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.