Guest Blogger: Chuck Sambuchino

Editor, Guide to Literary Agents

Would You Pay More For An Agent?

Money. It’s always a touchy topic—in any environment—and no one’s really started an intelligent discussion on agents and commissions … until now.

About a year ago was the first time I heard an agent discussing a change to her commission structure. Wait—what? A change in payment? No, no—a rep makes 15% of what authors make with no upfront fees and that’s that. You don’t like the rules, get ready to be skewered on Preditors & Editors. (Granted, I didn’t say any of that last part out loud; instead, I heard the agent out.) She was talking about taking a higher commission on low advances, as a way to ensure it was financially worthwhile to take on books close to her heart that wouldn’t garner big-money offers. Otherwise, she would have to turn down worthy, publishable books because she couldn’t justify all the time upfront for a meager payoff.

OK. Now this makes more sense.

So, at this point in the conversation, I ask you: Would you pay a larger commission fee if it meant the difference between an agent yes vs. a no? Heck, if I could go back in time, I would. I speak today not only as an editor, but as an agented writer selling books, same as you. Paying more doesn’t excite me, but it makes sense if the advance is lower. I’m still not losing any upfront money out-of-pocket and the royalty commission would presumably be unchanged (and royalties are where a lot of money can be made). Let’s look at some possible scenarios with this idea:

Situation #1: You write a memoir about your spouse dying. An agent likes the writing but knows that tragedy memoir ain’t flying off bookstore shelves, so author and agent would be looking at a $5,000 advance, give or take. That means the upfront agent commission after everything is just $750, tops. So, as a result, the agent passes on your project. In fact, all the agents you query pass.

Scenario #2: Same deal, but an agent calls to say she love-love-loves the book and wants to rep you, but has a new commission structure. She can’t justify taking anything on without earning $2,000 upfront as a commission. So what does this mean to you? If the advance is $13,333 or higher, all normal rules apply and nothing is changed. If the book gets anything lower than that, the agent takes the first two grand as commission and you keep the difference. So if the offer from a house was $12,000, the author/agent take is 10,000/2,000. If the offer from a house was $2,500, the take is 500/2,000, respectively. And if the advance was just $1,000? My guess is an agent wouldn’t sign you unless they knew they could get more than that.

So at this point, I’m still generally in support of such a change. But wait! I spoke too soon. Let’s say an agent gets offered an $8,000 advance for your book. Their normal protocol would be to counteroffer and demand a bit more. But, with this arrangement—why? Why fight for a few grand more if the agent’s take remained the same? A-ha. Now the dark side to the equation reveals itself.

I think there’s something here—some idea of a change in commission structure to benefit small-advance authors and small-advance-author-loving agents, but I just can’t put my finger on the exact way to do it and I think agents keep quiet about this because they put themselves at risk by suggesting anything other than “Change nothing,” even if that’s not what they’re thinking. Immediate questions in my head include:

→ How would the AAR react to any change?
→ Do authors “make money back” from agents when royalties trickle in?
→ If new writers sign on to a different commission structure, would that affect those scribes the agent already reps?

So yes, a lot of details are unclear, but I thought this was a fascinating subject to bring up for discussion—and I think a money question like this needs to be addressed in some forum, even if the consensus is “It’s not broke so don’t fix it.” (Does anybody believe that?)

Q4U: What do you think about a possible commission change for agents? What ideas do you have that would help both agents and authors?

Chuck Sambuchino is the editor of Guide to Literary Agents (WD Books). He also authored the books Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd Ed., (WD Books) and How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack (Ten Speed Press; Sept. 2010). He is represented by Sorche Fairbank of Fairbank Literary. Follow his GLA blog for agent interviews, submission tips and more:

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. Steve G on February 19, 2010 at 1:46 PM

    >"What do you think about a possible commission change for agents? What ideas do you have that would help both agents and authors?"

    Why so much emphasis on advance? An advance is an advance on the royalties. If your book makes you $30,000, the advance will can change, but it just comes off the top of what the book makes. Does the 15% need to change? It seems to be working, but I expect it is not percentages that will change, but the way it is done. Agents roles will be adapting to the changing publishing landscape with everything else.

