Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Are Agents Underpaid?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A fascinating discussion began today on Twitter (as of this writing, it's still going on--check it out under the #agentpay hashtag), kicked off by agent Colleen Lindsay, who asked, "How would publishing change if agenting moved from commission-based payment to billable hours?" 

Those in favor pointed out that agents' job descriptions have expanded over the past couple of decades, and that they must now do much more for the same 15% they earned twenty years ago. They also get no payment at all for a good portion of what they do on a regular basis--reading queries and manuscripts, editing, submitting books that never sell. In a highly competitive environment, with shrinking advances (at the midlist level, anyway) and cautious publishers, it's getting harder and harder to make a living.

Those against raised the specter of abuse (there are several questionable agents in Writer Beware's files who soak their clients for billable hours while doing little or nothing to place manuscripts with reputable publishers), the loss of agents' entrepreneurial edge if they got paid no matter what (the fact that the agent profits only when the writer does is at the heart of the traditional author-agent relationship); and, of course, the possibility that only wealthy writers could afford to have agents. Several lawyers participating in the discussion also pointed out that keeping timesheets for billing is a soul-sucking timesink that no one in their right mind would want to undertake.

For authors who at this point are feeling their blood pressure rising, I should point out that this is a hypothetical discussion; none of the participating agents are advocating an immediate switch. Colleen's question does, however, highlight an important issue: agents' job descriptions really have expanded over the past twenty years, while their commission percentage has remained the same. Just as writers are now routinely expected to take an active role in promoting their books (two decades ago, self-promotion was still very much optional), many agents now feel obliged to take an active role in promoting their writers. Selling books is also much more work than it used to be, especially in the hyper-competitive and risk-averse environment produced by the recent economic downturn. I also think that the droves of laid-off editors who've transitioned to agenting--not just recently but during the height of the publisher consolidation frenzy in the 1990's--have contributed to the problem, with more agents than ever vying for the time of fewer editors than ever.

So it's not surprising that some agents feel they are underpaid. In my opinion, though, billing hours is not the way to go. It's too open to abuse. It shuts too many writers out of the picture. It also might have a backlash effect--if only well-heeled writers could afford agents, there would be less need for agents, putting a lot of agents out of business. (Which might in turn limit publishers' choices. Could that spell the end of big publishers' agented-submissions-only policies?) Compromise measures--charging commission until the first sale and billable hours thereafter, flat per-project fees, fees charged for adjunct services such as editing, even reading fees--create the same concerns. Would agents select clients on the basis of their ability to pay? Would they drop clients who took a long time between books and didn't use enough billable services? As for reading and editing fees, that battle was fought years ago. Most agents' trade groups prohibit them for members.

So what's the answer, for agents and others who think the current system should change? A commission hike is the most obvious solution. During the 1980s and 1990s, US agents raised their commissions from 10% to 15%; it seems to me that an increase to 20% could be undertaken with relatively minimal pain on all sides. This would acknowledge the ways in which agenting has changed and expanded, but wouldn't unfairly burden writers.

Another idea might be for agents to sell their expertise. Branches of an agency could be established for fee-based editing, marketing, publicity, packaging, consulting to self-publishers, and the like. These services wouldn't be sold to clients, however--that would be a conflict of interest (if an agent can make money from a service s/he is urging you to buy, how can you be sure that buying it is really to your benefit?) and could easily be misused. The agency would need to erect an impenetrable wall between the agenting and the fee-charging sides of its business--for instance, no client would ever be sold editing services, and no one who bought editing services would be eligible to become a client. This would be made clear on the agency's website and in its literature.

Agents can also become publishers. Of course, that's even more fraught with ambiguity than selling editing or marketing services. If an agent can publish a client's book herself, how driven will she be to sell the book to another publisher? If an agent is selling a client's book to himself, how can he adequately represent both parties' interests? (See the blogs of authors Stacia Kane and Courtney Milan for a more detailed examination of these potential conflicts of interest.) There are very good reasons why the AAR and the ALAA prohibit members from representing both buyer and seller in the same transaction (the AAA allows it, but only if the client is first informed in writing). Again, to ensure ethical practice, there would need to be an impenetrable wall between the agency and the publisher. 

All of these things are already happening. A number of established US agents charge 20%. There are agencies with editing and consulting businesses; there are even agencies that own or co-own publishers. In coming years, I think this blurring of lines will become commonplace, as authors, agents, and publishers all struggle to survive in the digital age. As agencies expand their capabilities, it's essential that they consider the importance of ethical practice, and take the time and trouble to establish rules and customs that ensure that their clients are protected, and their potential clients are fairly dealt with.

(One last thing. I'd love a lively discussion of these issues, but I don't want this post to become a forum for anti-agent hostility. Please don't comment if all you want to do is rant about how greedy, elitist, capricious, undeserving, etc. agents are.)

115 comments:

Anthony said...

Interesting.

As a technical analyst/consultant, I hate charging by the hour. We ask clients for a Statement of Work, we agree on the work to be done and then agree on the price. Sometimes we loose to a agency that has a better price.

With that said, isn't the real elephant in the room is that most publishes pay royalties on a six month basis, rather quarterly?

There's running out of cash, then there is cash flow.

I know I'm rambling here, but hourly charges to clients almost sounds like breaking into jail. One of the reasons goes back to publishers: they benefit from agents immensely by acting as a crap filter, and therefore should share the burden in costs. Which they do now, but it seems to not have adjusted with the times.

Imagine that.

Anonymous said...

A 5-point hike is really a 30-percent pay increase. Not saying that agents wouldn't deserve this...but it's not something that is absorbed with little-to-no pain, particularly authors, most of whom already have second jobs.

In this scenario, writers are the only ones taking pay cuts. They, too, have more work to do with the promotion. So maybe a 2.5-point split is a little more equitable.

janni said...

Hmmmm. A 20 percent commission makes me uneasy, especially since that change to a 15 percent commission--which I remember happening about 20 years ago, actually--was itself meant to accommodate changes in the industry.

Also, not all agents do edit, and I think there's still healthy debate going on about whether or not it's in everyone's best interest for that to be part of an agent's job. (The answer, like so many things, may be "it depends.")

Mostly, though, I'm puzzled by the notion that an increase to a 20 percent commission could be undertaken with "relatively minimal pain on all sides." Relatively minimal pain for whom? Certainly not the writer, for whom it could easily mean the loss of thousands of dollars in income without any clear added benefit.

I'd be pretty wary of such a change, at least at this point in time.

Amanda said...

Nothing but agent love here! Mine is wonderful and has worked her butt off to get my manuscript polished and out on submission. I think about how much time I've put into writing over the last two years--without pay. If my book sells, it will not come close to compensating me for that time. If I wanted to be rich, I wouldn't have chosen writing as my career. And as for the 5% commission hike--I'd gladly pay it. My agent helped edit and polish my MS, she's my cheerleader, advocate, and has talked me off a couple of ledges when my enthusiasm got out of control. I'd never understand the ins and outs of contracts, options, rights, etc. I NEED HER! I'd never be able to afford billable hours, but a 20% commission is totally acceptable in my opinion. We work as a team, I don't mind sharing a bigger piece of the pie!

sue laybourn said...

I don't have a problem with the commission rising to 20%. I'm realistic enough to know that if I'm fortunate enough to get published, making money is the gravy. I think agents do a great deal more these days and publishing companies a bit less. Given the sheer number of people trying to get their books 'out there', the industry needs sound gatekeepers. If you want quality gatekeepers, you've got to make it worth their while.

rissawrites said...

I can see an agent charging for some things. Like, for example, I would pay for an agent to critique my book.

But when it comes to selling it, I would rather have it be commission only.

Can you imagine trying to think of how to bill? For every editor email or phone call? For ever contact with the writer? What if it goes to auction?

What an accounting nightmare. Plus, writers go crazy enough waiting to hear back while on submission- can you imagine how much worse it would be if we were paying per hour. yikes.

Anonymous said...

One surefire way for agents to increase their income: higher pay rates for their clients.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see anything explaining how this would benefit writers.

Anonymous said...

I agree that an hourly charge would not work. I do believe, however, that agents should be allowed to charge for what they now do for free. As mentioned in this post, editors are able to hop around and write their own novels, charge writers for edits, or become editors. No one rides herd on them. But if an agent tries to do anything except be an agent, the hue and cry is sent up by every writer in the universe.

Also why is it that writers themselves have no professional restrictions but expect agents to only be agents?

Twenty years ago, most agents charged reading fees but this practice were discontinued because writers felt charging for services rendered was unprofessional and the practice might be abused--and might have been.

I also believe, in most cases, the writer benefited more than they do presently when reading fees were okay. Yes gents charged a few dollars for helping writers who now have to pay a few thousand so a so-called professional editor can rip them off. I don't personally think that agents should be held to standards to which no one else is being held.

Reasonably priced reading and feedback from someone in the field is a much better deal than getting feedback from someone who isn't--like the many, many profession editors who have never worked at anything in publishing.

Editor said...

...and we could stoke the fires even more if we posed another question...

How would publishing change (or even function) if authors only submitted their work to agents or publishers based on billable hours?

In effect, like the hypothetical agent proposal, we move to a model where a manuscript/book comes with a preordained price-tag, and at each stage of progression, the agent, the editor, the cover designer, all add in their ransom.

Ultimately, publishing is about risk and investment in future success based on current evaluation.

There are far too many investors in the publication/production of a book unwilling to accept the investment other parties make - assuming their involvement is the critical effort that makes a book happen.

Emily Casey said...

The problem is that writers hire the agents. Writers have had to step up their games as well, taking on marketing and promotion and the like.

If it takes more work to get a book published, then maybe we're not charging enough for our books (or our costs are too high). Ebooks may be the answer.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the 20% proposal is that it balances the agent's budget on the back of the minority of clients who are actually paying him or her. The time suck comes from having to rep so many authors whom are never sold. Yes, the industry is excessively cautious right now. The answer for agents, I think, is to be equally cautious. They need to take on fewer clients and focus as much attention as possible on only the very best material they see. Of course, that will leave a lot of writers who, in any other environment, would have been able to secure an agent, out in the cold. So writers, too, will have to adjust. We have to do more to build our visibility and brand. The only other option I can see is a refundable payment to the agent up front (I don't know what to propose as an amount -- $500? $1,000?) which is essentially an advance on commissions. If a writer sells, that first chunk of comission is "prepaid." If the writer doesn't sell, than at least that covers some of the agent's time

Victoria Strauss said...

Points taken about the 5% commission hike. But I still think a commission hike is the most straightforward and palatable of these options.

A flat upfront fee--like billable hours--poses major ethical concerns. It would seriously diminish an agent's incentive to aggressively market a book, because she would get paid whether she worked or not. At the very heart of the author-agent relationship lies the fact that the agent doesn't benefit unless the author does. This provides the agent with a powerful incentive not just to sell a client's manuscript, but to get the most lucrative possible deal. Any of the options I suggest in my post preserve this very important factor. An upfront fee renders it moot--and the damage there is to the author, not to the agent.

It's amazing to me that anyone could propose a return to reading and/or critique fees. How short the collective memory is. Abuse of reading and critique fees is incredibly easy--and tempting--and it was rampant at the time that the AAR took steps to prohibit the practice to members. Bringing these fees back would be one of the worst of all possible outcomes.

steeleweed said...

