Misc,  On Writing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The 15% Myth.

It’s time to step back and ask some questions.

For decades writers using agents have just accepted the 15% fee amount without question. Before that it was 10% for five decades. And now there is talk of some agents starting to move to 20% because they can’t make enough money. And again, the writers who are buried solidly in all the agent myths will stand in line to get an agent at this new rate. And they will be happy when they do, without a single logical business thought in their mind.

Not one.

Perfectly sane humans who understand money and do fine in the real world of money will sign up at this rate. And never once question it or negotiate or look for another method that might be better or cheaper or have better value.

Not once.

Well, writers, snap out of it! It’s a new world.

The agency model is starting to fall apart, publishing is in a state of flux, electronic and POD publishing is growing at amazing speeds thanks to new technology. It’s time to stand back and question EVERYTHING. And one of the biggest questions a writer must ask is this: Are you getting your money’s worth from agents?

Are you getting value worth what you are paying?

Okay, to make sure we are all on the same page with the same information, I need to give some basics and history.

Fact #1: Agents are not anywhere in the normal publishing chain of Publisher/Writer/Distributor/Reader that has been in existence for hundreds of years. In fact, agents in the book business didn’t even become a normal writer employee until the 1940s and 1950s, even though a few existed earlier, mostly working for the theater or Hollywood. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that it became completely common to have an agent.

Fact #2: Agents work for writers. It seems lately that they work for publishers. They clearly are self-employed or work for large agencies, but the real boss is always the writer.

Fact #3: The agent rate of 15% started out as 10% and changed in the late 1980s and early 1990s slowly, with the same kind of talk that is going on now about the 20% rate.

Fact #4: Agents are not signers on the contracts between publishers and writers. They are a third party assignment in the contract. Nothing more.

Fact #5: Agents have “standard working practices” which include getting all the money first and then sending it to the client when they get around to it minus their 15%. These standard practices also need to be challenged. Keep reading.

Fact #6: Up until just recently, another standard practice was that an agent was no longer involved with a book after the first basic contract was finished and the book was out of print. Many agencies have been trying to change this practice in agency agreements, claiming they should get their 15% after the first contract is finished even if the author sold the book years later on their own. Head-shaking change that writers are allowing in some agencies. Don’t ever sign an agency agreement. Period.

Okay, enough facts for the moment. Let me try to talk about “value” of an agent’s services. Where MIGHT an agent bring value to a writer?

Value #1: Experienced agents with larger agencies can get better contracts for the writer, including already negotiated boilerplate. (Lower level agents can’t help with this at all and will often make your contracts worse.) Sometimes these better contracts have value, sometimes they do not.

Value #2: Experienced agents with larger agencies can help with both Hollywood connections and overseas sales. Often they get in the way, but sometimes they can help. (Lower level agents can’t help with this at all even though they will claim they can.)

Value #3: When a check is late or you are mad about something your publisher has done, your agent can step in and help.

Value #4: A good agent in a larger agency can get your manuscript through doors that you may or may not be able to get through. They know and have worked with about ten editors in a certain area and those ten connections can sometimes help. (But see below on the limitations of this value. Lower level agents can’t help with this at all.)

Value #5: If you are up the bestseller charts and your publisher is pushing you to do tours, your agent will help with connections with the promotions department with the publisher and if you are a real wimp will even travel with you at the start.

That’s it for any real value for the percentage. And what is scary is that lower level agents can’t really help with any of that value. Only experienced agents or agents in larger agencies can really help a writer.

And remember, all the above only works if you and your agent are on the same page. Horror stories appear at all levels of agents when a writer wants one thing and an agent feels the writer should go another direction. Thousands of stories, all ugly, happen when that situation comes about, as it often does. Then all of the above “value” turns negative and career-killing. Agents kill a lot of careers. That is also a fact.

Yeah, I know, I know. But what about… and what about… and what about…. So time for more history and how this current “perceived” working model for agents has come about. And where the agents see the value and why it is failing.

History #1: Publishers have always had closed doors to writers, from the days when editors sat in offices in New York and writers brought manuscripts to them. These closed doors are designed to stop the writers that need to be stopped. They don’t stop the smarter level writers at all, but they are effective at turning away most of the trash produced by writers with one book and written in crayon. (Not kidding.)

History #2: For a number of decades, the door was “no unsolicited” manuscripts. Worked great until someone got the smart idea of switching it to “no unagented” manuscripts about ten to twelve years ago. Almost all publishers quickly switched to that door and it stopped even more trash by directing it to agents. Any form letter today says “No Unagented Manuscripts.” It means nothing beyond that your manuscript for one reason or another doesn’t fit in that imprint and you didn’t catch their attention enough for them to write you a personal letter.

History #3: With the moving of the slush pile to agents, lots of assistant editors no longer had jobs. And with the normal pulsing in and out of jobs in New York publishing, a number of younger editors got laid off, so many moved to agenting. These young editors-turned-agents like to get into manuscripts, as editors do. But now they weren’t editing for a line, they were just editing to their perceived idea of what was marketable. And they aren’t writers, so they have no idea how to tell a writer how to fix something. Especially a beginning writer who wouldn’t know how to fix something even if the agent was correct.

