Paying Agents by the Hour?

Fantastic agent Colleen Lindsay asked a really interesting question on Twitter a few days ago. You can find the conversation, including a few of my comments, if you scroll that far, here, or on your own by searching Twitter for the hashtag #agentpay.

The conversation was triggered by a hypothetical question that Colleen posed: What if we paid agents by billable hours instead of by a percentage of the sale?

I won’t lie. I sometimes wish that I was getting paid by the hour instead of by the sales percentage. Why? Well, as I’m getting started, I am spending a lot of time developing projects. It’s a learning experience for me, as well as for the writer. And some of those projects have not gone on to sell. In fact, throughout my career, there will be projects that don’t end up selling. There might not be as much of a market for them as I originally thought, or it might not be the right time for them to cross the transom. For whatever reason, there will be unsold projects in my career…just as there are for any agent.

And, sure, it would be nice to see some cash for the billable hours I’ve spent on these projects. But you know what? I place a very high value on a learning experience. It’s almost impossible for me to be disappointed or bitter about something if I’ve learned from it. I try to seek out like-minded writers for clients, those who want to learn and grow and turn into publishing success machines, as much through their touchdowns as their fumbles (I know nothing about football, can you tell?). Of course, I’d much rather sell a project than sit around singing “Kum ba yah” and learning, because I have responsibilities to my clients, but still. These experiences are really important. I’d feel strange charging for them.

I think the sales percentage system works. Especially at the beginning of an agent’s career. Not only does this weed out the agents who are not hungry, not passionate, not crazy enough to work for, basically, free for a few years just to launch themselves, but it breeds a drive and determination that is an asset to any client. And it armors newer agents for the long haul, it gets us into the right mindset so that we doggedly serve our authors long after cash starts coming in.

If publishing were to, for some crazy reason, start the precedent of agents charging by the hour, here are the pros and cons, in my opinion. Remember, this is purely hypothetical.

Newer agents, in the short term, would be able to feed and clothe themselves. They’d still make a pretty decent salary and get rewarded for all their editing, counseling, advising and development work. The short-term benefits would be great for the agent. (Benefits? What’s that?) However, the barrier to entry for using an agent, for a writer, especially a debut writer, would be very high. They’d have to invest thousands of dollars into launching their writing career — and that project might not sell, after all, so those costly hours would be for nothing.

Except, of course, learning experience, but I doubt someone who has sunk years or their life and thousands into it would feel as peaceful as I do, with my hypothetical by-the-hour wage.

I predict there would be huge backlash against the system of literary agents. If big houses persisted in only accepting agented submissions, there would be great unrest among writers. Loyalty between agent and writer would also decrease. Writers would begrudgingly pay their agents to “break into the business” and then might dump them once they have an “in” with a publisher, to avoid the agent’s steep hourly fees.

The problems would only get worse for established agents with established clients. These clients would have a reputation. They’d be able to make income off of subrights or foreign sales, they’d be able to sell subsequent books in a series, they’d be able to sell books on proposal. They’d need their agents more for negotiation than matchmaking and introductions. Their agents, then, would be doing much less of that really hardcore developmental, editing, and counseling work. That’s really what eats up the hours, folks.

Of course, established agents would have many more clients and much more of the business-end work of negotiation, contracts, selling subrights (A movie contract, by the way, can weigh in at about 300 pages! That’s a lot of pleasure reading!), so they wouldn’t suffer necessarily, but getting the deals and selling books would take less time for their established writers. They wouldn’t get as much reward from the sale itself.

With billable hours, unless the established agent raised their rates, they’d also have less opportunity for that out-of-control growth that every percentage-based worker dreams of. They could find the next Jo Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, but they wouldn’t have a right to a percent of that runaway success…they’d still be plodding along at whatever dollars per hour.

So in the short term, billable hours could benefit rookie agents. But it could also make them lazy and never instill in them that marvelous drive and hunger. I’d take my passion any day over silly things like shelter from the elements or job security. Some jobs, you draw a salary just by showing up every day and doing whatever someone tells you. (There are some agents who receive a salary for office duties or subrights work, depending on their agency, but they also get a percentage of sales, so this is not meant to disrespect my colleagues at other agencies.)

Other jobs, where you’re getting paid only based on your successes, you either have a mental breakdown or you become more invested. Me? I like the challenge. I like the risk. I like working my butt off. It makes me a better asset to you than if I was getting paid, sale or no. It makes me more determined to sell.

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  1. Kristi’s avatar

    It’s not that far off from the pay structure of writers. We write, write, and write some more – for no pay at all in most cases. Sure, you can find writing jobs that pay by the hour, but it’s not the same thing as writing what you’re passionate about. You do it because you love it and hope that you make a little money in the end. It sounds like agents and writers have a lot in common. :)

  2. Thomas’s avatar

    I’m glad you seem to be coming down on the ‘it’s a terrible idea!’ side of the arguement. A system that hits new and aspiring writiers very hard at a time when self publishing has never been easier (at least electronically) would be very disruptive and messy. Especially since, as you say big earning authors would be paying much, much less. From a writers point of view, it’d come across as taxing the poor. Sherwood forest would fill up very fast.