On a rather pessimistic note:

Authors, agents and publishers are still trying to redefine themselves and their roles in the Digital World. My best guess is that in 10 years (or less), Copyright will be meaningless on any digital content simply because it will be unenforceable. EBooks will be sold - and pirated with impunity. Paper books will be largely POD and sold online. The distinction between being a true self-publisher and being a client of Lulu or Lightning Source will blur and be meaningless. Just as there are 'book packagers' today, there will be marketing experts, editors, etc. - people who are paid to help improve and sell books.

The 'gatekeeper' role which agents perform today will be replaced by professional book critics - they just won't be writing for major newspapers and will probably be bloggers. I suspect the first-run retailers will vanish - no more B&N, Borders, etc.

Second-hand bookstores will survive because costs are lower and much of the stock is no longer in print or available elsewhere.

If I were an agent today, I'd develop a platform as a reviewer and transition to that ASAP. Income? Haven't a clue. Google Ads?

As a reader, I'm delighted with the future. As a writer, I'm appalled.

Anonymous said...

Hey, how would my salary change if it were changed to billable hours?

It would go up, I assure you.

What's the point of the discussion--"No one knows the trouble I've seen"?

I'm sure agents deserve better compensation for the work they do.

Just like I do.

Just like a lot of us do.

Not all, but a lot.

M. C. Evers said...

"There are very good reasons why the AAR and the ALAA prohibit members from representing both buyer and seller in the same transaction (the AAA allows it, but only if the client is first informed in writing)."

This is actually quite similar to the ethical requirements for Realtors. When some relatives of mine purchased a house, they did so from a close family friend who was a Realtor, and they did allow her to represent them as well as the seller, but as you suggest both parties were informed in writing. Everything went off without a hitch. Without that close, personal knowledge of the individual in question, though, I could see where that would be a problem in the majority of circumstances (whereas I think what my family members had was a special circumstance).

For obvious reasons things like reading fees are out of the question.

What I wonder is this...do any agents teach, or function as tutors? Obviously it's not exactly the same line of work and could be a real time suck, but it's a little wisp of a thought, anyway.

How many have speaking skills? Could these speaking skills be parlayed into courses to (for instance) teach people (including writers) how to network, and other social skills that might be necessary for self-promotion? Such courses could never, EVER be "bundled" in or required for agenting, but it could well open up a second line of work (and might even be applicable to non-writers).

Of course, you've STILL got the time suck problem, and it's not doing anything with the central issue that the commissions aren't changing.

Obviously profit can only come by either a) more transactions or b) more money per transaction. And the latter would have to happen one of two ways: raising the commission, as you say, or publishers raising THEIR prices so that the royalties to authors increase and commissions increase in a commensurate manner. But books are now FIERCELY price-competitive, especially with the eBook and free alternatives (ranging in legality from the obviously wrong, like pirating, to the grey, like fanfic offered without charge, to "open-source" writing like what people like Doctorow do).

One last question...and I realize this is going to sound incredibly ignorant here if I'm off base, so please be gentle. Do publishing houses "retain" agents in the way that a person or organization can retain a lawyer? What would be the ethical issues surrounding the idea of that, if a publisher paid a retaining fee to an agent whose services they trusted? Might that allow some income to come from the publisher AND some to come from the author?

BUT...if that happens, how is the author impacted, and would it be a conflict of interest or adverse impact?

Sorry if that last round of questions sounds ignorant, but I truly don't know.

Lehcarjt said...

Does anyone have statistics on the number of clients agents generally rep now in comparison to ten, twenty, thirty years ago?

I'm wondering if part of the problem is that agents are representing more clients, but those clients are making less money on their books(individually and in sum total).

The solution? I have no idea. But if agents go to hourly rates (hypothetically), can writers do that too?

Chris said...

I see no mention here (or on Twitter) of the possibility that the agent charging only for billable hours who lucks into the next Harry Potter or DaVinci Code would be out tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in commission. I realize that's the rare exception, but that gamble would seem worthwhile.

For my part as an unpublished writer, I prefer the partnership that results in an agent earning a percentage of what she helps me earn. I don't have a big problem with twenty percent. At this point, with 50-odd rejection slips in my file cabinet, I'd gladly pay twenty-five or thirty percent to an agent willing to get my writing career moving.

I see one big advantage (from the agent's view) of billable hours, and that's the ability to earn more from high-maintenance authors where agents may not currently see a good return on the time invested. But I'd rather see agents cut loose those authors who are more work than their worth than see the correlation between the writer's earnings and the agent's earnings be lost.

Kay said...

What percentage do other commission sales people get?

Seems to that should have some bearing on the "pay scale" bit.

Doranna said...

Raising the rates to 20% wouldn't be a hardship for authors who are already seeing incomes and opportunities plummet? And who already lose a significant chunk of money to self-employment issues? That remark struck horror into my heart. I wanted to run frantically through the offices of all agents, plugging their "ears"!

I certainly don't see why authors should pay--again--for the changes in the industry (aside from not being fair, which life isn't, I don't think it's viable to believe we can continue hitting authors and think the system will also continue to work). I do think that if there's a pinch, it's reasonable for agencies to pursue other ways to sell their expertise, while keeping those clear lines that prevent conflict of interest.

I didn't get the feeling from many of the agent posts that there was truly a pinch there. Just an awareness of changing roles. (Although I personally don't see any changes in the roles with my agent, other than a comfortable maturation of the relationship. This doesn't mean that things haven't changed on that end, but--as you note--they're changing *everywhere.* We're being told to suck it up as authors; maybe that's just the way it is, throughout. Changing, I mean, and being "it is what it is.")

Deborah said...

Lots of very interesting comments on various sides of the issue. The one I agreed with the MOST, though, pointed out that agent make more money if/when they get their clients more.

I thought that was an excellent point.

janni said...

Oh, billable hours would be far worse, no argument.

I don't see either as a viable option for writers though, honestly.

If 15% were to be deemed no longer viable (and it hasn't been, as far as I can tell--we're still talking theoreticals here), it would be time to explore things like whether agents ought to be editing, taking part in promotion, and so on, and whether it's possible to acquire high quality books by high quality clients without doing these things--looking at the way business is done and whether there are things that aren't working, rather than upping fees.

Amanda said...

Here's something to think about: some commenters have raised the question, should agents be editing/helping to polish manuscripts? Your chances of landing an agent let alone a publisher would drop in some cases. Most agents have to be passionate about a manuscript, sure but they also say the writing and the book have to be about 85% ready for publication. A lot of agents will help you polish that last 15% giving editors less reason to turn you down. Would you really want to lower your chances of sucess?

Lucy said...

I have no problem whatsoever with paying 20% commission if needs be. In my opinion, a good agent is more than worth it.

janni said...

Oops--left out my response! (Feel free to delete the above.) Trying again:

A lot of agents will help you polish that last 15% giving editors less reason to turn you down. Would you really want to lower your chances of success?

My question is, is an agent always the best person to help you polish that last 15%? Even assuming an agent is also an editor (and not all agents are--one can be a savvy negotiator who understands the industry without also being an editor), it seems an agent could as easily edit a manuscript away from what a given agent wants as towards it. One could argue that it's the writer's job to get that manuscript polished (working with critique groups) pre-agent, and that agents ought to, like editors, only take on work they think is mostly there.

Most likely in reality that varies by writer/agent relationship, too--there's no one size fits all here.

But an agent isn't only for your first book. Is it in a writer's best interest to pay an agent that extra 5 percent for their entire career--during much of which one might have an editor or editors with which one also has an ongoing relationship--to continue editing every single book you write before an editor (who will also be editing your book, and might have different ideas of where to take it) sees it?

It likely depends on both the writer and the agent whether not having an agent edit your book really lowers your chances of success. But I don't think it should be taken as a given that that's always the case.

janni said...

it seems an agent could as easily edit a manuscript away from what a given agent wants as towards it

That should have been:

it seems an agent could as easily edit a manuscript away from what a given editor wants as towards it

Clearly, time to get off the Internet and back to writing!

Anonymous said...

I find it ludicrous that agents want to increase THEIR INCOME by charging their clients more, rather than going after more money from publishers.

It's not like writers are getting more and more advance or writing itself is somehow becoming easier and easier. Writers must do more to promote themselves and engage in other tasks that aren't related to actual writing and revising.

It's unreasonable that agents want to take more from writers who are now working harder than ever before for less money. If agents don't like their pay, they can always get another job or quit.

A. Shelton said...

I would have no problem with my agent charging 20%. I would actually tell an agent, should I land one eventually, who wanted to charge 15% to charge 20% instead, if there hadn't already been an across-the-board hike.

Why?

Because an agent can do things I cannot do, either for lack of knowledge, skill, or connections, or all three.

As for the agent asking for more money from the publishers . . . I'd encourage that, but I don't expect it to be successful. If I do get a book out there, and an agent to represent it, I know the cursed thing has a mountain to climb, and that most of that mountain is going to consist of sheer cliffs, and one of those sheer faces of publishing rock is going to be the economy. I don't expect miracles from an economy where I have friends out of work, who have vast amounts of experience and knowledge yet can't get a job they're perfectly qualified for.

Now, my writing skill may be as vast (I've been doing this for 21 years). My agent's experience may be vast. Their connections may span the world. That doesn't mean a whole lot when publishers are cutting back. Especially when I know that, for a genre writer, I'm going to be a pretty sucky one (I'm not prolific, and will most likely refuse multi-book contracts, and that's so uncommon among genre writers that I can name only one who's managed a successful "carreer" with it).

I suggest that anyone who really wants to get their books published for a nice, hefty advance go gather all their friends, their friends' friends, and their friends and write letters to all the publishers extant. In these letters, everyone should say that they'd be more than happy to pay a higher price for books of all varieties, include contracts that are signed and notarized with the promise that they will buy one copy of every book in each and every format it appears in (harcover, trade, mass market, electronic), and then follow up on that promise precisely as stated.

Pfft. I know that'll never happen.

The fact is, publishers want money. Well, we all do, but publishing is a gambling business. Publishers gamble that the books their editors puchase will sell, which means they gamble more than any writer or agent ever will. Publishers generally lose more money than they make on new authors, because most of the debut books they publish never sell through to the numbers necessary to make up advances and the costs incurred when preparing and printing the books.

I figure, if I have to have an ally to help me entice a publisher to make that gamble, I want to make sure I reward that ally well. Yes, I want money, but that's not the most important thing about writing to me. My real goal with it is to share the stories I've written. Getting paid is icing. If I want writing to remain the fun activity it is for me, I'm willing to give up some money for it to happen. If I want to share my stories, I'm willing to compensate the one helping me do that.

And, I have to say here, that if someone writes for money, they're writing for the wrong reason, and they will ultimately fail because that will show through in the quality of their product, which people won't buy. I write for love of it, for the worlds and characters I've created, for love of telling the stories they make up, and out of a desperate need to write. But I love what I do, and to prove that love, I'll do everything I can, within reason, to see my work succeed in the best manner possible for it to succeed.

That means I land an agent, and that means I pay that agent well for their time and assistance and expertise.

I can live with that, and quite happily, too.

green_knight said...

