Any struggling new writer would jump at the chance to be represented by an agent, any agent. But what is the downside to taking the first "lifeline" offered? If a contract is signed by both parties for a period of two years, can it be broken if things don’t work out?
The contracts you’re talking about are called agency papers, which are relatively common at smaller literary agencies, which tend to be the companies that represent newer writers. Basically, the document defines the relationship between the writer and the agency, stating that the agency receives its commission on any work it finds for the writer, for a set period of time – up to two years, but sometimes only a year.
The contract mostly protects the agency, which is worried that the writer will suddenly jump ship to a bigger agency upon selling a script for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can understand why the agency would be nervous. Not only would it lose a client, it would lose its commission.
Not every agency requires its writers to sign agency papers, and truthfully, a lot of people never bother signing them. Frankly, I’ve never even seen them. But you shouldn’t freak out if an agent asks you to sign them.
That said, before you agree to work with any agent, you need to do a few things:
First, do your homework. Ask to talk with one of the agent’s current clients, preferably a phone call with just the two of you. What work has the agent gotten the writer? How quickly does the agent return phone calls? Better to ask the hard questions now, than wish you’d asked them earlier.
Also, check that the agency is a WGA signatory (or whatever equivalent guild if you’re outside the U.S.). Even if you aren’t a WGA member yet, you want to make sure that the agency you’re dealing with has an agreement with the WGA, which sets basic working rules and can offer you a lot of protection, including the ability to drop an agent who isn’t getting you work.
Finally, trust your gut. If an agent makes you uncomfortable, don’t work with him. While it’s hard to pass up an opportunity for representation, just remember that if one agent liked your stuff, another one will as well.