How Much Do Literary Agents Cost? And Are They Worth It?
One thing that puzzles a lot of writers about literary agents is their fee structure. Can you afford an agent? What do they charge? How much do literary agents actually cost?
The answer is mostly good news . . . with a little bit of bad news thrown in.
The good news is that literary agents charge absolutely nothing upfront. Not a penny. They don’t charge fees down the line either.
I’m Harry Bingham. I’ve been a professional author for twenty years. I’ve sold a lot of books and been paid a lot of money for them. And I have never once been given an invoice by my agent.
Too good to be true?
Well, there’s a catch of course, and it’s this:
Literary agents charge commission. That is, for every $1000 they get you in advances or royalties or overseas sales or film rights, they will take their cut.
If they earn nothing for you, they will charge nothing. If they sell your book for a lot of money – well, they’ll be doing well for themselves as well as you!
The brilliant thing about this arrangement is that your agent’s financial incentives are almost perfectly aligned with your own. That means, when the agent is querying different publishers, or reviewing contracts, or hassling over hiccups in the publication process, their financial goals are exactly the same as yours.
For that reason, authors tend to be very close to their literary agents . . . and are often rather less close with their editors!
1) Literary Agent Fees
Typical commission rates for literary agents
Typically commissions work as follows. 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, and
- 20% for sales of film and TV rights.
Some agents may vary from this, but these rates are increasingly standard. They are not compulsory however, and if you are bold enough to negotiate, there’s nothing wrong with that. (And indeed, top authors often don’t pay full whack. They don’t have to.)
Literary Agent Commissions: An Example
Let’s say you’re a Brit and you sell your book to:
- a UK publisher for £10,000, and
- a US publisher for $25,000
then your agent will take
- 15% of £10,000 (so £1,500), and
- 20% of that $25,000 (so $5,000).
There would also be fees for any foreign language sales and for film or TV sales. In practice, film & TV deals are relatively rare and generally a lot less lucrative than the newspapers would have you think!
When you sell a book to a publisher, you sell it for an advance against royalties. So let’s say you sell your manuscript to a publisher for $10,000, but that book goes on to be a bestseller.
You will be entitled to a per book fee on every copy sold (that’s called a royalty, and the actual calculation of those things is a bit complex.)
But, to simplify, let’s say that over the first two years of sales, you earn $110,000 in royalties.
The first $10K of that is set aside – your $10,000 upfront advance was an advance against royalties, so you can’t claim it twice.
But the other $100,000? Yep, that’s yours, and you will start to be paid that money via six-monthly instalments, depending on sales. Be aware, though, that your literary agent is also entitled to their fees on those earnings (because they brought you the deal that turned your book into a bestseller). So minus your literary agent’s fees, what you would actually get in this example is:
- 85% of your $10K advance (your agent gets the other 15%)
- 85% of your $100K royalty earnings (again, your agent gets the remaining 15%)
Again, be aware that good agents will press for the highest advance they can get away with, so you can easily, easily earn a living as a professional author and not see a royalty check from one year’s end to the next.
3) If You Move On From Your Literary Agent
If you decide to fire your agent, or otherwise move on, then your agent is still entitled to any commission due following deals that they signed.
And that makes sense. If you get rich because of a deal done by your agent, then your agent should be entitled to their share of the fruits of that deal, no matter how far down the road.
In practice, most client-agent relationships are quite long term, and if you have signed a book deal successful enough that it’s still pumping out money, then you’re not likely to split with your agent.
But still: the possibility is there, and it’ll be carefully covered in any contract or letter of engagement you have with your agent. So read that letter or contract – and if in doubt: ask!
4) Are Literary Agents Worth Their Fees?
Was that emphatic enough? I don’t think it was. So one more time, with feeling:
Yes, yes, yes!
Get an agent!
They will make you much more money than they will cost you!
It is the best career move you will ever make!
A good agent will do the following for you:
- They’ll make sure that your manuscript is right for the market. That may mean that you need to tweak the book, but those tweaks are intended to get it just right for publishers in today’s market.
- They’ll approach the right editors at the right publishing houses. That means having impeccable contacts and staying current. (That’s also why, by the way, nearly all agents are based in New York or London. They need to be close to the publishers, and those fine cities are where the publishers hang out.)
- They’ll run a proper auction. That’s the salesy bit of their job, and most agents are very good at it.
- They’ll negotiate a proper contract for you. Publishing contracts today are typically up to twenty pages long (in the UK and US, though European ones are shorter). Contracts are full of abstruse terms and royalty rates, and you need to be an industry insider to navigate them properly. It’s not a task you can do yourself.
I am a very experienced author myself and (because of my role in Jericho Writers) I am exceptionally well plugged into the wider publishing industry. But you know what? I still use an agent, because I make loads more money that way. And save myself a ton of hassle. And can draw on a ton of expertise that I couldn’t easily access any other way.
So get an agent. Pay their fees. Write well. Be happy.
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