As a freelancer, I do a lot of work that isn't billable - and sometimes I do it without getting compensated for it, because the client decides to go with someone else etc. As a writer, I am expected, to go away and learn how to write good novels on my own, to make the time for as long as it takes, to pay for conference fees and workshops out of my own pocket, maybe to pay for a freelance editor- and all before an agent will even agree to take me on, much less before I see a penny for my writing from a publisher.

Why should agents get money up front from people who don't earn?

Now if _publishers_ were to pay people to go out and find new material, to edit it and promote it, I'd be fully behind it, but as things go, writers' earnings are going down (in real terms as well as in actual figures)... and I think a publishing industry in which only affluent people can afford to be writers will be a very poor one.

Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God said...

Good morning, Victoria;

You've stated that reading fees are a bad thing. I was not part of the industry when that was true, so I will take your word that the experience was negative.

Since we're throwing out ideas, however, would you think about this one? Aspiring writers are uniformly frustrated by the lack of responses from agents when a query is sent. What would you say if an agent had an optional fee for sending a personal response to the writer concerning the work? This fee would not be for reading, it would be for providing a written, in-depth response - for telling the writer what issues might keep the work from being published.

Naturally, this would cause some manuscripts to go to the top of the slush pile, but would not prevent writers from sending work to any one particular agent. It might also lower the frustration level of writers when they are not getting responses from agents.

Thank you for providing a forum for discussing these issues.

Lynnda

Annie Jones said...

With the whole industry in flux it seems that agents would be wise to look not at just what publishers are doing in the new marketplace but what writers are doing. A LOT of writers are going the self pub route - a lot of those writers first sought representation by agents in hopes of selling to large publishers.

My son is in this category. Having had some very highly sought after agents read his work and a few making comments, he used that info, which he got at no cost, to ready his book to self pub as an ebook. Why can't agents branch out to serve these new writers in order to broaden their financial base? There might be several ways to address the changing needs of the new array of writers.

Myself, for the most part I shoot ideas directly to my editor, we go back and forth, when she gets what she wants she contacts my agent and makes an offer. Charging by the hour would net my agent very little even though I value her input very much. (I have an agent for bigger projects, but I might go a year w/o one of those). So it seems to me that CHANGE is the answer. The readers are doing it, the writers are doing it, why not agents?

N. K. Jemisin said...

I'd be okay with 17.5% or 20%. I'm blissfully happy with my agent, and I think she deserves it -- but moreover, I think a 20% commission might pay for itself, by incentivizing agents to put pressure on publishers to pay bigger advances, or forcing publishers to account royalties more often or more transparently. (I'm blissfully happy with my current publisher, too, but having followed Writer Beware and heard the horror stories, I know that's not the case for all.) The core problem for agents is the same problem that's hit everyone in (US) society for the last 30 years -- worker expenses and productivity have grown drastically, as have corporate profits, but wages have not increased. All of us are working harder, and none of us are getting paid any better for it. Most publishers' advances are no higher today than they were 20 years ago. And as the OP pointed out, publishers are demanding far more of writers -- not just writing but promotion, not just one book but a whole series, rapid-fire deadlines, etc. But eventually it's going to become cost-prohibitive for any writer to do this; most of us can't afford to quit our jobs, and the time demands are becoming so great that getting a book deal has become detrimental to keeping the day job. These days I constantly hear about authors being years late on books they owe, etc., and I think the situation is reaching a breaking point. So yes, pay the agents more, then hopefully they'll get more out of the publishers for that money.

Elspeth Cross said...

What about billing for services rendered? If an author sells a book but wants a professional to look over a contract, the agent gets 10% of the advance negotiated, but no royalties because s/he didn't do any of the rewriting, marketing or selling of the book. If the agent does all parts of the selling process, s/he gets a full commission. This would eliminate the time-suck portion of a larger client base and still provide an income-earning service.

Anonymous said...

"Just as writers are now routinely expected to take an active role in promoting their books (two decades ago, self-promotion was still very much optional), many agents now feel obliged to take an active role in promoting their writers."

I think this says it all. The elephant in the room is that publishing execs (who make far more than the average writer or agent) are transforming their profession into yet another investment casino by becoming obsessed with lead title long-shots in hopes of hitting the big one.

Meanwhile, casting serious doubt on the wisdom of this approach, the big sellers (particularly debut best-sellers) are not always lead titles and most lead titles don't become best sellers.

What this says about the ability of publishers to even know what will be a best-seller is clear. The current lead-title lotto needs to be replaced with the publishing equivalent of Howard Dean's wildly successful 50-State approach: invest a little everywhere and the overall gain will be greater than if you bet everything on the big win.

The counterpoint that publishers are making enough profit with the current approach to stay afloat is the same sort of "good enough" logic that would have us all getting to work with horse-and-buggy.

The real solution is not for agents and writers to squabble over the crumbs that fall off the publishers' table, but that publishing execs should reduce the shameful income gradient between themselves and the people who provide the content on which they get rich, and start picking up the marketing portion of their responsibility so that writers can write and agents can represent.

Jennifer said...

Lot of pie in the sky out here. Lot of ignorance about how the industry works now.

From what I've seen, many agents promise the moon before they sign you up, and afterward, well, it depends on how you earn. The reality is, most agents negotiate the contract and that's it. They don't have the time or money to invest much more in a hard sell property.

Nobody has yet mentioned the change to agents' lives when their client is dropped by the chains, must change names and reinvent their career, and =>choose to self-publish on the internet rather than returning to NY publishing.

More midlist authors than ever are finding themselves selling pencils on the street. (80 year old history reference, for the young here.) If they decide to sell OOP or new material on the internet, this cuts the agent out of the picture entirely.

Some of those midlist authors are new faces who fall from bookchain grace after book two; not much loss to the agent. But more and more are well-established authors with strong brands and solid followings. The only person more upset about the fall from grace than the author and the agent is the publisher, who invested perhaps many years in building a brand that is now walking out the door, taking the brand with her, and using it to sell direct-to-reader.

Nobody is crazy about that scenario, but it's happening.

Nelson Leith said...

Jennifer's point about authors letting a publisher develop their reputation then walking is well-taken.

For my part, I wouldn't be averse to granting a publisher some sort of incentive to market and develop my reputation, in the form of a small percentage of future sales commensurate to the investment they make. After all, if a publisher builds your rep, part of everything you make after that is creditable to that publisher's investment.

Does anyone actually do this?

Anonymous said...

I have been an author for a few more years than I now care to remember. My first published work occurred in 1973 or 74. Sorry, when you get to my age things start becoming a bit hazy.

At the turn of the century, I was paying 25% to my agent and that was at my insistence. The agency was performing far more than just "looking for a publisher" for me. They provided services which I would otherwise have needed to contract as well as isolating myself from the kooks and crackpots with whom I would otherwise have had to deal. I, for one, was quite happy with the arrangement.

I presently am prepared to pay as much as 35% to my agent, but unfortunately since returning to the United States I have been unable to find an agent who is not tied to a vanity publisher or who is a 'publisher' themself. I have discovered that the 'vanity' agents have a global network and tentacles in nearly every country. For references they cite other vanity agents and publishers thus making themselves appear honest and above board.

Do 'real' agents deserve more pay?

I, for one, would say YES.

RADumas

Anna Petrakis said...

If the problem is that there are too many agents chasing not enough money, then there will be a natural winnowing process that will solve it. ;-)

I remember when agents raised their commissions from 10% to 15% over a period of years in the late 80's and early 90's. Some grandfathered their older clients at 10% until quite recently. It took a while, but eventually every agent had switched to the higher percentage. Agents are in competition with one another, and the ones with the lowest commissions will have an edge, all other things being equal. It would be illegal for the AAR, say, to raise agent commissions across the board, because that would violate anti-trust law. Past experience indicates that individual agents will raise their commissions again when they feel the loss of competitive advantage is outweighed by the benefit. That's the way the marketplace is supposed to work, and that's fine.

Victoria Strauss said...

What would you say if an agent had an optional fee for sending a personal response to the writer concerning the work?

Lynnda, that's unfortunately as open to abuse as reading fees. All the agent has to do is to put together a form response with generic writing advice, and tack on a personalizing sentence or two vaguely referring to the actual manuscript. As with reading fees, there are agents in Writer Beware's files who did, and do, exactly this.

Jan said...

Well, agents haven't expanded what they do out of the goodness of their hearts (though many have very good hearts.) They've done it in order to up the marketability of manuscripts and thus increase the change of getting money from them. They've done it to avoid missing a good manuscript they could sell for a goodly sum with their contacts. They've done it to keep their own bottom line.

I totally understand that increased competition for fewer market ready clients in a tightly competitive selling arena is making it hard for agents to survive. It's also making it hard for writers to survive. Basically survival in publishing at all is tough. If an agent isn't making enough money to be healthy in today's publishing climate -- well, they're in a very big boat with writers, editors, independent booksellers, small publishers and others.

Granted writers are the most likely to absorb the money hit of 20%, not because we've got the money but because (of all involved) we tend to be the ones who won't quit. We'll keep writing even if we never make enough to quit our day job. We'll keep writing even if agents asked for a 50% commission. Considering there have always been writers willing to PAY out the nose to vanity presses...obviously, as a collective, we've proved over and over that we're kind of stupid about money.

So writers are about the only place agents can turn for more money as they've already increased what they do IN ORDER TO MAKE MORE MONEY. I'm not sure I'd think it was fair, but I'm absolutely sure there will be plenty of writers who take the hit without much more than the anti-agent grumbling that already exists.

I think agents work hard and though I don't need one, I think they're worthwhile and deserving of what they get. Do I think they "deserve" a pay hike? No, probably not...but if they want one, they could certainly have one.

Dana King said...

I'm a supporter of agents. They provide expertise and contacts no writer has time to cultivate. I understand they're going through tough times, in part due to reduced advances and payments from publishers. Here's the catch: every time anyone needs to glean a few more bucks for their publishing-related business, it comes out of the authors' pockets? Money tight for the publisher? Smaller advances. Make the writer due his own promotional work, at (mostly) his own expense. Agents potentially raising their fees is a hand deeper into authors' pockets. Where does the point get reached where it's just not worth trying to get published anymore?

Nelson Leith said...

I also want to point out that while a 15 to 20 point hike is a 30-percent pay increase for agents, an 85 to 80 point cut is only a 6 percent cut for writers.

Not necessarily coming down either way on whether this is "fair" or not, but when Henry Ford was facing massive absenteeism, errors, and poor production, he cut hours and doubled wages. The problems virtually vanished.

From a writer's perspective taking a 6 percent cut to boost my agent's pay by 30 percent seems like a smart thing to do. I confidently expect that a 30 percent happier agent would more than recoup that 6 percent investment.

Victoria Strauss said...

janni said,

If 15% were to be deemed no longer viable (and it hasn't been, as far as I can tell--we're still talking theoreticals here), it would be time to explore things like whether agents ought to be editing, taking part in promotion, and so on, and whether it's possible to acquire high quality books by high quality clients without doing these things

I would also love to see an exploration of whether authors ought to be spending large amounts of what probably ought to be writing time promoting themselves and their books in the (in most cases impossible) effort to build a "brand."