    The question seems to be this: What do you do with a book projected to make only $5,000 in its lifetime? I think there are 3 options:

    1) the author can go back and rewrite it so it is a better book and can sell $100,000 (by edits, by adding the "best-seller" elements, better language usage, etc), and then go back to queries

    2) understand it is not going to sell much and shelve it for later so the debut novel (ie, write another book) CAN be a more appealing book

    3) as someone suggested, self-publish it (or POD) and find the niche readers it fits in

    Basically, if you haven't written a book agents or publishers want, either publish it yourself or write a better/more appealing book. Hard work plus time does not mean you have created a masterpiece. I could make the Eiffel tower out of cheese sticks – whoopy-ding! You want to make money? Write what people are reading. Want to preach a message? Don't plan on making money. Get to know the industry you are trying to break into.Writing is owning your own business. You have to do the "other" stuff that goes with it.

    Also, find out the background of your agent. How long have they been in the business, what successes have they had, etc.? It is the same as buying a used car… sorta.

  2. Aveline on February 12, 2010 at 1:50 PM

    >A flat fee seems like an open invitation for scammers and incompetents. "Sure, I'll take your book and sell it for $2,000." Then sell it to their friend's "publishing house" that consists of a computer, ink-jet printer, and an obscure e-bay site. Agent and "publisher" split the two grand and the author is seriously out-of-luck.

  3. Anonymous on January 30, 2010 at 8:51 PM

    >What time does the film start?

  4. Lori Wilde on January 28, 2010 at 1:21 PM


    I write five books a year and it's barely enough to make a living and you want to take even more of it? Why are the authors the ones who always get crapped on?

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  6. Anonymous on January 25, 2010 at 2:27 AM

    >Anyone who wants to can find the information for free. I just looked through an updated listing of hundreds of agents, online.

    Those incapable of doing this probably can't write a good book either.

    Does the world need one more how-to ___ in publishing? In print, no less?

  7. Jude Hardin on January 24, 2010 at 9:09 AM

    >I hope I didn't give the impression that I think most agents are scammers. Not at all. I worked with a very good agent for a couple of years, and we recently parted ways amicably. I look forward to sending out queries once again when my WIP is complete.

  8. Anonymous on January 23, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    >Anon 10:41 here.

    Those authors whose works don't stand to make a lot of money would be far better off financially going with a small niche publisher that doesn't require an agent than giving 40%-90% of their advance to an agent.

    (I realize you're not for this idea, nor are any of the other agents who've commented; I'm simply pointing this out for the people who still somehow think giving away their hard work is a good idea. That's how vanity publishers snag victims).

  9. Rachelle on January 23, 2010 at 2:53 PM

    >Zuccini: Sorry, you've really misread and misunderstood the post. The hypothetical situation that was proposed suggests that an agent receive a minimum commission of $2000 — but only if they sell the book to a commercial, royalty-paying publisher. Nobody is suggesting that authors actually hand cash over to an agent.

    This system could work in a world where every single writer, agent and editor was completely ethical and honest and would never try to scam anyone or abuse the system. But we don't live in that world. So it would never work. I could try to use this system, and be completely ethical about it, always negotiating the best deal possible for every single client, never slacking off just because "I already have my minimum," but it wouldn't matter, people would accuse me of being a scammer anyway. So I'd never suggest something like this be put into place (as I wrote in Friday's post).

    I do object to your characterizing us as scammers or bad people just because we bring up the possibility of changing the current agent commission structure. After all, the stated purpose of such a change was to allow agents to take on MORE projects that are worthy, well-written, and deserve to be published but for whatever reason, don't stand to make a lot of money in today's market. This was meant to be something in FAVOR of authors, not just another ploy to scam authors. But of course, it doesn't matter what we say. Some authors will always assume that agents are out to scam them, no matter what. And I think that's sad.

  10. The Zuccini on January 23, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    >Isn't every new query now a client paying 2000.00 dollars? What's stopping the agent from taking on books they can't sell?

    Doesn't that make taking on new clients more profitable than selling books?

    I normally don't respond, but this post really bothers me. Even as a "discussion" because its exactly what scammers do. Having it posted even as a hypothetical by an agent gives the impression that there's something okay with it.

    Not even remotely.

    Sure lots of authors will pay money to publish their books. That's why Authorhouse still has customers despite all the bad press.

  11. Rachelle on January 23, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    >Um, Anon 12:20? The Guide to Literary Agents isn't just "another how-to-find-an-agent" book. It's put out by Writers Digest, it's been publishing for around 20 years, and is the how-to-find-an-agent" book. Just wanted to clarify.

  12. Anonymous on January 23, 2010 at 2:20 AM

    >Wow, another how-to-find-an-agent book. Thanks. Needed that.

