Literary agents and fees: what to know

Literary agents are there to sell your manuscript to publishers, are massively helpful to new authors. As with any sales driven game, they’re paid on commission.

Any agent asking for reading fees steer clear of, as we’ve written, but agents’ fees of course come from somewhere.

Here are the things you really need to know:

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1) Literary agent fees

Typical commissions are 15% of all sales made in home markets, 20% on overseas sales and for sales of film and TV rights. Some agents may vary from this, but these rates are increasingly standard. Say you’re a Brit and you sell a book to a UK publisher for £10,000, and to a US publisher for $25,000, then your agent will take 15% of £10K (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.

2) Royalties

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. Once your royalties have ‘earned out’ that initial advance, you’ll start to be entitled to six-monthly royalty cheques, depending on sales. Your literary agent is also entitled to their fees on those earnings.

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 his or her share of the fruits of that deal, no matter how far down the road.

4) Are literary agents worth their fees?

Yes. 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 London or New York. They need to be close to the publishers.)
  • 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.

If you want more on how to get agents, then look at our advice pages. If you want to know how to be sure your book is good enough, you may like to explore our manuscript assessment services.

Good luck.

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