My first agent (a former editor) didn't edit; that, she felt, was the editor's job. Her job was to sell rights and subrights and to ensure that her authors got the best possible advances and contract terms (she is an extremely successful agent and an ace negotiator). But that was in the days when a basically publication-ready manuscript could be shopped even if it needed further editorial work (my first novel was published in 1982). She sold a number of books for me that way, including my transition to the adult market after several years of writing YA--which was almost like starting over from scratch.

But things are so incredibly competitive now. Publishers are, I think, publishing way too many books, but even so there's a vast oversupply of writers, and, increasingly, an oversupply of agents. I think that agents just don't feel they have the latitude to send out a ms. they don't think is already in tip-top shape. Obviously, that's a subjective judgment, and could wind up taking the ms. further away from the desires of any given editor--but everything in this business is subjective to some degree, from the author's belief that they've produced the best possible manuscript, to the agent's belief that the ms. is ready to be submitted, to the editor's belief that it's ready to be published, and an agent's subjective judgment is (or should be) informed by her knowledge of the market.

I also think that the shift to agent-as-editor has to do with crushing workloads and the necessity of tightly budgeting one's time: spend some time now on editorial notes for your author, maybe minimize the possibility that the time you spend submitting the ms. will be fruitless. And I think it has to do with editors' crushing workloads, as well--not only have editors come to rely on agents to winnow the slush pile, they are increasingly relying on them to do the preliminary editing, too.

Does this suck? Yeah, in my opinion. I would love for things to go backward, at least as far as the author-agent-editor relationship is concerned. Unfortunately, once basic expectations have changed, they rarely go backward--nor, I think, is that something the market as it's currently configured will allow.

Teresa said...

I am glad this discussion came up.
As the editor of my writers group newsletter I advocate - traditional publishing doesn't cost you up front.
I think if agents went to a billable hour method, they will not be any different than self publishing companies.
I will have this link listed in this week's newsletter for writers to read.

Anonymous said...

You charge more and fewer people will buy your services. With electronic publishing and POD I can't see this as adding to an agent's income.

How about a sliding scale. If the work needs a lot of revising start at 25%, a brief review, then 15%, reviewing a contract for a book already sold to a publisher then 10%. And I said start. After the first 50-100 thousand in advance/royalty payments the rate drops. The idea is to pay the agent for the work they do and reduce the gamble.

Dave K

Victoria Strauss said...

Jennifer said,

Nobody has yet mentioned the change to agents' lives when their client is dropped by the chains, must change names and reinvent their career, and choose to self-publish on the internet rather than returning to NY publishing.

IMO, the issue of more authors turning to self-publishing, or falling from chain bookstore grace (a.k.a. the death spiral) is largely irrelevant. There's an enormous oversupply of writers, as any agent with a bursting inbox can tell you, and if one falls by the wayside, there's another to take his or her place (and for agents as well as editors, an untried newcomer who just might make it big can be a far more enticing prospect than a midlister with flat numbers, even if the midlister is still able to wangle a contract or two). I'm not saying the agent won't shed a tear, but in practical terms, finding new clients to replace old ones is probably one of the least of an agent's worries.

As for the highly publicized deals that some established writers are making directly with Amazon and other e-rights purchasers, or with small press republishers of their OP books, the agent still gets his or her percentage of those deals.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anna Petrakis said,

If the problem is that there are too many agents chasing not enough money, then there will be a natural winnowing process that will solve it. ;-)

I agree, and speaking from an industry perspective-rather than my own nervous and vulnerable perspective as a writer--I have to say that I do not think this would be a bad thing.

Dorothy Hearst said...

Another option is a sliding scale for commissions. The bigger the advance the bigger the commission. Not sure how this would work once a book has earned out its advance, and it could lead to less attention for midlist authors, but there are lots of ways a sliding scale could be structured. As an author, I would not balk at paying more if it didn't take too much of a bite out of my writing income.

And I think the split revenue model has potential. It’s an interesting parallel, in a lot of ways, to what’s happening with publishers with self-publishing arms. It has the same potential gains and risks. It would be really hard to guard against abuse, as it will be with self-publishing arms of established publishers, but I would not have a problem if an agent also did separate fee-for-service consulting.

I think, in fact, that it is only a matter of time before the model changes in some way as the publishing model itself changes. Once all the kinks are worked out with e-books and on-demand printing, the role of publishers will change and so then will the agent/author role.

janni said...

I would also love to see an exploration of whether authors ought to be spending large amounts of what probably ought to be writing time promoting themselves and their books in the (in most cases impossible) effort to build a "brand."

I'd love to see this, too. There's a lot of pressure on authors to spend a lot of time on self-promotion, but it's not clear to me that most of it makes much difference. (And the more heavy handed approaches can even be counterproductive.)

I think that agents just don't feel they have the latitude to send out a ms. they don't think is already in tip-top shape.

What's puzzling me here, I think, is that this is being talked about as if it's pretty much universal for agents to edit mss now. Yet I'm far from the only writer I know with a "non-editing" agent (though I assume any agent would say something if they saw a major issue with a book), so I'm thinking approaches still vary widely on this one. (As do degrees of editing. An agent saying, "If you look at this particular issue you might be able to make the book more commercial" is different from an editor line-editing a book.)

My take has been that what degree of editorial involvement an agent should ideally have is still a matter of how both writer and agent (and each particular writer/agent relationship) works best, and that there's not yet an industry consensus there.

It'd be interesting to hear editors talk about what degree of editing they expect from agents, actually.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I agree with those who bunk the billable hours idea. As far as I've seen from the twitter discussion, agents became agents, in part, to take the gamble. As Chris commented, "the agent charging only for billable hours who lucks into the next Harry Potter or DaVinci Code would be out tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in commission."

Commission is the best route. As far as increasing that rate, I have no idea how that will affect authors in the real world, but it sounds like a good idea. After all, isn't Apple getting like 30% with the agency model? And they're not gonna do all the stuff real agents do.

Anonymous said...

As a former lawyer who saw way too much abuse of the billable hour system I definitely don't recommend going that route.

It seems to me one of the issues involved is the start up costs many agents face with new clients -- finding them, editing them, submitting, negotiating new contracts, etc. I can understand perhaps charging a larger fee for this initial stage since it does take more work (for example, charging 20% on a first contract).

However, I've found that in some cases the amount of work an agent must spend on a client goes down as that client becomes established with a house and editor. Sometimes those future contracts are nothing more than "You'd like more? Let's agree on a price/option and it's a done deal."

In that case where there isn't editing and wide submitting, etc., should the agent charge only 10%? Sometimes the agent expends more than 15% work and sometimes less -- I tend to think it averages out.

Also, I make a living off of writing and so I don't agree with those who say that they wouldn't mind paying their agent an extra 5% because writing income is just gravy. It's not gravy to me, it is my livelihood.

D. G. Hudson said...

Another Twitter event? Everyone wants to raise their income, and most do it by taking from the next person lower than them on the totem pole.

Writers are the bottom feeders in this type of process, unless they happen to produce the next bestseller. Is this a way of culling the writer masses or of directing them towards self-publishing?

Everyone should benefit for the work they have contributed, but perhaps a sliding scale of percentages depending on the sales an author has made would be more equitable. Most businesses give raises based on a sliding scale, why should publishing be any different?

I think agents are needed for most writers, and they perform a valuable service, but I agree with someone who said perhaps the publishers should be increasing the pay to agents, rather than having the agents charge the writer more.

Victoria Strauss said...

I like the sliding scale commission idea, though it could become confusing if every agent adopted a different sliding scale.

janni said,

What's puzzling me here, I think, is that this is being talked about as if it's pretty much universal for agents to edit mss now. Yet I'm far from the only writer I know with a "non-editing" agent

I talk with new writers more than established ones, and it's my impression from them that most agents do edit. But maybe that skews the picture--it could be that for a first novel, and perhaps a book where an author is transitioning to a new market or trying to resurrect a stumbling career, editing is the norm, but possibly not so much where the author is writing steadily in the same market, or for a really successful author.

It'd be fascinating to do a poll on this. Hmmm. Maybe I will. And I agree that it'd be interesting to talk about how much editing editors expect from agents.

Nelson Leith said...

If the problem is that there are too many agents chasing not enough money, then there will be a natural winnowing process that will solve it.

If this results in fewer agents for the same number of agented authors, then each author will be getting less service for their 85 percent, in effect still paying agents more.

Everyone wants to raise their income, and most do it by taking from the next person lower than them on the totem pole.

This could explain what the other commenter pointed out about the relative salaries of publishers, agents, and the average writer.

Beth said...

I can see both sides of he issue. As long as an agent still works hard to negotiate the best deal possible for his or her writers, I don't see a problem. It's hard work for both the writer and the agent.

Anonymous said...

The agent who brought this topic up is the same agent who's been complaining publicly about her lack of outside employment for months now. Look. Get a job. I worked at Starbucks once to feed my kids when they were little. I worked at a record store, even though I have a Master's degree. Stop trying to take money from hard-working authors who already make so little.

You think 15% isn't enough? Then go and do something else. I didn't get into writing for the money, but hearing an agent say that because she isn't successful enough, I should give up more of my tiny yearly income is just ignorant. Go sell more books. Invest your time in more marketable talent. Do what I had to do for a decade to finally get published. Invest and sweat for nothing and get another job to pay the bills.

As for the changing industry, please. Has anyone considered that authors who earn out and make money for their publishers are seeing decreases in their advances? I know many authors trying to keep their families afloat on under 18k a year. Many of them are working minimum wage jobs to get by.

When authors complain, people say we're annoying. When publishers complain, people say they've got some nerve. But now some agent complains and we open it to discussion? A discussion that will decrease my income even more? Sorry. I have no sympathy. Go get a job and stop trying to steal my hard-earned money that already doesn't stretch far enough.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:30 -

I believe that Victoria asked you not to turn this comments thread into an agent-bashing forum. That was a pretty personal attack.

I think the conversation was worth having. And if you read through the actual tweet stream, you'll see that the agent was in fact not advocating that change, just throwing a question out to start a conversation and get people thinking.

We could all do with more thinking.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:45

My apologies. I'm not an agent basher. I love agents. More importantly, I love my agent. She's always been a great advocate and a great friend. We agree that agenting and writing are similar in some respects. You have to put a lot of hard work into it before you make any money. When authors complain, no one wants to have a discussion about our pay. People seem to think we all make millions.

The thing I love about my agent is she understands authors don't usually make a lot of money, so she'd never think about dipping into my paychecks any deeper. She gets more clients, sells more books, and eventually she could get rid of her extra job. It took her about 15 years, which, I think is about average for an author to begin making money if they're lucky.

Maybe, then, the solution is that authors and agents should demand higher advances from publishers so we can actually get by.

To me, the idea that an agent would look at the other two players in the business (the author and the publisher), and choose the author to give up more money is insane, especially in this economy where authors are making less and the publishers are making more.

Mayowa said...

The profit mindedness of the industry is squeezing out more profits for shareholders from the participants (writers, agents, etc.). Without a doubt, the writer bears the brunt of this exploitation.

Agents may deserve more, but they should not be looking to get it from writers.

I look at this whole kerfuffle (this particular one and other wars between Amazon, Appl and the big six) and I see every party that seperates an author from his/her reader writhing and frothing to get a bigger piece of the pie.

