Do you have to pay a literary agent? Fantastic agent Colleen Lindsay asked a related question on Twitter. You can find the conversation 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?
Do You Have to Pay a Literary Agent? Sales Percentage Model
Do you have to pay a literary agent? Yes, but only if your project sells. And 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. In that situation, what does a literary agent cost? Nada. (For more on this topic, check out my post that addresses what happens when your agent doesn’t sell your book.)
The Intangible Value of Learning Experiences
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.
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.
Do You Have to Pay a Literary Agent? Billable Hours Model
If publishing were to, for some crazy reason, start to answer the question “Do you have to pay a literary agent?” with the precedent of agents charging by the hour, here are the pros and cons, in my opinion. Remember, this is purely hypothetical.
Security for Agents, Financial Barrier for Writers
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. What does a literary agent cost in this scenario? A lot. Writers would 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.
The Question of Loyalty
If “Do you have to pay a literary agent?” came down to billable hours, 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.
Decreased Reward From the Sale Itself
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. When we’re looking at “What does a literary agent cost?” in this scenario, it’s a bargain for the established author, but it’s a bummer for the agent not to cash in on some of that success.
Passion Versus Job Security
So in the short term, addressing “Do you have to pay a literary agent?” with 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.
While I’m no longer a literary agent, I love to coach aspiring writers. Hire me as your book editor and we’ll navigate the publishing process together.