What Lower Level Agents are Claiming They Do for Value

1) They have to take care of their clients.

Young agents think they can take care of me. I am now officially insulted.

And I am embarrassed for all fiction writers in general because we, as a class, have let this kind of thinking go on.

Now, back when I was 15 (in the dark ages I know) I hated the idea of anyone “taking care of me.” And as I got older, that hatred sort of grew into a way of life and a way of looking at life. I like to stand on my own two feet. I paid my own way through college, and so on and so on.

When I decided I wanted to be an architect and got my degree, I had no belief system that someone would come in and take care of me in that profession. And when I went through law school I had no thought of being taken care of while being an attorney.

Yet writers (who claim they want to work in a multi-billion dollar international business) think it would be better for them to be taken care of by some young college graduate fresh out of Vassar who lives with three other agents and editors in New York. Why am I the only one who thinks that’s just stupid?

Now, excuse me, but it has always been my assumption that if a person wants to go into a business and make their living at that business, they must FIRST learn the business. Maybe that assumption is wrong, but I sure hope not. When I see a doctor, I hope the doctor has the knowledge I am paying them for. When I see an attorney, I hope the attorney knows what she is talking about.

Why are professional writers any different? And why do we let these young agents keep insulting us? And that is EXACTLY what they are doing when they say they “take care of their writers.”

2) Agents need to read slush

Uhh, no, they don’t. They can’t buy anything. No one ever said they had to read slush. In the past agents never read slush and made a ton more money. But now agents are saying that they need to read slush and they get no money from doing that (duh) so they now should start charging reading fees.

Sniff….sniff….do I smell scam? Yup, stinks just like a scam to take money from new writer’s dreams with promises the agents can’t keep. This reading fee scam has been around for a hundred years I’m afraid. Nothing new. And giving it to the agent’s wife for a fee is still a scam.

No agent needs to read slush. Period. It’s stupid, actually, and most top agents would never think of it.

—Agents must spend time helping their clients rewrite.

Excuse me, I am now INSULTED yet again. I’m the writer, I’ve been making my living at writing fiction for over 20 years. Yet one young agent I was talking with at a conference a year ago said she wouldn’t just mail my work, she would need to help me “fine tune it” as she said before she could send it out.

Somehow I managed to not laugh. I sold my first short story 12 years before she was born, sold my first novel the year she was born. I may not be as good a writer as I want to become yet, but I’m still learning and I’m fairly certain some young agent can’t help me. And I am INSULTED that these young agents have a working model that thinks they are better than ALL the writers who come to them. Writers as a class would be insulted if as a class we weren’t such sheep looking for the secret watering trough.


You know, I honestly don’t know anymore. And that’s the truth. I am so far away from ever using an agent again, all I can do is spout the party lines I did above to start this of what value they do give if they are top agents.

The downside of agents in writer’s lives has become so harsh, so career killing, so joy killing for so many writers, including me, that I’m not sure any amount of money can make up for how they come into your office and stop you from writing. I know of no professional writer who doesn’t think of their agent in one way or another when coming up with a project.

Those of us without agents write what we want.

After the last Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post, the fine folks making comments got into a mathematical discussion about how much real money you must get extra on just the advance to make the agent fee a win for the writer.

In that discussion there was no mathematical talk about the costs with other rights, or agents trying to make a control grab at the work forever, or the negative impact the agent has on a writer’s choice of projects because of a perceived market. None of that.

If you don’t understand copyright and your magic bakery, you really, really need to. Say five years after your book sold and you hired an agent to do the deal, you talk to someone at an audio company at a conference and make a sale for $10,000. Yup, you owe your agent $1,500 FOR DOING NOTHING.

The system that allows that, AND DEMANDS THAT, is broken. Period.

Yet writers without agents are free to write what we want. When we want. And sell it to who we want. And in this modern world we can even do electronic books and print on demand books and so many other ways of publishing. And we keep all the money. And the CONTROL.

So where exactly publishing is going into the future is beyond me? And anyone at this point in publishing who claims to know where publishing is going is just full of hot air.

But about agents, I can tell you this much about the current working model.

—Younger slush-reading agents will go and come because there is no money in the model. Spending all the time reading slush and rewriting writers leaves no time for the real money-making aspects of their jobs. The only way these types of agents will make it is if they get lucky with a writer.

—Tons of writers’ careers will be killed or stalled because of these younger agents. After three or four rewrites for an agent you got to just not feel much like writing anymore. And to be honest, I would hate this wonderful job if I had to do that. We are losing a generation of writers with this system and that’s sad.

—Publishers are madly trying to figure out a way to take back the slush, mostly with electronic experiments. But in the meantime, writers are taking control of their own careers by telling the publishers and agents to take their system and shove it and are moving to electronic and POD publishing at light speed. I have no idea what this trend will do, and I don’t think anyone does at this moment in time in the summer of 2010.

—Writers, being a class of sheep, for a time will still hope to have someone come in and take care of them because they are afraid of the learning curve, the years of making mistakes. So agents as a class will continue for another decade or so. But agents have also missed the ball with this electronic stuff and are in the rearview mirror now. I would bet just about anything that the agents in twenty years will not have the same working model as the agents of 2010.


