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How literary agents get paid: Standard commission practices and payments for literary agents

Have you ever wondered how literary agents make money? Or how much commission a literary agent makes on the sale of a book or novel? The answer is: It varies! Here’s a brief overview of standard literary agent commissions and percentages of sales.


Most Literary Agents Work On Commission

Industry standard practice is that literary agents are paid for their work through the commission they make when they sell your book and not by directly charging the author(s) they represent. As a client, you may be required to pay for the cost of making phone calls and mailing packages. But, otherwise, a literary agent only makes money through commission on book sales to publishers.

If you receive interest from a literary agent who charges a fee to represent your writing or for anything other than the nominal costs mentioned above, be very suspicious.

Literary Agent Standard Commission On Book Sales To Domestic Publishers

Generally speaking, literary agents take 15% of your total income from the first sale of your book before taxes. For example, if you receive a $10,000 advance on the first sale of the book to a major publisher, your literary agent will take a commission of $1,500. If you make any royalties beyond your advance, your agent will receive 15% of those royalties.

Some literary agents have been known to contract higher or lower commissions, but 15% is currently the standard rate.

Literary Agent Commission On Foreign Subsidiary Rights And Translations

Literary agents tend to receive a 20% commission on foreign rights sales or translations. What this 20% commission actually means to you depends on your book contract and your literary agency contract.

Scenario number one: Let’s say your publisher has retained the right to license translations on your behalf to other publishers around the world. And, now, let’s say a publisher in France has decided to pay your American publisher for the right to create and sell a French translation. You receive half of that payment; the other half goes to your publisher.

But wait! What does your agent get out of it? Your literary agent will most likely take a 20% commission on the amount you receive from your publisher. So while you were paid half of the total contracted payment, your agent will receive 20% of your half.

Scenario number two: If your literary agent has retained your translation rights (so that your agent can find publishers around the world, instead of allowing the publisher to do it), your agent will still take 20% of the amount you are paid. Because many literary agencies have subsidiary partners in other countries to help them sell translation rights, it is likely that your literary agent will split the commission: Your literary agent keeps 10% and the foreign rights subsidiary agent keeps the other 10%.

Literary Agent Commission On Film Rights, Calendar Rights, And Audio Rights

Most literary agents will continue to take a 15% commission on whatever payment you receive.

Self-Publishing Literary Agent Commission

Some literary agents are beginning to help their clients self-publish books—for a fee. In exchange for the literary agency taking on the work of self-publishing a book on behalf of the client, the literary agency may take a commission of 15% on all sales. However, this is new territory at the time of this writing, so there are no industry standards in place.

​This article has been reprinted with the permission of Writer’s Relief, a highly recommended author’s submission service. We assist writers with preparing their submissions and researching the best markets. We have a service for every budget, as well as a free e-publication for writers, Submit Write Now! Visit our site today to learn more.

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