This is an updated version of a post I put online several years ago, in response to complaints about “handshake” offers from a particular agent at a large agency.
That agent is no longer making those offers (as far as I know). And handshake agreements are rare these days. But I’ve recently heard from several writers who received handshake or no-contract offers from other agents at other agencies–so it’s not impossible that you may encounter such an offer in your agent search. If you do, there’s reason to be cautious.
What’s a Handshake Agreement?
According to Wikipedia, a handshake agreement, or oral contract, is
…a contract, the terms of which have been agreed by spoken communication. This is in contrast to a written contract, where the contract is a written document. There may be written, or other physical evidence, of an oral contract – for example where the parties write down what they have agreed – but the contract itself is not a written one.
“Spoken”, here, is metaphorical: the agent doesn’t need to literally speak the words. The point is that they are offering some form of representation without a written contract to formalize the arrangement. This might be an email promising to submit your work to a few publishers to “see what happens”, with a contract to follow if a publisher makes an offer. Or the agent might tell you outright that they prefer to work without a written contract. Or there might be no mention of a contract at all.