Rita wrote to say, "I've been offered a contract on my novel. Since I don't have an agent, should I seek one at this point? And if the agent accepts, should he or she still receive 15% of the deal, even if they didn't market my book or secure the deal for me? Would it be better to have the agent simply review the contract for a fee?"
There's quite a debate about this issue. I suppose many agents would say, "Sure -- call me!" They'd be happy to get 15% for a deal they've done no work on. But my advice would be to think long term. Is there an agent you like and trust -- someone you want to work with in the long term? If so, call him or her. Talk about the situation. They may be willing to take less in order to work with you. They may review the contract for a fee. If, for example, you've got a $10,000 advance coming, make sure it's worth the $1500 to have the agent assist with this contract. (It may be worth it -- a complex situation, or a novel that is going to be made into a movie, or a potential bestseller probably call for a good agent to get involved). That said, it doesn't really seem fair to me to take the full comission for a book I didn't sell, though not everyone in the industry agrees with me. You can always talk with a contract-review specialist, who will review your contract for a flat fee (usually somewhere in the $300 range). You can also talk with an intellectual property rights attorney, but be careful -- they're generally paid by the increment (anywhere from a six-minute to a 15-minute increment), and their goal is to keep the clock moving. The longer it takes them, the more they are paid. I know of at least one author who paid more to have a top-flight entertainment lawyer review the contract than they were paid in advance dollars. Generally speaking, your family lawyer won't have enough experience to really help you with a publishing contract. Congratulations on getting the book deal, by the way.
Chris asked, "Should I worry about a literary agent who turned me down, but suggested I work with his editorial service?
Absolutely you should worry. Here's how this commonly works -- you send a manuscript to an agent, who says, "I really like this, but it's not ready. However, we have an editorial service here who can help you. For just $500, they'll get this proposal ready for us to represent..." The agent sends you to his editor friend, then pockets half of that "editorial fee," so he or she is making money off the author. That's a total violation of ethics for literary agents (and I'd argue the reason we're seeing some agents do this is because we've had a group of people jump into agenting who don't really know what they're doing). The Association of Author Representatives has a clear canon of ethics printed on their opening web page which precludes an agent from doing this very thing. It's ripe with potential for abuse. My advice: If an agent tries to cross-sell you some other literary service that charges you a fee, stand up and walk away. You can find a better agent.
Phoebe had this situation: "I signed with an agent, but wasn't happy. I fired that agent, and moved on to another. But now my first agent is claiming that anything I ever talked with her about is her responsibility! She claims that if I ever get a publishing deal for the projects she represented, she is to be paid the agent's commission. Is that legal?"
This is another one I can't fathom. I understand getting paid if I've done the legwork -- let's say that I've worked with an author to develop a project, showed it to publishers, and started to get some interest. If the author hears about it, fires me, then approaches the same publishers to try and get the deal and save themselves the 15% commission, I should still get paid. I state in my agency agreement that if I'm working with a publisher on your behalf, I'll still get paid even if you fire me and do a deal with them within a year. But I've seen this a few times lately -- an agent claiming that if you EVER sell the book they represented, they'll still get paid. I'm not a lawyer, so I cannot give legal advice, but I would think this would be awfully tough to have stand up in court. My advice: read any agreement carefully before you sign it. If the agent has a clause that's incredibly restrictive like this, ask to have it altered.