1.04.2007

Nitwits are surpassing bamboo as the fastest growing brainless life form

Hi Miss Snark,

I have a question that will make you want to punch me in the mouth. I remember when the commission for literary agents was 10 percent. It was so ingrained that agents were known as ten-percenters. Then, about 8 or 10 years ago, you guys raised your commission to 15 percent. At the same time, authors’ royalties were dropping. Deep-discount royalties used to be a rarity, and now they’re the norm.

How do you justify your humongous 15 percent commission?

What the hell are deep discount royalties?

If by some chance you mean royalties from deeply discounted sales, like those to WalMart and Costco, the sales outlet is called that but it's not the royalty rate.

I'm pretty sure royalty rates haven't dropped much, if at all, but then I'm not an old fart kvetching about how much prices have gone up since the good old days.

Feel free to not send me a query letter if you think I'm not worth it. In fact, hang out your shingle for 10% and see what you can do. Keep me posted on your progress.

49 comments:

mutegi said...

For the record, you can actually do a lot of fun and impressive things with bamboo. I haven't actually tried cutting and shaping (not too mention lashing) a nitwit, but I have a sneaky suspicion it might be illegal

Anonymous said...

Did Tom Clancy get loose on the internet again?

Anonymous said...

Ten percent isn't even a decent tip for semi-okay service in a restaurant. How could it possibly be enough for an agent, that -- you know -- SELLS your book?

Curious minds want to know.

I know there are plenty of writers who represent themselves and do just fine. However, for the far majority of us, an agent has the right contacts, knows all the ins and outs, and is worth every penny of what they earn. If not more.

I only hope when, and if, I find an agent, she/he is as savvy as Miss Snark.

Also, I think the question in itself was fairly rude. Another person who should buy a clue, perhaps?

ORION said...

When I see how hard my agent worked to sell my novel (just posted today on publisher marketplace). She got together an auction in a week. I saw how hard the foreign rights dept. worked to sell to 4 countries and counting in 2 weeks.
Well.
Words cannot express my appreciation but money can.
She's welcome to it.
It gripes me to hear writers complain about how much commission agents make without a clue what they do.
For example: a writer I know sold to a publisher first, without an agent, and sold world rights instead of just North American.
That makes a HUGE difference in the money an author earns.
Get a grip guys.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to point out that art galleries take a 50% commission on work sold.

Be glad you're a writer, not a painter.

Word Doctor said...

Snark, how in the hell do you get these guys (figuratively speaking) so afraid? To start a post with "...make you want to punch me in the mouth" is F'n classic! You've become the "Godfather" of publlishing: "I'm gonna charge you a commission you can't refuse."

I can't believe these folks who just don't want to pay to get their stuff out there. Like there aren't a shitload of talented writers who would sign on for 25 percent!

Shot o' Jack to ya.

Matt said...

Reading today's posts, I'm inclined to think the full moon has brought out the crazies.

Anonymous said...

15% seems fair to me, especially since an agent will get you far more $ than you would get w/o an agent--

On the "times have changed" note, I have another question, Miss Snark. Why aren't paperback rights generally sold separately anymore? I know an author who (in the 70s) sold a book for a small advance in hardback, it took off and he made a six-figure advance in paperback rights. I heard something similar happened with Stephen King's "Carrie," too. Why is this no longer done?

Cathy in AK said...

A big problem with bamboo, like nitwittery, is that it can run rampant. We found digging it up and burning the infected area worked best. Hmmm......

Steve S, said...

Well, I have to say. Miss Snark is astoundingly gracious to even answer a question like that, let alone post it on her blog.

I got into writing at a time when agents were not welcomed in publishing the way they are today. One editor (can’t remember who) said that an agent is to a publisher as a knife is to a throat. Maybe Miss Snark knows who said that. The reason is, an agent gets the author more $$$$. Why the hell not share found money? I did not and do not have an agent and love my editors. But I never saw a dime in advance money and my royalty checks were always mailed out at thirty seconds before midnight on the ninetieth day after the end of the fiscal year in which my books were published (which was always a year or so after the MS was accepted – a year after I started writing it.) Sorry for the long-ass sentence. I am rooting for you, Miss Snark. The contract said thirty seconds more and they would be in breach. That’s the deal you get when you go solo.

IF MY EDITOR IS READING THIS, I LOVE YOU GUYS. But authors need agents. I would not even submit to lulu.com without an agent after reading this blog.

