I was at a convention over the weekend, and was able to sit in on several panels related to publishing. Some of it was pretty basic — our "Query Letter" session leader spent half of the hour going over such basics as 1-inch margins, submission guidelines and researching the right publisher, all of which are valuable but: Not About A Query Letter, Thank You.
But the thing that sticks with me as I now pursue an agent* is this: A first-time novelist is lucky to get $5,000-$10,000 advance for her book. (And the royalties you'll get after that only start coming to you in checks after you pay the company back with each sale.) An agent gets between 15-20%. Twenty percent of $10,000 is $2,000.
That's it. Just $2 measly K for shipping the thing out, calling up the right folks, pursuing the leads. Now, I'd take it, but $2,000 wouldn't last very long, salary-wise. And sure, I might be trying to shop around several books at once. But proportionately, $2,000 is not a lot for the amount of work put into it — and that's if the agent and the writer are getting top (average) dollar. Figure 15% on $5,000 and you'll see some major shrinkage of numbers.
Now, of course, you could be that writer who sparks a bidding war. But agents are really hoping you'll turn into a consistent writer who can be consistently published, and the amount of work being put in to sell you each time will diminish, thus making their returns greater.
Personally, an agent who can sell my book can have 100% of my advance. Five thousand would be a nice way to fix up the kitchen, but it's not going to change my life. Selling the book would do that, if only because I would have finally had a book published.
But that's the reality of the agent. I hadn't thought about it that way before.
*Addendum: Have now finished the synopsis — which feels all right but also seems to leave out so much — and am preparing to enter it into the "Murder in the Grove" contest. It's not an agent or even a publisher, but it's a start and it had a deadline of the end of this month. Next, tracking down some agents I should be contacting.