Monday, May 12, 2014

Paying an agent upfront

I am a freelance editor and ghostwriter. As part of my service, I help my clients pitch their books to literary agents.

One client just asked me a question—and I admit I don't know the answer. I was hoping you could advise me.

Is it possible for my client to hire an agent to work on his behalf? In effect, could my client offer to pay an agent an upfront amount of money—say $20,000.

The understanding would be that the agent would make a good-faith effort to represent my client for six months—and if a publishing and/or movie deal were achieved, then the agent would make the usual percentage on royalties.

If no deal were achieved, then the agent retains the upfront amount for his effort.

I know we live in a changing world, so although I initially thought this was not a viable idea—I do wonder if agents today would be willing to be hired to represent a writer.

After I got over my initial reaction (insulted rage***) I started to actually think about this.

I'm 100% sure you can find an agent to do this.

That said, why would you want an agent who's willing to gouge his/her clients? Even if it's voluntary?

And what does spending all that extra money get them?

Well, now you get to the heart of the matter: that kind of "retainer" implies the client gets more than usual service. They come first among the pack. They get first dibs on my time.

And that's why you'll never get me to agree to this: you can't buy a position in line.  You absolutely can not buy my time or my favor.  You get it for free, but you can't buy it.

That said, I'm sure you'll find some takers. They're probably not the agents you want though.

***the insulted rage was at the "good faith effort" as though you might need to pay upfront to get that.  I'm hoping my clients believe they are getting my BEST efforts on their behalf without paying me a dime till the book actually sells.


Anonymous said...

This seems like paying someone to "like" me (or rather my work). Thanks, but no thanks. You either like the writing, or you don't. I would rather be agentless, and keep working to have someone rep me based on the fact they read something I've written and love it so much they would jump through hoops of fire, or put themselves in a shark tank to get their hands on it.

Yeah, and then there' all that other stuff. 20K client might expect the agent to not only jump hoops of fire, and subject themselves to the shark tank, but that the agent would answer the phone the moment they call, respond to every email within 30 mins or less, and expect a daily update on progress of the ms. Even if they said they wouldn't. Yeah. Right.

Artemis Grey said...

I feel as though any writer willing to pay an agent (or try to monetarily secure preference) is someone who's in it 'for the glory' who just wants to make money themselves. That, or they're someone who happens to be wealthy enough that for most of their life, they've been able to 'fix' any situation they've been put into with money.

If they aren't able to get an agent by querying, its their writing they need to look at, not pursuing this 'buy an agent' scheme.

And I'm not saying this from the security of someone who's agented. I'm right there in the trenches (at that stage in fact where I'm fighting against the 'this will NEVER happen for me Swamps of Sadness' feelings) but I'm constantly reminding myself that if agents en masse are returning 'almost' rejections then something with my story still isn't quite right. It's not them, it's me.

Dane Zeller said...

How many books could an agent pitch to publishers under such a contract before her word became worthless?

Not many, I would hope.

Stacy said...

Totally with Artemis. It all comes down to the writing.

DeadlyAccurate said...

What counts as a "good faith effort?" Is the agent violating that when they make a tweet about going to the movies? Are they breaking their agreement when they spend most of a week brokering a huge deal for another client and have no time for the prepaid client?

Paying up front doesn't guarantee you a book sale, since the agent isn't the one buying the book, and they can't force the editors to do so. Unless part of that $20,000 is to cover the cost of a gun and balaclava, and there's only, like, three agents who will agree to that. I'm sworn to secrecy regarding their identities.

Write. Edit. Submit. Repeat as necessary. You'll either land an agent or you won't. You'll either sell a book or you won't. All you can do is your best.

Colin Smith said...

This sounds to me like the difference between the marketing guy who's paid sell vacuum cleaners, and the person who tells her friends about the amazing new Dyson she's been using for the last week. Both may truly appreciate the product for all its merits, but which is going to put their heart-and-soul into talking about it? Which will sound most convincing?

As others have said, I'd sooner have an agent that will bend an editor's ear for an hour about how good my book is because s/he really loves it over an agent who's paid to sell it. Any day.

jenny said...

Wowzas. If I had a finished book and was just sitting around trying to figure out how to spend $20k I'd try my luck with agents the old fashioned way and then, if nothing worked out, self publish high-roller style - killer cover art, major publicist, the works. Because, really, if you are willing to drop that kind of cash you should be investing it in your own self, not on an agent with questionable scruples.

LynnRodz said...

