That pesky 15%

Dear Miss Snark,

Do literary agents get a smaller percentage from established authors (e.g. Grisham, Rowling) who are pretty much sure to be successful with whatever they produce? How about not-so-well-known authors who come up with a huge blockbuster like Dan Brown? Do the agents ride the gravy train along with the authors or do they get chiseled on their percentage when the going gets good?

Some very very big name authors (like Bill Clinton for example) don't have literary agents, they have a lawyer who negotiates for them and gets paid by the hour. MUCH cheaper, even at DC law firm billing rates.

Commissions are a matter of contract between agent and author and contracts can be amended pretty much any time the parties decide. Of course, they have to agree or it ends up in litigation.

If one of my clients becomes the next Dan Brown and makes one gazillion dollars, my contract with him says "fork over the 15% now and forevermore", and his contract with the publisher says "Miss Snark is the agent, send the dough to her".

If the client slithers over and says 'hey honey, time to get off the gravy train', we'd have a little discussion that would involve those crocodiles mentioned earlier today.

Frankly, I don't worry about this much. My clients tend to hover on the honorable side of the spectrum and most of them value the work I do. This may be because this is a smaller agency and I deal with my clients face to face (ok electron to electron heaven forefend they'd actually yanno expect to visit or anything) so there is a real relationship in place.

An interesting statistic is that a significant number of medical malpractice suits could have been avoided if the doctor had just spent more time listening to the patient and answering questions. I forget what the exact number was but it was in the 30% ballpark I think.

When relationships start to fall apart, and people start yammering about renegotiation, and reaching for the Bar Association rolodex, one of the smartest things you can do is talk face to face and really really listen.

Everything is negotiable, but not everything is agreeable.


Lu said...

I'm currently taking a publishing program, and the prof for contracts and acquisitions said throughout her career she's actually encountered very few people (agent, publisher, author) on the dirty end of low down. She said that the few get tossed out, essentially, because words gets around pretty damn fast and no one will work with them again.

michaelgav said...

Nice. The letter writer is probably looking to sign contract one, and already wondering how to cut the agent out. For my part, when I smash into Dan Brown territory, I'm getting my mother out of that double-wide, buying the lip job my sister's been hankering for, donating half a mil to Habitat for Humanity, and treating my agent (and his or her assistant) to steak for two at Peter Luger's every week I'm on the Times list. I mean, as long as we're going to fantasize, why not see yourself as generous?

Anonymous said...

So, as long as a book keeps selling you keep getting your commission? This can go on indefinitely if the book sells for decades and decades? This seems like (almost) a pyramid income - and in this case, it's a good thing (for you). Not a bad gig, especially if you enjoy the work.

12 said...

Don't for the life of me understand why someone would balk at 15% or somehow think of it as "unearned." (which seems to be the inference of the inquiry)

I have a friend who is an artist... a very good artist. His paintings sell in the six figure range at galleries in NYC and Beverly Hills. His gallery takes 50%.

...and someone would balk at 15% or... oh no, I've made an international sale and must surrender 20%!

If you can sell them yourself - more power to you. Otherwise... this is a collaborative business - writer - agent - editor - marketing - booksellers - readers...


Noel Lynne Figart said...

Well, it's not as easy a gig as all that.

The average novel is NOT in the DAN Brown range, after all! Remember that the average income for a writer of fiction is less than 30K. Plenty of novels don't even earn out their advances.

For my own part, that 15% seems like a decent deal. I'm not much of a salesman and don't mind hiring someone who is.

If she's good enough at sales that she makes us both rich, I am NOT going to complain!

Greta LaGarbeaux said...

Years ago, Esquire magazine did a wonderful issue all about the life of writers where they asked a ton of excellent writers things like what were the worst mistakes they'd made (#1 answer: buying more house than you can afford when you make your first big sale). One section was all about publishing biz horror stories, as in chiseling, cheating, short-shrifting, whatever. John Sayles had the most memorable answer. He said, basically, "I've been working in the movie business for 20 years, so book publishing seems perfectly gentlemanly and civilized by comparison." So, you got a deal with a good agent? Count your blessings.

garry p said...

Your following quote is a little gem and sums up so many relationships (both professional and personal).

"Everything is negotiable, but not everything is agreeable."

garry p

Yasmine Galenorn said...

I'm happy to give my agent her hard-earned 15%. She encourages me, reassures me (when I need it, I'm not a clingy author), and makes damned good deals. When/If I break out of the midlist range, I want her right there by my side, negotiating and helping me navigate the murky waters of publishing. And I've told her as much.


truthteller said...

I asked the question out of mere curiosity. I would never ever in a million years try to cut Miss Snark out of a single dime. At the post-Oscar bash she'll be at the head table, right next to Mr. Cloony, Killer Yapp chafing under his new diamond-sapphire collar.

Anonymous said...

Some agents do, indeed, accept less commmision when taking on a "name" author. My agent confessed to me that she took less than 15 percent for repping a bestselling author. And of course there was a time when the commission rate was only 10 perecent.