Should Literary Agents Start Charging by the Hour?

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I met with an author last week to talk about how she should approach the submissions process for her book. She asked me if I personally would seek an agent when I’m ready to publish my own book. My answer was no, but mostly because I’ve spent a good bit of my career as an acquisitions editor and I know my way around a publishing contract.

pay literary agents by the hourThat’s not to say I don’t think other writers should seek representation. Literary agents can open doors for writers seeking publication from larger houses that have closed their doors to unagented submissions, and a knowledgeable agent can also help with the contract negotiation process, which has become especially convoluted these days with the nagging questions surrounding digital rights.

The 15% Wager

I’ve often pondered the idea of becoming an agent myself, but the one thing that has kept me from making the leap is the antiquated pay structure that exists between authors and their agents. Typically, an agent receives a 15% commission on whatever an author makes on advances and royalties. If an agent charges fees of any kind, including reading and editing fees, writers are told to avoid them like the plague. But is the 15% cut any better for the writer?

For first-time authors, I’d say no. It hurts them. And it contributes to why I hear so many writers complain that they never hear anything back from the agents they query.

With the downsizing in the industry, advances are becoming a thing of the past. Royalty rates are dropping, too, alongside the amount publishers pay for marketing. So what does this do to an agent trying to make a living? It puts the squeeze on them.

agent paySure, there are always exceptions, and plenty of agents will still sign with an author if they believe in the quality and content of the book. But with all the upfront time an agent has to invest in editorial work and the submissions process, isn’t the natural inclination to take on mainly projects that could potentially yield a fair paycheck? Will agents want to work with unpublished authors who likely can’t secure a big deal even if they’re the next David Foster Wallace? Will they want to submit the work to smaller, more nimble independent publishers who can’t afford big advances even if they’re the best fit for the author?

The Size of the Deal?

It seems to me that it would be more advantageous for agents and authors if there was a pay as you go structure. Banking everything on the end goal of a 15% cut is a risky investment for agents, and it locks out writers who don’t have big star potential.

Related: The Inside Scoop on Acquiring Books for One of the Big Six

Why not pay agents upfront for their time? If they do good work for you, even if they can’t land you a publisher, shouldn’t the quality of their work become the standard of their effectiveness rather than the size of the deal they make? That’s how it works for editors, designers, cover artists, and others who support authors on their quest to publication.

Why not let them charge for editorial time and submissions work, and then throw in a bonus if they land you a publisher? Agents who secure bigger deals could charge higher fees, couldn’t they? If they consistently land authors bad deals, their reputations would pay for that, too.

But any agent who decides to start charging upfront will be blacklisted by the AAR and torn apart on every writer forum out there. Again, like just about everything else in publishing, the sanctity of what we’ve done in the past always trumps the new ideas that can help us adapt.

And many writers will complain (and rightly so) that they’re already expected to front much of the cost of editorial and marketing work before a publisher will even consider them. But wouldn’t it be nice if more agents started responding to your queries? What if we started thinking of agents as book managers? People who will guide us down the path of publication.

What Do You Think?

Is there a future for literary agents in the publishing industry if they don’t come up with a new business model? And what should that model look like?

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