Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Literary Agenting Should Evolve

I began researching what it meant to be a writer in these modern times about two years ago. It's amazing how little we know when all we are doing is writing a book. The publishing world is under tremendous pressure to change. One thing I have noticed when researching publishers is that more and more of them are turning to giving authors no (or tiny) advances. I think this is quite logical, and I support it, however it does upset the 'way things work' regarding literary agents.

Since agents make their money from advances, there is no reason for any agent to help a writer get a deal with any of the growing number of publishers that don't do advances. Why should they when they won't make any money? A system where agents are ignoring many publishers because there are no advances is a broken system.

The ideas I have seen, such as having agents charge money to writers, are no good, as that system is too prone to swindlers and others who would take advantage of the horde of wannabe authors out there. The system works better when an agent only gets paid if their client succeeds.

I believe literary agents should evolve a new system that doesn't work off of advances, but allows them to earn a set percentage of an author's earnings. This would maintain the model of joint success between agent/writer while allowing agents to sell to any of the publishing companies.

Edit to add that Bryan (ink) says in the comments that agents DO also get 15% of royalties. In my defense, in two years of reading about agents I have never heard any of them say this. They always make it sound as if they just get 15% of advances.


  1. I agree with you, Ted. Charging money is ridiculous. I also wish agents didn't always think they have to target HUGE publishers. What's wrong with pitching to a smaller press if you think a book is great but not quite commercially viable?

    Are you a writer? Then you MUST enter this CONTEST!

  2. Do agents avoid the small houses, or are they just a lower priority? I guess whether they get paid from advances or royalties, they'll follow the money to the big ones.

  3. Will, I can't imagine that an agent would even try to sell to one of these houses, as they would not get paid for any of their work!

  4. Ted, they do get paid a fixed amount of a writer's earnings. Usually 15%. That goes for royalties without advances, too. They'll get the 15% whether the writer has an advance or not. Yes, agents like advances -- the same way writers do. But most agents would be fine submitting to a non-advance publisher assuming the commitment is strong for backing the book. Without an advance, they'd push for a high royalty rate, and might end up making more in the long run, assuming the publisher is really willing to back the book and get it out there. More risk, more chance at reward. (which some agents will embrace more than others, based on personality, willingness to take risks, etc.)

    The exception is for very small Indie publishers. If there's no advance, and the expected print run is 1000 copies or something... well, you start divvying that up and you realize the agent would be doing all their work for just a couple hundred dollars (unless the book really took off and was reprinted multiple times). It's simply not practical for them. Why would they work for 78 cents an hour or something?

    The lucky thing is, though, that these publishers know this. And these small Indie publishers generally don't require you to have an agent to submit. You can query them the same way you query an agent.

  5. Wait a minute. Don't agents earn the same 15% off of all royalties that they do off of the advance? That has always been my understanding. If that's not true it's news to me.

    I will now have to go research this.

  6. I'm pretty sure they get their 15% whether it is advance or later sales. The advance just makes for a nice chunk (rather than a couple bucks at a time).

    I don't mind the idea of SMALL advances at all--I think one of publishings big problems is paying for things that have no benefit and advances for books that don't pay through is second only to printing books they have to take back in terms of waste (something POD ought to fix, if they'd just think about things differently). But with NO advance, I feel like PUBLISHERS can take advantage of authors... there is no need to promote anyone (not that many get much effort, but...)

  7. THat's a great idea. Now, how do we get your brilliant idea out there? I agree that it's a broken system and many authors are trying to publish in the midst of it. It's hard on authors because we want to make money for our hard work but it gets harder to do that each passing year.


  8. Bryan, that is really odd (though perhaps you are right). Why is it that in two years of reading about such things on the net I have never once had an agent say that they get 15% of both advances AND royalties? It sounds nearly like deception for some reason. They have always, that I have read, stated that they get 15% of advances. They never mention royalties.

  9. I havn't been researching enough on publishers or agents to really say much, but it seems that even they have hit some of the harder times these last few years.

  10. Well, most books (on average) don't earn out their advance, so it's sort of a moot point most of the time.

    And, having had an agent before, yes, it's 15% of whatever you earn through them. Advance and royalties on anything they negotiate for you.

  11. Many small publisher take direct submissions, so an agent isn't needed. That's probably another reason agents don't bother with the smaller publishers.

  12. Hi Ted,

    To help out a bit, advances are actually advances against royalties. So honestly, they're not different things and it's not deceptive...the agent gets 15% of your domestic royalties, which includes your advance because that IS royalty money, and 20% for foreign sales.

    As far as small presses go, there is a point where it wouldn't be worth an agent's time. They spend hours on hammering out a fair contract for you with the publisher (my agent got some great concessions for me), but if it's a tiny advance and a tiny press run, they'll probably never make more than a buck or two an hour and at that point they're better off looking for someone new in their gigantic slush pile.

    Don't get me wrong—small presses are better than never getting published. But unless they're doing a big push for you in terms of marketing and a decent press run, it'll be tough for your work to get noticed out there. That's why agents deal with the big houses; they not only pay more money, but they have the marketing and distribution muscle to help ensure that your book stays on the shelf, earns out its advance, and makes more money going forward.

  13. well, it was a good plan anyway! :)

  14. Thanks, Kevin. I think that agents might realize that since they always speak of advances and royalties distinctly that new writers coming to their sites might just get the impression that they are distinct. That is certainly what I have always thought, even knowing that the advance was recouped from royalties. I think they could be more accurate by stating that they get 15% of earnings, period, rather than always saying they get 15% of advances.

  15. Yup. I put in some time agent hunting because a published author-friend said I had to have an agent. That was over a year ago. She is now telling me that I don't need one. Her agent (25 years experience) and I had several conversations about my multimedia project and she told me that publishers aren't returning agents' phone calls. She also told me my advance would be very small if she could sell my project and I'd have to do all my own PR.

    Think about how lame that makes the traditional publishing model: We spend days-weeks-months-years trying to get a complete stranger to believe in our project then publishers give them the same treatment that they give us! Then they slap their names on our work, take a ton of our pie, and tell you to promote the thing.

    The POD model (Lightning Source) makes so much sense now. A good number of Imprint Publishers and almost all the small presses use Lightning Source or other POD models. Barnes and Nobles being sold...e-books sales outnumbering print copies for the first time on Amazon...the time is ripe for DIY authors to make it work.

    I'd rather take that 15% (even more with the POD model) and attach/donate it to the SPCA, Humane Society, and Leukemia society. All part of my marketing plan...

    The whole idea of agents all across the board (sports, music, book) sort of pisses me off.

    Ok. Morning rant done.