If there is anyone in the world who has not read Robert Ringer’s book, HOW TO WIN BY INTIMIDATING EVERYBODY (or something to that effect) the same cinchiness takes place in the real estate business. As in: “Thank you very much for selling my house. What? You want to be paid? For what?”

It is enough Miss Snark does not ask for pay to write this great blog.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

ROFLOL...congratulations Miss Snark...

"...old fart kvetching..."

You gave me the first liquid on my screen for the new year!

LadyBronco said...

I will be very very grateful when the time comes to pay an agent his/her 15%.

overdog said...

I don't know, word doctor, I'll bet this nitwit would be willing to pay a vanity press to get his book out there. That way s/he could keep all the proceeds and not have to share 15% with a lousy old agent.

Congratulations, orion. Shots o' jack all around, with bamboo stir sticks! (I know shots don't need stir sticks, but it's a festive occasion.)

Eric Riback said...

I agree that 15% seems fair and reasonable. Was it indeed 10% back when, and when/'how did it change.

Am I right that the reason hard and soft are now sold together is that it used to be separate publishers and now with conglomeration all the majors publish hard and soft.

overdog said...

And I believe ten per-centers are the agents that represent actors.

Katie said...

To this poster's credit, they do use the phrase "punch me in the mouth".

Anonymous said...

I think it was a sound question, preceded by a courteous bow. Miss Snark provided a useful, if not thoroughly convincing response. What seems a little creepy here is all the ass-kissers rushing to assuage Miss Snark's feelings. Take out your pencils, pencil-necks, and note the following three points:

1. Asking a service provider how they justify raising their rates is something we do every day. There's nothing rude or shocking about it.
2. Miss Snark seems fully equiped to defend herself, should someone actually get rude or shocking.
3. Miss Snark doesn't accept query letters from bloggers, so stand up straight and wipe your noses.
4. Miss Snark probably will take designer gin however. So there's a more profitable exercise to pursue.

Sean Lindsay said...

I'd rather hand over (or, more to the point, not receive) 15% of $10k+ than quibble over an additional 5% of nothing.

If the agent's efforts result in a 15% increase in your advances/royalties over time, then you're ahead. Especially if the alternative is moving to New York and studying contracts law.

The author of the email might want to look out the window and see that most big publishers are not taking unagented submissions anymore - therefore, the burden and cost of the slushpile is now on agents. They can't (ethically) charge reading fees, so they must pass this cost onto their only revenue source.

I doubt that anyone really likes this situation, but there are more important things to worry about, such as writing a sellable book in the first place.

Luc2 said...

Wow, Miss Snark didn't go for the mouth, but straight for the jugular (and she should).
I'm sorry, but bitching about the rates agents ask is a sure way to get a harsh reaction.

tomdg said...

I blame computers.

Have you ever tried writing anything on a typewriter? Back then, writing took real dedication. Now any idiot with a PC can type 60,000 words and think they have a novel worthy of an agent. Loads more people are writing books - are more books being bought? I bet the poor agents have to spend more and more of their time reading through piles of rubbish in order to find the one or two things which might just help pay the mortgage.

Never envy someone their salary until you know what they have to do for it. Anyone who's willing to read through 100 crapometer-style queries a week every week of their working life deserves every percentage point they can get.

Kim Stagliano said...

My husband was running a large rep group sales organization when business was tough for his company. His answer to slumping sales? RAISE commission rates for the reps. The bean counters' answer? SLASH commission rates. Which method encourages sales? I've been wondering if I could offer my (future)agent an extra couple of points as an additional incentive/reward in selling my work. (After he makes me an offer of course, not before!) Why shouldn't a strong agent make more money than someone who is fair to middling? Wouldn't it be nice to know his/her partnership with an author was based on clear cut goals for success and confidence in his ability. 15% seems rather low for the amount of time and energy involved in nurturing a small number of authors. But I'm just a newbie dork.... Man I hope that changes soon and I can be a published dork!

Miss Snark said...

Don't offer to give an agent more money. Ever. 15% is the rate. That's it.

I have people offering to take no advance, give me all the money, yadda yadda, and the only thing that happens is I think "this guy needs a clue refill".

Show your appreciation in other ways.

Anonymous said...

It's a legitimate question and it wasn't answered. The correct answer is that agents charge more because they can. More money for them, fewer dollars for authors. It's pretty simple math, people.

Kim Stagliano said...

