Most interested agents these days will offer you a contract—rather than taking you on with a handshake. Although those contracts vary from agent to agent, it is important that any agent contract you sign offer you the protections you—and the agent—need to develop a successful, working relationship.
The following list will point out most of those elements. (1) It will indicate that this agent is your exclusive agent—or if some of your writings are to be exempt—will specify what is exempt. (2) It should indicate exactly what services the agent is going to provide for you—such as finding publishers for your works, negotiating contracts, keeping you informed of any activity on your projects—including sending copies of rejections, making sure your publishers abide by the terms of your contracts, accepting or rejecting offers as you decide after consultation with your agent, checking royalty statements for accuracy, and making sure payments are made on time. (3) The agent will expect you to inform them and let them deal with any problems that arise between you and the publisher. (4) The agent will expect you to inform them if a publisher shows interest in one of your projects. You should not enter into any kind of an agreement with a publisher on your own—that’s what the agent is for. Your interference at that point could jeopardize the agent’s opportunity to get the best deal for you. (5) The contract should indicate what percentage their commission will be (typically 15%). It is typical that the royalty statement will go to your agent (so they can check it for accuracy), the agent will deduct their percentage, and send you the balance. This is one reason you want an agent you can trust explicitly. (6) You want an agent who does not charge set fees, but it is typical that an agent charge for certain office expenses, such as phone calls and photocopying. The contract should specify this, require an itemized list of expenses, and put a cap on how much they can charge for such expenses without getting your permission. (7) If your agent involves a co-agent for selling such things as foreign rights, it is typical that they charge a 20% commission that they split with the co-agent. (8) And finally, you always want a clause that indicates how either of you can terminate the contract—such as with 30 or 60 days written notice.