Monday, November 05, 2007

Agent Salaries

I've been getting a lot of these:

Just out of curosity,

How much do agents (on average) get paid? What's the low and high end?

And here's another:

Once you become an agent, even if you have to give up a part of your income, don't you get a "base salary" and benefits? Wouldn't that be worth holding on for?

So, you know how when you sign with an agent, they find you a publisher, and then take 10-15% of your earnings? That's their paycheck.

Agents don't "work" for anyone but themselves and their clients. There's no one to provide them with a salary or benefits. Their income comes entirely from a small percentage of their clients' total earnings. This means that a year could pass where an agency could make no money whatsover, if none of their older clients have written books that sold that year, or they fail to sell any works from new clients. Most agents are smart enough to make some money every year, but that money could easily be under $4,000.

So how do they stay in business? An agent relies on an author (or preferably a few) that make considerable advances and write books on a regular basis of once every 2-3 years. And when I say "considerable" I mean, "over 100,000 dollars." Remember that the agent gets only 15% of that, tops.

A new fiction author will generally make around 5,000 dollars in an advance and then not earn any royalties. That's $750 for the agent. Now math isn't my strongest suit here, but to be able to earn $30,000 (with no benefits, no overtime, no 401k) the agent would have to take on 40 new authors a year, which is by anyone's reckoning an insane amount of authors. The agent simply wouldn't have the time to edit and sell all those manuscripts.

Most clients of the agent are not significant earners, but a few have to be, or the agency doesn't stay in business. My boss has a few clients who make about $250,000 or $500,000 advances, but those authors don't write a book a year, or even a book every other year. She just hopes one of them will come through, so she can pay her electricity bill.

In answer to the second question, as to why don't I become a salaried agent, it's because the job doesn't exist. If I started out as an agent today, I would have to build up contacts and a client list, and then sell the manuscripts of my clients to editors. It could easily be two years before I see any money at all, and more before I see enough money to constitute a living wage.


Madge Sinclair said...

Well, there goes my dream of becoming an agent...I guess I'll have to stick with my current job: A sassy, gassy, hip, old braud from Kansas City who cuts loose on the internet...

Kaleb Nation said...

Thanks for the post. All the more reason for authors to write well these days! Your agent's livelihood depends on you.

The Rejecter said...


How's the pay in that?

Anonymous said...

And there's absolutely no time for a part-time job because the agent works such long hours reading through the slush for a glimmer of potential and meeting with potential authors, editors, and anyone else who can further the books that pay the bills.

Sheesh. I never knew. No safety net.

I guess you could always marry a rich spouse or win the lottery. ;-)

The Grump said...

Sorry, but I can't help but wonder where writers/people's heads are?

You read the agent web pages. The legit ones don't require fees and get 15% of a sale ... aka they are commission sales people, people. Duh. If you do the math, 15% of 0 is naught.

Glad you had the courage to say it so nicely.

Adrienne said...

Interesting post.

What happens if the agency has someone who is in charge of accounts, and a separate team for foreign rights, as well as paid assistants. Do these people get salaries, or how does that work?

Anonymous said...

So agents must really have to love their jobs to stick with it, eh? Thanks for posting the info. I hope I can make an agent money some day.


Anonymous said...

So, I guess I'd better get cracking on that mega-best seller of mine, help out a hungry agent somewhere.

The same dreams that keep writers at their computers compel others to buy lottery tickets every week. The difference being, we love the process of writing more than - and I'm just guessing - they enjoy driving to the Quickie Mart, meager cash in hand.

Jordan Lapp said...

So how does any agent get off the ground at all? Do you have to work it part time until your client list gets big enough? Or do you simply survive on Ramen noodles for two years?

The Rejecter said...


Generally the agent will not employ a staff to do their dirty work except an hourly-paid assistant like me. Sub agents and foreign agents make money on their own sales, but have to kick up a percentage of their own profit (not the author's profit) to the head agent. In return, they get to use the head agent's contacts and name and prestige and all that.