Things will change. Things have to change. Contorting withing the established structure will save no one.

Magicman said...

Every job has become more complex with local competition ballooning to global competition because of the internet.

In fact, with the increased number of writers, a writer's job now includes building a platform, creating an internet presence with blogs and websites, the need to research agents due to increased numbers of scammers.

I think writers deserve a pay increase. Let's demand a reduction in agent commision to 10%.

Bob

Anonymous said...

Wonder what the handful of literary agents still at 10 percent make of this discussion ...

Hope Clark said...

I understand that agents do a lot of work without compensation. So do the authors - more so, actually. If the agent receives more, however, where does it come from? In other words, who takes a cut? Does the publisher compensate a larger percentage to the agent/author team or does the author make less? Authors make peanuts now, and publishers latch ahold of their dollars like they can take it to their grave and buy their way to heaven with it. Sorry. I think what's in place now is appropriate.

Erin Kelly said...

As a new author looking for representation, this discussion has provided a whole lot of food for thought. I understand that many agents work like dogs for not a lot of compensation, but as many here have pointed out, so do writers. As for the hypothetical increase in commission to 20%, I say: whatever happened to free market?

If an agent is exceptional and shows great results, than said agent should charge what they think is appropriate for their services.
It's the difference between going to Kay's Jewelers or Harry Winston. If you want more, and it is worth it to you, you will pay more. The higher priced product is generally the better quality, but it is up to the consumer to decide the payment to product ratio they are willing to pay.

If I had two agents who wanted to represent me, one offering a 15% commission and the other 20%, I would look long and hard at their track record before making the decision.

Lots of great points here, and I am interested to see how this plays out over time.

Victoria Strauss said...

There's been a lot of discussion about commission hikes--but what about the other alternatives I proposed for agents to increase their income--selling services to non-clients, and becoming publishers? What do people think of those?

D. G. Hudson said...

If agents are already complaining about lack of time with their current responsibilities, I would expect this would have a direct effect on the slush pile time and perhaps his web presence time. Would that mean less time to review the slush pile for new writers? How would his clients feel about this?

An agent isn't a superhero, although there are a few that come close. Interesting dilemma.

Jenna said...

Yikes. It's already way too hard to make a living as an author. If agents went to 20%, I would simply not use an agent. I already have trouble giving up 15%, so I often make sales myself. Losing another 5% would be a real hardship in an already terrible economy.

I don't know how I feel about the other services. Frankly, not very good, but I haven't thought it through enough. If my hypothetical agent also began offering publicity services, I'd probably feel obligated to use those services instead of going with an outside publicist...

All I can figure is that, while it's true that something's gotta give, it certainly shouldn't be coming out of the meager earnings of the "low men on the totem pole" (writers).

Deborah said...

Maybe I'm misreading the question, but in response to the question Victoria repeated regarding agents becoming publishers, or offering services for non clients: Wouldn't that cut EVEN MORE into time agents already don't have enough of? And, as soon as someone buys a service, doesn't that MAKE them a client? So isn't the agent now charging fees?

Yes, the publishing business is really bad now, for ALL sides. But since the specific topic was *agents* earning more, I still say the best most logical most fair way to do that, is for agents to negotiate more money for their clients.

I'm a writer, so yes I'm biased. Nothing against agents, though. Some if not most of them are really great. I just don't see how it is smart or practical to try and shrink writers' already dwindling income even more.

Magicman said...

Agents as publishers - it's not going to happen. For an agent to break into the mainstream distribution channels that get books into stores is a mountain thousands of publishing firms still can't reach. An Ingram publisher or online sales would be doing a disservice to their clients.

Agents offering professional services under the agency name. That equates to fee charging. Include the "not to their clients" and you exclude anyone who purchases services from becoming a client. Not a smart thing for a writer to choose. The premise carries a catch twenty-two.

Agents can ensure contracts for clients that keep the selling price of the product from going down the drain and limit electronic medium to a period after the mass market sales peek.

The best way for agents to make money is to ensure the revenue stream to themselves and the author stay strong. Something that has slipped from their grasp over the last few years.

It's about time agents and publishers start controlling the price of the product that tech giants like Amazon and Apple have forced down the toilet. Book stores have been thrown to the wolves in search for the fast buck from internet and wholesale deals.

By replacing the bookstore with supermarkets, drug stores, internet sales the industry suits are starving their workforce (bookstore).

When bookstores become dinosaurs, the postal/delivery service will continue to raise prices to the point that shipping a book will cost more than the cover price. The consumer will lose. Publishers and agents will die a slow death and quality books will drown in the millions of internet novels posted FOR FREE by aspiring authors pleading for contributions.

Bob

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Steve said...

(if an agent can make money from a service s/he is urging you to buy, how can you be sure that buying it is really to your benefit?)

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but it would seem that this is the same judgment one has to make with regard to any professional who has expertise in an area where the (prospective) client is not expert. The decision properly rests on a combined assessment of character and reputation.

This is precisely the situation one faces when employing a lawyer, a health care professional, a mechanic, a building contractor, a computer expert, etc.

This is simply how the dilemma of a layperson employing a profession has always played out.

-Steve

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2:59 -

A.) Off topic

B.) Why call out one agent by name?

C.) Watching TV and having a life equates to being well-off financially? What? Did you even read your own statement to see how ridiculous that sound? Or were you under the mistaken impression that every agent actually performs every one of those listed leisure activities all the time?

I think that agent was making a generalization about agents being allowed to have a life, not that all agents are rich and want to jump out of airplanes for fun.

Magicman -

There are already several successful agent/publishers out there. (Richard Curtis, Lori Perkins, Scott Waxman.) There will be more soon.

Re charging for services -

The AAR doesn't prohibit agents from charging for services. It prohibits agents from charging for reading fees and (I think) editing fees for their own clients.

Lots of legit agencies out there now apparently have a separate unit that provides freelance for-fee publicity services. Several agencies have book packaging services. I've seen other agents who already own their own editorial services but they seem to state right on their web pages that they cannot work with their own clients.

I don't see the problem with any of this, to be honest.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2:59 - you are way off base. Most new and newer agents have at least one second job. It takes a good five+ years to generate a semi-decent income as an agent. 15% of advances as low as $3000., divided up into three payments, makes it tough.

While agents need more income, I think what they're saying is that it takes too long to get going in today's economy, due to an ever-larger population of agents. Every laid-off publishing person and lots of people who want to be in publishing without publishing backgrounds now end up as agents. Without a vetting process, these new agents may bumble along, some getting lucky, others getting by, some needing to get out and find other work.

And no one's yet mentioned that other agent-hybrid, the writer-agent. Now writers are becoming agents, as well as more agents becoming writers.

Yes, agents do have sideline businesses, and I know of at least one who makes the bulk of his income through courses and selling his own books. This is not a bad thing if it's seen as what it is -- income producing ventures.

So many sources encourage writers to hop on the new agent bandwagon because they're more accessible. Question is, will they be more accessible five years from now when they're out of the business because they couldn't survive the financial hardship?

Don't feel sorry for agents, but don't go for the cheaper and easier solution.

One gets what one pays for. Always.

Anna Petrakis said...

Agents should not offer other writing-related services. Conflict of interest is impossible to avoid.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 2:59, I've deleted your comment--IMO it was a personal attack, rather than an addition to the discussion.

A number of people have said something to the effect of "if agents want more money, they should get more money from publishers." But publishers are feeling the financial pinch too. They are reducing advances--at least at the entry and midlist level--while royalty rates haven't budged in forever (or, as in the case of Wiley, are actually diminishing). How exactly are agents supposed to extract more money for their clients under these circumstances? This suggestion doesn't solve the problem, it just hands it off to someone else.

Anna, I agree with you--conflict of interest is almost impossible to avoid if agents are running publishers or selling adjunct services--even if they are serious about raising a wall between that branch of their business and their agency clients. That's why I think that if agents want to earn more, a commission hike--maybe across the board, or maybe the sliding scale idea that a couple of people have proposed--is the most palatable alternative. Believe me, I don't suggest that easily. I don't want to earn less. I'm acutely aware that writers are low men/women on the totem pole, and nearly always get it in the neck on financial issues. But I've thought about this a lot, and at least for me, the ethical issues posed by agents doubling as publishers, paid editors, etc. are really troubling. A commission hike would be painful, but in my opinion it is the least ethically ambiguous of the options.

Whatever we want or believe, change is coming. And I don't think it'll be anything like the pie-in-the-sky utopia (or dystopia, depending on your viewpoint) of an agentless, publisherless world, where every writer is his or her own business center and we all go direct to readers. (Or try to. You think the struggle for eyeballs is bad now? In slush-world, it would be exponentially worse.) Agents will survive. Publishers will survive. And if we writers want to survive, not just as writers who write but as writers who are read, we need to be looking at and thinking about these issues now, so we won't be blindsided by change when it happens, so that we won't one day look around and realize that it has arrived without our even noticing.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming into this discussion late. But I have a somewhat different view. I think that agents haven't yet defined their problem.

Is their problem that they feel overworked? Or is it that they feel underpaid? Because these things are two totally different problems.

If you work for yourself (as many agents do) and feel underpaid because you're overworked, then the simplest thing to do is to work less.

I think there is a lot of inefficiency in agenting - a lot efficiency, too, to be fair, but still. It's a question of work-flow-management.

Why for instance, don't agents limit the windows of query opportunities to certain months or season of the year? Or cap the number of queries that they're open to?

True, that would be a downside for writers, and a potential downside for agents -- they might miss the next JK Rowling.

But you can't be all things to all people. You can only do so much. Any time you hear yourself saying, "But I have to do ..." the natural questions that should follow are, "Why? What will happen if I don't, and how can I mitigate that if it's bad?"

In the end, nobody twists our arms to be writers or agents or editors.

Mayowa said...

@Victoria,

Your first paragraph (of your last comment) only proves what writer's are saying. Publishers have reduced advances (less upfront money to writers), kept royalties static and increased the burden of responsibility onto writers (for marketing etc.). Publishers are passing down the financial burden down the chain.

I give agents absolutely no passes here because agents (collectively) are supposed to protect writers from this squeeze (not because you're nice, but because it's what we pay you for). Agents have been around for the introduction or continued implementation of every inefficient, archaic or just plain cold blooded policy the industry has that screws writers.

The ultimate burden rests on writers but if the industry is so complicated and writers need agents to navigate it so much, why is the writer the lowest person on the totem pole?

Sure publishers are big corporations with plenty of resources but if they can do whatever they want to writer's with agents, then writers don't need agents.

I digress a bit here, but I am trying to illustrate that the industry has problem and any reform should be in that direction and not a further throttling of authorial finances. Charging fees for services to non clients, becoming publishers, all that = ignoring the elephant in the room.

Shawn James said...

Are agents underpaid?

I don't think it has to do with how much agents are paid, i The market is changing and the way the publishing industry used to make money is going the way of the dodo. Authors aren't waiting for agents to represent them, submit queries to publishers and sell their books anymore. It's a waste of money and time. Why spend hunderedss of dollars submitting queries and manuscripts to literary agents when an author can get a Lightning Source account and publish a book for under $300 when the return on the investment isn't going to be that great in the first place?


