Bear in mind that the markets are different: according to the National Association of Realtors, 4,940,000 existing homes were sold in the US in 2014 while only 304,912 titles were picked up for publication by traditional publishers in 2013. (I’m excluding indie-published books as well as For Sale by Owner home sales.) Surprisingly, in 2014, 54% of “traditionally published” authors made less than $1,000 a year (which is why I laugh when people ask if I’m going to give up my day job!) Clearly, not every book is Twilight, Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Gray; in fact, only 1.3% of these authors earned over $100,000 in 2014. And the average literary agent makes 15% of that. Meanwhile, the average home in 2014 sold for $188,900 and the average agent made…well at best, half of that 15%, since there is no standard commission.
Even accounting for the local nature of real estate, there is still a huge difference. From all of these statistics, we can deduce two things: 1) There are many more opportunities for a real estate agent to sell a house to a buyer than a literary agent to sell a book to a publisher and 2) there’s more money to be made in real estate than in publishing. So why are literary agents so much more independent than real estate brokers?
Here are some interesting facts that I’ve observed about literary agents. These are my observations based on pitching my novel; your mileage might vary:
- They are totally focused on publishing as a business. Sure there may be books they enjoy and would love to represent. But if they don’t deem the book as saleable or in one of the genres they represent, they will pass and unapologetically so. They know their market and they know their audience.
- To take that one step further, they don’t sign a less-than-perfect book up now, figuring they can get the author to change it around later so it will sell. If there’s even a chance the book is saleable, they will advise the author on what to do to make it so—before signing it (It’s called a Revise and Resubmit.) The book has to be as perfect as it can be so that the agent can effectively pitch it to potential publishers.
- Literary agents don’t think, “Hmm, I only need one publisher to buy it so I’ll represent it even though it’s not exactly what will sell.” In other words, they don’t let the author talk them into representing something when they have doubts. They want as many publishers as possible to take interest in a project so they can create an auction effect and earn as much as possible for their clients and themselves. That’s not going to happen with a borderline-saleable book.
- They don’t think, “I’ll represent lots of books because even if they don’t sell, publishers and authors will think I’m a hot commodity and I’ll get lots of other opportunities. And anyway, it’s an ego boost to have a big inventory to offer.” Rather, they realize that trying to sell a lot of books that no publishers want will make them look like they are ineffective and have poor judgement.
- They are unapologetic about setting their own standards and practices. They will tell you exactly how they want to see your query or manuscript and will throw away anything that deviates without even looking at it. They will take as long as 12 weeks (or even longer) to decide if they want to see more. You cannot call them to ask about the status of the book and if you email them repeatedly, they’ll likely just move on without considering your project. They know that there will always be another author and another book, one that will work within their boundaries and conform to their standards.
- They are honest about their view of a book’s potential. If they don’t think a book will sell, they’ll tell you straight out that “it’s not for them” or “it doesn’t fit into their list.” Often it’s just a form letter—they don’t care about letting you down easy. Again, they know this is a BUSINESS, not a hobby and they are aware that the time they waste promoting a book that won’t sell takes away from their opportunity to make money on a book that will.