About #AgentPay

June 23rd, 2010 • Kate

dollar20signThere was a fascinating discussion on Twitter yesterday, started by Colleen Lindsay, who tweeted:

How would publishing change if agenting moved from commission-based payment to billable-hours? Discuss.

Amid all the hand-wringing, whinging, diatribes for and against, a couple of things got me thinking.

First of all, I’m very grateful to have come to agenting as an employee of a large agency, where I worked on salary for many years before taking on my own clients. Though there were times when I complained about it, as a young agent, I was in a unique position to take on new clients because selling their books wasn’t what I needed to do in order to eat, pay rent, and survive living in the big city.

When I left that company and started kt literary two and a half years ago, bringing almost all of my clients with me, I also was able to bring along commissions, so that as I set up my business, I was able to survive on work I’d been doing for years already, rather than throwing myself into the deep end without a life preserver, hoping to do enough deals in the first few months of my business to afford to keep it going.

I know not every agent has that opportunity, and I’m well aware that I am exceptionally lucky to have had supportive mentors and a continuing relationship with my old agency.

That being said, I think one of the points that Colleen was trying to put across was that agents now are doing much more than agents 20 years ago probably did for their clients, and yet the methods by which we get paid have stayed the same. Is billable hours the answer? Not for me, certainly. Nor do I want to go to a fee-based structure. I like getting paid when my client gets paid. It keeps me hungry — even if that is, happily, just a metaphor now.

Do I do a lot of work for my clients that I don’t get reimbursed for? Sure! But I don’t mind. If I have to make 30 calls to editors to pitch a book, send 30 emails with the manuscript, countless follow-ups, and hours more hammering down deal points and/or reviewing contracts, it’s STILL worth it, no matter what the advance, to flip to the acknowledgements page of that brand spanking new book and see my name there — as worth it, I’m sure, for the author to see their name on the cover.

Would it be worth MORE if every deal was a six-figure one? Maybe. Or maybe it’s enough that some of them are, and some of them just get to be about making dreams come true.

I’m not sure I have a point here. But I wanted to say my part about the conversation, and see what you guys thought. To the comments!

UPDATE: Author Jodi Meadows has another great take on the conversation on her LiveJournal.

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14 Responses to “About #AgentPay”

  1. Cyndy Aleo Says:

    It was hard responding in 140 characters yesterday, but the biggest thing for me (and no, I don't have an agent yet) is that we all see how DESIRABLE the agent/author relationship is. They act like besties. There seems to be a lot of effusive praise going in both directions. They seem like they are actually FRIENDS.

    When I thought "billable hours," I thought of attorneys. My divorce attorney is certainly friendly, and I think she's good at what she does, but you can't feel like you have a relationship with someone when every second you are on the phone or sending an email you feel like the meter is running. That would be true of everything from sending edits to discussing submissions and I think it would ultimately hurt both parties.

  2. Michelle Says:

    I've spent the last two days reading #AgentPay and #Advchat.

    My fear would be that getting a book published would become the providence of the rich, making a misconception of the writing world very real (You have to pay to be published).

    If the agent is charging fees and the publisher only has to pay if the book sells. Worst case: Publishing could loose on book creation / marking / distribution costs and the writer never never sees a dime. Might as have gone the self pub internet route. Spend a lot less money that way.

    It worries me. I'm not a saleswoman. I'm always learning and bouncing things off others to see if what I'm a doing is a pipe dream.

    I think everyone deserves pay enough to live on if they do their job. Agents and publishers certainly deserve a living wage for what they do. I just don't believe they can get that out of writers.

  3. Cyndy Aleo Says:

    Michelle has a point. I think it would force a LOT of authors who don't have money to abandon the idea of having an agent altogether and go the self-pub route. Then what happens? Editors scour Amazon to see what's selling and offer contracts directly to authors?

  4. Meredith Says:

    I'm speaking only to billable hours, which I believe fundamentally cannot work. Putting aside the fact that billables have sucked the soul out of every profession that's ever instituted such a payment system, billables only work where there's a greater authority acting as guard dog. In the legal community, where billables are king, there's a higher power to answer to — the state bar. You lie about your billable hours and overcharge your clients, you risk losing your license to practice law. But in the world of literary agents, there isn't a higher power to guard writers against unscrupulous people (apart from reputation). Apart from the already-overtaxed penal system, what's to prevent the market from being flooded with dishonest folks looking to make a quick buck off of unsuspecting writers before fading into the background? So until you need a license to be a literary agent, I just don't see it working.

  5. CFD Trade Says:

    There are struggling authors who are into writing for the sake of earning. If they have not published yet and have to pay an agent per hour…I could just imagine how authors' dreams can crumble before their very own eyes.