  13. Anonymous on January 22, 2010 at 11:17 PM

    >Yes, Mira, but what's the incentive for agents to get you the best deal? Sadly, 50% of nothing is still nothing.

  14. Mira on January 22, 2010 at 3:22 PM

    >Anon 10:41 – no, no I agree. Writers are under-valued in this business, underpaid and ripe for exploitation.

    My point to Anon 7:16 was that just a writer may want to offer an agent more income for other reasons than desperation.

    But you know who I do want to take money from? Publishers. Giving the author 10% of the profit is so…..arrrggghhhh. Now THAT makes my head spin.

    Giving agents who mentor and develop authors a bit more of the profit? That I can live with.

    And I think this should probably be my last post on this thread. I'm think I'm up to seven. 🙂

  15. Anonymous on January 22, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    >Man, some of my fellow writers don't value their own writing very much. If an agent wanted to take more of my advance than I'm getting, she can write the damn book herself. If the agent doesn't think she can get me an advance that's worth her time, then either don't rep me or work harder to find a better deal.

    Good grief, people. Have some respect for the hard work you put in yourself. Writing a book is HARD. And if it sells, you deserve to make money off it; not just the person who sent it off.

    (For the record, I like my agent; I wouldn't want to go about this without one. But the minute she starts demanding more money than I get is the minute she goes bye-bye).

  16. Mira on January 22, 2010 at 10:54 AM

    >Anon 8:38 are you Anon 7:16?

    Oh. I wish you had specified that from the beginning.

    Are you sure, though? Because I write ALOT of blog comments.

    Well, I'd continue this, but I don't want to wear out Rachelle's patience. My point through these jokes, Anon 7:16, is that getting an agent requires writing a terrific book, no matter how much groveling one does or does not do.

    Also, I'd be willing to pay an agent a higher commission rate if I felt they had earned it, and I wanted to show my appreciation – not because I'm desperate and willing to give up my rights just to be published.

  17. Anonymous on January 22, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    >Mira, if you want an agent you need to write an actual BOOK, not just blog posts. No guarantees–I'm not an agent, remember? LOL

  18. Mira on January 22, 2010 at 10:05 AM

    >Anon 7:16, I have a bone to pick with you.

    You said if I posted on this thread that I'd give more than 15%, then I would get an agent.

    Well, I offered 50% and it's been almost 12 hours, and so far, nothing. Nada. Zip. Kaput. No agent.

    Where's my agent? You promised an agent.

    Okay, I'm going to sweeten the deal.


    Of course, for that kind of money, I'd really expect the agent to write the book themselves. But I'll give them 70% of the take. You can't beat that.

    So, future agent, you write the book and sell it, and I'll take a measly 30% of the deal. Please. Take advantage of me. I'm a sitting duck here.

    Okay, anon 7:16, this had better work. You promised.

  19. Jude Hardin on January 22, 2010 at 9:00 AM

    >Since the average advance for first-time authors is under $10,000, practically every new writer who sells would be paying this elevated percentage. It's a fee in disguise, and reputable agents never charge upfront fees. Ever.

  20. Ted Cross on January 22, 2010 at 4:46 AM

    >I wrote a post about this some time ago on my blog. I was following up on Nathan Bransford mentioning that there were some new publishing arms that were paying either no or very small advances. To me it seems that an agent will not be willing to submit to such publishers, because they won't make money. However, I wouldn't want an agent bypassing such publishers, so I would be happy to work something out to ensure the agent gets paid. I think the flat 15% rate should quickly become a thing of the past.

  21. Cam Snow on January 22, 2010 at 2:02 AM

    >JennyB – If you like that structure, I'll be your guinea pig! I've got one novel sitting in my drawer for edits and another one two weeks or so from completion. (you can email me from my blog) 🙂

    Mira – You do give your agent raises through time. You do it though not by higher percentages, but through writing better books that sale more.

    Everyone – I think we have drifted off topic a bit. I believe the way Chuck put it was to take on RISKY projects. Things that might be too literary to sale, books that have a small audience, etc.

  22. Donna Hole on January 22, 2010 at 12:23 AM

    >No. I'd agree to no advance to get an agent that said they'd take a chance on my book, but I wouldn't pay higher fees just to get them to say, well maybe.

    Now, this could be because I had an unproductive experience with an agency that didn't actually read my novel before shopping it out, and then later charging me fees to industry professionals that would do for my novel what the agent should have already been working on.

    Hind sight, and all that.

