Greedy or pragmatic? A recurring question

Shouldn’t I, as a literary agent, be willing to collaborate with you on a writing project that represents your life’s work, regardless of its commercial prospects?

The question comes up frequently, though of course it’s never framed quite like that. I’m always at a loss for gentle words to explain why the size of the market for a book matters. It matters, because it correlates with the likelihood that I’ll be compensated for my labor.

Literary agents take a 15% slice of their clients’ royalties, and a larger percentage of the proceeds from certain subsidiary rights licenses, such as foreign translation rights or film rights. Before a deal is struck, the percentage doesn’t translate into anything meaningful, because every new author dreams of a six-figure advance. No one wants to think that his or her book is unlikely to attract such a sizable investment from a publisher.

But let’s say the topic of a writer’s manuscript is so narrowly focused that a $5,000 advance against royalties actually would be considered fair, because the title’s first printing will be small and there’s little likelihood of a second printing. I’d receive 15% of the author’s advance, or $750. If the author never earns out the advance and there are no translations, audiobooks, movies based on the book, etc., then there will be no additional royalties to divide. It happens.

Essentially, in the above scenario, I’d be compensated for about two and a half days of work. I’ve been involved in negotiations with publishers that, alone, took far more than twenty hours. That doesn’t include the time spent preparing the manuscript, submitting it to acquiring editors, or consulting with the author. It also doesn’t include the time it takes to advise the author about attracting publicity, avoiding libel, building a platform, protecting copyrights, or any number of matters that routinely arise.

When I was a freelance copyeditor, I was paid considerably more than $750 for each of the books I edited. I know the market value of my services, just as successful freelance writers know the value of their work.

An excellent book can have a very small potential readership. That doesn’t mean the book is a failure, and it doesn’t mean the author’s efforts and talent aren’t valued. It merely means the project is not terribly commercial. Plenty of writers consider it a point of honor that their creations don’t hold mainstream appeal.

The authors of books with very specific markets can and should approach the appropriate publishers directly. Nonprofit and university presses typically have mandates to specialize in neglected or controversial topics, experimental forms, esoteric interests, or marginalized writers. Many of these presses are no less prestigious; they’re simply less commercial. They have different business models.

No writer needs to go without contract advice, but the advice needn’t always come from an agent. The Authors Guild provides free publishing contract reviews to its members. A writer with a qualifying book deal can become a member of the Authors Guild for a reasonable fee. Entertainment and intellectual property lawyers also can provide contract advice.

Occasionally, aspiring authors feel entitled to representation by a literary agent in spite of never having tested the value of their creative output by, for example, submitting a story to a paying publication or writing a commissioned article for a periodical. Monetary compensation comes down to what the market will bear. Having an agent might make an author’s work appear to be more valuable in a strictly commercial sense, because the agent’s income and reputation are at stake. However, the day every writer has an agent (provided we define agents as those working on commission) is the day agents will be out of business.

There’s an underlying, almost hidden, logic in the book publishing industry that becomes apparent when writers are willing to learn its intricacies. One of the best bits of advice new writers are given is to know the business.

2 thoughts on “Greedy or pragmatic? A recurring question

  1. Marsha

    Thanks, Robin. You’re one of the few people to clarify in detail the money issues involved with writing and publishing.

    Too often, writers have visions of some legendary editors in the past, who did *everything* for their writers. That was not common even then, and more importantly, that world is gone. Writers do themselves a disservice if they refuse to understand how the current publishing industry works.

  2. Robin Mizell Post author

    I’m glad the information’s helpful, Marsha, because I worry about coming off as a whiner. It’s difficult to deliver bad news.

    Fortunately, as you point out, a few other literary agents are very transparent about their business. You probably know of Kristin Nelson’s Pub Rants; the BookEnds, LLC, blog; and the anonymous Call My Agent! For insight into scholarly publishing, Publishing Frontier might be helpful.

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