The Cost of Being an Agent

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Sep 16 2021

When agents talk about offering representation we talk a lot about loving a project. But love isn’t everything, there’s also the reality of money. This is a business and the true cost of being an agent is we only get paid when the author gets paid. No matter how much work we put into it–editing, submitting, and consulting. Unless that author sees money, we don’t see money.

Trust me when I say there are a lot of books and authors I’ve worked with who I never earned from. It’s one of the hazards of agenting. One of the great things about agenting though is continuing to earn on books years and years after they were first published.

Putting Numbers on Decisions

I’ve never put exact numbers on the decisions I make when offering representation. In other words, BookEnds doesn’t have a P&L sheet. But that doesn’t mean the P&L doensn’t play a part in my decision.

I never totaled exactly the number of hours I spend editing, the cost per hour of those edits and then the possible advance and potential royalty earnings to see if the book was worth my time. I’m just not numbers driven in the way others are. That doesn’t mean numbers aren’t a consideration in that decision.

While I don’t know if other agencies use P&L sheets, I do know some have minimums before agents can offer representation.

When I first started BookEnds I found out one agent wasn’t allowed to offer representation unless the book was predicted to earn a $50,000 advance or more. I was shocked. I never thought of looking at it that way. Honestly, I was representing primarily commercial mass market fiction and, trust me, those were not making $50,000 advances, especially for debut.

While I never set that sort of limit on BookEnds, I can tell you it seems to have worked for that agent who is doing very well in their career.

While agents don’t always look at exact numbers, the earning potential definitely plays a part in the decision to offer. This is a business afterall and before digging into something I need to feel that I can sell it and know what kind of time I’m willing and able to put into the book to make that happen. I know, in my heart at least, whether the book is worth my time and my money.

It’s the Long Game that Matters

This is why I stress when offering representation that I’m in it for a career, not a single book.

Some of the most financially successful authors aren’t you’d expect. They aren’t always the big names or the books that got the most attention at BookExpo. Often they are the tortoises in a world that focuses too much on the hares. They’re playing the long game and it’s working.

These authors might still be making $5,000 or $10,000 advances, even after years of writing. But they’ve been publishing for years and the royalties they’re earning far exceed what those advances look like.

So while I’m not running numbers on this book, I am running (in my head) numbers on your career. I’m looking to see if you have the potential to become published for years. I want to build that first piddling advance to the 50th, no longer piddling advance.

The Truth Can Hurt

I recently had a colleague say that at the end of their career they would never work on commission again. They felt that all the time and energy spent editing, they would have been far more financially successful to have charged per hour than they have made on commission.

I’m going to tell you, that hurt to hear. But I get it. I think a lot of agents spend a lot of time doing the work of editors and at the end of the day, the commission isn’t enough of a payoff. There has to be better balance.

I keep this in mind when I fall in love with a book and I remind fellow BookEnders to do the same. Our time is valuable and it’s important we remember that with every business decision we make.