Ask the Agent: Earning Our Keep

How do agents earn their 15% commission?

Ah, how do we earn it… let us count the ways.

4 An agent can often use their negotiating skills and knowledge of the marketplace to secure an advance that’s at least 15% higher than you could have gotten on your own. It’s nice when they pay for themselves right up front.

4 Agents have access to the publishing houses through their relationships with the editors and publishers, something that most unagented writers don’t have. Agented proposals generally go to the top of the slush pile. Or circumvent the slush pile altogether.

4 Some publishers don’t accept unagented manuscripts; so if you want to submit to them, an agent’s your hot ticket.

4 Most agents edit, revise, critique and otherwise help shape and polish proposals, sample chapters and even complete manuscripts before submitting to publishers, thereby giving your work the best chance of selling. (Many agents are former editors.)

4 Agents’ familiarity with the market enables them to target your proposal to the right editors at the right houses.

4 Agents negotiate all the confusing clauses in your contract regarding things like options, subsidiary rights, cover art, etc. (and hopefully they’ll help you understand it, too).

4 Agents serve as career coach, helping you to strategize your long-term plan for success. And berating you for wanting to write in more than one genre at once.

4 Agents handle negotiations with the publisher, and later can step in to advocate or mediate if there’s a disagreement between author and publisher, allowing the author to remain friendly with their publishing house (i.e. the agent can be the bad guy when necessary).

4 Agents handle all the business concerns between author and publisher, freeing the writer to focus on writing (and that all-important marketing).

4 Speaking of marketing, agents also provide guidance in marketing and author platform-building. You know, that stuff we all hate.

4 Agents enjoy eating and also like houses, clothes and cars. Some agents even have children with expensive orthodontia and horse-obsessions. (I’m not speaking from experience or anything.) The point is, they can’t pay for any of that if they don’t sell projects. Believe me, if they take you on as a client, they are highly motivated to sell your book.

4 Agents always know the best bars restaurants within a mile of every writers conference location. And occasionally they’ll even buy you a drink (I mean, a Diet Coke).

4 Of course, the really good agents have incredibly informative blogs in which they give away all the company secrets pretty much every darn day of the week. But I don’t know any agents like that.

What have I missed? Those of you who have agents, chime in. (But let’s not use this as a forum to tell us your lousy-agent stories.)

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Terry Brennan on March 18, 2008 at 2:25 PM

    >Bars? Drinks? Now you’re sounding like a journalist.

    The great thing about being a journalist (and the greatest curse) is you know all the bars that are open at 8:00 a.m.

    Your Reagan is a spitting image for our Noah, who recently left us after 13 years.

  2. David A. Todd on March 11, 2008 at 2:31 PM

    >An excellent, concise summary of the agent’s job description. As good as any I’ve seen on the ‘net.

  3. Carol on March 10, 2008 at 8:48 PM

    >Wow! I just found your sight. What great information. I will definitely be back! Thanks so much! 🙂

  4. Kathi Lipp on March 10, 2008 at 10:51 AM

    >I think that most pubishing houses want to deal fairly, but they are in the business of getting the best product they can for the lowest amount. If it has not been for my brilliant agent, they know that a first time author like me would pay to have our book published by them. RG not only got me my advance, she got me a two book deal (that I could never have dreamed of asking for.)

    Did I whine about the 15%? 15% of a two book deal with real advances vs. my willingings to write for nothing – you do the math.

    I like agents.

  5. Jennifer L. Griffith on March 9, 2008 at 7:18 PM

    >When I had trouble negotiating “dog sitting” fees, I knew for SURE,

    I need an agent! to sell my manuscript.

    You don’t have to convince me!

  6. Marla Taviano on March 7, 2008 at 10:12 PM

    >I love my agent. He’s a gift. He’s a second dad, friend, professional, counselor, expert–all rolled into one. And like Mary said–fun!

    Here’s hoping he makes lots of money off of me!

  7. Christa on March 7, 2008 at 8:59 PM

    >I promise never to use this forum to tell lousy-agent stories. In fact, every darn day, my agent posts such incredibly informative blogs, I couldn’t use “lousy” and “agent” in the same sentence.

    And a Coke Zero would be just fine for me.

  8. Catherine West on March 7, 2008 at 10:24 AM

    >Psychological counseling? Really?
    Where do I sign up?

  9. Katy McKenna on March 7, 2008 at 9:57 AM

    >You also neglected to mention psychological counseling. 😉 In the past twelve days, my agent encouraged me deeply in a couple of well-timed and wonderfully worded emails. Of course, that’s not something I expect from an agent–not at all. But it is an evidence of a caring relationship that I truly appreciate.

    Thank you, Rachelle!

    Katy McKenna

  10. Mary DeMuth on March 7, 2008 at 9:07 AM

    >You neglected to mention the fun factor. Agents are just a bunch of fun!

  11. Kim Kasch on March 7, 2008 at 1:17 AM

    >Oh, but if I only had a lousy-agent story to tell…

  12. JC on March 6, 2008 at 11:50 PM

    >What writers conferences will you be attending this year? I will happily buy you a, um, diet coke.

  13. Ariel Allison Lawhon on March 6, 2008 at 11:02 PM

    >Agents are worth twice what they get paid, get thanked half as often as they should be, and not given nearly enough credit for the careers we wouldn’t have without them! Just the opinion of this author…

  14. Matthew C Jones on March 6, 2008 at 10:39 PM

    >That’s only 13 bullet points. 13 bullets = 13%.

    Thanks for all you do. 15% is probably lousy pay for everything a good agent really does.

    BTW, will you make your list of, (ahem) restaurants available if we ask nicely?

    Grace to you,
    Matt Jones

  15. Richard Mabry on March 6, 2008 at 10:22 PM

    >True, agents do all those things and more. They commiserate with you when those nasty rejections come in. They tell you the unpleasant truth when the sample you send them just doesn’t have enough “oomph” to carry the plot. They encourage you when you’d like to throw your computer out the window and hire on as a greeter at WalMart.
    And–although I don’t have any firsthand experience–I’ll bet they celebrate just as much as you do when “the call” comes.