    I'm ok with being a mid-list writer. But, I'm not ok with charging me more for the qualifier. No advance – or less advance – for the risk, OK. Higher fees if an agent says they like me but maye I'm a hard sell that will take extra effort? No way.


  23. Mira on January 21, 2010 at 10:11 PM

    >Anon, really? Think that posting tactic will work?

    Awesome. Okay, I'll pay 50% to any agent that will represent me.

    I haven't written a book yet though, so it may be a bit of a challenge. But that's why I'll pay you 50%.

    Judi – that's a really good point.

    My other comment – I'm just not ready yet to leave that up.

  24. Rowenna on January 21, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    >I guess what I don't understand (and I'm no pro, so I could just, well, not understand) is the benefit to the author, agent, or publisher for the agent to agree to represent a book that no one thinks will sell well. Maybe in the long run it could be a foot-in-the-door tactic for an author, but in the case of the tragic memoir, how many of those will the author write? Seems only one, and then s/he is starting fresh (and, even if s/he wrote another, seems none of them are expected to sell well). I've read that a bad sales record can be worse than no sales record at all, so it doesn't seem like the wisest career move for the author, nor a good pick for the agent, nor a wise investment for a publisher. If the book you write first isn't going to sell well, maybe you should break out with something else rather than finagle a way to make it worth the agent's while to rep it. Plus, publishing is still finite–there are only so many books printed, so wouldn't agents repping more books mean that a higher number of agented books don't sell, especially in those unpopular genres that the larger advance percentages are supposed to entice the agents into picking up?

    I guess this treads scary ground for me because it seems to have the potential to prey on the desperation some authors feel to get published, the same emotions that many have criticized vanity publishers for exploiting.

  25. Anonymous on January 21, 2010 at 9:16 PM

    >I notice the people willing to give agents larger commissions are signing their names. Smacks of groveling and begging to me…Guess if you want to attract a greedy, grab-it-all agent then you get what you deserve.

  26. Kim on January 21, 2010 at 6:05 PM

    >It takes just as much, if not more, work on the agent side to promote a book that is not going to garner a huge advance. I'd pay it, especially if it meant the difference between being represented and not represented.

  27. JDuncan on January 21, 2010 at 5:40 PM

    >I think I'd let an agent take more upfront money if I knew it would be paid back if the book did well enough to deserve it. Though this has the effect of shifting risk off of the agent for taking on a project. Honestly, with the responsibilities that authors have now with doing more than just writing the book, I think authors should be getting higher royalties in the first place, which would offset the lower advance anyway. If we're putting more effort in on the publishing end of things, there should be more reward available instead of what has been happening, which is smaller advances. It also really depends on the agent. Some are very hands on and put in more work on a project and probably deserve more of a payout, while others don't and probably don't need more than the 15%.

  28. Madeline Sharples on January 21, 2010 at 5:08 PM

    >I would absolutely consider a larger commission for my agent. I worked as a real estate agent for about 10 years and those commissions are always negotiable.
    What I need is an agent who is ready to talk and I'll be there. So far all I've gotten are a bunch of nos or no replies.

  29. Judi on January 21, 2010 at 5:05 PM

    >Mira said-"…with the amount the agent gets negotiated between author and agent.'

    You know how desperate some writers are to get an agent, right?

    Enough to pay big BIG bucks in reading fees, scams, and all that, right?

    And writers are signing on with the agent to negotiate for them because as writers, they're not necessarily the best advocates for themselves during negotiations, right?

    So. Not sure this is the best idea…

  30. Mira on January 21, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    >Oh, I want to say one more thing. I'd be fully willing to pay an agent more than 15%.

    First, 15% strikes me as very low – and if an agent offered mentor services and I felt supported and guided by them, I would absolutely want to offer them more than 15%.

    Not only that, but I'd want to be able to give my agent raises.

    Of course, these ideas could also be set up for exploitation.

    But then, I'd like to see more accountability as well. There should be more sanctions in place for unscrupulous agents than just a name on a website.

    Fun discussion. I love talking about changes and improvements. Very fun.

  31. Mira on January 21, 2010 at 4:34 PM

    >This is a fascinating discussion. I appreciate your thoughts, Chuck, and I'm glad you selected it, Rachelle.

    The industry is changing and discussions like these will be popping up more and more. It's useful to explore new ways to look at things!

    So, I think Chuck's system is rife with the possiblity of exploitation, which he acknoweldges, but it's still really interesting.