By writing a book that sells a lot of copies and makes everyone happy? That works. Clue properly digested. Thanks.

Word Doctor said...

Wow, someone's (almost) got some balls! Hey anonymous...I hear your point:

"What seems a little creepy here is all the ass-kissers rushing to assuage Miss Snark's feelings."

I am not trying to lessen or pacify the Snark's feelings, I assure you. Did you really intend to use "assuage" here?

The irony of your post concerning ass-kissing is pretty funny. Maybe that's why you are afraid to reveal your true identity. And yes, I know I have poker chips in my eyes, but follow the link. "Pencil-necks"...that's a good one!

Have a nice day.

Anonymous said...

its very rude to call someone a nitwit.

please be nicer in the new year miss snark.

Anonymous said...

15% is becoming the norm here in the UK too. But my agent is one of the most respected in the UK, a member of industry bodies, with some big-name authors and also a reputation for finding new stars. She only charges 10%, so it can be done.

On the other hand, she's super-nice, super-efficient and super-successful. A good agent who is less than super at any of these might think it better to charge 15%, and so afford to keep his/her client list to a mangegeable size.

Mark said...

"Deep discount" could mean, say, 8 percent of the net instead of the cover price, but this is unlikely with mainstream publishers. When Barnes & Noble slashes the price online, one could think the royalty would go down as well. I think not though.

C.E. Petit said...

I'm not an agent; I both represent agents and sue them, so I have no bone in this fight (I gave it to KY).

(1) Except for the very smallest publishers, a successful agent ordinarily improves an author's economic terms by more than 15% over an unagented transaction, and (IMNSHO) do more than that to the noneconomic terms. Which would you rather have: a $5,000 advance (typical for commercial category first novels), or the $5,950 advance left after an agent takes 15% out of the improved $7,000 advance? To have escalators set at 15,000 and 50,000 copies, or at 10,000 and 25,000? Retaining or throwing away electronic book rights?

The key isn't how much the agent is getting; it's how much is left for the author afterward. And that's before getting into the sad (self-destructive, but that's another story) fact that many of the most lucrative markets are not open to unagented writers.

(2) By "deep-discount royalties," I suspect that the original questioner meant to ask about reduced royalties on deep-discount sales. This is, unfortunately, an increasingly common problem. Not content with trying to change the royalty base from cover price to "net proceeds" -- I've blawgged on this before
-- many publishers are cutting the royalty rate in half for books sold at a deep discount. Usually, the publisher's first salvo is something like "The royalty paid on copies sold at a discount of more than 50% shall be one-half the otherwise applicable royalty rate." This is code for "sales" to Costco, Sam's, etc. -- that is, nonbookstore outlets that demand (and obtain) discounts greater than the standard "long discount." It's a reprehensible practice that an inexperienced author is not even going to spot, let alone prevent, without the assistance of a successful agent.

(3) This is not a defense of everyone who calls him/herself an "agent." Like the convicted felon Martha Ivery, or the convicted felon Dorothy Deering, or the convicted felon George Titsworth, or the non-yet-convicted (you know who you are, BB and RF and...). By "successful agent", I mean someone who is either a member of the AAR, or follows the AAR's conduct rules and is selling enough works to commercial publishers to be (or shortly will be) eligible for membership.

Jack said...

He was certainly rude, but saying that's just the way things are doesn't really make his question stupid.

Many people said "Agents are worth it because they're so good," which while a valid sentiment isn't very helpful because some people would say the same thing if agents all got an unfair 95% fee, so doesn't actually tell you anything about the price.

Comparing it to restaurant tip doesn't really make any sense. You could say "my stock fund manager gets 1%, so that's a fair price for an agent" just as well. However important their work is, it depends on what it's a percentage *of*.

Saying "Agents negotiate an author more than a fifteen percent improvement" is a *good* answer, thank you :) Of course, the exact proportion of that is arguable, but it explains it.

Of course, the pedant in me wants to say that you need an 18% improvement for it to be worth a 15% fee, but that's doesn't actually make any difference :)

Maria said...

Thanks CE Petit--good, informative post.

I remember the first books I read years ago on getting published stating the agent standard at 10 percent. I hardly think that there is a conspiracy against authors in raising it; I merely assumed it was inflation and the growing responsibility of agents--as things went global, I'm sure agents had to take on more responsibility for knowing about foreign rights, networking with people who handle film rights, etc.

