I recently entered a pitch contest online and received a request from a small press. I sent my materials in, and they have come back with an offer to publish my novel. I know nothing about publishing and contracts and always assumed that I'd have an agent before I had a publishing deal. Can I get an agent now, so they can help negotiate the contract with my new publisher? I'm terrified to go into this without support from someone who knows about these things.
Excited and Terrified.
Dear Excited and Terrified,
Firstly, congratulations on getting a contract. That's fantastic!
Secondly, you can still try and get an agent at this point. You will need to let the publisher know that you will need some time to go through the contract, and give them an idea what this timeframe will be. If they are not prepared to wait a couple of weeks for you to do your due diligence, that's something I'd consider a red flag and I would be very cautious about signing up with them at all.
If you are querying agents with an offer in hand, it's worth mentioning that in the subject line of the email you are sending. You will also need to let them know about the timeframe you have given the publisher so they understand the urgency of the situation. Many won't have the capacity to drop everything to read your book ahead of others they have requested, so expect some rejections for this reason.
Other agents may not want to take on a project that is already promised to a publisher because they may not feel that publisher is the best place for the book. Also, small presses tend not to pay advances or generate huge sales, so an agent may not feel like it's worth their while to go into partnership with you if they are only going to get 15% of what is likely to be a very small amount. They may reject for this reason. Alternatively, they may suggest that you turn down this small press offer and work with them to get the novel ready to submit to larger publishers.
In this second scenario, you end up with an agent, but you're turning down a publishing deal.
You have to know what you really want in the long run. Signing with an agent doesn't guarantee the book will sell to publishers. You could spend months revising and polishing the book (again - I assume you had already done that before the pitch contest and the initial request), and still get no interest when the agent takes it out on submission.
You don't actually need an agent to negotiate your contract for you anyway. Sure, it's nice to have someone there who does this regularly and knows all the red flags to look for, but if you want to sign with this publisher, and don't have an agent, you can get a lawyer to look over the contract for you. They will be able to advise you whether it is a good contract or not, and point out any clauses they might consider problematic. They may even offer suggestions on ways to edit those clauses to be more favorable.