  6. Rissa Watkins Says:

    I have been following this discussion on Twitter and on several blogs.

    I can see an agent charging for some things. Like for example, I would pay for a critique of my manuscript (depending on the cost of course). But when it comes to selling my book, commission only.

    When it comes to sales, commission is one of the best ways to know your agent – real estate, literary etc. will work hard to make the sale. Plus, it would be an accounting nightmare trying to figure out the billing.

  7. AudryT Says:

    What about looking for additional ways to make more $ off of your current clients' existing work? The money doesn't have to come just from traditional publishing. Being in Hollywood, I never see a book as just a book. It's I.P. — no matter how small or off-beat or mainstream or crazy it might be, an I.P. has the potential be entertaining and profitable in myriad forms, and an agent is perfectly situation to make those forms happen.

    I have a friend whose comic was put out in standard floppy comic format (individual thirty-page issues). It didn't garner the interest of traditional comic fans. I told him, "Because of the genre and style of your story, there is potentially a huge market for it online in webcomic-savvy teens and adults." He built a site, shared it online for free, and collected enough ad revenue to pay the bills for his family of four. If I had been an agent giving him that advice, it would have been fair of me, I think, to get a small % of the ad sales, especially if I helped to get the site going. (In this case, I wasn't an agent and I didn't want anything — he's a friend!)

    While, as an agent, you wouldn't make suggestions like "put it online for free" for a book you'd already sold the print rights for, it's possible you could set yourself up to help the author generate income from creative variations on their work other than a book, generic ebook or movie. Some ideas you might not have time to handle (like getting a Massive Multi-player Online game company to license the I.P.), but there are millions of creative media formats being explored on the internet, and if you nurture the right connections, you and your author might be able to benefit from them without having to write/shepherd more new books for the same old percentage.

    Let me give a Daphne-specific example. ^_^ Let's say you have a client who's written a book called, say, THE SHERLOCK HOLMES HANDBOOK. This Handbook could, conceivably, make a great interactive program for iPhone/iPad, which could be used as a portable reference for when a reader accidentally happen upon an appalling murder in a dark alley, or just to click on links embedded in the app that direct the reader to awsum-possum stores where they can buy Holmes-themed gadgetry, clothes, etc. Or it could be a highly addictive trivia game about Holmsian lore covered in the book.

    A publisher MIGHT think of such ideas, but let's say in this case, the publisher is very busy just getting printed book out, so making interactive apps is not their big priority — and you can't make the app, either, because you're not a programmer.

    What you CAN do is find an app-building company that wants to license the I.P. for an app, or you can outsource the design & coding of your own idea for an app to a company that builds apps as work-for-hire (or for their share of the profits via royalties). They do all the grunt work, and your client ends up the primary owner of an app that could sell like zombiecakes on the iPhone and bring in money for everyone involved.

    And you won't be out of much time if it doesn't. (Certainly not as much time as it took to flog and sell the original book!)

    Other forms of media are a crap shoot just like a book is, but the more crap shoots you have out there for one I.P., the more likely it becomes that one of them will turn up the right roll of the dice for a little extra cha-ching!

    Can you tell I've been thinking about this a lot lately? ^_^

  8. Krista V. Says:

    Cyndy Aleo makes a great point – if agents billed like lawyers do, that would really change the nature of the relationship. Authors would want to spend as little time as possible talking to their agents, and that would only lead to bigger problems down the road.

  9. illukar Says:

    On a billable hours model, I can see three things happening:

    – Author pays agent (varying) amounts of cash and never sells a book.

    – Agent earns more from sold books than author does.

    – Authors without the ability to pay agents up-front are locked out of most publishers altogether.

    The whole current system is very flawed, but unfortunately I've yet to hear a solution which betters it. However, if a solution can be found where an author is paid for, an agent would then also be paid more. And if publishing were more profitable, then authors would be paid more.

    Any ideas on how to make publishing more profitable?

  10. Tessa Quin Says:

    I think that agents will push harder and work better if they get a percentage of the author's royalties. They'll be likely to push the advance and such. I think many wouldn't put so much effort into it if they were paid by the hour.

  11. Carrie Harris Says:

    Me = lucky to have you.

    That's all.

  12. Amy Says:

    I second that, Carrie!

  13. Jodi Meadows Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Kate. I've been trying to keep up with the posts and comments on this issue and it's been both fascinating and frustrating.

    Agents and authors want to sell books, pay the bills, and have successful careers, but sometimes it seems like both parties are glaring at each other from opposing camps, like they don't believe the other is *actually* on their side.

    For the most part, though, I think most authors are very aware their agents aren't making money off them until they sell — and they *want* to sell and make their agents rich. (I know I do.)

  14. Suzanne Casamento Says:

    I'm with Carrie. Very lucky to have you too. 🙂