Of course my generous feelings are due in part to Miss Snark's blog because she has taken the time to educate--I now know just what an agent can do, should do and generally does for a client. I have also witnessed the supreme selfishness and egos of some writers and figured out the potential harm in such an attitude.

Basic conclusion: when you have information about how the industry works, it's not hard to understand the percentages.

blogless_troll said...

Hey Lindsay, are you now encouraging people to write sellable books?

Ryan Field said...

Going back to an earlier post this week about what writers get paid I couldn't help but wonder how agents do it on 15%. I remember when 10% was the standard, just like when a good drink was only two bucks (and I'm only 35), but things have changed.

This could be why some agency web sites (and some agents I know)clearly state they only take on work that has best seller potential. Anyone who complains about an agent getting their 15% needs a kick in the ass.

mbstt said...

Don't offer to give an agent more money. Ever. 15% is the rate. That's it.

Many corporate contracts I've seen have incentive clauses such as bonus paid for meeting certain milestones and schedules (or penalties for missing such). Not having ever signed an agent contract (maybe this year!), I am unaware of whether there are opportunities for that in the agent/client relationship.

It would appear that the incentive/penalty in today's contracts is pretty simple: Sell the book and get paid, or don't sell it by a certain date and either lose the client or renegotiate.

Anonymous said...

I (a first-time author) sold a four-book series to a moderate-sized publisher.

Advance on book 1: $0
Advance on book 2: $500
Advance on book 3: $500
Advance on book 4: $500

Total advance for 4 books: $1,500

Do I need an agent? Hell, yes. Would I object to paying 15%? Don't even need to answer that one. (The only upside here is that I'll start earning royalties immediately. Oh, and I don't exactly have to sweat over earning out my advance.)

Anonymous said...

Considering that my agent's eventual commission alone was 20% more than the first offer I received from a publisher, the agent's 15% was very much worth it. Since the sale, we've sold foreign and other subsidiaries as well.

I don't know any agents who still do the ten percent. I knew one a few years ago, but she's since raised it. And I'm pretty sure industry standard has been 15% for more than 8 years.

Anonymous said...

Calling 15 percent humongous is an overstatement, but it is worth noting that, when agents first began going to 15 percent, there was some controversy about this, among writers and among agents

That said, while there were still some 10 percenters around the first time I went agent hunting, that never entered into who I queried; I was more concerned with who would sell my work most effectively. The 5 percent increase (even though it was a 50 percent raise for the agents who charged it) wasn't enough to be more important than all those other factors.

On the other hand, who's to say there won't be another increase in another 10 or 15 years? At what point does the line get crossed into unreasonable? I'm not sure.

Minnie Bittertiddoff said...

And who could trust an agent who took less?

C.E. Petit said...

When agents were charging 10%, their trade organization was the Society of Authors' Representatives. The SAR mandated a 10% commission rate.

The SAR lost a critical ruling in an antitrust suit when the government accused the SAR of price-fixing by imposing a 10% requirement. The SAR then agreed, as part of a settlement, not to even recommend a particular commission rate. Following that, the SAR sort of fell apart (for a variety of reasons), and was indirectly followed by the Association of Author's Representatives (AAR).

As is usual when there has been an ill-considered antitrust claim brought against a trade association of independent contractors, prices went up afterward. Of course, expenses did, too, but that's beside the point.

blaironaleash said...

If my writing was in demand (sadly not the case) and I could shop around for a decent agent who would accept 10% because my sales made it worth her while, I would.

Sadly, that day is far off. I suspect it is for OP, too.

Anonymous said...

15% isn't a big commission. Are you aware that in most places the comission on a consignment sale is around 50%? And it takes a lot more work to sell your book.

Although, if you have some miracle, sure fire formula for multi-million dollar commissions over a couple of decades, I'm sure your agent might be amenable to a smaller slice of the pie.

Please let me know the formula when you get it refined. We'll bottle it, sell it and make even more money.

Ryan Field said...

Thank you c.e. petit...I have always wondered about SAR and what happened there. Now I know.

Therese said...

OMG, there is no question that agents earn the 15% and then some!

Not only must they find the right home for your work and negotiate the terms, but they have to monitor the accounting for as long as that book's in print!

They get you more money, they mind the business so you can do your JOB (i.e. write more books), they make sure your interests are being considered and that you don't get crushed in the wheels of the machine...

You have to have faith: my agent couldn't sell the book she first took me on for, but she sold my next one--for six figures, PLUS bonus clauses, AND her foreign rights co-agent has sold it in seven other countries so far.

