There was a fantastic forum discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #agentspay yesterday. The discussion started when agent Colleen Lindsay asked the question, "How would publishing change if agenting moved from commission-based payment to billable hours?"
Victoria Strauss followed up this discussion by asking the question, “Are Agents Underpaid” on the Writer Beware Blogs.
And now here’s my take on it… Sharene will chime in later with hers.
I’m for reading fees. There I’ve said it. Five years ago, or even last year, I would have been scandalized for such sacrilege; that I’m in favor of charging for labor expended. I also like the idea of charging for critiques and for edits and for all those other things we now do free of charge that are above and beyond what literary agents are actually paid to do. What has changed? Can we now, please, have this fascinating open discussion in a reasonably calm fashion? Have writers and agents matured enough so that we can sit down together and discuss the hard times we are all now facing?
There is so much I’d like to say and so much bitterness about how shabbily those of us who have tried to have this discussion were treated in the past. I’m clinching my jaws and gritting my teeth while writing this, but I’m going to contain my wrath and stay on point. Hopefully, my anger won’t leak through as I give, in an agent’s point of view, my answers to a couple of the questions posed in the above discussion.
Yes, agents have taken on more responsibilities, but there have not been any payment changes since I became an agent. Probably the reason is that every move an agent makes is scrutinized, measured and quantified and because most larger agents are satisfied with the status quo, while the rest of us have to go along with rules made by writer advocates and agents more powerful. However, now that things are getting tight for many, here comes talk of change. We have always changed a 15% commission and have always felt underpaid for what we do to move a work through the long process from writer to publisher’s editor. We put up with all the crap and do it, of course, for the same reason as writers. We love books and the written word.
As for the specter of abuse, I think it’s mostly fantasy made up by those who have prospered by spreading rumor and innuendo. Secret files, also, don’t help alleviate my disbelief. As an example, I receive spam letters daily notifying me that I’ve won lotteries all over the world and winning a lottery is much, much easier than writing a novel or trying to get it published. I’m sure many fall for these scams, but we all should know better. There have always been and will always be those who try to trick others out of their hard-earned money. Writers’ advocacy groups might have had some successes, but their war against scammers has been about as successful as the war on drugs. Where there’s easy money to be made from those not too bright, there will always be scams. The best advice I can offer to not be scammed is to be more intelligent than those who might prey on you. Isn’t intelligence, after all, the only strength the human species has against predators and hasn’t our unique minds allowed us to move to the top of the food chain? Knowing who is prey and who is wolf, however, is becoming harder and harder to discern.
I’m also reasonably sure there were some, when this discussion began, who suffered from elevated blood pressure. The reason is because agents, over the years, have been portrayed as the enemy and for one of us to have the nerve to actually suggest that we aren’t rich by now is definitely something some writers don’t want to hear. These same writers were and are the kings and queens of popular writer discussion boards and are not too happy that Twitter and Facebook are more civilized places where agent and writer can be friends, instead of enemies--or maybe just frenemies. It’s still an improvement.
As far as job description, ours hasn’t changed. We are still charged with getting our clients published before we get paid. We still lay awake nights plotting and wondering if what we told that editor we spoke with about this wonderful author whose novel we’ve discovered; whether what we said was strong enough to make her consider fighting for it, too. We still hurt when a client’s work is rejected. But what hurts even more deeply is when that wonderful novel we love and have worked so hard to try to get published fails. No, our job has not changed. We still become heartsick when someone whose work we admire must be told that no matter how hard we’ve tried, we’ve still lost the battle. Then, after defeat, we still have to try to explain the wacky world of entertainment to a truly talented individual, even as mediocre and poorly written novels fly off the shelves. No amount of money or a different way of charging for this or that will help ease that pain. A raise of commission rate, reading fees or pay for edits or critiques will never make that painful pill easier to swallow.