— Mail a submission package yourself to editors. Just as has always been done in publishing. I will not tell you how to do that here. Figure it out or come to a marketing workshop in October or next spring here on the coast and Kris and I will spend a week training you how to write great proposals, query letters, and put a package together.

— If you get an offer, hire an intellectual properties attorney. Laura Resnick has put a list of good ones up here, NINC has a list of them on their site. They only charge for what you ask them to do and you get to keep all the money for the rest of your magic bakery life.

— If you get an offer, negotiate the contract yourself. Lots of books and stuff out there about this and it really isn’t rocket science. And since you negotiate with your editor anyhow and she wants to buy the book, it’s pretty nice negotiations.

— Publish the book yourself if you can’t find a home for it in major publishing. Again, give the larger world a try first, but no longer do you need to bend your work to fit anyone’s vision but your own. If they don’t like it, get it to readers yourself. Easy and cheap. (Just understand that if you do this you become not only the writer, but the publisher and thus take on those duties as well.)


With electronic publishing, the biggest worry of everyone is what is called “The Noise.” Of course, quality fiction will be found because of word-of-mouth and just a little author push. Bad fiction will sink unnoticed.

That’s all healthy.

But this electronic world gives writers something they haven’t had before, and that is a long-term front list and back list exposure. If I do this correctly, in a year or so, all of my short stories and all of my original published novels will be back in print and available for readers to find.

So in Hollywood, this is what is happening: An agent (called a packager or other names) in one method or another, finds a book or story they think they can put together and then sell. (They are scanning online constantly.) This agent contacts the writer and the two execute a Shopping Agreement where the agent pays the author a fee for the right to try to sell the book for a certain time.

This is common in Hollywood now. So imagine an agent setting this system up in New York. (Remember your history? New York book agents came out of the theater and Hollywood originally.)

Example: Agent sees a solid genre book she is certain she can sell. She offers the author $500 for the sole right to try to sell that book to major publishers for a time period of one year, with the right to renew for another $500 for a second year. If the agent succeeds, the fee is returned to the agent from the first advance, plus a standard 15% commission as done today. If the agent fails in selling the book, the author keeps the $500 fee. Fees could vary depending on the agreement and what the agent thinks the book might sell for.

Why does this make sense?

— If an agent has their own money behind a project, they are going to push that project all the way and not give up as they do now after eight rejections.

—Writer and agent share the risks of submissions.

— A new source of books are coming quickly into being, and that’s self-published books. Not many at the moment are going from self-published to New York publishers, but a few are. As it becomes easier for authors to do and much cheaper, it will start making more sense over the next number of years for some authors to self publish books. This will be a huge source of quality and tested material for an agent in this new model.

— Even more importantly, it will put agents back in the correct position with writers: A hired employee. And writers won’t lose money and time with dead books with agents. They will get paid at least a small token for the time it takes to market a book.

No rights would be sold, nothing at all in copyright would change hands. This would only be a shopping agreement, nothing more, giving the agent ONLY the right to shop the book. Nothing more.

Any writer/agent agreement would be agreed upon after the sale.

Again, just an idea that is starting to make more and more sense as more and more authors are headed to electronics and POD publishing on their own. I just wanted to toss that out since Kris and I have done a bunch of shopping agreements with Hollywood lately. It’s the first thing I have seen that would work as a new model in this new world for agents.

Of course agents now would laugh at that model because writers have been giving agents FREE OPTIONS on their work and because writers want to be taken care of in this huge business, they will continue to give free options until that model fails and is replaced by something else.

Is the 15% that agents charge a myth? Yes, because it is going unchallenged as any good myth does.

Do agents give you 15% of value? Overall, after listening to maybe a thousand stories about agents over the last ten years, I would say no. An honest, flat NO!

Let me repeat that. No. Agents do not give fair value for 15% in 2010.

And if you are a writer who wants his agent to take care of him in this international multi-billion dollar a year corporate business, expect your career to be short lived, expect your agent to steal from you at some point or another, expect your agent to suddenly not return your calls, expect your agent to screw up Hollywood deals because they aren’t big enough, and so on and so on. It will happen, maybe not in your first dozen novels, but it will happen.

And then you wake up one fine day in your writing office starting a new writing project and thinking, “My agent would hate this. I had better not write it.” So you put that project away and start writing the same book again that you wrote last time and the time before, because that’s what sells.

At that moment, just shovel the dirt in over the top of you. As a writer, you are dead until you can claw your way out of that hole.

15% is a myth. In my opinion, the need for an agent is also quickly becoming a myth.

Wake up, writers.

Question everything. It is 2010. Publishing is changing at lightspeed. It really is a wonderful new world and writers can take control again after decades of slowly losing control of our work.

I love this new world and for the first time in decades I actually go to my writing office with pure joy and excitement. Just as I used to do when I was starting out and had no thought of getting an agent.

And no way am I giving that joy up now. Not for 10%, 15% or 20%.

Not for anything.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, losing control of your writing, having it made, speed equals making money, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean