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How Literary Agents Get Paid: Commission Structure

by | Nov 24, 2022 | Publishing

If you’re an author trying to learn more about how literary agents work, or if you’re interested in becoming a literary agent yourself, then you’ll definitely want to read this article. Literary agents are a necessary part of the publishing industry both for authors and for publishers because they help vet manuscripts and presses, bridging the communication gap between the best possible matches.

This article explores what literary agents get paid, and briefly touches on their importance.

Why Literary Agents Are Important

Literary agents are important because they help to bridge the gap between unpublished manuscripts and publishing houses. They also offer invaluable services such as editorial feedback, submission management, contract negotiation on behalf of their clients, and more.

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These days, the majority of publishing houses will not accept unsolicited manuscripts (manuscripts that aren’t represented by a literary agent) for review. Certainly there are some small presses that still accept submissions from unrepresented writers, but the choices are very slim.

A solid literary agent has contacts with editors and publishing houses that you probably have no idea about. Additionally, they are able to become your personal advocates for your manuscript, providing ideas and editorial feedback to help boost your chances of getting accepted at the right press. Not only that, but a literary agent will look for the press that can best suit your manuscript and you as a writer, ensuring that you see the most success out of launching your new book.

Finally, literary agents can help you navigate complex contracts and negotiate deals that have your best interests at heart. If you’re someone who has never even seen a publishing contract, then having this kind of support is highly important. It allows you to get the best deal for your book, while also letting you focus on what you do best—writing.

How Do Literary Agents Get Paid?

Literary agents get paid based on commissions, which is great because it means that their pay depends on how good of a deal they can land for the author they are representing. Beware of literary agents that are charging you up front costs, reading fees, editing fees, or any other kinds of fees. Legitimate literary agents do not charge in this manner, so run in the other direction if you encounter something like this.

The beauty of hiring a quality literary agent is that the commission structure drives them to land the best possible deal for your book. With a commission pay structure, a literary agent’s pay would typically fall around 15-20% of the author’s advances, royalties, or overseas sales or film rights.

Literary Agent Commission Fee

The exact percentage of commission a literary agent makes can vary depending on their experience and the services offered, but it’s common to see literary agents asking for 15-20% of an author’s advance, royalties, or overseas film rights, etc. This means that literary agents have a vested interest in helping you become as successful as possible, since any deal made for your book will automatically mean more profits for them too!

Typically commissions work as follows. Your literary agent will take:

  • 15% of all sales made within in-home markets (this is the cut within the country the deal is made)
  • 20% on overseas sales, and
  • 20% for sales of film and TV rights.

This rate may change depending on the agent you choose, however, the rates are becoming increasingly standard in the industry. You are also free to negotiate this if you feel the need, but keep in mind that it’s quite a small price to pay given the amount of work an agent puts in on behalf of you and your manuscript.

Literary Agent Commissions: An Example

An example of a literary agent’s cut on your book’s advance might look something like this:

  • Your publisher advances you $15,000 for your debut novel.
  • Your literary agent would get $2,250.
  • You would get $12,750.

How Royalties Work with Literary Agents

When you sell your book to a publisher, you typically receive an advance against royalties. For example, if you sold your book to a publisher that advances you $10,000, but it grows to becoming a bestselling book, you would receive a per book fee for every copy sold (this is a royalty). Understanding the royalty structure for the agent and the author can be a bit difficult to process, but here are some simplified examples of how this can look.

Let’s say that over the first couple of years you earned $100,000 in royalties for your book. Remember that you were already advanced $10,000, so you won’t be able to claim that portion twice. This would leave you with $90,000 that will be paid out to you in installments.


  • Advance of $10,000 (85% goes to you and 15% goes to your literary agent)
  • Royalties of $90,000 (85% goes to you and 15% goes to your literary agent)

Keep in mind that your literary agent has the same financial goals as you, and will often fight for the highest possible advance so that you both can make the maximum amount up front, which is another great reason to have one on your side!

Can You Fire Your Literary Agent?

You’re welcome to work with any literary agent you’d like. It’s important to work with an agent that understands your goals and what you’re looking to accomplish with your book. If you decide that the relationship with your literary agent isn’t working out, you can certainly fire them. Keep in mind, however, that they are still due any commissions for previously signed contracts or deals.

In other words, if your current agent lands a book deal for you and then your book ends up exploding in popularity, you can’t fire them and refuse to pay out any further commissions. What is signed is signed, and that agent is still entitled to commissions for the life of that contract.

On the other hand, if you decide to terminate the relationship with an agent that has yet to land a deal for your book, they won’t be entitled to any commissions. Remember that your literary agent only makes money when you do, so if they aren’t able to find a publisher for your book and you fire them, they won’t get paid anything.

Keep in mind, finding the right fit for your book is a time consuming process and your literary agent makes a very small amount off your book deal compared to the amount of time they put in. Try to be as understanding as possible when it comes to the querying process. The delays that happen during the process are not often the fault of the literary agent, but usually the turnaround time at each publisher.

Are Literary Agents Worth It?

An agent is an advocate for you and your book. They can often offer advice and tips on the literary industry, or provide feedback on your manuscript before you start querying publishers.

They’ll also have a network of literary agents that they can leverage, which will give your book better exposure to publishers than if you were doing it alone. Believe me when I say that literary agents receive far more queries than they’re able to deal with, so having someone else do this leg work for you is invaluable!

In short: literary agents are worth it because of their expertise in the literary industry as well as their ability to get your book noticed by major publishing houses. If you’re ready to start querying your manuscript, you should most definitely start by finding an agent that suits your needs!

Mel Beasley
By Mel Beasley

Mel Beasley has a bachelor’s in creative writing and journalism from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He brings 9+ years of digital marketing and writing experience to the table by writing for publications such as Lumina News and Encore Magazine. He spent 2 years as a college-level writing tutor, and is a certified writing tutor through the CRLA, which is a prestigious cert recognized by the Association for the Coaching & Tutoring Profession. He is a professional SEO blogger with experience writing for brands such as Boardworks Education and The Greater Wilmington Business Journal. One of his latest website and marketing projects has been building the website for the now New York Times Bestselling author, Nina de Gramont.


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