Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Category: career

Money Talk: Where Does Your Commission Go?

By Danielle Burby

In this column, we discuss everything authors should know when it comes to landing an agent and navigating the complexities of the publishing industry. You know how to query and what to ask when an agent offers you representation, but here’s a slightly more sensitive topic: commissions.

Agenting is a sales job, which means your agent doesn’t get paid for their work on your book until you get paid. An agent takes on a project and invests their time, energy, and resources with the hope that the project will sell to a publisher. If the project doesn’t sell, the agent doesn’t doesn’t get paid. (If an agent ever asks you to pay a fee for their services, walk away. They are not a real agent.) The industry standard commission rate is 15% for domestic sales (with slightly different rates for various ancillary rights). Once a book has sold and the contract is fully executed, the publisher schedules an EFT or writes a check to the agency, and the agency retains 15% and sends the author a check for the remaining 85%. It may never occur to an author to wonder what happens to the 15% commission they just paid.

There’s no true industry standard in the arrangement between agents and agencies surrounding that 15% commission. Every agency has a slightly different way of approaching this matter, but a general rule of thumb is that the agent gets some of the money and the agency gets some of the money. Essentially, you are paying the agent directly for his or her work and you are also paying the agency to continue growing, investing in support staff, and providing you with the proper services.

Possible splits:

  • A very typical split between agent and agency is 50% of the commission (or, in other words, 7.5% of the entire deal). For example, if your book sells for $50,000, the total 15% commission payment is $7,500. It is reasonable to expect that $3,750 of that will go to your agent.
  • Many agents have built-in escalators (much like authors), incentivizing them to hit certain sales goals by bumping up commission percentages.
  • Your agent may get a higher percentage of the split (60%-70%) if the agency he or she works for doesn’t provide office space or support staff.
  • It is rare, but not unheard of, for agencies to pay their employees below 50% of that 15% commission.

Different ways of paying agents:

  • Commission only. Agents on a commission-only arrangement are paid when their authors get paid. Payments here are intermittent. Many commission-only agents work side jobs until they are able to build their list to a point where they have a steady, comfortable income.
  • Salary for services to agency plus commission. Many agents build their client lists while simultaneously serving in salaried support-staff roles for an agency (assistant work, subsidiary rights work, etc.) until they are financially ready to switch over to commission only.
  • Draw. A draw is an advance on future earnings, much like publishing houses pay to authors. Agents on a draw are paid a fixed amount of money annually that they are then expected to match (and hopefully surpass) in sales. Once they have earned back the draw, they begin to receive commissions. This provides an agent with a level of financial security and stability, allowing them to agent full time, though some agents are hesitant to accept a draw because the stakes are higher if sales goals aren’t met.
  • Salary. Some agencies pay agents a salary in exchange for the entire commission. In this case, agents often make a very comfortable salary and receive an annual bonus if they hit very high sales goals.

Ultimately, it is an agent’s right to keep his or her financial agreement with an employer private, and I wouldn’t recommend asking about it on The Call or in conversation. That said, arming yourself with an awareness that these different arrangements are out there is important for you as an author. And, knowing them, you may be able to read between the lines to figure out how it works for your agent.

This is important because, the truth is, how your agent is paid does impact you. If your agent isn’t receiving appropriate commission percentages, he or she may change agencies. If an agency isn’t investing their own percentage in support staff and company growth (and therefore more services for you), it is something to be aware of because, chances are, your agent is doing extra work. In the first several years of agenting, the money comes in slowly, unpredictably, and often in small sums. If an agent is just starting out and is being paid commission only, it can be very difficult for that agent to pay the rent and bills. Publishing is a very tough business with a high burnout rate. The way agencies pay their agents absolutely contributes to an agent’s ability to stick it out.

Every agent has to build from somewhere, but some agencies offer their employees more support in that arena than others. While your agent has no control over this and shouldn’t be penalized for, say, not being in a position to work full time, it is something you want to think about. Consider it in the same way you’d weigh whether you want an editorial agent, a boutique agency, or an agent with a large vs. small client list. As always, the more you know about the way publishing works, the better!