Nowadays more and more authors are out selling themselves and their books these days.

Writers have more options now than they did in the 90's or even in the early 2000s. Savvy ones can go POD with Lightning Source or Lulu, market and promote their work themselves and forget all about publishers, Literary agents, and ten percent of the list price if they're lucky.

With POD authors who hustle can make half the cover price on each direct sale, and a third of cover price on Amazon and B&N sales.

Most smart authors no longer go for the bookstore or the "midlist", they go for the niche market, a small group of faithful customers that continue to buy product. They establish a brand on their own.

So the real question most agents have to ask is will they have clients in the future?
I think agents will have to get out of the representatitve business of agenting and go more and more into the consulting business, doing things like editing, page layouts and developing marketing plans for books. They'll have to go out and do networking with the big chains like B&N and Borders to sell niche books to local stores. This could be done for a flat fee or a comission rate. Anyway, Agents who want more cash are going to have to adapt to a book world that is more viral and authors with more power over the publishing process.

Magicman said...

Victoria, this is a great discussion.

I operate independent book stores.

I have yet to stock a book published by an agent. I wouldn't mind except there are over one million new books listed every year and finding the ones published by agents is too much work.

The book stores stay in business from sales of the top one tenth of one percent of the titles released every year. Agents who represent those best sellers (100k sold) have no problems with income.

We are talking about agent who represent the 20% of the books sold that are not best sellers. Those agents (the majority percentage) need to fight for every penny. But don't take it from the authors, please.

If you exclude the top ten percent of new releases, the authors of the other 90% of books release earn a negative salary. Those in the top 2-9% earn the equivalent of minimum wage if they are lucky.

Yes, the majority of agents are struggling but not to the degree of authors. If they need more income then they need to do what writers do, find another job.

By the way, bookseller are no better off. Brick and mortar independent book stores have lost over 60% of their numbers in the last several years. Even the big box stores are hurting with Borders hanging on by a thread and B&N cutting back on the number of stores.

The only profit machine in the industry today is Amazon. The giant who has eliminated over one million retail jobs in book stores and employees far less than 100,000.
(Sorry - too tired to find all the supporting numbers.)

The industry is comprised of four divisions that do not work as a unit. Until Bookstore operators, publishers, agents and author's (via the guilds) get together and streamline the industry to ensure survival of the middle tier, the cash will once again be dragged out of the writer's pockets.

So to the majority of writers out there, don't worry, your making nothing now, so what's and extra 5% of nothing.

Bob

Anonymous said...

I find it illuminating that most of the posters who say they wouldn't have a problem with an increase to 20% commission are those who don't yet have agents. If these folks are so desperate to be published that they'll surrender that extra money, maybe they should just talk to PublishAmerica.

In my opinion, if an agent can't get by on 15% then perhaps they're in the wrong line of work. Raising rates will just encourage more writers to skip the whole agenting process altogether -- and the ones who can do that are precisely those who an agent can least afford to lose. (Said writers likely offering more sales at lower overhead than the newbies desperate enough for help that they'll agree to higher commissions, or even flat fees.)

Deborah said...

Victoria said: "A number of people have said something to the effect of "if agents want more money, they should get more money from publishers." But publishers are feeling the financial pinch too. They are reducing advances--at least at the entry and midlist level--while royalty rates haven't budged in forever (or, as in the case of Wiley, are actually diminishing). How exactly are agents supposed to extract more money for their clients under these circumstances? This suggestion doesn't solve the problem, it just hands it off to someone else."

:-D I'm one of those who said that. And yes, you are completely right. The publishers are being hard hit as well. Publishers, bookstores, agents, writers--times are indeed tough all around.

So in that case, why should *agents* get a 30% raise? I don't think posing the question is passing the buck. I think it's stating the obvious. If the money isn't there, it's not there.

JMNSHO. Thanks for hosting the great discussion.

janni said...

(For maybe posting to Writer Beware)


Whatever we want or believe, change is coming.

Publishing's been changing (and dying) ever since I started writing 20 years ago. It will always be changing and we will always be worried it's dying--this isn't new. As writers of course we need to stay savvy and alert, as always.

Agents will survive. Publishers will survive. And if we writers want to survive, not just as writers who write but as writers who are read, we need to be looking at and thinking about these issues now

And the way to do this is to figure out how to keep the industry as a whole alive and profitable ... how to seek out solutions that are good for the industry as a whole, and that don't just put a band-aid on a larger problem, let alone doing so entirely at the writer's expense.

Upping agent commissions is not only a short term solution, but a dangerous one--because it suggests that every time publishing feels a pinch, the solution is for agents to simply give themselves a pay raise and for writers to give themselves a pay cut. We last did this only 20 years ago ... if we do it again within the next 10 years, I think the message will be clear that we can just keep doing it every time a new challenge comes up.

I honestly don't see how a 33% pay raise encourages agents to work harder, anyway. If someone gave me a 33% raise, I wouldn't say, "Oh, now that I have more money I can work harder." I would say, "Oh hey, that solves my financial problems for a while, so I guess I don't have to make any changes after all."

I say all this as someone who loves agents and the work they do. I suspect many scrupulous agents are probably as uneasy as many writers are at this notion, especially since agents are in the business of advocating for writers.

And I still do find it troubling just how many writers seem willing to cheerfully give in to this thing that we haven't even been asked for yet.

We all need to work together to keep this publishing thing going, yes. But we all need to work together doesn't mean "writers should just roll over and agree to whatever they're asked for, and do it with a smile."

Indeed, it's our unfortunate tendency as a group to sometimes do this that's much of the reason we work with agents in the first place.

(Okay, and seeing as how my posts are getting longer and longer, the next time I find myself talking about this for more than a screen, I'll try to take it to my own blog!)

janni said...

Sheesh ... I don't know if there's a way to edit a post, but I really didn't mean to leave in the bit in parens at the top ... if you can edit it out, please do (I mostly write my comments offline, and then decide to post them later), if not ... just delete it and this message and I'll repost it without that!

Mayowa said...

@Jani,

You make an excellent point about how many writers are quick to give in or follow the direction of anyone else in the industry even if it hurts them.

It doesn't just trouble me. It drives me freaking nuts (enought to make me blog incessantly about it at Pens With Cojones).

We have been complacent as the industry has put it's boot on our necks. 120 days to royalty payments, low royalty rates, royalty rates based on net receipts, rights, record keeping etc. We have let these either go on too long or allowed them to be introduced.

Check out the comments on a popular agent or publisher blog and you'll find plenty of verbal obeisance and even groveling. You'll find writers who want to place their novels and careers futures in the hands of agents (who are nice and great at what they do but ultimately bear no responsibility for a writer's career)

Enough.

Writers need to be better (above all) and we need to demand better.

Anne R. Allen said...

I think the trouble is EVERYBODY works harder for less than they did 20 years ago--except CEOs, who make 50 times more. This isn't just about agents, or the publishing business. It's that we now live in an oligarchy where 1% of the population get 90% of the wealth. The rest of us are fighting over crumbs.

catie james said...

Just want to say: I also spent time in an office which kept track of billable hours in fifteen minute increments. Oy what a pain in the a**! (And I was just an admin assistant). I think the best idea is a commission percentage increase. Keeping track of which client's file I was on and for how long was nothing but more busy work. (And yes, the unscrupulous - in any profession charging by "billable hours" - is likely to take advantage of those circumstances).

Laura said...

What if agents become the packager for ebooks? They edit the ms. They create the bookcover with back cover blurb, they convert the ms to the different formats and they track the sales. They earn 15%. Working with the author they can educate and help with strategies and social networking to sell the books.

With the new Amazon ebook royalties the agent and author both make money. Even if agents ask for 20% the author still gets 40%+. Selling foreign erights would bring in more money for both parties. Agents with connections would excel.

Whatcha think?

Laura Resnick said...

There are some things well worth noting.

Agents have no specialized training, no licensing body, and no effective oversight (the AAR is quite toothless). And, as in any profession--let alone a profession with no structured standards--a substantial percentage of agents aren't good at what they do.

Moreover, in these hard times, we're already seeing ethical violations among established agents trying to stay in business, and it seems not-unlikely that we will see more such instances arising. Ex. One "reputable" agent is now charging a fee to read your query more quickly; another high-profile agent is referring clients to a "freelance editor" to make their proposals "submission ready," without disclosing that the fee-charging "editor" in question is, er, the agent's spouse. And so on.

I worked with four literary agents over the course of about 15 years. One is now retired, the other three are high-profile and very successful, two of them quoted or cited often in publishing articles. Over the years, I've also queried and/or had business discussions with many other agents.

My conclusion is that the traditional agent-author business model is very flawed, and too many agents (including all of mine) not only aren't worth 15% of my income, but they also actually serve as a HINDRANCE to my selling books and building my career.

Three years ago, I quit the agent-author business model. Since then, I've sold more books than I was selling before, get more money for my books, get better contract terms, get faster response times on my work, have increased my foreign sales business, and have seen my annual income rise.

In particular over the years, most of my book sales have been with projects that literary agents (those I queried -and- those whose client I was at the time) declined to handle and declared unsaleable. That description includes most of the books I've had under contract for the past three years, as well as books that account for about 2/3 of my sales and my income over the course of my career.

Moreover, since I talk and write publicly about these experiences, I hear from an extraordinary number of professional writers who have agent problems. And thus I've learned that the too-consistent -reality- of the agent-author business model for most professional writers is very different than the -ideal- of the agent-author model, which is the version most often discussed in public: the one wherein the agent knows the business well, knows contracts well, is a skilled negotiator, knows markets, knows the value of your work, is a savvy editor, understands money, has excellent administrative skills, believes in your work, and is your steadfast partner even when the chips are down.

Meanwhile, since shedding the author-agent business model from my career, I now work with a literary lawyer to negotiate my contracts. (My lawyer has also been cleaning up legal problems created by my third and fourth literary agents--top level literary agents whom many writers thoughts I was lucky to have and a fool to fire).

Laura Resnick said...

Here are some things I've learned as a result of switching from literary agents to a literary lawyer in my contract negotiations:

A literary lawyer is trained and licensed specialist in both publishing contracts -and- negotiating; consqeuently, I've been getting MUCH better contracts as a result of working with a lawyer.

It's the difference, say, between the performance level of someone who only knows six guitar chords and has to stick to songs that involve just those chords, and someone who is a clasically trained virtuoso.

A lawyer is also far more motivated than an agent to keep negotiating until I have the best possible contract, because the lawyer is PAID for every second she spends on these negtotiations. And agent, by contrast, has secured the best portion of their income in negotiating the advance and has virtually nothing to gain (at least from his perspective) by spending time going back and forth with the publisher over clauses that affect the client but usually not the agent.

Moreover, due to the better negotiating skills of the lawyer, compared to the agent, many things I used to ask for and be told by agents were a "no" are actually, in the hands of a lawyer, now a "well, we can't agree to that, and here's why, but since you don't like that clause, what do you think of this counter-proposal to your proposal?" ==and a discussion is started in which SOME aspect of a clause I don't like is improved, rather than the clause simply standing as-offered, which is what typically happened with literary agents.

