Project Contracts

Writers thinking about signing with an agent for the first time, or when switching agents, are often faced with decisions about agency agreements that only cover a single project (and might, after that, operate on a project-by-project basis or simply terminate) versus more general agreements that cover multiple projects. Because agency agreements are contracts, supplemented by some fiduciary duties that I won’t go into in this column, they can be drafted in many different ways. Some agents operate without written contracts at all—this is perfectly legal, but it’s always a better idea to have something in writing in case confusions or misunderstandings arise down the line. All of this throat-clearing is to say that I’m writing here in generalities and every contract will have its own specifics, so it’s important to understand what you’re signing in any given situation and ask the agent or an outside expert if there is something you don’t understand.

The good news is that agency contracts—whether for single or multiple projects—are typically pretty simple, usually no more than a couple of pages that set out the relatively standard duties/responsibilities of the agent, along with the basis for the agent’s compensation (usually a standard commission).

So what are the pros and cons between signing a single project agreement versus a multiple project agreement? Often there isn’t much difference between the two in practice. Many agencies offer single project agreements for the first project and then go on to rep many more projects for the same client, while those that offer multiple project agreements may end up terminating the contract if they fail to sell the first project, or if they sell, say, one project but find themselves unable to sell anything else.

While some authors become anxious when faced with a single project agreement (What about my other work? Aren’t you invested in my long-term career?), others might feel worried about a contract that covers all their work (What about small publishing gigs I get myself? What about my poetry and those song lyrics in my bottom drawer? Are you going to claim commission on stuff you don’t even represent?)

There really isn’t a good way to draft a “one size fits all” agency contract without having to renegotiate the contract for each client, so often the author is presented with the agency’s standard agreement and occasionally a small revision might be made e.g. a multiple project agreement might be limited to a particular genre or market.

Some agencies offer authors a choice between a single project agreement or a multiple project agreement. If you have the choice, think about what you want from the agent in question. Are you likely only to write a single project in the area they represent? If so, the single project arrangement might be right for you. Single project contracts allow you to be free of the agreement outside that project, although many agencies that offer single project agreements are prepared to continue representing your work as long as you are productive and continue writing things they can sell.

It’s theoretically easier to part ways with an agent representing you for a single project because you have only given that agent authority to work on that one project and, whether or not they sell it, that’s the limit of your contractual arrangement, subject to any termination formalities set out in the contract e.g. notice by either party to the other that the arrangement is coming to an end. However, it’s generally not particularly difficult to terminate a multiple project agreement either—usually there’s a termination period of around 30 days (often less; sometimes more) to allow the agent to close of the administration of your work and then you go your separate ways.

Bear in mind that regardless of whether you signed a single project or a multiple project agreement, your agent will likely continue to receive commission on any deal(s) they brokered for you during the course of the agency. That’s pretty standard practice whatever the scope of representation under the initial agreement.

As with any contractual issue, the pros and cons really come down to understanding your needs as an author and the nature of the agreement being offered to you. While agency agreements tend to be pretty simple, it’s usually worth having another set of eyes—a contract consultant or publishing attorney or other expert—look over the agreement for you before you sign to help make sure you fully understand the agent’s rights and obligations.

And as with everything in this column, nothing written here is intended as legal advice but hopefully it is helpful information in navigating agency agreements.