I know my case isn't the norm, but I'm here to tell you that I wouldn't have this story to tell if I didn't have an agent who's been worth every (per)cent!

Emmy Voter said...

Overdog, 10% is indeed the prevailing rate in Hollywood, for talent agents and for the agents who represent writers. But the writers' fees in Hollywood are higher by orders of magnitude -- a 10% share of a working TV writer's salary is a fair amount of money, and an agent could happily make a mortgage and raise a family with 10 working clients; they'd probably need a roster of 20-40 to keep 10 working any given year. (I've never run these numbers by my agent; just thinking out loud.) I don't think a literary agent could survive of 10% of 10 advances on novels, any more than most novelist can afford to give up their day jobs. And it seems like advances on novels haven't kept up with inflation -- in fact it sounds like they're worth less in real dollars these days. So if the increase in percentage helps to offset that, it's an alternative, likely preferable, to the Agents needing to take on an unrealistically large client base in order to have a shot at making the rent.

Or so it seems from my corner of the web.

Barbjn said...

Writers complaining about 15% should talk to those of us who have dealt with illustration reps--who chew on 25-30%. I 've been there, and let me tell you: THAT is outrageous, especially since so much of what they used to have to do can be done on a web site.

15% is chump change. A real bargain as far as I am concerned.

Jim Oglethorpe said...

Man! What a hostile group we are. I love it. I guess the answer is that things go up with the cost of living. Or maybe that it is harder to sell books than it once was. It wouldn't surprise me if "rates" continue to go up. But I still don't think anybody is getting rich.

The agent basically works "on commission" and sees 15% of the advance. I don't know about the rest of you, but both my frist and second advance were NOT BIG. After the contracts are signed and advance check is cahsed, the agent is there for you throughout the editing, production, promotion process without being paid another ANOTHER DIME. Very few titles even sell out their advance. Very few authors even see royalties in the first year if ever. If they do, they are the lucky ones. With these odds, agents could probably charge 50% (like galleries). I am always happy when a book hits it big because I know a writer and agent are making some money!

C.E. Petit said...

Aside to Emmy Voter:

The rate is 10% in Hollywood because there's a collective bargaining agreement with the WGA that fixes it at 10%, backed up by a California statute that fixes commissions for agents at 10% for the film, TV, and music industries. However, that 10% doesn't apply to the publishing industry... or to "managers."

California at least has some regulation of agents in film, TV, and music. They must be registered with the state, etc. There's no competence requirement, but it at least shows a little bit about cluelessness. But, as noted, that regulation doesn't apply in publishing, or live theater, or sport...

Anonymous said...

The reason for the increase in commission is probably due to many factors, including these:

Agents used to just sell and negotiate a contract. Today we edit (because editors don't have as much time to) and assist in marketing (because publicity departments can't handle every author with as much attention), so it takes a lot more skill than just being good at selling.

There are FAR more submissions an agency receives today. Yes, because everyone today has a computer and a printer. Sure, quality of published books is forced to improve with more competition out there (and it's tougher for a new author to break in) but reading queries and submissions takes more time now than ever before.

No editing fees or reading fees of any kind are ok by the AAR (good thing).

More books are published now, so there's more competition, so the average advance is not huge. I suppose in the earlier days, without so much competition, the average book sold more copies just by default. (Used to be you could find a sci-fi novel, the publisher would put a rocket on the cover, and it would sell like crazy. Now that genre has exploded, novelists have to have a special hook, and advances for a new author aren't the same as they once were.)

Times change: There are more agents than ever. Editors have limited reading time and more submissions to read through.

The value of our services have gone up because now it's awfully hard for an author to get an editor to read his/her work without one of us representing and submitting it.

I'll add one more that applies to some of us:
Do you know how much it costs to live in NYC today? An agent could never last making only 10% commission in the first few years as he/she builds a client list and still afford to live anywhere near NYC.

Anonymous said...

my agent only takes 10% and she's one of the top agents in NYC. 10% is also standard in the UK - only a few agents there charge 15% and you don't get more for that extra 5%. Foreign agents also - 10% is totally standard. I have books sold in over 20 countries and no-one there charges more than 10%. The question was perfectly reasonable. It's a damn sight tougher to get and keep a good agent in the US, though, one who will stick with you, so the 15% may reflect that. I wouldn't be keen on paying it though myself.