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.