Agents are the go between, connecting authors to publishers. As a result, they don’t pay authors. Authors pay agents a certain percentage of whatever the author makes in the sale of the book. This payment comes when the book is sold—not before.
Publishers fork over the money. Writers usually get an “advance,” which is money paid ahead of time against royalties that will be earned once the book is published. With an advance, you’re essentially getting profits before the book makes any money. Advance amounts vary greatly and depend on how well the publisher thinks your book will sell. For debut fiction, advances tend to be modest unless you’ve garnered some kind of significant buzz ahead of time. For non-fiction, advances depend upon your platform, or what you bring to the work, such as your level of expertise in the field or an already established audience. The advance may be the whole paycheck if your book sells just the amount anticipated. If it does better, you’ll be paid additional royalties once they exceed the amount of your advance.
Formal contracts are a must with agents and publishers. They outline the agreement—in writing—and confirm you’re both on board for the same cruise. Contracts with publishing houses can be particularly complex with all the rights that are involved. An agent can help you understand all the ins and outs, as well as negotiate, making sure you get the best deal possible.