This week, I’ve gotten two inquiries from writers about agencies with low commission rates (7% in one case, 10% in another). Both writers felt that the low commission was a positive sign–not just because the agents would get a smaller cut of the writers’ eventual income, but because it suggested to them that the agents were less greedy and more author-friendly than agents who charge 15%.
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a bargain agent.
When I first started dreaming of publication, way back in the prehistoric 1970’s, most literary agents charged 10%. This began to change in the 1980’s, at first slowly, then in a rush, as agents increased their commission rates to 15% (my agent made the switch in 1989). Nowadays, a 15% commission is the norm. There are some exceptions–a few agents still have older clients grandfathered in at 10%, and a handful of agents charge 20% (often in a two-tiered system that reserves the higher rate for new authors). Apart from this, 15% is the prevailing standard among reputable literary agents.*
Disreputable agents, on the other hand, often set their commissions at 12%, 10%, or even 5%. Sometimes this is because they have no actual publishing industry background and don’t know any better, or, in their inexperience, sincerely believe they’re giving their clients a better deal. (For why it’s really, really not a good idea to choose an inexperienced agent, see this post.) More often, it’s to offer the appearance of a bargain in order to sweeten a demand for upfront fees. A low commission is no bargain if the agent never makes a sale–and if the agent is a scammer, as opposed to someone who simply doesn’t know what she’s doing, a low commission is a safe promise, since the agent expects to make his income from writers’, not publishers’, payments.
So if you encounter an agent who offers a “bargain” commission–especially if the agent portrays it as such–be wary, and check the agent’s background and track record. It may be that you’ve found one of the only successful agents around who still charges 10%, but it’s far more likely that you’ve run into an amateur or a fraudster.
As for the agencies mentioned in the first paragraph, both are in Writer Beware’s database. The first charges an upfront fee of £80 or £120, depending on how many publishers you want it to contact. The second charges an upfront fee of $250. Neither, as far as we can discover, has any track record of commercial sales.
* Book agents, that is. For various reasons that I won’t go into here, script agents still charge 10%.