Are Literary Agents Really Worth Their Commission?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Do I need an agent?

The longstanding advice to new writers was that if they had any hope of a successful career in publishing they absolutely needed an agent. Myriad books and blogs have been devoted to the topics of how to pitch agents and how to find the right agent. Unfortunately for most authors, winning an agent is easier said than done, and rejection is the rule rather than the exception. With the growth of indie publishing and presses that will consider unagented work, entrepreneurial authors are starting to ask how relevant agents are in today’s publishing world.

In the first part of this two-part series on authors and agents, I took a look at survey data about how authors feel about agents.

Related: Authors’ View on the Value of Agents

In this second part, I compare the gross income authors reported from their latest publication projects for authors with and without agents. The 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey asked 2,834 published authors about their views of agents as well as their income from their most recently published books. While the voluntary survey sample may not be representative of the experiences of all published authors, it does provide us with a large number of interviews and a potential comparison of the experiences of authors with and without representation from a literary agent.

The survey asked authors how much they had earned on their latest traditionally published book and on their latest self-published book. Authors with a traditional publication were also asked whether they had received an advance and how much. In addition, authors were asked about their annual writing income, which might differ from the overall earnings on a specific book. For purposes of this analysis, we have excluded the responses of authors who elected not to report their earnings by indicating “rather not say” on the survey.

The results indicate that the greatest advantage from having an agent may accrue to authors when they traditionally publish. Authors who only traditionally published and hybrid authors both saw substantially higher median advances and total earnings on their most recent traditionally published books when they had agent representation. As I reported in Part I of this series on agents, the authors we surveyed were unsure whether agents were helpful to authors self-publishing their work. In contrast to the results for traditionally published books, there was no advantage for authors who were only indie-published from having an agent, while hybrid authors saw higher median earnings on their most recent self-published books but not by the same margin. In terms of annual writing income, agented authors reported higher annual writing income, only if their publishing history included traditionally published works, either alone or in concert with self-published ones.

author earnings with and without agents

So are authors seeking to publish with traditional publishers better off seeking representation from a literary agent? Taken at face value, the results certainly would indicate an advantage. However, there are reasons to suspect that there are differences between the projects and authors that attract agents and those that don’t.

Agents are highly selective in taking on clients. In fact, rejection is the rule rather than the exception, with 98% or more of submissions receiving rejections. In particular, agents tend to take only those projects they think have market appeal and will sell to publishers. We might liken literary agents to realtors who only will sell move-in ready homes with high curb appeal located in the most promising neighborhoods. We would expect such homes to command a higher selling price because of their inherent attractiveness—to the realtor and to potential buyers. If the homes the realtor selects ultimately sell for more money than other homes, is that because the home was already positioned to sell for a good price or because the realtor did something special?

Because we don’t know what these unobserved differences between authors with and without representation might be or whether an author’s agent represented the specific project referenced in the survey, it is difficult to tell whether having an agent leads to higher earnings from traditionally published projects or is a marker of earnings potential for authors. However, the difference in the median returns from traditionally published books for authors with agents outstrips the 15% an agent would charge by a wide margin. The difference seems to be large enough to encourage authors seeking traditional publication to enlist an agent’s advice, even if representation serves as a marker of a project’s market potential rather than a true negotiating advantage.

Related: What Advantages do Traditional Publishers Offer Authors

4 thoughts on “Are Literary Agents Really Worth Their Commission?

  1. Christopher Anzalone

    The agent model is basically a trade-centric perspective. Having acquired in educational, reference, academic trade, and professional publishing I find it extremely rare for prospective authors to use (or need to use) agents. They are, of course, free to do so but the agent knows that royalty advances are small or nonexistent.

    Reply
  2. Victoria Strauss

    One of the most important advantages offered by an agent has been left out of this discussion: the ability to get manuscripts onto the desks of editors at publishers and imprints that acquire mainly or exclusively through agents. If you’re a novelist with your sights set on an imprint of one of the Big 5 publishers, for instance, your chances without an agent aren’t exact zero, but pretty close.

    Also, as in the previous article in this series, no distinction has been made between types of “traditional” publishers–small presses that don’t typically work with agents and to which authors generally sell on their own, vs. larger independents and Big 5 imprints that rely mostly or entirely on agents for acquisition. Authors approaching the former have little need to engage an agent (and due to the lack of advances, agents have little interest in working with such publishers anyway); while for authors who’ve set their sights on the latter, an agent is essential.

    You can’t meaningfully discuss the value of agents to “traditionally-published” or hybrid authors without taking these two factors into account.

    Reply
    1. Marc Cabot

      No, but you can meaningfully discuss if the aforementioned benefits show up on the bottom line. It seems that they might, but even the author acknowledges that it’s correlation and not necessarily causation.

      If an agent gets my book on the desk of a major publisher and they buy it and I make lots of money but *not as much as I would have made without the agent doing that,* ceteris paribus, it doesn’t matter that the agent helped: they still cost me money I would have kept without them. Your argument is valid but not relevant to the topic under discussion.

      Reply
  3. Marc Cabot

    “The difference seems to be large enough to encourage authors seeking traditional publication to enlist an agent’s advice, even if representation serves as a marker of a project’s market potential rather than a true negotiating advantage.”

    Wait, what?

    This doesn’t make any sense. If representation serves as a marker, it doesn’t *matter* what the difference is, because the difference has nothing to do with the representation. It could be that the average agented author made ten million more dollars per book than the average unagented author, but if the agent wasn’t a significant contributor, all that means is that the agented author got to pay $1,500,000 to their agent for no significant reason. The fact that the vultures are getting fat doesn’t really help the rancher whose cow just fell off a cliff.

    I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between, but much closer to the “marker” than the “enhancer” edge of the spectrum.

    Reply

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