I'm writing this on a Monday evening, the first day after starting a new job. I've also just received and replied to the edits of OCTOPUS RULES. Much writing, and much thinking about a life spent trying to make a decent wage from writing.
If the series of posts I did for Writers' & Artists' taught me anything, it's that I have forgotten what it's like to be truly starting out for the first time - to not know about agents and publishers and to not be worrying at all about the finer points of contracts and deadlines. It's an exciting time in a writer's life, and the work, and the mistakes, that come from that period can change your life forever.
So, agents. Want one? You might not. If you do, though, it's good to have clear in your mind how the finances work.
When you send a manuscript off to an agent you're requesting that they represent you to publishers. At this stage, you should pay nothing. Reading fees and the like are the signs of a faux-agent or, at worst, a mere trickster. Get the book accepted, sign a contract, sure - but pay zilch.
If everything goes spectacularly and there aren't any more edits needed before the book goes on submission to publishers - hooray! At this point a legit agent will ask you for ... nada. You don't pay an agent to submit on your behalf any more than you pay them to sign you up initially.
But wait - a publisher loves your book and wants to make an offer. This changes everything. The end is in sight - the dreams of authorhood, of books in shops, are so nearly within your grasp. Cue maniacal laughter and sporadic solo dance parties. Getting that agent really paid off, eh? And it's time to pay them a big fat zero. Yup - an offer from a publisher is fantastic, but you still shouldn't be paying anyone anything. Not yet. Not yet.
Now, things start coming together. The publisher and the agent will hash out the details of the deal, including advance payments, percentages, and when you'll get the money. Should you pay the agent now? Yes! Well, it would be more accurate to say Kind of. Payments from the publisher will come via the agent, who will take their percentage before passing the bulk on to you. How much should you pay then, then? Depending on the rights and the territories, 15-25%. This will all have been in the agency agreement you signed when you first got representation.
And that's how it's done! With agents and authors, the general rule is that money should go towards the writer. There can always be extenuating circumstances, and every agency is different, but if you're paying an agent something besides a percentage of a done and dusted book deal, be cautious. It can be hard enough making money as a writer without falling to unscrupulous practices.
The Association of Authors' Agents Code of Practice section 6(h) states that:
Agents may reimburse themselves from money collected from third parties on their author's behalf for money properly spent for such expenses as photocopying of manuscripts or proposals and/or for the purchase of proofs or books for submission, for bank charges in relation to overseas payments or other exceptional postage and/or courier expenses. However, no member shall charge a reading fee or any other fee to a client beyond his/her regular commission as notified to the Association without the client's or prospective client's prior consent in writing.And, in the U.S., The Association of Authors' Representatives Canon of Ethics Sections 3 and 8 State:
In addition to the compensation for agency services that is agreed upon between a member and a client, a member may, subject to the approval of the client, pass along charges incurred by the member on the client’s behalf, such as copyright fees, manuscript retyping, photocopies, copies of books for use in the sale of other rights, long distance calls, special messenger fees, etc. Such charges shall be made only if the client has agreed to reimburse such expenses.
The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity. The term “charge” in the previous sentence includes any request for payment other than to cover the actual cost of returning materialsSo, the writing's on the wall for this one. What should you pay an agent? What they earn - and believe me, a good agent earns every penny.