Agents Need to Develop Alternative Models

Jane FriedmanBy Jane Friedman, Director of Content & Community Development, Writer’s Digest

Last year, I wrote a piece in Writer’s Digest (September 2009) about the future role of agents. I had three key points:

  • Agents need to partner and focus on the long-term goals of an author’s career rather than a specific book sale. (Though, as this post will discuss, the current agenting model does not support this.)

Victoria Strauss over at Writer Beware wrote a lengthy post (reprinted here) addressing the issue of whether agents are now underpaid at the 15% commission rate, given how much work they are expected to do aside from make a sale.

She ultimately recommends that agents could/should charge 20%, and allows that agencies may legitimately start offering fee-based services (for non-clients), as well as publishing arms.

The 20% commission rate isn’t going to solve a thing. It’s like putting a Band-aid on a gushing wound. It won’t save anyone whose business is at risk.

Regarding services and publishing operations: I couldn’t agree more, though I think the distinction between clients and non-clients is going to evaporate FAST.

The amount of money that’s floating to books (and to content in general) is diminishing. That’s because there’s a TON of supply, and not so much demand. There will be less money to go around for all, but probably just as many people will be interested in writing and authorship.

Publishing cannot possibly sustain the current status quo.

And that current status quo is: Agents can only get paid when they make a sale, and that is the only way they should get paid.

This has to change if the role of the agent is going to have any value or meaning in the future for authors (except for those bestselling authors, whose royalty checks will presumably continue to fund the old model).

Laura Strachan on #agentpayEither agents provide a valuable service for non-bestselling authors, or they don’t.

I think they do. And as Strauss mentions, you can find agents now who are launching alternative models for serving authors outside of the traditional commission relationship. Check Keller Media or Diversion Books (Scott Waxman). You’re going to see more of this. A lot more.

Agents are ideally positioned to be career advisers/managers, or professional consultants. Their role will change, and how clients/authors pay them will change. And as long as transparency is maintained, agents need the leeway to run their business in new, innovative ways, without being unfairly labeled as an illegitimate operation, or as taking advantage of writers.

Undoubtedly there will be much confusion in the years ahead as things transform, and writers will need as much education as ever to form the right partnerships for their career. But agents need to be empowered and given room to innovate as much as the authors.

We can’t develop future business models around fear and protectionism.

This post was originally published at Writer’s Digest’s There Are No Rules blog, and has been reprinted here with Ms. Friedman’s permission.

Jane Friedman is the Director of Content & Community Development for the Writer’s Digest brand community, including Writer’s Digest magazine, Writer’s Digest Books, and the Writer’s Market series. She is the author of the Beginning Writer’s Answer Book and blogs on the industry as part of the Writer’s Digest community at There Are No Rules. She is a vegetarian, bourbon-drinking editor, at least mostly sane, living life forward, even though you can only understand it backward.

7 thoughts on “Agents Need to Develop Alternative Models

  1. Scott Nicholson

    I’ve already commented at Victoria’s post. Writers care more about this than about “the future of the publishing industry” because most of us aren’t counting on the industry being there when we need it. Most of us really aren’t that invested in propping up old models because we either didn’t sell well enough, never got accepted in the first place, or got dumped or neglected the minute a shinier writer came along and the bigger commission loomed.

    Now, I am poised to make more on my own this year than I did in any year in which I had a NY deal. This will be the case for many writers in the next few years. What would I want in an agent at this point? (I do have an agent looking at some stuff that I think will work in the current NY environment because I think NY does have distinct advantages still).

    I would consider an agent to help with editing, branding, marketing, management, vision, and the rights that will still be difficult for a writer to achieve alone. Foreign rights? I don’t need you to sell my book to overseas publishers. I need you to help me find translators so I can reach the worldwide digital market. I’ve found five on my own. Bring me 20 or 50 or 100. We’ll all make a little bit on royalties.

    Help me identify my audiences. if you know books and readers (you would have to convince me this is the case, or every agent would sell bestsellers and every editor would be hailed as a genius and publishing would be highly profitable), then you understand how I can reach my readers. That’s “my readers,” not one editor, or a generic stranger browsing a bookstore.

    Be a conduit, not a roadblock. Look for avenues instead of fighting the upstream current. Encourage my diversity and sell my screenplays, children’s books, comic books, and audio books. Better yet, find us more partners–filmmakers, actors, illustrators, web designers, other writers).

    Be my partner. Believe in my vision instead of changing it to fit trend or perceived market. Stick with me. Have goals and follow them relentlessly. Have dreams and follow them blindly.

    Then I will be yours.

    Scott Nicholson

  2. Victoria Strauss

    I don’t think it’s fair to say I recommend a commission hike. Rather, I propose it as the least ethically ambiguous of several alternatives for increased income–all in the context of a recent Twitter discussion about whether agents should abandon the commission model entirely, and switch to billable hours.

    If agents are going to branch out into providing fee-based services beyond the commission structure–and I agree that we’ll see more and more of this in coming years–mere transparency isn’t enough. Agents must actively take steps to ensure that their clients and potential clients are protected from the conflict of interest issues that will inevitably arise, with the attendant potential for abuse (there’s a reason that agents’ professional trade groups don’t allow their members to charge reading fees or to sell editing services to their clients). Walls must be established between the agency side and the fee-based service side–for instance, services such as consulting would never be sold to clients, and no one who purchased those would be eligible to become a client.

    In the rush to innovate, agents shouldn’t forget to the importance of making sure their clients are protected, and their potential clients are fairly dealt with.

    1. Anna Petrakis

      I fail to see the utility of this discussion. Agents are in competition with one another, and that’s what keeps their commission rates at 15%. If they collectively raised their commissions, or all moved to a different model of pay, anti-trust law would rightly make them stop. Any agent now is free to charge 20%, 30%, even 100% commission if they want, but that would put them at a competitive disadvantage, they would lose clients, and their income would go down, not up. Probably they could start charging desperate new authors a higher commission than established clients, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen, but even if they do it will be a slow process as the agents see how well they can compete for the best of the new.

      1. Scott Nicholson

        Anna, the commission rate was 10 percent little more than a decade ago. And virtually everyone collectively moved up to 15 percent. It’s about like collusion in the same way all the gas prices in town are similar…you can’t prove it, and it may be entirely coincidental, but hey, everybody else is at that price, so it must be close to the right price, right?

        Back then the arguments were the “increasing cost of doing business,” though it also coincided with the major publishers no longer looking at slush, so you might say workload and responsibility increased. I doubt if workload has increased, as there are only 24 hours in a day, and email increased slush but made rejection faster.

        Sports agents charge 3 percent. Hollywood agents recently charged 10 percent, though I don’t know what the rate is today. Real-estate agents charge 3 percent (though the selling and buying agents each get 3 percent). So 15 percent is a made-up, mutually agreed number. It doesn’t matter if it is fair or “worth it” or whether agents can or cannot make a living at it. If an agent can’t, an agent finds other work, like everyone else.

        I know plenty of writers who would pay to have an agent. But would that agent be “worth” anything?

        Scott Nicholson

  3. Pingback: Are Agents Doomed? | Publishing In the 21st Century

  4. Alex

    What you are suggesting is that Agents get an 33% pay increase in commision and the writers a 5% decrease. Agent earning more and Writers less is not got for the Writers business.

    We all have it difficult in the current economy. It ridiculous to suggest that one needs to take a cut in pay so another can earn much more while both work harder.



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