Anonymous said...

"In answer to the second question, as to why don't I become a salaried agent, it's because the job doesn't exist."

I know for a fact that all this depends on the agency. I'm sure everything you've said is correct in relation to your own personal connections. But I think the people reading this blog should also know there are agencies out there who do hire "associates" rather than assistants, and they pay them a salary. Of course this salary is low and usually about thirty thousand a year (with benefits), plus what they sell in any particular year. But the job does exist with other agencies. I also know these aren't huge agencies either; some are considered boutique.

ORION said...

Actually this is true for those agents on their own but many work for large firms like William Morris Agency and have a salary and benefits

The Rejecter said...

That is true, but William Morris is a giant conglomerate of talent agencies, not just a small literary agency, like most literary agencies.

Madge Sinclair said...


It doesn't pay much. But hey, at least there's still the teeny tiny social security check...for now...

Anonymous said...

Little wonder even successful agents are crammed together in shared office space!
These people must have second jobs.

Brenda said...

Very informative...thanks!

Church Lady said...

One of the more informative posts I've read in a while. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

So, how do I let an agent know that my multiple decades of writing technical docs under deadline means I'm going to be a consistent producer. Maybe not much per book, but I can write fast.

Oh, I forgot. I also have to write whatever it is the market wants when the book is finished (not when in progress). That makes it a teeny bit harder. Where's my crystal ball?

Anonymous said...

I already knew all of this, but still it makes me shake my head yet again and wonder "Does anyone at all -- agents or writers -- harbor the suspicion that the publishing industry, as it's currently constituted, may be a wee bit dysfunctional?"

Heather B. Moore said...

I get asked this all the time--people think authors are rich. And except for a few, we aren't. I just tell people that after research, writing, editing and promoting, I make about about 25 cents an hour.

Janny said...

"The agent wouldn't have time to edit and sell all those manuscripts."

Gimme a break. You, as the hypothetical agent, don't have to edit my work...that's MY job. :-)

Seriously. It is.

Yes, provide editorial direction, if you can see I'm thiiiiiis close to a market niche and all we need to do is "nudge" the prose a bit and I'll be there. Yes, by all means, provide thoughtful critique for the same reason. Yes, by all means, make suggestions. But please don't feel you are expected to EDIT my manuscript. In fact, I don't want you to.

I'm the writer. It's my book. You're there in an advisory capacity, a negotiating capacity, a sales capacity. All the stuff I'm not expert enough in to want to risk my income doing...but I'm willing to pay YOU to do.

So see? I've already reduced your job in representing ME by half!

I'll be querying shortly...



Anthony S. Policastro said...

With that said about agents' income, wouldn't you say that explains why there are many women in the business because unfortunately, they cannot make a living from it, but can do it because their spouse makes the living?

Yes, there are the superstars out there and the big agencies, but most need a second source of income. Would you say this is true?

Anonymous said...

anonymous 11:08 - Look to the epubs for a 'better way.' These types of publishers are kind of like going back to the 'old days.' When authors dealt directly with editors at publishing houses and agents were either non-existent or in their infancy.

Epubs also have a much faster acceptance-to-publication turnaround. Some as fast as a couple of months (my own experience).

I agree, there seems to be something dysfunctional about the way the publishing industry works. From what I have read, many publishers still deal with on-paper editing. Mailing huge wads of paper to the author for changes/edits. Fedexing things around the country and overseas. Why not adapt to Word's 'track changes' and save a TON of money? Maybe some do...but not all.

The publishing industry is also very muddled when it comes to reporting actual sales of books. Authors seem befuddled, not knowing exactly how many copies they have sold. Wal-Mart and Target sales aren't reported like sales from bookstores. What other industry works this way? Even the New York Times makes up its own rules for reporting 'bestsellers.'

Sometimes it seems that they are stuck in the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

this is realy great insight into the mentality of an agent. It helps me think about how I work with my agents. Thanks for this. -- Jeff Rivera (Forever My Lady - Warner Books