  3. Thomas’s avatar

    Eek! Typos! We’d see a lot more of those though:)

  4. Nick Green’s avatar

    The present system is ideal – it means the writers and the agents are in exactly the same boat, and so have similar mental attitudes, the same triumphs and disappointments. My success is your success. Perfect.

  5. Vonna’s avatar

    “It’s almost impossible for me to be disappointed or bitter about something if I’ve learned from it.”

    I love this comment, Mary. This is pretty much the way I feel about the years of writing and rewriting, the critiques, rejections and delays that any writer who is serious and passionate about writing will experience. I am a better writer because of this education, so why resent it? I love writing more than ever and there is a long road ahead of me.

    Kristi brought up some great points, too, plus with all the conferences and workshops and what-have-you, a beginning writer’s (and agent’s) pay already starts in negative numbers.

  6. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    See, this is why I want to be a Cuba Gooding Jr. to your Jerry Maguire.

    You had me at “hunger and drive.”

    Let’s all go get em’!

  7. Melissa Gill’s avatar

    Hmmm, I’d definately have to give up on the idea of having an agent if they charged by the hour before publication. It’s just not in my budget. But I can certainly appreciate the sacrifices new agents make to establish themselves and their clients. I wonder what it would do to the quality of submissions if only people with the financial means were able to afford representation?

  8. Buffy Andrews’s avatar

    Mary, I appreciate your thoughtful post and agree with you completely. When I started in journalism, I worked far more hours than I ever got paid for (come to think of it, still do). Like you, I made very little money (sometimes none at all). My parents gave me an old car to drive and continued to pay for my car insurance so I could even afford to take the job. There were many nights when I had little to eat (learned to love mustard sandwiches).
    I worked as an editor during the day and at night, covered everything and anything – from political rallies to township and school board meetings to feature stories. I got as much experience as I could doing whatever needed to be done. I was hungry and driven (still am). It wasn’t about the pay for me. It STILL isn’t. It’s called passion. It’s call believing in what you do.
    Now, many years later, I have an incredible team of reporters and editors working for me. They are award-winning journalists who share my passion and commitment. My greatest love is helping them do the best work of their lives. It’s my commitment to them. I am their biggest critic but also their biggest cheerleader. That’s what I’m looking for in an agent. Someone who believes in me. Someone who wants to work hard together.
    I understand that it’s a job, but it’s a job that an agent undertakes knowingly. I didn’t go into journalism and I’m not a writer because I want to make lots of money (although that would be awesome). I do what I do because I honestly could not imagine doing anything else. It’s who I am and who I hope to be. If it were all about the money, I would have bailed a long time ago.
    We all have choices in life. And we need to make the choice that best for us. And, sadly, sometimes we have to make choices because of economics. We’re not always able to follow our dreams. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to. Anyway, sorry for rambling…

  9. Olleymae’s avatar

    “Of course, I’d much rather sell a project than sit around singing “Kum ba yah” and learning…”

    That line cracked me up :)

    I agree with Melissa Gill that the entire publishing world would be different if agents went with hourly pay–the main reason floating about my head being that debut authors without would rarely breakout.

    Thanks for all your thought provoking points!!

  10. Parker P’s avatar

    Wouldn’t it be so nice if writers got paid by the hour? Maybe when that happens agents can take an hourly wage too.

    I have to agree that the current system–for both writers and agents–weeds out those who aren’t serious and sets up a nice deal for those who finally achieve success. It’s almost like the apprentice model: while you’re learning the trade, you get paid in experience. Later, you make the money. The difference here is that there’s not as much of a likelihood that gaining experience will lead to success. But that’s the chance you take in creative fields.

  11. Joan’s avatar

    Yeah, it would be nice if authors got paid by the hour too. =D

    I wonder if agents would still be around if they were on an hourly wage. Would enough authors be able to pay to keep agents in business? Of course, the established authors could afford the agent, but not the debut authors.

    And I’m not so sure rookie agents would benefit. Would an author fork over the dough to a rookie agent? If the author could drum up enough money to pay the hourly rate, I’d think most would be inclined to pay the “established” agent. Then there’s the question of whether or not the established agent would take on the debut author (for enough money, they might).

    Plus . . .

    There are already enough scam artists out there, having an hourly rate would only make it worse. There would be some agents who would take on a book even if they knew they couldn’t sell it, just to get the money. So there would have to be some sort of money-back-guarantee . . . which wouldn’t work, because an agent CAN’T guarantee they’ll sell your book.

    Oh, the implications are giving me a headache! ;-)

    Great, thought provoking post. I love to play the “what if” game. =D

  12. Kate B.’s avatar

    Thank you for this post. The more I learn about agents, the more I appreciate them.

    I’m really, really grateful that you don’t charge by the hour. If that was the case, I probably wouldn’t even try to get an agent. I’d probably try submitting directly to the publishers that take unagented submissions and hire a lawyer for the contract stuff. I hate the thought of that. I would much prefer to have a project partner who is as invested in getting the book published as I am.

  13. Anne M Leone’s avatar

    Thanks for this post, Mary. I found the Twitter discussion really interesting, and was hoping others would post more fully on the issue.

