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Yes, there are differences, even beyond the twenty-five pounds and the fuzzy bunny slippers…
According to prevailing thought, publishers, left to their own devices, would pay authors miserable royalties (or perhaps none), keep all proceeds from subsidiary rights, grudgingly spend money printing your books, and then dump those same books onto the street without any effort to sell so much as a single copy. It seems all that stands between you and this terrible fate are the brave, lonely efforts of the literary agents. And the great thing is that your agent’s interests are perfectly aligned with your own, right? After all, if you don’t get paid, she doesn’t get paid, and the more you make, the more she makes... right?
In the case of money, your interests and your agent’s interests generally coincide, though not always perfectly (more on this in a moment). But some people confuse what is a business relationship with a personal relationship, and assume their agent always wants what’s best for their client. Well, they might--but that doesn't mean that what's best for you is a priority.
The Big Advance
Big advances are good for both the author and the agent--if the book goes on to sell well. If the book doesn’t come close to earning out, though, your career may be in trouble—especially if the book in question was your debut novel.
Bad news for you, but for your agent it may be considerably less troubling. There’s no doubt that your agent would prefer your career to skyrocket. But if it stalls…well, there’s plenty of writers out there trying to find an agent, and thank heavens she was able to get her 15% upfront rather than having to take 15% of the pitiful royalties your overpriced, poorly selling book actually earned.
And, yes, you got the other 85% of the money the publisher paid, so both you and your agent benefited. The difference is that she still has a career. You might not.
(It's odd that agents are renowned for their big-advance deals, yet the industry doesn’t seem to hold it against the agent if the book loses money. Big-money agents are celebrities, and editors establish themselves as real players in the industry by making deals with these uberagents. It doesn’t make sense, but neither do the lyrics to most Top 10 songs.)
A novelist I know (who’s been publishing fiction for about 30 years) says, “There’s a new breed of agent out there--people who are only willing to bat if they can hit home runs.”
The “throw it high, throw it hard, and see if it sticks” philosophy of agenting is spreading. Yes, there are still agents who will help you build your career, and will suffer through rounds of rejections until at last you place your book with a publisher somewhere. But there are also some young agents who say, “I’m not really interested in any novel I can’t take to auction,” and there are many more who will give up on your book after ten rejections or less.
Publication versus money
In general, an agent’s goal is to make money from your books. This, of course, is in your interest, too.
But legitimate publication can have an influence on a writer’s life that has nothing to do with advances or royalties. Publication seldom makes a writer rich or famous, but it does improve the writer’s status in many ways. A published novelist can teach writing classes, or run workshops, or speak at conferences, or sell articles to, say, Writer’s Digest. A published novelist can join professional societies which offer many benefits (some offer low-cost health insurance), but are closed to the unpublished. A published novelist will have an easier time getting his or her foot in many doors.
True, many novelists find their first publication anticlimactic. Many people find that getting a college degree feels about the same, especially if they discover that a degree doesn’t guarantee a good job, or any job at all. Both are often cases of reality not living up to unrealistic expectations. This doesn’t mean the college degree is worthless, and being published even to small acclaim isn’t worthless either.
But you shouldn’t count on your agent pushing your book through to publication as a matter of principle. Submissions cost her money, both directly in terms of copying and delivery costs, and indirectly in terms of time and goodwill expended. Don’t be surprised if publication doesn’t matter as much to her as it does to you (why should it?). Don’t be surprised if she decides to give up long before your book goes to the Naval Academy Press (Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October) or Louisiana State University Press (James Lee Burke’s Lost Get-Back Boogie). Those were long shots, and a lot of agents today wouldn’t bother.
Don’t Beware, But Be Realistic
The cautions above certainly don’t apply to all agents. Some are genuinely interested in building an author’s career, and hope to be in partnership with the author for the long haul. Some may love your book nearly as much as you do. Some will fight to place a manuscript long after it is in their economic or career interest. But even the best agent is unlikely to share all your priorities.
Your agent isn’t your mom. Even if your agent wears fuzzy bunny slippers.
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