First, if you have to pay an agent $20,000 to take you on, then your writing must not be very good. Or as Artemis said, you must be use to "buying" what you want instead of working for it.

Second, if an agent accepts money when your writing is not that good, is that the kind of agent someone would want? Not me.

Third, why not do what most writers do? Write and rewrite until your writing is good enough to find an agent and a publisher!

Otherwise, go self-publish and use the $20,000 on something useful, or as Jenny suggested.

Joseph S. said...

I'm going to disagree. Nothing I read in the letter suggests the writer wants more time or attention than other clients, or that her book is bad. What I'm reading she's saying is that she is willing to pay an agent up front to take a chance on her book, or at least to take a harder look at the book and not to discard that query letter quite so fast. I don't think she wants an agent who doesn't believe in the book.

Elissa M said...

@Joseph Snoe

It doesn't matter if the writer does or doesn't want more time or attention for their money. The concept is totally wrong.

Agents don't get paid to take on clients. They get paid a percentage of their clients' sales. Period.

It makes absolutely no sense for a writer with a salable book to PAY just to become an agent's client--especially if they're going to then pay the usual percentage off the sales.

I don't even want to get into the amount mentioned here. As others have said, that money would be better spent on self-pubbing and promoting said book.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Ahhh . . . the "real lawyer" speech so many public defenders get.

"If I just pay you, will I get a better outcome?"

How about another $20K and just pay the editor at the publisher as well?

I can see the legitimacy behind the question. Just cut the middleman of the query process to get a "real agent."

To channel my inner Grumpy Cat . . . NO!


PS: my word verification is "the gin gospel." I think that is the name of my next band.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Pay ME 20 grand and I'll answer your phone calls in three minutes, try really really hard to get you a publishing deal and an option for the film, hell I'll even walk your dog and wash your back...well maybe. If you live in the city I ain't pickin' up your dog poop and if you live in the country a coyote is gonna eat your dog anyway.

Just me said...

There are plenty of agents that would be delighted with this arrangement. You can find lists of them here:

Adam Heine said...


*googles how to become an agent*

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I ask the writer: "Are you going to pay people to read your book when it's published?"

Who would do anything for you if you paid them 20k upfront? There's no stakes, no thrill, just cash in hand. As that person, I would just sit on my lazy arse and wait for another sucker.

Personally I would trash the manuscript, invest the 20 grand in books (including some on writing craft), in writers conferences and mostly on plane tickets to places no one ever visited around the globe. Like who ever writes about Prato. Where's that?

Then after a year of flogging around the planet maybe the writer/investor would think differently.

I'm not saying their manuscript is worseless. Don't get me wrong.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Any time an author pays for a service beyond its normal fee structure, I hear echoes of the dreaded V word. Because that's what it becomes.

Karen said...

I think the agent's reputation is at stake here.

An agent usually agrees to take on a client because they love that client’s work and they think they can sell it. The publishing houses they’re trying to sell to know this, and they come to respect that agent's opinion.

What happens then when the agent takes the money? (I'm assuming they take it because they wouldn't take the client on otherwise.) They either have to send a book they don’t believe in to publishers who don't expect it from them, effectively lowering their own standing in those publishers' eyes. Or they send it out to second-rate publishers and get a reputation for being unprofessional and a poor agent.

Either way, the agent loses big time.

If the author wants a good agent, paying them is a bad way to do it. It guarantees they get a mediocre one.

Anonymous said...

New thought.

I have actually heard of someone doing this. The guy wanted his non-fiction book published not to launch an authorial career but to give him cred in his day job. He was savvy enough to know that self-pubbing wouldn't accomplish this, and also that the book wouldn't sell for enough to be worth an agent's while.

So he offered the agent a smaller sum than is being randomly discussed, I think it was $10k, to get him legit publication. The book ended up selling with not much of an advance, but it did sell. Guy was happy. Agent was paid. No harm to her reputation as far as I know.

It's not something you can go around proposing to agents you don't know, and it's obviously not a move for a professional writer, but it did happen and the world didn't end.

Jenz said...

We're talking about someone who's already hired a ghostwriter. That pretty well says it all.

Anonymous said...

...and then then agent pays the publisher $20,000 to publish the book? And the publisher pays 20 grand per reader to buy the book...?

PS I'm with everyone above - $20,000 for 6 months! What the heck did I get a degree for?!

If you want to last, there's only one way up: Quality.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I'm wondering, what is the client expecting for their $20K that they can't get from an agent who traditionally takes a percentage after the sale?

I smell desperation and inexperience.