    Here's what I want. I don't agree with the advance system, period. Drop the advance. Kill the advance. I think everyone should share in the risk and profit.

    I'd like a 33% split between publisher, bookseller and author, with the amount the agent gets negotiated between author and agent.

    No advance. Split profits.

    That's what I want.

    Well, actually, what I really want is where an agent will pay me for the priviledge of representing my book, but I think that one might be a long shot.

    Thanks for the discussion, Chuck!

  32. Anonymous on January 21, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    >We're not just talking about advances, though. What about royalties?

    Why the heck should writers pay agents higher percentages after they earn out as well just because they went with a smaller advance?!

  33. Anonymous on January 21, 2010 at 3:25 PM

    >Boo hoo hoo–poor starving agents. Glad Jenny isn't the only agent who feels uncomfortable.
    Say the average agent has 30-40 clients: Can't she afford to take on some on debut authors for the long haul? Seems to me the agents & publishers profit plenty off the new writer who needs the cash more than they do!

    Do they think all writers are so dumb and desperate they'll do anything to get published? We're just creative, not stupid, and we can do the math as well as write.

  34. Timothy Fish on January 21, 2010 at 3:17 PM

    >"Surely some agents are worth more? Others less?"

    I don't think there's any question that some agents should be paid more than others, but its a little like a small church calling a pastor. The pulpit committee could pass over a guy because they thing he will expect them to pay him more than they can afford, or they can take the attitude that if the church grows after he comes then they will be able to afford to pay him more. An agent can make as much money as she wants with it being set at 15%, but she's going to have to get more and bigger contracts for her clients. But then, that's exactly how we would define a better agent anyway.

  35. Brenda on January 21, 2010 at 2:27 PM

    >The question I have in this scenario; is the agent taking $2000 or 15% (whichever's higher) off the advance and 15% off ALL future royalties? Or, in the case of an advance below $13 333, taking $2000 commission off the advance, then NOT taking any further commission until the author has surpassed the $13 333 mark?

    If it's the former, I'd have to do some VERY serious consideration of other relevant factors, because they'd be taking more money off an already low earning book. If it's the latter, I'd have less of an issue. Unless the book sells very badly it all evens out in the end. But I'd be inclined either way to explore options for making the book more appealing to publishers first.

  36. Aimee LS on January 21, 2010 at 2:27 PM

    >Since my background is in business, not in publishing, I was surprised to find out there was a 'standardized' percentage for agents. Surely some agents are worth more? Others less?

    I've worked in several different business industries where we took a percentage of sales or negotiated contracts. Though there are always 'average' prices, I've never yet seen an industry that implies to go outside the norm is unethical. It strikes me as an attempt to keep the old-boy's network in place (after all, if the BIG agents take the same percentage as the little / new ones, anyone who has a choice about it will go with the big guys, hands down).

    How are agents (or writers for that matter) supposed to develop any kind of new business strategies if they're locked in to something like that?

    I recognize it's easy for me to say "new structure is fine with me!" – I've not been published yet, so a new structure wouldn't bother me because it would just be 'the way things are'.

    I suspect change would be harder for those accustomed to the current structure. I just have an uneasy feeling about why.

  37. clindsay on January 21, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    >The fact is that agenting and publishing are for-profit businesses, and as such agents shouldn't be taking on projects that they don't think they can sell, and neither should publishers.

    I would also feel intensely uncomfortable with the kind of sliding scale pay structure that Chuck proposes.

    One thing that Chuck left out of his post was the fact that most advances are paid out in thirds, over a period of about 18 months. (This applies to both the agent and the client, by the way.) So a client who gives up $2000 out of a $2500 advance gets $500 spread out over almost two years. Kind of ridiculous thing to ask a writer to agree to, don't you think?

  38. Shawn Smucker on January 21, 2010 at 1:39 PM

    >Ms. Gardner, I'd like to get your take on this.

  39. Timothy Fish on January 21, 2010 at 12:26 PM


    Let me send you my address and I'll represent you. I'll just need your $2,000 check and your signature on a piece of paper that says you won't hold me responsible if I can't sell the project to a publisher.

  40. Flora on January 21, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    >I'd love to see agents take a flat fee for projects, like lawyer Robert Barnett does when representing Obama and others to publishers. I'd much rather pay a flat fee and take my chances than be paying out 15% in perpetuity for the entire life of the book.

  41. Chris Morrow on January 21, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    >I see how this topic might be particularly relevant to first time authors as well as authors looking to sell books that may warrant small advances.