I also have MUCH more control of my own business in negotiations, since I am CC'd on every single words of negotiations as a legal client, whereas my experience of literary agents (and this is not uncommon) was that negotiations tended to be largely opaque--and tended to occur largely between non-specialists in legal matters (i.e. an editor and an agent; now negotiations typically occur between my lawyer and a legal department). Similarly, negotiations tends to be MUCH more civil and professional in the hands of my lawyer than they were in the hands of literary agents, who lacked specialized training in this area.

Finally, working with a lawyer costs me LESS than working with agents did. So MUCH less that this switch is one of the factors (along with increased US advances and improved foreign subrights business) in my increased income since shedding the agent-author business model. My legal fees on negotiations have so far been a tiny fraction of whay my agency commissions on similar deals would have been.

I pay my lawyer on an hourly basis, am an sent detailed invoices for her work. This shows exactly WHAT I am being charged for: research on a legal matters, emails and phone calls with editors and legal departments, etc. Since I am cc'd on most of the emails and get reports of the calls or the research, this is all easy to verify--and there is a body WITH teeth (the state bar association) where I could report a violation.

ALthough I think that hourly billing with agentsd is theoretically feasible, their lack of ethical training or formal standards, and the absence of any licensing body a cheated writer can go to with a legitimate complaint may make such a system unfeasible with them.

I think that because so many of them are not good enough at business to survive at 15% in this current economic and market climate, it's not unimaginable that some of them may try to hike their rates to 20% commission. But having worked with four agents, talked business with many more, and heard the private anecdotes of dozens of professional writers, it's a rare agent AND a rare situation wherein an agent is actually worth 20% of a writer's income.

Jessie Mac said...

I'm a newby and I've read all the comments before mine. I have no idea to tell you the truth how this is to be resolved as I'm no expert. But as an actress with an acting agent, I can say that acting agents ask commission from 12.5% to 20% depending on the agent. My previous acting agent charged no commission for theatre work because he knew how little theatre work paid whereas some do. I know that literary agents and acting agents are different - eg it takes a lot of time to read, edit etc whereas auditioning just requires the actor to the do the work. Acting agents get paid when actor gets paid. Fee-charging reminds me of lawyers. It's stressful enough as writer and as agent to have to be fearful of the ticking clock in every exchange and not to mention the admin involved - that's a whole new job on its own. With a lawyer you have no choice sometimes, but it sounds like with advent of self-publishing etc, writers are more likely to want to avoid fee-charging agents as they would lawyers - it's just too stressful to worry about being charged for every second. I don't have a literary agent but from my experience with my acting agent, it's a relationship where you're helping each other, working together for mutual benefit like any good relationship - the author gets paid, the agent gets paid. Perhaps I'm being naive but I can only see a relationship between agent and author as a win-win situation; and like with any relationship in your life, it requires both to work hard at it and for both to be happy, it may require some compromise. As I'm no expert, I can't say how. Like in the health industry, perhaps there could be tiers of commission depending on the extra duties some agents do? Because if I was an agent, I'd want to spend extra hours making a book work etc if it means I can get a better deal for my client. Like hosting packages, you can get basic to advance with the trimmings. If one agent charged 15% for basic services and another 20% for advanced, it's up to the author to decide. This reminds me of Jerry Maguire - initially he had lots of clients offering the 'basic' attention and you know the story, he intensified his attention and concentrated on a handful. As I said, I've not experienced much so I don't mean to belittle anyone's work be it author or agent. I think both struggle just as hard.

Laura Resnick said...

BTW, to clarify, prior to the roughly 15 years that I worked with agents, I started my career by working unagented for four years (after being told by 13 agents that my first two books were unsaleable; I sold both those books to a major market on my own that same year).

One interesting thing to note is that prior to this year, the 22nd year of my career, in which I am unagented and anticipating the best fiscal year of my career... the two PREVIOUS best fiscal years of my career were year #3 and #4. My income went down after I started working with agents... and never surpassed those two early UNagented years until THIS unagented year (though last year was a pretty good year, too, compared to most of my agented years).

Meanwhile, Jennifer is correct when she says: "The reality is, most agents negotiate the contract and that's it. They don't have the time or money to invest much more in a hard sell property."

And, as I've already noted above, my own repeated experience is that when it comes to contract negotiation, a literary lawyer does that much better--and for only a tiny fraction of what an agency commission would cost me on those same deals.

Laura Resnick said...

Victoria wrote: "IMO, the issue of more authors turning to self-publishing, or falling from chain bookstore grace (a.k.a. the death spiral) is largely irrelevant."

Victoria, I completely agree that agents and publishers are OVERsupplied with writers and won't miss those who leave (or never enter) the traditional New York industry in favor of electronic self-publishing.

However, I do think it's relevant that so many published professionals are now discovering incomes streams which do not involve and for which they do not need agents (ePub, Kindle, POD, etc.).... whereas, by contrast, even while advances are leveling off or going down in the major NYC industry, agents are NOT discovering any new income streams for their own benefit.

IOW, as markets shift and adjust, a lot of writers are going to make up the shortfall (of reduced NYC advanced and print runs) elsewhere (self-publishing); but agents will not.

And I think THAT'S relevant, in terms of how we'll see the agent-author business model change in the coming decade. (One possibility being, yes, agents may try charing 20%. As we've seen in this discussion, there are clearly people who'll pay that... although 20% of nothing is still nothing, and authors can are earning may well start asking themselves if their agent is really working $4,000 dollars worth PLUS 20% of royalties PLUS 25% of subrights sales on a $20,000 option deal.)

green_knight said...

Paying agents more or differently does not address any of the many things that are in need of improvement in the publishing world. I'm not even certain it will change anything other than be a momentary relief for those agents whose clients agree (and old clients might well decide to leave, while new clients might decide to go for alternatives, including no agent).

Why are we even talking about this as if it *were* a solution to any of publishing's problems? Like Janni, I am apalled at the amount of writers who say 'oh, of course I'd be willing to pay more for the same service' - that's either very kind-hearted of you, or very desperate, but aren't you running a business?

I don't agree with the following suggestion, but I'd like to throw it into the ring:

If manuscripts need to be much more polished and better developed, why should we pay agents for this service? They're supposed to be the people who mediate between editors and writers, who understand contracts, who follow the markets. Why do we even expect them to be editors? Editing is a specific skill, so if your mss needs editing, and you need to pay extra for it, why not pay a freelance editor whom *you* have hired?

I really don't want to see agents create a conflict of interest _for themselves_ (never mind their clients) - softening the boundary between scammers and decent agents will harm everybody in the business.

Laura Resnick said...

Another thing to consider in the question of whether agents should get a bigger commission is how many agents essentially DON'T WANT TO WORK.

I know a rapidly-increasing number of still-selling longtime midlist writers who are working agentless now because their own former agents didn't want to work anymore for 15% of their incomes (and either dumped them or became so disengaged that the clients had no realistic business choice but to leave) and subsequently couldn't find another agent to work for them (and, indeed, in an also-rapidly-growing number of instances, couldn't even get RESPONSES to their queries).

Increasingly, agents are looking at writers who are EARNING (their own clients as well as writers querying them) and deciding it's "not worth" their effort or time.

Partly because many of them aren't good at business, and largely because so many of them are increasingly only interested in 15% of a very BIG pie. Most agents these days seem to want only two kinds of clients: bestsellers, or new writers whose project they believe is The Next Big Thing.

Longtime professionals are increasingly find that agents are NOT interested in someone, whether on their own client list or querying them, who makes advances of $10K-40K/book, has a steady relationship with a publisher, and has an additional new project that s/he wants marketed elsewhere.

So I'm rather puzzled by this characterization of agents earning too little because they work TOO HARD. The increasingly common experience of WORKING and EARNING midlisters, a growing number of whom are agentless these days, is that agents are ONLY interested in working for a bestselling client or a new writer whom they think might be The Next Big Thing.

If agents feel they aren't making enough money, one common sense way to improve revenue would be to stop dropping proven midlist earners from their lists (or stop ignoring these clients until the clients, in order to KEEP earning, have no feasible choice but to leave), and to stop ignoring and/or rejecting from earning midlisters.

Anonymous said...

I'm really curious why there's an assumption that all agents should have the same flat percentage.

The truth is, not all agents do the same amount of work. Some agents do not edit at all--ever. Some agents do not do any marketing--ever. Some agents do not fight the publishing house--ever.

My agent does a ton of stuff for her clients that other people are surprised by. So why should someone whose agent doesn't edit or market have to pay an extra 5%?

Roland D. Yeomans said...

As I understand it : most first books don't sell very well. So that means to get an agent a struggling writer would either have to be well-heeled or float a loan.

A psychological truism is that most people are only as good as their options. And the charge by the hour option might be too tempting for many to resist.

I would rather increase the commission to 20% and keep the incentive for the agent to sell the client's book in order to make her money.

Interesting and somewhat disquieting.

JRM said...

I rather like the idea of Agents becomming publishers. In Canada, we have few agents (around 30 I think) to represent all the authors in the country. This has created a situation where the mid-and major houses won't deal with authors, only agents, and agents only want authors with a track record; which leaves most authors unable to get published period. If agents had their own houses, then they could offer contracts and distribution to writers. As long as the rate-schedule was fair (ie, agents did not claim both agent and publishing fees) and there was reasonable distribution, I think everyone would win.

What we are witnessing in Canada is a starvation of talent. There are many, many gifted writers who simply cannot get offers. A recent winner of the LEacock award for Humour was self-published and did not get an agent until 8 months after the award, a countract a full year later. Another writer who won a top prize for political writing has her work out under creative commons; again, no contract offers. While the publishing industry is busy eating itself, writers are having to find ways to work around, not through, publishers, so why shouldn't agents do the same?

Laura Resnick said...

"There are many, many gifted writers who simply cannot get offers. A recent winner of the LEacock award for Humour was self-published and did not get an agent until 8 months after the award, a countract a full year later. Another writer who won a top prize for political writing has her work out under creative commons; again, no contract offers. "


This is not an uncommon situation (artistically recognized authors who can't get publishing contracts) for one main reason: Publishing is a business and, as such, it's not about making money. What publishers are looking for in a book isn't quality, it's commerciality.

Not: "Is this the work of a gifted author?" But rather: "Is this work which, after we've invested money in acquiring it, editing it, packaging it, producing it, marketing it, and shipping it, will make money for us?"

This is not to say that publishers are indifferent to quality (which is, in any case, a largely subjective measurement--one readers's favorite book is invariably another reader's doorstop), but rather that what editors are looking for, always, is a book they like which they are -also- convinced will MAKE MONEY for the company.

This is why there are always winners of awards, including prestigious ones, who still can't get a contract. The award may get them out of slushpile faster, but the only thing that will get them a contract is if enough people at a publishing house thing the material will be PROFITABLE.

Deborah said...

This is a great discussion. Thanks to everyone for adding their two cents. :-D

I want to toss this question in, though, as I've yet to see what I (with my bias as a writer) consider a good answer.

Are there some truly wonderful agents who work their tails off? No doubt. Do they deserve more money? Maybe. But I've yet to see a logical reason why that equates to writers deserving *less* money. It's not only the agents who are feeling the crunch.

The only thing I can think of, which seems to be implied in many of the responses (although--again--to be fair, I may be inferring what's not there) is that since they can't get it from publishers, it's ok to get it from the writers.