5 Qs Authors Don’t Ask but Should When an Agent Offers Rep

In the last two weeks, we at NLA have offered representation to seven authors, most of whom received multiple offers. All agents are aggressively seeking new talent right now! It’s awesome to talk to savvy authors who have a list of good questions prepared for their initial conversations with prospective agents, questions like:

• What is your communication style?
• How would you describe your dream client?
• What is your editorial vision for my work?
• What would your submission strategy for this work be if you took it on?
• What happens if my project doesn’t sell?
• Are you open to me writing in different genres?
• Can I chat with a current client?

All these are questions you should ask; you definitely want your agent to be a good personality match and share your vision for your career. But you also want that agent to be your best advocate and protect your business interests in the publishing industry. With that in mind, here are five key questions authors should also be asking, but in general I never hear:

1) What is the average duration of a contract negotiation at your agency? At NLA, average time is three or four months, as we’ll stand firm on key clauses until a compromise is reached. We don’t rush it. If a publishing house has recently revamped its boilerplate contract, then that timeframe can more than double, as we’ll have to negotiate the boilerplate contract first, and then negotiate your specific deal.

2) Will I be involved in seeing the original offer and then the final offer from the Publisher? NLA always shares with our clients the details of the first offer and what we negotiated to create the final offer. Clients are always invited to participate in the process and weigh in.

3) Will I have a chance to review the original contract from the publisher as well as all the requested changes documentation, and then the master redline of the final contract I’ll be signing? Can you walk me through any contract clause that I might not understand? At NLA, we share all this documentation, whether clients want to read it or not, so that clients are 100% confident that their deal and contract have been fully negotiated. And I’ve spent many an hour on the phone or Skype, combing through contract particulars with clients to make sure they’re completely comfortable with what they’re signing. Most agencies simply forward on the final contract for signatures, and that’s it.

4) Do you regularly audit royalty statements? How much money has the agency recovered by doing so? At NLA, we’ve recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for our authors because we regularly catch errors when auditing their royalty statements. And we catch errors in almost every accounting period—that’s how frequently it happens.

5) How many non-agent support staff are at your agency? This is important, as it’s very hard for an agent to do all of the above, and do it well, without significant assistance from non-agent support staff. At NLA, we have three agents and a team of six in-house non-agent support staff to protect our clients. Most agencies have a lot of agents and very little, if any, support staff. The agents are expected to be independent silos and handle all of the above plus all agenting duties. It’s not possible to juggle all that without letting stuff fall through the cracks.

Bonus question to ask if you are feeling bold: What percentage of your clients make their living solely from writing? If you ask me this question, I can truthfully say that 95% of my clients earn their living as authors—meaning they earn enough money to support themselves without a secondary job or support from a partner.

Back in the crazy days of the late 2000s, there was a popular agent, active on social media, who landed a lot of clients, posted some sexy six-figure deals, and then disappeared. I ended up taking on a former client of this now defunct agent/agency and realized, to my horror, that the author had been signing boilerplate contracts with no negotiated changes. The agent hadn’t negotiated a thing! The author was new to the business and had no way of knowing the agent wasn’t doing the job. Even though that agent looked hot from the outside, s/he had actually done very little to protect the client’s interests.

You can make sure that doesn’t happen to you. This is your career. Ask the above 5 Qs. After all, these aren’t the sexy tasks, but they do affect an author’s bottom line. Don’t feel uncomfortable or worry that you might insult the agent. If an agent becomes defensive when asked legitimate questions, then chances are that agent isn’t right for you.

Stay smart, savvy, and shrewd. Check out my “What Makes a Good Agent” article series on Pub Rants. You are your own best advocate.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Chris Potter


What To Do If Your Books Are Popular In Iran?

The short answer is nothing. There actually isn’t much you can do.

Rarely discussed in publishing is the fact that certain countries don’t recognize or honor copyright law. Persian countries (including Iran and Iraq) are an excellent example of territories that don’t. Persian publishers will often translate popular novels and publish them in their countries without a license, and the author does not receive a dime as an advance or royalties.