    An agent taking on abnormally high risk (ie first time authors) might need to protect themselves. From the perspective of an author, there is a cost to doing business — to starting any new business — and paying a higher percentage of an advance to an agent to help the business get off the ground seems logical to me.

    Certainly I think the customary 15 percent should be negotiable, especially for new authors. If your book is going to be a big seller, then you won't have any problem finding an agent who will be happy to take the 15 percent. If it might be a difficult sell or a less than lucrative one, then negotiating the agent's cut is no different than deciding how much time and effort to put into writing your book, or marketing yourself, or any of the other activities that make writing books a business.

    That said, I agree that there would need to be some incentive for the agent to try to sell the book for as much as possible. There has to be a balance struck between money on the front and backend. With so many books being written and only so many publishing dollars going around, it seems that it might benefit everyone if the author-agent relationship was a bit more flexible.

  42. Beth on January 21, 2010 at 11:37 AM

    >Another thought is that there would be a limit to the amount an agent could use this. For example, only once per author. A new author could get his or her foot in the door this way, but it wouldn't continue as they wrote more books.

  43. jennybent on January 21, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    >I hope I don't offend a colleague by saying that I'm uncomfortable with this without even knowing exactly why. Have I turned down projects because I think the advance would be pretty low and hence not the best use of my time? Absolutely. But I have also taken on projects where I thought the same thing but I loved it so much I didn't care. Add to that the fact that some of the projects that I have sold for relatively small advances turned out to be incredibly successful and so I made money on the backend. Publishing is in many ways a gamble for all of us: writers, agents, publishers. If I love a project enough, I should be willing to place that bet.

    But additionally, the structure that Cam Snow suggests makes this concept much more palatable for me. I still don't think I'd do it, but at least I think it works out most fairly for the author.

  44. Gary on January 21, 2010 at 11:02 AM

    >Everything is negotiable. A writer spends 2 years trying to get an agent, then when he/she finds one the agent asks for a higher percentage. Of course the writer is so thrilled an agent likes their book, they'd offer their first born for a publishing deal.
    However, if you're an established writer with a solid platform–now you have leverage.
    Everything is negotiable.

  45. Beth on January 21, 2010 at 10:33 AM

    >I don't see a way away from the darker aspects, really. You're just depending on your agent being a person of integrity and character, but the higher immediate take puts the author very much at the agent's mercy. The agent no longer has the motivation to work for you unless they are just the kind of person who would do that anyway.

  46. Dana King on January 21, 2010 at 10:14 AM

    >I hate to seem cheap, but every time some link in the publishing chain needs to make more money, they come to the author for it. Publishers don't want to do publicity? Dump it on the author. From everything I've read, new authors shouldn't expect to do much more than break even on their first book or two while their "building a readership." This looks like a hand going deeper into that pocket.

    Please don't interpret this as a slam at agents. I've learned to appreciate how much help a good agent can be. Still, the point could be reached–it's in sight now–where all new authors are essentially self-published, as they can expect no upfront money, and royalties are a nebulous concept.

  47. Timothy Fish on January 21, 2010 at 9:48 AM

    >I’m having a little trouble getting my mind wrapped around this situation. I keep getting this image in my head of Rachelle walking into a meeting with John Q. Publisher. In one hand she has the next Harry Potter and in the other she has a manuscript she loves, but she knows it won’t bring a big advance. She hands Mr. Publisher the first and after a few minutes of looking over it, he looks up, with his finger still on the page to mark his place.

    “I really like this,” he says, “With it being a first time author, we’d be taking a risk, but I think I can get you a million dollar advance. You just have to agree not to show it to anyone else.”

    “I’ll see what the author says.”

    Mr. Publisher takes a sticky note and marks his place in the manuscript. He leans back, resting his hands behind his head. “Okay, what else have you got?”

    “One of my other authors has this manuscript,” Rachelle says, laying manuscript in front of him. “It’s a really important book that needs to be published.”

    Mr. Publisher reads the first couple of pages, then flips through several pages and reads some more, before he tosses the manuscript down on his desk. “It’s good, but I wouldn’t say it was great. It falls in a niche market. I’m not sure we can sell that many copies.”

    “I know that, but I think it really ought to be published.”

    “Can’t you bring me something with a bigger audience?”

    “I just did,” Rachelle says, pointing to the other manuscript.

    Mr. Publisher sighs, a deep long sigh. “I’ll give you a couple thousand dollar advance and that’s really pushing it. I just know we’re going to be losing money on this thing.”

