Literary agents are salesmen and saleswomen – there to sell your manuscript to publishers. And, as with any sales driven game, you pay them on commission. Good literary agents are massively helpful to new authors, so you shouldn’t resent paying them their fees. Here are the things you really need to know:
1) Literary agent fees
Typical commissions are 15% of all sales made in home markets, 20% on overseas sales and for sales of film & TV rights. Some agents may vary from this, but these rates are increasingly standard. So, for example, if 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 (ie: £1,500) and 20% of that $25K (ie: $5K). There would also be fees for any foreign language sales and for film/TV sales.
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
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/her share of the fruits of that deal, no matter how far down the road.
4) Are literary agents worth their fees?
Yes. A massive yes to that. A good agent will do the following for you:
- 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.
- approach the right editors at the right publishing houses. That means having impeccable contacts and staying very current. (That’s also why, by the way, nearly all agents are based in London / New York. They need to be close to the publishers. It’s only a secondary concern as to whether they live close to you.)
- run a proper auction. – that’s the salesy bit of their job, and most agents are very good at it.
- negotiate a proper contract. Publishing contracts today are typically 12-20 pages long (in the UK and US; European ones are shorter). Those contracts are full of abstruse looking terms and royalty rates which you need to be an industry insider to navigate properly. There’s no way you can do that task properly yourself.
If you want more info on how to get agents, then look here. If you want more info on how to make sure your book is good enough in the first place (only about 1 manuscript in 1000 is of the right standard), then check out these manuscript assessment services.