Kind of shocking, isn’t it?

This situation has happened a number of times for my authors. We usually find out about unlicensed editions when an author receives fan mail or a lovely note from the translator. Even though the Persian publishers don’t feel much obligation to the author, we have found over the years that the translators actually do. And often they will reach out to the author and ask permission to do the translation—even though they know (and are quite apologetic) that the publisher has no plans to compensate the author in any way.

I have a special place in my heart for these morally centered translators.

So what can an author do when it becomes apparent that his or her books are being translated and published in countries that don’t honor copyright protection?

My answer is this. The author should offer to write a special foreword for the edition in exchange for a nominal fee. It’s my attempt to get the author at least some compensation. Yet so far no Iranian publisher has taken me up on this offer.

But I’m hopeful. Someday…

Photo Credit: Peta de Aztlan


Former Egmont Authors: Check Your Royalty Statements

Publishing is a complex business with a lot of moving parts. Every contract is unique, and most errors we find on royalty statements are caused by data-entry mishaps that occur when contract terms are incorrectly keyed into publishers’ accounting systems.

In other words, human error is often the culprit.

So I’m going to give Lerner the benefit of the doubt and assume that such a scenario is currently at play here.

A recap of history for context: In January 2016, news hit the wires that Egmont USA children’s publisher was closing up shop due to its failure to find a buyer.

This created a lot of consternation, as more than 100 titles that were going to be published were now suddenly in limbo and contracts would most likely be canceled.

Good news was just around the corner, though, in the shape of Lerner, who bought out the titles and committed to honoring the contracts. Authors would live happily ever after!

Until their royalty statements arrived.

On the surface, everything looks normal. Royalty rates appear to be the same as they were under Egmont—except for one very crucial difference. Egmont contracts specified that author royalties would be calculated based on list price. But when the Lerner statements arrived, royalties are now being calculated based on net amounts received.

Not the same thing.

How do they differ? Let’s do some easy math: 10% of list price = approximately 20% of net amounts received. If this in play, the author will earn approximately the same amount of money, regardless of whether the calculation is done based on list price or based on net amounts received.

So not a big deal. The problem occurs if the number “10” stays the same, but how it was calculated changes.

Here’s why: 10% of net amounts receive is one-half (1/2) the royalty money earned in comparison to 10% of list price.

That’s a significant drop for the author.

It’s pretty easy to see how this might simply be a data-entry mistake. Either way, I feel compelled to alert writers might have been unagented when they signed contracts with Egmont and, thus, probably didn’t catch this accounting error—especially if they are unfamiliar with deciphering royalty statements.

It is also possible that a fair amount of literary agents have also missed it—especially if they haven’t yet audited the Lerner statements.

So former Egmont authors, check your contract, and then check your royalty statements. Make sure you’re getting paid everything you’re contractually owed!

Photo Credit: Ano Lobb


What Is Your Magic Number?

All aspiring writers want their magic number to be one.

The first novel a writer ever wrote is perfect from conception.

The first novel lands a literary agent.

The first novel is so awesome, it immediately sells at auction.

The first novel is published to great fanfare and much commercial success.

The dream-come-true of overnight success. Well, I’d like to tell you something about that. Overnight success is a fabrication created by media outlets because it makes for a good story.

Ninety-nine-percent of the time, overnight-success stories are fiction. Most of these stories don’t divulge that the author ghostwrote ten novels for other people, or wrote three of their own novels that are tucked away because the author was working on craft.

In real life, what is the magic number—the number of novels written before a writer gets picked up by an agent, sold, and published?

I’ll tell you right now, it’s not one. If you poll a large number of authors and ask them how many novels they wrote before their first one sold, and then if you average the numbers they give you, my sense is that you will land right around four.

One of the truths I highlight at writers conferences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a later, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.

Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just completed your first novel, awesome. Celebrate this huge achievement. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you independently publish it and it doesn’t get much traction.

Keep on writing. Your magic number might be two or six or ten. My guess is that if you are passionately writing with ten novels under your belt, success is just around the corner.

