About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


When I started my dialogue with Dean Wesley Smith, the starting point was a post he did, which you can find here, that was kind of on the question of whether your money should go to your agent before it came to you, though it did go off in a lot of different tangents and take on a lot more than that one question.

But let's look at that question, as an example of why I think Dean's posts have kernels of truth but are not, as a whole, totally to my liking.

Kernel of truth: Once upon a time, the marginal cost to a publisher of cutting each additional check was extremely high. No computers, royalty statements done by hand, checks cut by hand, do you want to have 820 or 8298 payees you have to send checks to every six months? In that context, I think it reasonable that a standard practice developed whereby publishers paid agents, and agents paid authors. The agents did need to get paid, the agents did need to see the paperwork, you can agree or disagree on the practice being established the way it was, but it wasn't an unreasonable way for things to develop. Now, in 2010, certainly the major US publishing conglomerates can cut more checks with very little marginal cost. And considering how wasteful some of their royalty statements are, how they can take pages upon pages to tell you what Penguin says in one page, they can hardly complain if they start "splitting" checks, where an agent gets a check for a commission and an author gets the net after commission. And since the publishers can do this, why don't we ask them to. Nothing at all unreasonable.

However, here's where it gets complicated.

1. even in the US not every publisher is a big publisher with a fancy computer system that can spit out more checks, even in massive quantity, without burping. There are some vendors that are still sending me handwritten checks. So at best, the issue has to be selectively visited.

2. the further you get from the US, the more you're going to find situations where splitting checks just isn't practical. Many of the foreign agents and/or foreign publishers I deal with are small operations, family run Czech publishers with owners speaking bad English that specialize in sf/fantasy. The agents I work with overseas are also often small operations. Most books, the Hebrew or Serbian rights don't sell for lots of money, and you have to watch overhead as an agent in those markets. Splitting checks isn't practicable at all.

So on this basis alone, your agent is likely to have some paymaster responsibility for you. And for that reason alone, an author can decide "in for a dime, in for a dollar" and prefer to have it all done that way.

And it's not as if there are no benefits at all to the author in doing so. To a real take-charge take-control person like Dean, these benefits may be small enough as to hardly merit consideration, but they are there nonetheless.

1. I have a better infrastructure set up for tracking payments. You find you need a summary of your 2006 income for some reason, I can get that for you in a few quick keystrokes, while you might have to dig through a shoebox.

2. Have you ever switched credit cards or banks or something, and you have to notify 9 different companies who do automatic debit from your account? So far as your publishing income is concerned, you can let your agent know you have a new address instead of notifying every publisher that might pay you money. We recently wrote to a client who cashed a check as recently as the latter half of 2009, found the client had moved without letting us know, and had to do a lot of legwork to reestablish contact. Yes, I know, that kind of thing will never happen to you, it's so stupid and obvious you can't believe it would happen to anyone. But guess what, it does!

3. A check doesn't get deposited. I care, I call, I follow up, I replace. What does HarperCollins do when your royalty check doesn't get deposited or gets returned?

4. On foreign payments, some wire transfers can see as many as three different banks grabbing a service charge, and these can total over $50 in some instances. My business is now big enough that a lot of payments I get cover multiple authors and these costs can be spread out over multiple authors, which can easily save 2-3% of your Serbian advance.

5. A good agent needs to see everything. Big client like Charlaine Harris, people use the global sales figures for her books (translated into more than 30 languages) as a selling point. There's only one place in the entire world with an infrastructure developed and in place to track that kind of thing, and it's JABberwocky Literary Agency. Could Charlaine replicate that? Yes. Should she? No. We don't know who our next Charlaine will be, we are starting to track global in print on an author and series basis from the first copy sold of your very first novel.

Yes, there are some agents who aren't good agents. Client doesn't deposit a check, who cares? You shouldn't go through life assuming everyone you meet, literary agent or not, is a saint, but nor should you assume everyone is a sinner.

My workload? I wouldn't have to write as many checks, but because I'm still going to be paymaster for some things I can't throw away the staff or the IT or the infrastructure I need as a paymaster. A good agent would also substitute new work, like every time I got money from a big publisher that was splitting checks, I'd have to check to be sure you got your money. No, actually. I don't have to, but you sure would like for me to, wouldn't you? On balance, this would probably be less total work for me, but not as much less as you'd think at first glance.

So even as I agree 100% with Dean that this is a question that can and should be revisited, I don't agree that the outcome of such a revisiting is as clear-cut as he would suggest.


Vincent Rupp said...

Not being published, I'd have never thought about an issue like this, but you make some good points.

That's why, even though I don't really care about Borders, I like your blog because you're smart, level-headed, and know your business.

I've been reading for about six months, but haven't in that time seen that you're accepting queries. Do you know if that's likely to change in the future? You mentioned previously that work was slow lately.

Either way, thanks for writing. It's interesting to learn about the business I'm not yet in.

Maria said...

The key words are "if you have a good agent." :>) And every agent out there sees his job just a little bit differently. So it's very important to find an agent who cares in the manner that is important to you. And then, of course, that agent has to want to/be able to sell your work.