Pub Rants

How Agents Make Money—Hint: It’s Not By Attending Conferences

 13 Comments |  Share This:    

STATUS: And no one ever talks about the late nights we agent keeps.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? CORNFLAKE GIRL by Tori Amos

I have to say I was highly amused to read a hypothesis from a writer that agents make their money from attending conferences.

If that were true, it would certainly be a poor way to make a living.

For the record, the good majority of conferences pay for travel, hotel lodging, and food. Occasionally, a conference will pay a small honorarium. I’ve personally seen remuneration of $150.00 to $250.00. Let’s say an agent attends 8 conferences at that level. That would be a whopping $2000.00. To put that into perspective, that would just about cover my business class internet for the year and maybe one-quarter of my yearly phone bill. As the honorarium stands now, it might cover our yearly office coffee budget for Starbucks and Common Grounds. Big grin here.

Now I have heard rumors of conferences paying anywhere from $500 to $1000 as an honorarium but I’ve never had the good fortune to participate in any of those conferences (although can someone tell me where I could sign up?).

No, agents don’t attend conferences to earn money. We attend conferences in the hopes of meeting an author and finding a project that will, in turn, earn us money.

It’s actually pretty simple. Agents make money by taking a percentage of what authors earn when an agent sells a project on that author’s behalf.

And there are a variety of revenue streams:
1. The initial sell to the US publisher
2. UK sale
3. Foreign translation sales to foreign publishers
4. Audio
5. Film
6. Other subsidiary rights such as first serial, book club, etc.

And trust me, I’m in my seventh year of agenting and this is certainly not the path to get rich quick. However, it’s a more than comfortable living—for which I feel extraordinarily blessed.

13 Responses

  1. Barbara said:

    I’d really like to thank you for doing this blog. I tried to explain to a friend once how real agents make money when she said a friend of hers from college was paying someone a few hundred dollars to be an agent–“After all, you can’t expect them to just work for free!>”–and I couldn’t seem to get it through. The more of this plain talk out there of how the business works, the less likely it is for scammers to get a foot in the door with naive young writers.

  2. K said:

    Perhaps you’ve posted about this before, but how did you get into being an agent, Kristin?

    What skills and qualifications do you think people need to be a good agent? What helps an agent be successful? How do people make a start in the business?

    It seems to be an interesting way to make a living, albeit with its own frustrations!

  3. Gordon Jerome said:

    Right. So long as you are going to someone else’s conference. The profit matrix is a bit different if its a conference you are putting together. If that were the case, then you’d want the biggest following of wannabe writers you could get–especially the ones with no hope of actually writing something that can sell.

    But, if you aren’t doing the conference, then sure, the only motivation would be to find new talent. And I certainly wish you the best of luck in that.

    I like what Noah Lukeman does: he writes a free guide to crafting a query letter and then constantly refers in it to a twenty-dollar guide he’s written on finding a literary agent, presumably on whom to test out one’s much improved query letter. I’m not knocking it. I’ve got two of his books (The First Five Pages and The Plot Thickens) and I’ve got the free guide and may well buy the twenty-dollar guide.

    Like I said, I’m not judging the man or woman who finds it more lucrative to sell the gold mining equipment rather than mining the gold; I’m just pointing out that there is a vast reservoir of wannabe writers who, like the main character in Stephen King’s UR, will never publish in any possible universe. But we still have viable checkbooks.

    Life is what life is. I’m not judging it. I’m simply pointing out how it works beyond the facades of utter nobility.

    But I hear you: you don’t make money at conferences. I think you should; that’s all I’m saying.

  4. MeganRebekah said:

    Agents making their money at conferences? I always wonder where some people get their ideas from.

    As always, thanks for providing some valuable insight into the life of an agent!

  5. clindsay said:

    And unless the agent is married/has a partner, gets a salary (rare) or is independently wealthy, most agents also work a second and/or third job while agenting because agenting doesn’t actually pay the bills for at least 5-7 years.

    I wish more writers understood that, and that more agents would be upfront and honest about how difficult it is to make a living doing this for the first few years.

    If we’re not doing it for the money (and trust me, we’re not; just like nobody chooses to work in publishing for the money), then it must be because we have a genuine passion for the books.




  6. David Kearns said:

    I recall Old Will here not in a personal sense but for her stallwart defense of the industry at-large “methinks the lady doth protest too much!”

    I was a newspaper reporter for seven years. There is a 50/50 chance, I believe, that a public official’s motivation for getting into office wasn’t of snow-driven purity.

    This flitting off to conference business bothers me, as in deeply. At last check a round-trip ticket to Hawaii was pretty expensive.

    We consider that most agents, like most writers, aren’t running in the black like Ms. Nelson is; these days they aren’t successful, aren’t running at a profit or even breakng even. She seems very honest, forthright and undoubtably the exception, the “honest” fifty percent.

    Then we come to those others who seem to looooooooveeeeee this conference business. In fact, some are more often than not, AT a conference rather than look at YOUR manuscript you sent them three months ago!…LOVE IT!?

    Satriales was the locale where the envelopes were exchanged in the Supranos, we recall.

    How and where might an agent, not among the other fifty percent, best be “coaxed” shall we say? Well, you would need FACETIME wouldn’t you?

    Human nature IS what it IS especially in these tough times. Writers who were desperate when times were good, just got more desperate, didn’t they?

    Let’s not kid ourselves….

  7. Dara said:

    Plus it’s a job you love (most of the time from what I gather) 🙂 That alone is worth it.

    Oh to be blessed with a job I loved and felt passionate about…you are indeed extraordinarily blessed!

  8. Patrice said:

    I think I remember the same comment, regarding agents profiting from attending conferences. The commenter was apparently suggesting that those ten minute “one-on-one” sessions, which the attendees pay for, are a source of big money for the agents. While the Hawaii conference charged $50 for a slot, I wouldn’t imagine that the agents get a portion of that… do they?

    Like most arts concerns, writing conferences are struggling this year. No one is rolling in the dough.

    As to the commenter higher up that indicated that a ticket to Hawaii is expensive — from the East Coast, where I live, a ticket to Hawaii is about $500. Some people travel, and consider it just a normal thing to take a trip like that once every year or so. Others find it almost a shocking indulgence. It’s all in where you spend your money. I bet nearly everyone on this board could save up for a ticket to Hawaii eventually.

    If you could find $500 to spend on a sick child, you could find it to go to Hawaii… you just don’t want to spend it that way. And surely it isn’t true that agents OWE it to potential customers to stay home and read their manuscripts when they have an offer of a free trip to Hawaii…?

  9. David Kearns said:


    Me? I’d sooner coach my kid’s soccer game, or even sit through one of their swim meets than spend a minute locked indoors at a conference, making nice, smiling so hard my face hurts, for a bunch of agents who are only there for the free eats, laugh at the wannabees and a few minutes on the plastic lanai by the pool; agents who will forget me, and all my whiny writer nonsense before their plane touches down again on the mainland.

    In a hotel conference room in Hawaii!? Really? That’s a good time?

    Sistah, if I am going to Hawaii, I am bringing the whole family and our surfboards. And hope I don’t get my haule ass beat too bad by the locals after riding the North Shore.

    More bedda than sitting in a room bribing agents in an industry that’s changing faster than people can write contracts.

    Life’s too short, sistah.