Photo Credit: Andy Maguire


Your Writing Should Not Be Your Main Source of Validation For Who You Are as a Person

I think this can be the most debilitating mistake an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.

I recently gave a talk to Regis University’s MFA in Creative Writing students. In the fifteen-minute Q&A, one participant asked why it was so hard to get a literary agent to even look at her project. I could hear the frustration in her voice. I didn’t have a ready reply because the truth is that there is no good answer.

Writing is personal business. And any response and/or rejection can definitely feel like a commentary on your talent and who you are as a person.

But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!

Let me repeat that: A rejection is often not a commentary on your writing talent.

I can cite a bundle of different reasons why an agent or publisher may pass on your work, reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your writing ability. Don’t believe me? Here are a few (and in no particular order):

  • The agent/publisher has seen two-dozen concepts just like that one in the last four weeks.
  • That concept trend was hot, so now the Publisher has bought too many similar projects for their list and will not be acquiring any more.
  • The agent has an aversion to that type of story. I know a well-respected literary agent who personally cannot handle any story in which a child is in danger, and so will pass on any submission containing such scenes.
  • The editor could not get support in-house from the sales/marketing team to acquire the novel.
  • An agent read the story and thought the writer was talented, but for whatever reason, just didn’t connect with it enough to offer representation.
  • Bad timing. The agent was on vacation or at a conference, or just back to the office, and is simply swamped. It’s hard to be excited about taking on someone new if you are buried in work that can’t be accomplished in a 40-hour work week. And, LOL, no good agent works only 40 hours. It’s more like 60+ a week.
  • There’s talent on the page, but the editor or agent might think a significant revision is necessary, and taking the hour to write up an editorial letter isn’t going to happen.
  • The novel just has an element the agent is never enthusiastic about. For example, some agents are never going to take on a fairy-tale retelling or superhero story. It’s just not his or her thing.

I could go on. There are so many reasons that when I spoke at Regis, the best advice I could offer is this: Do not use writing as a means of validating who you are as a person.

No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.

Photo Credit: BK


Backspace’s Karen Dionne Tells You The Best Way to Leave Your Agent

 

For many authors, the thought of voluntarily ending their relationship with their literary agent can be heartbreaking—especially if their agent search was long and difficult, or if they genuinely like their agent. But like a marriage, sometimes what initially looked like an ideal pairing turns out otherwise.

Perhaps you’ve read Kristin’s “What Makes a Good Agent” article series in this newsletter and decided your agent doesn’t measure up. Or possibly you’ve known for some time that the relationship wasn’t working and have concluded it’s time to move on.

Assuming you’ve done everything you can to address the issues with your agent, what’s the next step?

How to Leave Your Agent

First, review your agency agreement. Most contracts specify that the relationship can be terminated by either party with 30 days’ notice.

Unless your agency agreement says otherwise, terminating your relationship by email is fine as long as the agent confirms receipt. If you choose to send your agent a letter via certified mail, it’s a good idea to email him or her in advance to let them know the letter is on the way.

If your agent has submitted your book to publishers, you’ll need to ask for a list of every publishing house he or she submitted your book to. Your agent owes you this information, as well as the status of each of those submissions if any are still pending. Understand that according to most agency agreements, your previous agent will be entitled to receive compensation for sales they made while you were under contract with them, even though you are no longer working together.

As with any professional relationship, take the high road. Feelings and emotions are involved, but don’t get caught up in the emotional aspects of the situation. You may have legitimate grievances. Your agent may be understandably upset. It’s important to stay calm and professional. Be polite and amicable. Thank your agent for all the hard work they did reading and submitting your work without compensation, and move on.

When to Start Looking for a New Agent

Most agents advise terminating your current relationship before looking for another agent. Some authors are understandably nervous about breaking up with their agent before they have another. However, keep in mind that publishing is a small world. If you decide to send out feelers before ending your relationship with your agent, odds are good your current agent will find out.

True story: Agent X and Agent Y, who worked at a different agency, were friends and often referred potential clients to one another. One day, an author looking for a new agent wrote to Agent X. Agent X read the pitch letter and went online to learn more about the author’s book deals—which is how Agent X learned that Agent Y was the author’s agent.

