Agents Won't Survive Just By Charging a Higher Commission

Last year, I wrote a piece in Writer’s Digest (September 2009) about the future role of agents. I had three key points:

  • Agents need to partner and focus on the long-term goals of an author’s career rather than a specific book sale. (Though, as this post will discuss, the current agenting model does not support this.)

Victoria Strauss over at Writer Beware wrote a lengthy post addressing the issue of whether agents are now underpaid at the 15% commission rate, given how much work agents are expected to do aside from make a sale.

She ultimately recommends that agents could/should charge 20%, and allows that agencies may legitimately start offering fee-based services (for non-clients), as well as publishing arms.

The 20% commission rate isn’t going to solve a thing. It’s like putting a Band-aid on a gushing wound. It won’t save anyone whose business is at risk.

Regarding services and publishing operations: I couldn’t agree more, though I think the distinction between clients and non-clients is going to evaporate FAST.

The amount of money that’s floating to books (and to content in general) is diminishing. That’s because there’s a TON of supply, and not so much demand. There will be less money to go around for all, but probably just as many people will be interested in writing and authorship.

Publishing cannot possibly sustain the current status quo.

And that current status quo is: Agents can only get paid when they make a sale, and that is the only way they should get paid.

This has to change if the role of the agent is going to have any value or meaning in the future for authors (except for those bestselling authors, whose royalty checks will presumably continue to fund the old model).

Either agents provide a valuable service for non-bestselling authors, or they don’t.

I think they do. And as Strauss mentions, you can find agents now who are launching alternative models for serving authors outside of the traditional commission relationship. Check Keller Media or Diversion Books (Scott Waxman). You’re going to see more of this. A lot more.

Agents are ideally positioned to be career advisers/managers, or professional consultants. Their role will change, and how clients/authors pay them will change. And as long as transparency is maintained, agents need the leeway to run their business in new, innovative ways, without being unfairly labeled as an illegitimate operation, or as taking advantage of writers.

Undoubtedly there will be much confusion in the years ahead as things transform, and writers will need as much education as ever to form the right partnerships for their career. But agents need to be empowered and given room to innovate as much as the authors.

We can’t develop future business models based on fear and protectionism.

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11 thoughts on “Agents Won't Survive Just By Charging a Higher Commission

  1. D. G. Hudson

    Interesting to hear your comments, Jane. I follow the Writer Beware site and I was shocked also at how many people were all for giving up more of their income, without thinking through the consequences. Once a precedent has been set, it’s difficult to remove the fallout that comes afterward.

    I do not think that writers should bear the brunt of the contortions that the publishing industry is undergoing. The experience/adjustments should be shared by all who stand to profit from the writer-agent-publisher relationship.

  2. Lynnda Ell

    Jane, you make a very good point. Agents do need the leeway and flexibility to adjust their business models. I think a positive example of that flexibility is the way Rachelle Gardner and Writer’s Digest have partnered to present webinars.

    The probability of agents who change their business models being "unfairly labled" is close to 100%. Even at this point in the business model transition for publishing companies, those not labeled as "traditional" are lumped together as "vanity press." (Which is strange since the "need" for real vanity presses is probably lower now than at any time in the past.)

    You, however, provide the most viable solution: education. That’s why people like you, with sound advice and good business sense, will always have an audience.

    Be blessed,


  3. Jane Friedman

    For all: As Reena comments, "You can only squeeze so much out of the ones who have little." Publishers will be consolidating or closing up shop in the next few years (similar to what we’re already seeing with newspapers and magazines). If you’re in the publishing/writing business to earn a living, then best of luck to you — that’s a game only for the extremely resilient and hard-nosed.

    @Cyndy – See Scott’s perspective above, which I agree with 100%. To add onto that: The industry is changing so much that many authors will not need an agent to be meaningfully published at the start of their careers. Writers will have to prove themselves out, almost like entrepreneurs starting up a business, before there can be any benefit from an agent’s involvement.

    You can read more of my thoughts on these issues here:

    Kindle, iPhone, iPad: Exploring the Impact for Writers & Authorship

    What Does the Future Hold for Writers?

    5 Ways Writers & Book Publishers Need to Embrace Change NOW

  4. Scott Nicholson

    A good agent is worth 15 percent–if the job is to sell to a handful of New York publishers and it is successful. If it’s anything else, and something a writer can do just as easily, or a freelance editor can do just as easily, then in the new era, more writers are going to wonder why they need an agent at all.

    Agents with packaging, html coding, or comprehensive editing and formatting skills may evolve and do fine. Those with connections to resources writers can’t easily tap–foreign, multimedia, and film–are also very valuable. An agent who serves as tireless, long-term career advocate instead of a roadblock will also thrive.

    Agents who merely ride trends and know what’s hot and who (in the tiny NY pool) is buying what become less important because a writer can simply upload a file and learn it directly from readers, and at 70 percent of gross. Basically, good agents will still be good and bad agents will find something else to do. I don’t see a real problem.

    Scott Nicholson

  5. BookMD

    Thank you so much for speaking some sense to this issue!

    Since comments at the other forum were specifically directed away from "agent bashing," there is an inordinate amount of support for the ridiculous idea of raising agent commissions to 20% across the board, not to mention a lot of sheer ignorance. Some commenters actually use the argument that writers have second jobs, so they can afford to pay more. Say what?

    I wish the concept of merit could be addressed, since not all agents are created equal. Some deserve 20% or more. Some should not be in business. Getting 15% of virtually every check that crosses the agent’s desk – advance money, income from sub-rights, money from e-book sales, income from foreign rights, movie rights, you name it – intrinsically rewards hard work and professionalism. These dollars are all taken out of the pockets of writers, who can least afford to be constantly hemorrhaging what little money they get. Why does EVERYTHING always have to come off the backs of the writers – without whom agents would not exist?

  6. Cyndy Aleo

    It may be broken, but how will it be fixed? If it’s billable hours, only writers who HAVE money will be published. How many authors would never have been published if they had to pay an agent before they ever made a book sale?

  7. Reena Jacobs

    I know agents work hard for their money. However, when I read the idea of jacking put the rates to 20%, Yikes! went through my head. Why? Because authors work hard also, and most get very small return for their efforts. I don’t see how battering the little guy is going to help.

    Putting the pressure on the authors may produce a trickle more $$ for a short time. Eventually, I think the model would break if rates continued to increase. You can only squeeze so much out of the ones who have little. Publishers want to give less and agents want to take more. I imagine once the profits become too insignificant, authors will set aside the traditional route of going through agents and just rely on alternatives they can do on their own–ePublishing and/or print publishers who still accept unsolicited submissions. Though authors may sell less, the royalties may end up to be more without having to deal with all the cuts.

    Agents are great. But at some point, authors as a whole might just reach their bottom line also in the cost benefit analysis. Will the rise stop at 20%, 25% 50%? Really…where is the cut off?