But, isn't one of the things agents are paid for, their negotiating skills? Hence, I don't see the logic . . .

I've read every comment and don't recall seeing any from agents themselves. Have any agents chimed in on this thread?

JRM said...

@Laura
I am not disputing the marketability or commercial model of publishers, but what is irritating is the concept of agents/editors as 'gatekeepers' - implying that they keep out the riff-raff and only let quality works get published. Obviously, this is not the case. What they do is assess commercial viability, which is an entirely different thing.

Laura Resnick said...

With various agents and agencies going out of business in the past year or two, others struggling, and some of them attempting disturbing new methods of enhancing their income (ex. charging a fee to put writers’ query in the FAST reading pile; referring clients to a fee-charging freelance editor who just happens to be the agent’s SPOUSE; etc.), it was only a matter of time (and probably not a LONG time, I thought) before the possibility of raising commission rates reared its head.

I won’t be at all surprised if some agents attempt it. After all, raising commissions from 10% to 15% (which process occurred roughly 20 years ago) worked out perfectly well for them, so from their perspective, what would be the perceived deterrent against implementing another commission hike? None, I assume.

If done on the same basis that the hike to 15% was done, I suspect it could be implemented very smoothly: Keep current clients “grandfathered in” at 15%, but raise rates for all newly-acquired clients to 20%.

And as we’ve already seen in this discussion, quite a few people would be willing to pay 20% to a current or future agent. Meanwhile, many agents are overwhelmed by the current size of their query piles. So an increase to a 20% rate for new clients would probably reduce the size of the query piles only a little–and that little would be a relief to most agents, rather than a source of regret.

And then, at some later date when most/all agencies are charging 20% to new clients, then (as happened with the 10% to 15% hike after a few years), the agents can inform their existing 15% clients that rates are shifting to 20% for them, too; and the 15% clients who think that’s too expensive will look around and realize that if they live this agent and move to another one, they’ll be a new client there and thus subject to a 20% rate… so switching agents will be a lot of hassle and effort… for no actual benefit. So they’ll mostly stay put.

I’m not predicting that a hike to 20% WILL happen, but I’m not at all surprised to see the subject has been raised; I won’t be surprised if it’s attempted; and I believe that if attempted, it’s very likely to work out fine for agents. I think such a large percentage of writers and aspiring writers are so convinced they MUST HAVE an agent that, although there may be some grousing and protests, only a very small number of writers will actually quit the agent-author business model on that basis.

Jennifer said...

I really like the sliding scale idea. New authors are more work than current ones, and I for one would be willing to pay a higher percentage for the first couple of deals and then as I got established and the agent is doing less work, it could be lowered. I think that is perfectly fair.

A reading fee I would not pay simply because I can't. I don't have the cash to spare.

Robert Michael said...

What if agents offered the other services as per-project or per-hour services? Instead of volunteering them, I mean. Offer reading manuscripts and representation of intellectual property as fee-based upon the sale of the piece and the other services could be ordered as the author wished. Would it be difficult for potential writers to swallow?

I suppose the legal ramifications could be sophisticated as with everything like this, opportunity for one entity to take advantage of another is present.

Agents are intended to fill the role of the friendly liason for the disconnected writer, guiding us through the pitfalls of the publishing process. Often, these ancillary services are offered in order to fulfill that vision of their services.

A 5% hike comes out of the author's pocketbook, but since the agent placed the intellectual property with a willing buyer, it is deserved, is it not? Authors tend to dismiss the idea that their work needs PR help and insider connections. Often they are not aware of the competition they face and that this completely subjective endeavor they are undertaking is fragile and mystical.

Deborah said...

That "5%" increase hitting the writer is actually a 33% raise for the agent. Why should agents get a raise when everyone else is taking cuts?

And as to writers not realizing that their books actually get marketed after a publisher buys them . . . Eh.

And again with the fees. If an agent is making money charging for whatever "services", that agent is not making money from commission. Hence, agent has LESS incentive to sell.

Yes, I'm being a broken record, I suppose. But to me the solution still seems to be obvious. If an agent wants more money, *sell more* and/or *get higher advances*. That's what agents do, right? Get the best deals for their authors?

And if publishers are going to insist on agents being their slush readers, that should come out of the publishers' pockets, not the writers'. (Will that be easy? No. Is that what agents get paid for--to make more money for their authors and thereby for themselves? Yes.)

I know some people will ask, hey if someone wants to pay 20%, what's the problem? And normally I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment To Each Her Own. But in this case IF that starts to happen (as was pointed out in previous comments) it will eventually happen to everyone with an agent. Just like with the 10% to 15% hike.

Sorry if I sound strident. I just haven't seen any rational justification yet, even though I've asked a few times.

JRM said...

@Deborah

I agree. Yes, agents may be making less money. But so is everyone else. The fact that agents have to do more work is neither here nor there: farmers do more work during hard times, just like everyone. In fact, a case could be made that writer's are working harder now than ever before. As publishers have been reducing promotion, writer's have become expected to promote beyond book signings. Now we are expected to blog, twitter, facebook, and whatever other social media activity is going on. This is not only time consuming, it is artistically draining; the more I write on a blog, the less I will be able to write on the manuscript. Yes, this may now be part of my job now, but that begs the question: what is an agent or a publisher doing for me?

As for reading fees, forget it. Artists are gouged enough. If I need an editor, I'll hire one. If an agent is looking at me as a prospective client, it is up to them to assess and promote my work to publishers, not to get paid up front with nothing on offer.

One thing is clear: as publishers and agents scramble about for bigger pieces of a shrinking pie, the artists and readers are getting annoyed with them. Readers don't care who's logo is on the spine. Writer's don't care about assistance-which-isn't. As self-publishing and ebook markets grow, we all may just decide that we don't need agents or publishers at all.

Anonymous said...

In the current economic environment businesses everywhere are forcing their vendors to cut their rates.

Agents are vendors to writers. Writers are not employees of agents.

Agent commission rates should be half what they are now and new writers should pay no more than 5%.

Daniel M. Clark said...

Don't charge by the hour, raise the commissions to 18 or 20 percent. Reading fees, billable hours - anything that means the writer has to pay up front means that people like me will simply choose not to publish at all. Much as I'd rather not do it, self-publishing and print-on-demand are viable options.

An agent can have 20% of what he sells for me or he can have have 0% of nothing because I won't hire him.

Let's keep the relationship symbiotic rather than turn it completely lopsided.

Deb said...

"There are far too many investors in the publication/production of a book unwilling to accept the investment other parties make - assuming their involvement is the critical effort that makes a book happen."

This. Yes. I will not say word-one against agents, particularly mine. But how does it happen that every time this industry "changes" (and that happens continually), the party that is asked to accept an ever-diminishing slice of the pay is the author?

Victoria Strauss said...

For a really interesting take on how the agent's role has expanded, and why agents currently bring much more value to the author-agent relationship than in the past, see this post by agent Jason Allen Ashlock of Movable Type Literary Group.

Alex said...

What would your employer tell you if you ask him a 33% pay increase?

Agents getting 5% more is a 33% increase in pay, should they not get the same answer your employer would give you?

Why would any sane writer give up 5% of their earnings? Would you also be happy to pay 5% more income tax? Would that be cool?

Agents need to work harder if they want to make more money instead of chasing easy money.

if you happen to get an 20k advance you would get 17k for yourself and the agent 3k(based on 15% commission.)

Now with a 20% in the same situation you would get 16k and the agent 4k.

This while both of you worked harder, the agent get an 1k increase you a 1k less. Does this make any sense? Can you run a business like this?

Deborah said...

Victoria,

I read Mr. Ashlock's post. By the time I was done, my head was spinning at his characterization of agents as the new superheroes.

Even granting that some of his points were indeed good ones, it came down to agents taking over many fuctions that publishers used to do in house. Therefore (surely the last thing he would have wished) all it did was reinforce my opinion that agents should be getting more money from publishers, not from writers.

Mad Scientist Matt said...

My word verification was "stoker" - is Blogger asking me to add more fuel to the fire?

The idea of an agent diversifying and offering other services is an interesting one, but the conflict of interest issues seem very hard to avoid. Having two businesses under one roof and not letting them share any clients seems pretty difficult.

On the other hand, combine the number of people choosing to self-publish with a large number of laid-off publishing industry professionals who are striking out on their own, and it sounds to me like there may be a nascent market for good book doctors waiting to take off. Perhaps some of the agents might be better off making a complete switch to providing paid author services aimed at improving their books without any representation. That would leave fewer agents fighting over a smaller pie of representation money, and fill what could be shaping up to be a real need if we see more authors skipping normal commercial publishing.

Anonymous said...

What the hell does this expression "elephant in the room" mean?

Laura Resnick said...

Anonymous, an elephant in the middle of the room is something that's obvious and yet no one is talking about it--exactly as if there were a huge smelly pachyderm in the middle of the room and yet everyone kept pretending it wasn't there.

Jennifer wrote: "New authors are more work than current ones,"

Like most generalizations, that's only true in theory, not in practice. Yes, if an agent decides to take on an aspiring writer whose work isn't ready and become that person's editor and writing teacher, yep, that's a LOT of work. (And since most agents don't know how to write or edit, it's also a dead end for both agent and aspiring writer.) However, established writers are a LOT of work in a LOT of different scenarios.

The single most common scenario being that an established writers sales figures sag and she's dumped by her publisher, either mid-contract or at the end of the contract. This is a common scenario, it happens to a lot of wrietrs (especially these days)--and it can require a lot of work and commitment for the agent to help the writer repair and start rebuilding her career with sales elsewhere.

Unfortunately, it's a much too common scenario that agents instead just abandon a client at that point. But for an agent willing to actually do their job, this can easily be as much work as helping a new writer secure a first contract.

Anonymous said...

I know that I would not pay a 5% increase (30% increase) to my agency, despite the fact that I like them and think they do a decent job.

From my perspective, agents are overpaid and have the opportunity to make oodles of money for very little work.

My agency makes 15% commission off my books IN PERPETUITY. They probably spent a total of 20-30 hours (tops) selling/negotiating my contract. They also take 15% of my international royalties despite the fact that they did not sell or negotiate any foreign contracts. They claim their right to do so on the dubious basis that the publisher's global rights are part of my contract that they negotiated and thus they're entitled to everything that stems from that (even if it's a concession). I feel like they're vastly overpaid relative to the actual value they provide, but perhaps I'll feel differently if/when I sell another project.

Pay by the hour?!? I'd be happy to. I'd much rather pay someone a fixed fee to do their job than to pay someone thousands (or more!) of dollars in perpetuity. If I was an agent, I'd much rather collect a percentage in perpetuity as that gives me the opportunity for a "home run" client/property that makes my bottom line forever. If my agency raised their commission to 20%, I'd stop using an agent, sell my work myself, and hire an attorney to negotiate the contract. For what my agents currently do, 15% is too much as is.

J. T. Shea said...

US literary agents' typical commission rose 50% over the last 2 decades, from 10% to 15%. Whatever happened to 12.5%? The AAR originally tried to limit commissions to a maximum of 10% but had to abandon that rule on legal advice regarding the anti-trust laws Anna Petrakis referred to.