To me, it's all about the math. Can an agent get me a better deal than I can get myself? An agent will charge a 15% fee on the life-time earnings of any book he or she represents. I work for myself for free (okay, there's an opportunity cost, but in my case, the opportunity cost is my time for writing articles like this, so you be the judge...)
I think the only truthful answer to my question is "it depends." If, for example, I am about to be the next Lane Smith, then, yes, an agent can probably get me a better deal. I don't even have to run the numbers for that one: 85% of a six-figure deal is a good deal.
**** Author's note: I wrote this essay several years ago when I didn't have an agent. I now have one. I still believe everything I wrote in this essay, but over time, for me, the equations have changed (metaphorically). I hope to write a companion essay soon on why I decided to seek an agent. I still do think that unpublished picture book writers are generally better off submitting directly to publishers.
But what if I'm a fairly new author, perhaps getting a first picture book contract with a house? Can an agent get me a better deal? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say no. Let's consider some examples. Please note that the following is based on what I know about agented and unagented picture book author contracts.
Running the Numbers
Let's say an unagented author is offered an advance of $5,000 from a large publisher. This is about average. (Small publishers offer less.) Now, suppose an agent can get more, say $7,500.
So, the agented author is getting 85% of $7,500 upfront. That's $6,375. Terrific. Compared to the straight $5,000 of an unagented author, the agented author wins. But let's see what happens when this advance has to go up against the 5% royalty.
Assuming a hardback book sells for $15, your royalty of 5% pays 75 cents per book. The unagented author has to sell 6,667 books to pay off the advance. The agented author, however, has to sell 10,000 books to pay off the advance. After paying off the advance, the unagented author earns 75 cents per book; the agented author earns 64 cents per book (85% of 75 cents).
It turns out that the unagented author makes more money overall once he or she sells 8,500 books. The agented author makes more only if less than that number are sold - or, put simply, if the book doesn't pay out the advance. Funny perverse incentive thing going on there.
Wait, you say: an agent would probably negotiate an escalation clause, which would increase the agented author's draw. On a first book with a house, I doubt this, but let's look at an example anyway. Let's even look at one that is favorable to the agented author. Let's say an agent negotiates a 6.5% royalty rate after 10,000 books are sold. Frankly, I've only heard of a few small houses that offer escalation clauses that kick in this low. Usually, they kick in after 15,000 or more. But, anyway, with this deal, the agented author can actually come out ahead of the unagented author. Can you guess when?
The answer is - I'm not kidding here - after 286,000 books are sold! Even with a better deal - an escalation clause of 7.5% -- the agented author must sell 109,000 books before coming out ahead. These are hardbacks, folks. Of course, I would love to sell this many books, and I promise that if I do, I will seek an agent to negotiate one of those Lane Smith-type deals for me next time!
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match
Wait again, you say: an agent performs all sorts of services for the client that are worth much more than money.
True. They have been known to sell manuscripts, for example. I have two friends who recently got two-book contracts from large publishers without the second book even being written. Now, that's service!
I have to say, though -- this being my essay -- that this type of service isn't for me. I hate pressure, and I can't think of anything that would deaden my creativity more than an unwritten picture book with a deadline. Ahhhh!
Agents are said to be matchmakers: they know more about the particular tastes of editors and can place your manuscript, perhaps, better than you can. To this, I can only say, hey, my editors totally rock, and I found them on my own!
Agents do the accounting. But then, the publishers provide this same information directly to the unagented author via their royalty statements.
Agents audit the royalty statements. Maybe this is important to you. It's not important to me. As you probably figured out by now, I've never met a number I didn't love to crunch at least five different ways. Frankly, I'm afraid I'd end up auditing my agent!
Agents offer support, advice, editing. All these things are very valuable. Fortunately, I get them all for free from my friends and writers' networks.
Some agents get quicker, more detailed responses. I have to admit, I wouldn't mind these at all, though I will say I get very speedy responses now from my editors.
Give My Regards to Hollywood
Some agents hang onto certain rights - like film rights - and sell them separately. Well, much as I'd love to see Circle Rolls made into a feature film, I'm fairly certain it's just not gonna happen. Here's where I have to look at my own writing and figure out the potential. I just don't think my books will work on film. I doubt, even, if they would work in foreign markets. Someone prove me wrong - Please!
Here's an argument I sometimes stumble over: what if an agent can sell one more book than I can? 85% of something is more than 85% of nothing, right? The thing is, though, I know several picture book authors whose agents have not wanted to sell certain of their manuscripts. So, really, I suspect I may be marketing more of my work right now to different publishers than an agent would for me.
Agents take care of the business side, freeing up the writer to work on her craft. Ugh -- ask me sometime what happened when I freed up too much of my time to write!
Finally, let me just comment on the "an agent is like a marriage partner" notion. I hear this a lot, and all I have to say is, um, hey, sorry, I'm already married -- happily, too, I might add. I'm also happy with my career; and if I'm happy, what exactly could an agent do to make me happier?
Get me one of those Lane Smith contracts, maybe.
The Other Side of the Coin
Oh, by the way, if you're an agent, or an agented author, or just an informed citizen, you probably know that I skipped a few pros to having an agent in this essay. Never fear: my friend, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, who, by the way, is the next Lane Smith, has written a companion essay: Why I Have an Agent. Read it and I'm sure you'll quickly conclude that I have no idea what I'm talking about!
Writers Working Together
Click here to learn about my picture book author advance survey. This is one way we authors can help each other negotiate better deals.