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: guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog.