Agent Basics

How agents work:

Literary agents fill two primary, and often overlapping, roles. They serve as both their clients’ Sales representatives and as their literary advisors. In order to sell their clients’ work, agents read it, assess it, and advise clients on its quality and market potential. They also create strategies for its sale for publication. Agents identify potential publishers and offer their clients’ writing to publishers, negotiate publishing contracts and monitor publishers’ contract compliance. Good agents constantly position their clients and work with publishers and the media to build their clients’ careers.

Agents’ Compensation:

As compensation for their services, agents receive a percentage of the gross income from the publishing agreements that the agents obtained. They essentially function as commission salespersons who act as middlemen or vendors to sell their clients’ writing to publishers. What does this mean to you? At present, the standard percentage for literary agents is 15 percent of all income that authors receive from the sale of the book and its subsidiary rights. Unless otherwise stated, this amount is calculated on gross sales on the book’s cover price. Agents also usually receive 20 percent on foreign sales, and some are getting more. They receive more for foreign sales because they have to co-agent with colleagues abroad.

Reasonable and Unreasonable Charges:

Many literary agencies also charge for certain expenses such as photocopying, postage and long-distance telephone calls, which are reasonable. However, some may charge for marketing, travel and administrative expenses, which can be expensive. Reasonable expenses that you should expect to pay are those that your agent must lay out to represent you and submit your work to publishers. The expenses you are charged should be the same that all of your agent’s other clients pay. Before you sign with an agent, get a list of all the expenses you will be charged and try to get an idea of how much they should run.

Here’s a good tip: When you negotiate a contract for an agent to represent you, insist on a provision that gives you the right to approve all expenditures over a stated sum, say $50. Unless unusual circumstances exist, you should not agree to pay for ordinary phone calls and other basic administrative expenses. If a provision is included in the contract that requires you to pay a percentage of the funds you receive for office, administrative or managerial expenses, think twice, because those tasks are normally part of the agent’s job. If the agent insists, put a dollar cap on those expenses. And whenever your agent requests or deducts expenses, request an itemized statement of those costs.

Contracting with an Agent

At a certain point, most agents will insist that you give them the exclusive rights to sell your writing; they will ask you to sign an author/agent agreement. This point varies from agent to agent, but many won’t give you much of their time until you sign. Your agreement with an agent should specify that it applies only to a particular book or project. It may contain an option for your next book. If you create spin-offs or new, revised, or updated versions of the agented book, the agent who negotiated the original deal will be entitled to share in revenues received.

By Rick Frishman
Reprinted from “Rick Frishman’s Author 101 Newsletter”
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