Assuming Agent Y had referred the client, Agent X wrote a quick note to thank him for the referral. Half an hour later, Agent X got an angry email from the author saying he hadn’t yet spoken to Agent Y, and now that agent had fired him. Naturally Agent X was no longer interested in working with this author either.

Once you and your agent have parted ways, your next objective is to find an agent who will be a better fit. It helps to write down what you feel you need in an agent. One you have a list of prospective agents, try to talk to some of their clients if at all possible to ask about the agent’s management and communication style as well as your other concerns. There’s no point in leaving one agent only to fall into the same kind of relationship with the next.

Above all, don’t feel guilty for ending a partnership that isn’t working. This may be difficult if you and your agent are on good terms, but remember: In the publishing world, enthusiasm is incredibly important. Authors need an agent who loves their work, and who believes the author might be the next big thing. If this isn’t the case for you, leaving your agent might be the best decision you ever make.

*****

Karen Dionne is an internationally published thriller author, co-founder of the online writers discussion forum Backspace, and organizer of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat and the Neverending Online Backspace Writers Conference. She is represented by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management. 

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks


Because Agents Are Human Too – Part 3

This month’s topic is the hardest to quantify, because when an agent offers representation, it will be difficult for a writer to ascertain his or her financial viability. This is often knowledge that doesn’t become apparent until after a business partnership has been established.

Regardless, it’s still worth saying: Good Agents are financially stable as agency entities as well as in their personal lives. 

First, let’s discuss why this is important. For those who are new to the publishing industry, keep in mind that money always flows to the author, not away. So, an agent earns her living by being paid a 15% commission (slightly different percentages for foreign and dramatic rights) on advances and royalties for projects sold. In other words, a book is sold to a publisher, the publisher sends a check to the agent, the agent takes her 15% commission based on the gross amount and then passes the other 85% through to the author.

Pretty simple. So why is it important for an agent to be financially stable in both her business life and her personal life? Because you don’t want your agent making fast, split-second decisions about your career, what deals you should accept or not accept, based on the fact that she might really need her 15% commission that month to pay her bills—either for personal debt or for the agency. Same is true when the contract comes in. You don’t really want an agent who will “rush” through a deal-points negotiation or a contract just to get it signed so that she can receive her commission faster.

That’s never going to be in your best interest.

Is it possible to identify the financial stability of an individual agent? In the initial stages of forming a representation partnership, probably not. But here are some thoughts to keep in mind:

*  Does an established agent, in the business for five years or more, still take on a lot of clients? That can be a sign that her current client list does not generate enough money to support her or her agency.

An established, good agent with solid financial stability takes on only select clients in any given year. Agents who need the money often take on a lot of clients so there is more front-end money (advances) coming in rather than back-end monies (revenue generated through royalties). Evaluate an agent’s sales track record and assess how likely the money generated by those sales creates financial viability for the agent.

Are all the deals for small or no advances? Do larger deals that have sold at auction for six figures balance out the smaller deals? Have enough clients on the agent’s list been successful enough to potentially earn back-end royalties to support the agent or agency?

Even when NLA was in its infancy and the budget was tight and small, I was very selective in offering representation. I had a five-year business plan and a business loan to make sure agency expenses were covered as I slowly built up my client list. Good agents don’t jump into agenting on a wing and a prayer. Good agents are savvy entrepreneurs with a plan.

* Does an agent close a deal quickly and then process the contract equally as fast? See my previous Fearless Negotiation article on this topic, as this might be a red flag.

* Does the agent talk about money in oblique or negative ways? There are certain expenses that are just part of being in business as an agent (i.e., paying for one’s own health insurance if an independent contractor under a larger agency umbrella). Does the agent kvetch or consider it a “hardship” to cover these types of expenses? Often that will come out in casual conversation and could be a sign of financial instability.

* Is the agent an independent contractor affiliated with the agency? If so, then that agent has to cover all their own expenses outside of the agency umbrella. Does that agent attend major events like Book Expo or Book Fairs, even when they have to foot the bill themselves? Or does that agent only attend conferences that reimburse travel, hotel, and meal expenses?