    What I’ve been wondering is how agencies work as organizations. Do they ever prop up beginning agents with starting salaries? Share big commissions? Or is it always each agent for herself? What are the benefits, besides name recognition and colleagues, of joining an agency as opposed to starting a agent business by oneself?

  14. Jennifer’s avatar

    Enjoyed this post and also liked Buffy’s comment about newspapers. I used to work in newspaper sales, and reporters are some of the hardest working people in the business. I interviewed the managing editor once for a paper I was writing and he said reporters work long hours for less pay than they’d like and are just as likely to be criticized by the reader than praised. But they do it because it’s their passion.

    What’s that saying, “It’s the nature of the beast?”

  15. Mary’s avatar

    Anne — Some large agencies which have offices and foreign/subrights teams can take on an aspiring agent as, say, an office manager or another agent’s assistant, and pay them a salary to start. That person would have lots of duties around the office and, in a few years, might start taking on their own clients. There’s nothing wrong with this process. But if I had done this, it would’ve taken me several years to start building a list. As is, I don’t have a salary, since I have no office duties or am not assisting anyone, but I am much more free to take on clients and delve into agenting. As for starting your own agency instead of joining an agency…why?!?!?!?!?

    New agents have so much to learn and so few contacts on their own that, unless you were the most well-connected person in publishing already, I’d advise against starting your own agency. There’s one thing writers don’t think about: contracts. Each agency has negotiated deals with publishers, set precedent, and gotten preferential wording in contracts for their clients. At ABLA, we have almost 30 years of precedent and contract language with every publisher out there. We have our own agency boilerplate that is much more advantageous for the writer than a publisher’s standard boilerplate. When you start out on your own, you’d have to negotiate each deal fiercely to set precedent…and you’d have to start building those contracts from scratch. Just one reason to work with an established agency…the best-for-the-client contract language is already in place with most publishers.

    We still negotiate fiercely on the client’s behalf, but we focus on the big stuff, instead of spending months hashing out every word in the out-of-print language, for example. At ABLA, I can almost guarantee that I can reference a contract for that house with great, advantageous out-of-print language and the argument is over. So when I negotiate, I try to set new precedent or refine existing language. I don’t have to do the hard work of hacking into standard boilerplate and fighting for every clause.

  16. M Clement Hall’s avatar

    Would you pay the agent who sells your house by the hour?

  17. Smish’s avatar

    Sure, you can go the billable hours route…. if you want to be like a vanity publisher.

    Represent as many people as possible; rake in the cash.

    There’d be no reason to search for the gems in the slush, since sales wouldn’t really matter. And the J.K. Rowlings of the world, writing novels on napkins, wouldn’t be given a second glance, since they can’t pay the hourly fee.

    Nope, the current system is the only system that works. If the book doesn’t sell, neither the writer, nor the agent, gets paid. It’s a fair system. And it works.

  18. CB’s avatar

    Hello,
    I like the reference to football! I, too, sometimes, refer to sports when I write. I grew up on sports, so sports just finds its way into my writing. Money, money, money, it makes the world go round, and I often wonder why. “Utopia,” now that’s a book with some good ideas. But greed gets in the way. I’m not referring to you or your post by using the word greed. Talk of money always makes my head spin, and I just wanted to comment. Also, I felt compelled to comment after I read the words touchdowns and fumbles.

    For the writers/authors:
    Although I received invaluable advice from Mary, and some other professionals at the NJSCBWI Conference, the guest speaker said one thing that made a lot of sense to me. She said, “write the book you want to read!”
    Not that it matters, but I’ve already incorporated some of Mary’s advice from her critique of my manuscript, along with some advice from another agent. However, those words “write the book you want to read,” keep floating all around me as I write, read, and sleep. It makes all the sense in the world. Forget the $, forget the contracts, forget everything, just write the book…! And everything else will take care of itself!
    CB

  19. Anne M Leone’s avatar

    Got it. Thanks for the answer! It’s so interesting to have this insight into what the business is like.

  20. Jodi Meadows’s avatar

    Thanks for this, Mary. Reading your prediction was like reading through a synopsis for an apocalyptic novel. Chaos! Fires! Contracts scattered everywhere! (And nO PAGE NUMBERS.)

    But I think you’re right; it wouldn’t work in the long run. Not the way everyone who is in favor of fees and billable hours hopes it would.

  21. Cat Woods’s avatar

    I think billable hours would diminish the integrity of writers and agents. We would run the risk of slush pile books lining the shelves, rather than lining an agent’s trash can.

    While money doth not a writer make, it would certainly dicate the name on the spine. Eventually, the only books available for us to read would be those sponsored by authors able to afford the fees.

    It would exacerbate the “celebrity sells” mentality. And really, how many Donald Trump books can the world take?

  22. Cynthia Leitich Smith’s avatar

    Having come from a law background (and knowing many friends still in it), I think billable hours may sound much, much better in theory than they are in practice.

    That said, I’d fret such a system would have a significant adverse impact on socio-economic and racial-ethnic diversity in the field. And that’s already a major problem.

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