I did a whole article for the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) Bulletin on various types of submissions and negotiations and reposted it on my blog last year. (Click here for your viewing pleasure.) Rather than recap that, I’d like to talk about your role in things as an author.
First of all, you’re a vital part of negotiations. It’s your work and nothing should be decided or agreed upon without your okay. Certainly, no one should be signing anything on your behalf. Your agent should keep you apprised of submissions and responses. This means that you’ll receive copies of rejection letters, unless you request otherwise. This is very important, as it can provide useful feedback. If several editors come back with a similar response (for instance, “I didn’t find the characters terribly sympathetic”), your agent may get in touch about doing revisions to the manuscript before any further submissions are made. Seeing the letters will also demonstrate, I’m sure, the fact that ours is a subjective business. It can be very frustrating for a writer when one editor says, “Loved the characters, couldn’t get caught up in the story,” and the very next response says, “Fabulous story, but I couldn’t connect with the characters.” The best thing a writer can do is develop a thick skin and a zen sort of attitude, which, I’m aware, is a lot easier said than done. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I’ve never gone out with a submission that has been universally loved, where I’ve received an offer from every single editor to which it’s been sent. Rejections are inevitable. Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them. (Although some might debate me on this point.)
As far as signing…you’re the one who’s committing to the terms of any agreement. It’s your work, thus rights are yours to grant. Whether the contract is for North American volume rights, audio, film/television or translation, it should be your signature on the dotted line. (The exception to this is when rights have been granted to a publisher and they make sublicenses to others.) I’ve heard of situations where agencies will sign for authors, say on foreign rights deals, and I can see the potential for problems here. Unless you’ve specifically given power-of-attorney for some reason—for example, you’re going to be out of the country and difficult to reach for a prolonged period of time—you should be signing your own contracts and reading them over clause by clause. You’re legally bound by the terms of the agreement; you should know what you’re signing and you should question anything about which you’re uncertain. If you’re not receiving and signing your contracts, how will you keep track of your obligations, payments, etc.? Yes, your agent is your business manager and you should trust the people you work with, but again, it’s important to be fully informed and another set of eyes on an agreement never hurts.
Switching gears here, while the agent is going to be doing the submissions and negotiations and keeping you fully informed throughout the process, there are things that you can do to help things along. For one, it’s likely, particularly if you have writing credits already, that an interested editor will check you out, which means visiting your blog, website, perhaps Facebook page or Twitter feed. Remember to keep things professional. Don’t bad-mouth other writers or publishers. Don’t have adult content up if you’re writing for young adults. (In fact, read Carrie Ryan’s excellent post from yesterday regarding what to/not to share online.) Make sure your sites are up-to-date and fairly representative of what it is you write and are looking to sell.
Also, keep your agent apprised of anything that might be relevant to submissions: new short-fiction sales, contest wins, networking that you’ve done (particularly with editors who’ve expressed interest in your work). Remember, it’s team effort. The most important elements of the author relationship are communication and trust. And competency and commitment. And…well, you get the picture.
Remember that communication is a two-way street. If there’s anything you need to know, you should feel comfortable asking. If there’s anything we request, like that you do up a new bio or update your bibliography, you should feel comfortable providing.
And so it goes.