* Does the agent balk at footing extra, necessary costs—such as a consultation with an attorney for special situations or issues?

* Does an agent talk with a long-term perspective? Agenting is hard, and lots of new agents come to the business with wide-eyed optimism and then don’t last beyond two or three years. If an agent is committed to the career regardless of the finances associated with it, that will come through in casual conversation.

Keep in mind, this is not a get-rich-quick career. An agent needs to be in for the long haul to make it a success.

*********

General Summary about the Article Series: Just as the title suggests, because agents are also human beings, they are going to embody both good and bad traits found in human nature. No one is perfect. And as some authors have discovered, some agents are more imperfect than others!

Your job as an author is to objectively recognize those human attributes or failings in your agent and decide whether they impact your career. Hopefully they don’t. To this end, Karen Dionne of Backspace and I have put together a whole list of topics to tackle for “Because Agents Are Human Too.”

Photo Credit: Rich


A Digital Love Story of Survivability

The following would have been impossible even seven years ago:

This week I sold the film/tv rights for a memoir that a major publisher took out-of-print in 2013. But because of the indie-publishing revolution, the author had made her memoir available in the digital realm. Because of that, it was discoverable by a major Oscar-winning director and producer who not only took an interest, but also optioned the rights for television.

Sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Back in 2005, I met Kim Reid at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs. Kim had made a pitch appointment, but she pitched me a novel that didn’t sound right for my list. However, in the course of our conversation, I learned about her extraordinary childhood as the daughter of one of the lead detectives who helped solve the Atlanta child murders, committed by Wayne Williams in the seventies and eighties.

I immediately told her, “You need to write that. I could definitely sell it!” So she did, and I signed her as a client. It took sixteen months of dogged determination, and Kim surviving a slew of rejections, but I finally sold No Place Safe in June 2006.

Kensington Publishing did a lovely job with it. Good packaging. Wonderful editing. And then the book was published, and bookstores shelved it, oddly, in African American Studies rather than in biography, where it truly belonged. I can honestly say that the shelving diminished the book’s discoverability, as well as its ability to sell.

Heartbreaking. By 2013, the work was out-of-print, and the rights reverted to Kim.

Luckily, the digital revolution happened. So Kim, in partnership with NLA Digital LLC, indie published the memoir to give it a second chance at life. Director/producer John Ridley found it. Bought a copy. Read and loved it so much that he convinced ABC Studios to buy it for him.

Suddenly, a memoir that would have dropped completely from sight was saved by publishing’s digital transformation. This title now has a ton of exciting new possibilities unfolding.

This is why I love agenting in the digital age. Authors have so many more options available now. And this particular terrific story happened to a very worthy book!

Photo Credit: Alyssa L. Miller


Debut Authors Pass On the Inspiration

After listening to an amazing series of keynote presentations at the 2015 National conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), during which authors wear their hearts on their sleeves, I feel the need to pass on the inspiration!

From the Success Stories Panel:

  • Ten years from first conference to first book published. And when editing with a critique partner, editor, or agent, recognize and acknowledge the issue, and then find the fix that works for you, as it’s your story. —Anna Shinoda (author of Learning Not to Drown)
  • When you decide you want to be an author, you need to try for real. —Mike Curato (author of Little Elliot, Big City and Worm Loves Worm)
  • You have to show up every day, and a lot of what you create will stink. Don’t wait for perfection. —Lori Nichols (author of Maple and Maple & Willow Together)
  • Torment your character. Give him/her a goal and spend the next 70,000 words thwarting it. —Stacey Lee (author of Under a Painted Sky)
  • You don’t need to win an award to acknowledge your talent or become a published or successful author. —Martha Brockenbrough (author of The Game of Love and Death)

Writers, keep writing! Keep the faith, and as Kwame Alexander reminded us in his SCBWI 2015 closing keynote speech (“Six Basketball Rules of Publishing”), “You’ll miss 100-percent of the time if you never take the shot.”

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