Agents commissions: how they work (and are they worth it?)Harry Bingham
Literary agents do not require any kind of upfront fee, any reading fee, or any other charge along those lines. They operate exclusively on the basis of ‘commission’ – that is, they take a percentage of any money they make on your behalf.
Each agency sets their own fees (and these are, in principle, negotiable, though few newbie authors heft to negotiate.) The normal pattern of commission is as follows:
- Sales to UK publishers: 15%. Since most ‘UK’ sales include a number of other English-speaking territories, the same fee applies to those territories as well.
- Sales to US publishers: 20%. Some agencies will make US sales direct; others will operate via trusted NY agencies. Either way, the fee you pay is the same.
- Sales to overseas publishers. 20%. Same thing here: a lot of sales happen via overseas agencies, but you won’t notice any difference in what you pay.
- Film & TV sales: 20%. A lot of authors dream of seeing their work on the big screen … which is just as well, because these things seldom, seldom happen in reality. But if it does – that 20% is well, well worth it.
When an agent strikes a contract with a publisher that contract will require that the publisher pays the agent – not you – directly. So if you have a £10,000 advance coming due, that advance will go straight to the agency. The agency will deduct their commission and pass the remaining money on to you, with a note to explain what’s come in and what’d been deducted.
Those deductions may sometimes include photocopying and postage charges (if work has been copied and sent to overseas publishers, for example), but these charges are modest – and increasingly rare, since so much now happens electronically.
Are literary agents worth their commission?
Yes, yes and yes. For one thing, since most publishers don’t accept work except via agents, your choice is basically (A) don’t get published or (B) pay an agent.
But that’s to look at it rather negatively. The fact is that a good agent will help shape your work and career – and place you with the publisher best placed to sell an promote your work – and do thesethings so well that you will get a much, much better outcome than you could possibly have achieved by yourself. So yes, you may be paying something for that expertise, but the amount you gain will vastly exceed that, relatively modest, cost.