    And as I think about that, I can’t help but think that an agent can’t compartmentalize the work she does on one project and keep it separate from what she does on another. On one project, she gets more money than she does work. On another project, she does more work than she gets money. The trick is to have a balance that allows her to make a profit overall. It almost seems like there is some kind of hidden reason why an agent would want to try to make profit on every project.

  48. Matilda McCloud on January 21, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    >It might be an option for those books the agent is on the fence about, ie books that need a lot of editorial work to get them ready to submit, or for authors whom the agent suspects might not have more than one or two books in them, etc. It's definitely better than self-publishing.

  49. Shawn Smucker on January 21, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    >I completely agree with Ms. Pauling – no matter how desperately I would want to get a piece published, I'd much prefer an agent come back to me and say, look, this probably isn't going to sell because of this, this and this, as opposed to an agent saying sure I'll represent you for 15% but we're not going to get that much for it. Isn't the essential advantage of an agent having someone who believes in what you are doing? I think raising the rate for nominal works sounds too much like an agent trying to find a way to make money on marginal work, which I personally believe benefits no one.

    Mr Sambuchino mentions taking a higher percentage of a $5000 advance, leaving the author with maybe $3000 – $4000. I would prefer to self publish and profit just as much as soon as I sell 300-400 copies, or make double if I can sell 1000 copies on my own.

    Not that Mr. Sambuchino or Ms. Gardner fall into this category, but I think this mindset could be exploited by agents because so many authors are desperate for publication and are willing to take a bad deal in order to see their book in Borders.

  50. Richard Mabry on January 21, 2010 at 8:16 AM

    I hate it when you make me think before I've had a second cup of coffee. Unfortunately, I can see the downside for an agent of accepting a deal that pays them very little up front. Then again, if most agents truly believe what they say–that they are in the relationship for the long haul (and I believe they are)–they are in the same boat as the author. Take a small advance for this book, hoping that the next and the next will pay off more handsomely.

    I'll be interested to see how this plays out in the discussion of your post. Thanks (I think) for bringing it up. Right now, I'd veto the idea.

  51. Lynne on January 21, 2010 at 8:13 AM

    >No, never. I'm not that desperate and nor should anyone ever be.
    So you get a low advance and you get even less of the money? A writer already contributes 90% or more of the average fiction book and she can get as low as a 4% royalty!
    Besides, the model seems to be moving away from conglomerates and huge lump sums to epublishing, self publishing and cooperatives. I can't see any justification for a move like this, except that agents are going through hard times right now and need to pay the rent.

  52. Laura Pauling on January 21, 2010 at 8:05 AM

    >A lot of good points brought up. I can see if it's for a memoir. But what about fiction? Would I really want my debut novel to be one that an agent thought wouldn't do well – even if she/he loved it? Isn't there a chance of that book hurting my career and/or the next book I tried to sell? Maybe it's a book meant for a niche small publisher then, where the author's marketing efforts will see him/her more profit. I don't know. Just thoughts.

  53. Susan Helene Gottfried on January 21, 2010 at 8:01 AM

    >I'm too disgusted by this idea to form a coherent thought. No way would I give up a larger part of an advance — especially as we see publishers like HarperStudio fighting to prove that royalties CAN be all you need.

    I suspect under your model, Chuck, you'd see a lot of authors making a considerably larger amount of money via self-publishing — at the expense of agents, who will be viewed to be more worried about their bank accounts than books.

  54. Anonymous on January 21, 2010 at 7:57 AM

    >Here we go again: The authors put in their blood, sweat, tears and YEARS and the agent wants MORE of their hard-earned money? Agents represent lots of writers and they can afford to follow their heart if they want.

    Not so a writer. They have all their time and energy invested in ONE book at a time. Why not pay the WRITERS more? After all, isn't that the agent's job: to get the best deal possible? Give me a break!

  55. Amy Sue Nathan on January 21, 2010 at 7:25 AM

    >How does this benefit the author? Because authors whose books would garner the smallest of advances would still get agents? Is there a large percentage of books that get turned away by agents because they think they could sell it, but with a small advance and that's not worth their time? I would think it would be up to the author, but I'd worry that some agents would "take whatever they could get" from the publisher because their fee wouldn't change unless there was a big jump. It might dilute the advocacy for the author because the agent will acquiesce instead of stepping it up. I'm sure most reputable agents would not change how they work, but these might end up feeling like unwanted stepchildren (no offense to stepchildren, folks, its for the sake of example). They couldn't get enough of an advance to be treated "normally."

