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There seems to be a great deal of confusion about how much literary agents charge.
Like agents in other businesses, agents do not charge any up-front fees. Agents earn money based on their results. We call this commission.
Let’s say you employ an agent and they sell your work for a grand. You would get 85% and the agent would keep 15%. Furthermore, they will continue to get paid if your writing earns in other formats or territories.
For example, if you are a novelist, your agent would earn if your novel is sold to a publisher. It is unlikely your book would be sold to one publisher for the entire world. Your agent would first try to sell to a domestic publisher, for which they would earn a commission. Then a further commission if it is sold to a publisher in another territory.
Typically international sales are higher than domestic sales. And what of screenplay or stage play rights? These can be sold too, at trade shows like the London or Frankfurt book fairs.
1.The Agent/Author Partnership
Gertrude Stein, the art dealer who discovered Picasso in his Parisian garret and launched him in New York once said: “Every vine needs a wall to grow on”.
This is a great analogy for the Agent/Author relationship. You see – both the agent and author share the same goal: if the book doesn’t sell, no one makes any money. In an ideal agent/author relationship, the author would pitch ideas to their agent to see what the commercial prospects where.
And vice versa. The Agent might note a demand for a type of story not serviced at the moment and engage with the author on creative ideas to satisfy this market.
Agents fees do vary depending on their experience and the calibre of their network. Agents fees can also vary according the amount of assistance the author needs with their own finance.
Here is a typical fee structure. Your literary agent will take:
- 15% of all sales made in home markets (ie: the US if you are working with a US agent; the UK if you are working with a British one.)
- 20% on overseas sales
- 20% for sales of film and TV rights
Literary agent commissions: an example
Let’s say you’re a British author and you sell your book to:
- a UK publisher for £10,000, and
- a US publisher for $25,000
Your agent’s commission will be:
- 15% of £10,000 (£1,500)
- 20% of that $25,000 ($5,000).
There would also be fees for any other types of sales, for example film rights.
A book sale is structured similar to a film sale. The publisher, like the film distributor, pays an advance against royalties.
If you sell your book to an American publisher for $25,000, your agent would receive a 15% royalty, or $3,750.
If the total royalties from sales of the book in America are $25,000 or less, there is no more money owing you or your agent.
If however, you work generates, let’s say $125,000, the deal works like this:
The first $25,000 has already been advanced leaving a net royalty to you of $100,000 of which your agent would keep %15 or $15,000.
Agents typically push for the highest advance possible, for the obvious reason that it protects both interests in the creative work.
As you can see, a good agent is worth every single cent of commission. A good agent has a strong sense of the market, has good high level contacts and also has the ability to see the commercial angle on the author’s creative offering. An agent is the wall the writer/vine grows on.
3.Moving on from your agent
Sometimes you may want to move on to another agent. Remember that they are still entitled to fees and commissions on royalties and deals they have already set up.
Like any commercial relationship, the agent/author relationship can be complicated. When you secure an agent get a lawyer to look over the contract to make sure you understand the financial implications. It’s money well spent.
Run a mile from any agent who demands an upfront fee.