Thursday, January 16, 2020

slave labor in the manuscript mines

Longtime reader, infrequent commenter, but a twitter thread from an agent sparked a conversation with several writing friends of mine and I knew we needed your expertise.

A literary agent recently said that agents will often only get a small percentage of the 15% the agency gets paid. She gave conflicting figures, anywhere from 2/3rds to a meager 5% (which I'm assuming is for agents who are salaried). That seems like agents who aren't salaried are basically working for free, even when they do make sales. Does that seem accurate? 

I'm not fully informed on the various ways agencies pay staff, or affiliated agents.
I do know it's common for an agency to take a percentage of any earnings to cover overhead.

When you say "meagre 5%" my guess is they meant not 5% of the 15% but 1/3 of the 15%. That is the agency takes 10% and the agent takes 5%

$1000 x 15% is $150.
5% of that is $7.50
The accounting alone would require more time than it's worth.

But this is something a writer need NOT be concerned with.
The agent isn't an indentured servant.
If the agreement on splits is onerous, or the job description requires more work than is being fairly compensated, the agent is at liberty to decline the offer, or change jobs.

Yes there are stories circulating on the internet about agents being exploited but honestly, if you can't figure out how to get out of a bad job, or negotiate a better deal you shouldn't be guiding people's careers.

And if you choose to stay in a less than ideal situation, don't bitch about it. That's just bad form.

As to your comment about agents working for free: All of us who are non-salaried work for free until you get paid.

That's the biggest reason I carefully consider the saleability of projects I take on. I need to sell them. Yes, there are projects of my heart, but by and large I need to not just love your work, I need to believe I can sell it.

Any questions?


Timothy Lowe said...

The last paragraph is my most important takeaway: your book can't just be deemed a decent read, or even a good book. Your agent has to see a path to placing it in the market. Take heart, writers. This is a high hurdle we've set for ourselves. Keep jumping.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

When you say "can sell" you mean for currency not body parts, right? Of course, you do. I guess it takes a good long while before an agent can have enough well and reselling clients to be able to live comfortable on residuals, huh? Probably longer than it takes most writers to be able to make a full-time living from writing.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"Yes, there are projects of my heart..." I have a few of them too.

Colin Smith said...

Janet, I assume the "heart" projects are ones you may or may not make money off of but feel compelled to represent and push as much as you can? That would make sense to me. If you feel passionately about something, you are more inclined to take a risk. But it's a calculated risk. You're not going to the soup kitchen if it fails; you have (and have had) enough successes to let you to take a punt on some risky ones.

And, btw, re. yesterday's post, I know I was quoting you, or at least riffing off a Janet quote ("You're not the beggar at the banquet"). Credit where credit's due! :)

Elissa M said...

"Yes there are stories circulating on the internet about agents being exploited but honestly, if you can't figure out how to get out of a bad job, or negotiate a better deal you shouldn't be guiding people's careers."

That's the line that resonates with me. I want an agent who can manage her own career well before she tries to take on that of anyone else.

S.P. Bowers said...

I've seen a lot of agents talking about how hard agenting is. I respect that it's hard, and I'm glad agents can be honest about it. But some agents have crossed the line into whining and complaining, and that is all that their social media consists of. I'm not sure they're the kind of agent I want if they're constantly saying 'it's so hard I don't know how long I'll be able to do this" or things similar to that. Or am I being to sensitive?

Colin Smith said...

S.P.: Personally, if I were watching agents on Twitter with a view to adding them to my query list, I'd raise an eyebrow at comments like "Oh, this is so hard... I don't know how long I'll be able to continue..." That would make me concerned for my career with that person. I'm fine with agents telling me how hard it is as an agent, and, as I understand it, starting out as an agent can be very rough. Lots of eating Ramen, long hours, and side hustles. But I want an agent who is prepared to go through the hardships to build successful careers for both of us, not someone who's going to bail when the going gets tough.

Am I being too sensitive? :)

Leslie said...

No, Colin, you are NOT being too sensitive. Your work is like an extension of you and you want the best for it. That means you want someone who fights for it as hard as you do.

My agent was all rah-rah about my book (proposal -- nonfiction) for much of the time. But after ~30 rejections from (mostly) major publishers, he soured on it.

Even though nearly all of the rejections mentioned that it was "too niche" or "too narrow" for them, a few (maybe 2 or 3) toward the end were critical of the writing in my sample chapter. Suddenly he decided it wasn't all that good, but that I should try smaller publishers on my own.

Fast forward nearly a year - and after a rewrite and doubling in size of my main sample chapter, I wound up with contracts from 3 publishers -- including a well-regarded smallish publisher and a pretty well-known university press.

Panda in Chief said...

This conversation reminds me a little bit about the reaction when I tell people that galleries take 50% of the proceeds of all sales. After they pick their jaws upon the floor, I remind them of what that 50% buys me:
1: as with literary agents, they don't make money till I make money
2. It gets me a full-time sales staff, insurance on my work, display space rental, & keeping the lights on.
3. I don't have to talk endlessly to people who have no interest in buying my work and only want to know how long it took me to paint that.

An agent that works for an agency has certain benefits that a solo practitioner doesn't. A place to hang their hat (that the agency is presumably paying for) possibly a guaranteed salary, and maybe even health and vacation benefits. It stands to reason that the agency gets a cut of the 15 % that most writers pay their agent.

I've become wary of involving myself with galleries that don't need to make money. What better motivation to sell my work, than needing to make an income for themselves?

MA Hudson said...

Good point, Panda - if an agent is hungry for success, then they'll throw everything into selling your work.

Leslie - CONGRATULATIONS on the publishing contracts! Good on you for persevering, goes to show that hard work pays off! Let us know when your book comes out.

Beth Carpenter said...

Congratulations, Leslie. Way to go!

Leslie said...

Thank you, MA and Beth!

My point was that in order to sell your book, it has to be put out there by someone who loves it and is willing to put his/her all into it. Even if that winds up being you

AJ Blythe said...

I had no idea some agents were salaried. I assumed all were commission based. This is probably the wrong question to throw out there, but would salaried agents work as hard to sell a book as a commissioned agent?

Four lights said...

So how do new agents get started- how do they pay the bills before their first sale?