    Not saying I wouldn't consider it, but it would change the playing field. Some authors might even say "You can have your flat fee, I just want to be published" so sell the book for whatever you can sell it for.

    I think we'd be in for a litany of changes in practices and attitudes.

    I get it — but I'm not sure I like it.

  56. Shelby on January 21, 2010 at 7:14 AM

    >"The real problem I see with a fee structure change is that the authors who are most likely to end up with a small advance are the authors who are the least likely to know what kind of advance to expect."

    Exactly the point where I begin to be uneasy.

  57. Cam Snow on January 21, 2010 at 7:12 AM

    >I would throw a few caveats in there, such as:
    1) Agent never gets up to 50% of advance/royalties up to $2k, then it goes to 15% rate. So on an advance of $2500, she gets $1250, but she gets 50% of royalties until she hits the $2k mark, at which point it goes to 15%. The agent may spend a lot of time, but the author spends just as much, so it doesn't make sense for them to get more money. Authors have to eat too!
    2) I would also add a "blockbuster" clause for an agent… i.e., if she pulled $50k on advance, she would get 18% of advance (instead of 15%), if she pulled $100k she'd get 20%, if she pulled $200k she'd get 22.5%, etc… Reward them for the crazy upside if they can get you a huge payday.
    3) It also depends on the agent – if they are one that is really hands on with editing, polishing, and pitching, then ofcourse I would pay more than 15%… if she's hands off, then no.

  58. Timothy Fish on January 21, 2010 at 6:40 AM

    >The real problem I see with a fee structure change is that the authors who are most likely to end up with a small advance are the authors who are the least likely to know what kind of advance to expect. We assume that the good agents are going to have a good idea, will give the author the right information and will work just as hard for the small advance author as for the big advance author. That’s the right thing to do and good business practice, but the new author has no means of determining whether the one agent that shows interest is telling the truth or not. An unscrupulous agent would find a book for which she could get a higher advance, negotiate for a low advance and tell the author that the fees will have to be higher, say 50%. The book will earn out quickly and the agent will collect more than she really should be making from her efforts.

  59. Krista Phillips on January 21, 2010 at 6:32 AM

    >It's an interesting dilemma, that's for sure.

    I guess I can see the fairness of it IF, like the above commenter, it was on a percentage scale… kinda like your tax tables (forgive me for this…)

    Say 0-2500 is a scale of 25%

    So a $2500 advance pays agent $625. (better than $375..)

    2501 – 5000 is a scale of 20%

    so you still pay the $625 but then $500 on the next $2500 for a total pay to agent of $1125 vs $700.

    5001 – 7000 is on a scale of 15% pays agent 1425 vs $1050

    7001 – 14500 is at 10%, so if your advance was $14500… you'd pay exactly 15%. Anything over that would be at the flat 15%.

    This is probably crazy math for this early in the morning, but my point is, I agree that a flat fee wouldn't necessarily be the RIGHT answer, but I could see how it would be in both the authors and agents best interest for a scale of some sort… as long as it was set up so there was never a point where the agent got a bigger payment for a smaller advance.

  60. Sharon A. Lavy on January 21, 2010 at 6:30 AM

    >Interesting. I assume this is saying the agent might take a bit more of the advance, not that the author is actually paying the agent out of pocket.

  61. Jessica on January 21, 2010 at 6:28 AM

    >Hmmm, good questions.

    My husband is a realtor and those commission rates can be different, based on whether it's a property sale or a house sale. Not only that, but for a time, people from south Florida were calling him and wanting a lower commission percentage. Apparently agents down there took less commission. So it's an interesting question you're asking here.

    Would I pay more? I don't know. I'm not sure how much single title houses pay for advances, but category ones seem to pay less, but they also don't require an agent.

    It'll be interesting what comes of this.

  62. Ronda Laveen on January 21, 2010 at 3:28 AM

    >But yes, you are right the flaw in the flat rate plan becomes visible when the advance is mid-range. Mid-range offers probably need to be linked to a higher percentage rather than flat rate to encourage the agent to fight for a larger slice of the pie.

  63. M.B. Sandefur on January 21, 2010 at 2:54 AM

    >I would certainly agree to pay an agent more if I get a smallish advance. If s/he is genuinely willing to work her/his patootie off for me then why the hell not?! They deserve to be paid handsomely. I'll still have money after I pay them so I wouldn't see a problem with paying more. Definitely worth it!