Please welcome our new blogger Margaret S. Hamilton to WWK. Look for Margaret's posts on the third Saturday of each month (and sometimes scattered throughout the month).

If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book next year, please contact E. B. Davis at

Our September interviews feature: Judy Penz Sheluk on 9/7, Lesley Diehl on 9/14, Julianne Holmes on 9/21, and Vicki Fee on 9/28.

Saturday Guest Bloggers: Lea Wait 9/3, Jacqueline Vick 9/10, and our Saturday Bloggers--9/17 Margaret S. Hamilton, 9/24 Kait Carson.

Warren Bull has two short stories, "A Christmas Journey" and "Killer Eulogy" in the Darkhouse anthology titled Black Coffee. Available--Now! Warren's short story collection No Happy Endings is also available at Amazon in paper or Amazon for Kindle.

Jim Jackson's 4th book in the Seamus McCree series, Doubtful Relations, is now available.

KM Rockwood's Abductions and Lies, the 6th in the Jesse Damon Crime Novel series, will be released in April. "Last Laugh," a short story in the anthology Black Coffee is available on Amazon. "Tarnished Hope," a short story in Murder Most Conventional, sponsored by Malice Domestic, April 29, at the conference. "Frozen Assets," a short story in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, release date May 14th (an anthology compiled by Chessie Chapter of SINC)

Gloria Alden released the seventh book in her Catherine Jewell mystery series, Blood Red Poinsettias, which is available at Amazon. Congratulations, Gloria.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Harsh Economics of Agent Love

Recently I read a lively discussion about the purported absurdity of agents insisting they “fall in love” with a novel from a pre-published author before they choose to represent it. Essentially the complaint came down to “if it’s at least as good as the stuff you can buy at the book store, why isn’t that enough?”

A quick refresher in agent economics may shed some light on the question. Let’s say Ms. Agent has decided she needs to clear $75,000 to make a go of the agenting business. Further assume 25% of her gross will go for overhead: rent, supplies, a part-time reader maybe, lunches with editors. By golly, that means she needs to earn $100,000. [I've made up all the numbers, but they’re sufficient for our purposes here.]

With a 15% commission, she’ll need her authors to earn $666,666.67. If she could sell an “okay” book for a $5,000 advance (and assuming the advance is exactly earned out), she would have to make 133+ sales or better than 2.5 sales a week.

Ain’t going to happen.

Turn this around: If she can make a sale a week (which would be spectacular) each sale needs to generate almost $13,000 and at a more realistic, but still pretty good, twenty-five sales a year, author royalties need to exceed $25,000 a book.

On average – and that’s the rub. What makes this whole industry work (currently) is not the average, but the positive outliers. A best seller covers a lot of minimal advances that never earn out—even though they might be just as well written as the best seller. Furthermore, it is rare for a first book to be a best seller.

A bunch of really good books, one per author, won’t generate nearly as much revenue for anyone as a series of good books by a single author. Haven’t we all read something by a new-to-us- author and then gone back to read their earlier books? That’s why agents want to sign people who can write multiple books.

This means the agent must invest time and effort on pre-published authors before they are profitable; and time and effort are precious resources for an agent. Like the rest of us, there is no way to get hours back once we have expended them. With so many pre-published authors vying for agent representation, why would an agent choose to represent an author whose first work they didn’t love?

It makes complete sense to me [but hey, I’m probably better at the finances stuff than the love angle anyway.] Now I just need to develop a strong enough query letter so an agent will want to read my stuff. Once they do, I know they’ll fall in love!

~ Jim


E. B. Davis said...

I always write with the intention of turning each ms into the first book of a series. Perhaps I fall "in love" with my characters or their backstory is so vast and can't be included in one book, which enables me to cull more than one book out of the characters. Your analysis gives weight to creating a series. But, I never write the second book in a series until I've sold the first book, which I haven't as yet done. I know other authors have written many books in a series and then eventually sell the first, but I don't have that confidence. Yet, your economics make that option appealing. It's a big time investment without payoff, much like the same dilemma agents face. So the answer is-make a dynamite first book that expands into a series. Sounds so easy!

Diane Vallere said...

It's interesting for you to look through the decision-making eyes of an agent. I liken it to my days as a buyer, when I couldn't say yes to every collection I viewed, even when I found new collections I liked. I had to know that customers would respond to the merchandise for more than one season to make the investment worthwhile.

Not all that different from our world, right?

James Montgomery Jackson said...

EB, Sometimes by writing the second in the series it will turn into the first, and what was the first becomes a training novel -- or perhaps a prequel.

Diane, You're right that ultimately it is the customer who counts. Agents certainly have their eye on not only what editor can they pitch a novel to, but who she expects the readers will be.

~ Jim

Pauline Alldred said...

I spent a lot of time on the first in a series and then decided to call that time a learning experience and market the second. I'm doing that now and working on a third. In the first novel, I got to know my characters and how far I was willing to go with gore and with in depth exploration of the characters.

It has to be tough being an agent today. Will we have a generation of young readers? Will they want downloads rather than paper books?

Hey, it's tough all over.

Kaye George said...

Nice crunching, Number Man. That's a different way of looking at the biz.

marilynn said...

Now crunch the numbers for the amount of time we spend querying agents, Jim. Add up the time we spend perfecting our query letter, typing it, and adding the one to fifty pages required, inline, not as an attachment.Be sure to include the time spent researching each agent and the time spent waiting for an agent to "fall in love" with our work. Actually, it wouldn't even have to be love. Lust would do. It becomes even more of an uneconomic venture for an author to query an agent than for an agent to fall into whatever with our work. We are not earning a penny. We're spending our time, which is not a renewable resource.

James Montgomery Jackson said...


If authors want to go the agented route, the time they spend on query letters is no more or less a part of their work effort than writing the first draft or editing the final draft.

I suppose from a net present value (NPV) basis one should look at getting an agent using the following formula:

NPV = PV (earnings w/ agent) - PV (earnings w/o agent) - PV (time spent trying to get an agent)

In other words, you should only query agents if you think the value of what you recieve is greater than the cost of doing it!

You should put a realistic dollar amount on your time per hour.

Given what I have earned from my fiction and the number of hours I have spent writing, I've probably been paid one or two cents an hour. [For nonfiction, I might be up to minimum wage.]

~ Jim

marilynn said...

Jim, That's what I'm trying to decide. Is it worth the time? Also, given this and that, is the book good enough to interest an agent? I comes down to that, doesn't it? I could publish it myself, but if I can't find an agent for it, is it just one more self-published book that's not ready for prime time?