Dear Ms. Rejector,
I just discovered your blog, and I love it! Here's my question. If an author gets a contract from a small press and contacts agents to see if any of them are interested, what is the dollar figure under which agents wouldn't even bother? I'm assuming if a publisher offers no advance and only royalties, they would say no thanks?? Or do I have that wrong? Depends on the agent?
There's definitely not a single answer to this, but if you have the contract in hand, the agent will probably not pass up what is essentially a free handout if she likes the material. You did her work for her; now she just picks up the check, but you get to land an agent for future material.
Let's do some basic math, as it will help everyone understand why agents are so hesitant to take on new writers.
The average advance from a major publishing company for a first-time novelist is $5000-$7000. If the agent is good, they can get it up to $10,000. If the agent is really good (and the material is really good) then the agent will try to get a bidding war going between publishing houses, which will drive the price way higher, but that usually doesn't happen.
Let's say the agent got you a $10,000 advance from a major publishing company. That nets her $1500. That may seem like a lot of money to us broke writers, but remember she has to make a living doing this. Since you're a new author, she probably had to talk the book up quite a lot, and spent time editing it or hired an assistant to do that. Time is money in publishing, so she probably spent at least $500 worth of time just getting that contract. And she won't expect royalties unless the book magically takes off, which most books don't, and she only gets 15% of those. So, essentially, she nets maybe $1000 for a lot of hard work. To make a decent living, she would have to take on at least 50 new authors a year, and new authors cost too much time for that to be physically possible.
Essentially, an agent usually takes on a fiction author because he/she cares deeply about the work and hopes it will succeed, but figures that it probably won't be an earner for her. If the author is rejected from major publishing houses, and she still truly cares about the book (which she may just be frustrated with at this point), she might take it to a small house offering little or no advance and be done with it. It makes the author happy and the book goes in print. And then she can move on to other projects.