THE TRUTH ABOUT LITERARY AGENTS’ FEES
A Brief History of Fees
Fees in Their Infinite Variety
If you’ve queried literary agents based on listings in various popular market guides, or on information you found online, you may have had the experience of hearing from an agency that describes itself as non-fee-charging, but somehow wants you to give it money anyway. What’s the deal? you ask yourself. Could there possibly be situations in which money paid upfront isn’t actually a fee?
Writer Beware defines a fee as any charge–excluding commissions on sales–that’s a requirement for submission or representation, must be paid by every client or potential client, and is due before services have been rendered. No matter what the stated purpose of such payments, they are not standard industry practice.
So what’s going on? How can agents who want upfront money define themselves as non-fee-chargers? What’s the big deal about fees, anyway?
A Brief History of Fees
Once upon a time, quite a few agents charged reading fees. The rationale was that it takes time to read and evaluate a manuscript, and since a reading doesn’t necessarily result in a representation offer–and representation doesn’t necessarily result in a sale–why should an agent do it for free?
This point of view is understandable, but it’s not hard to see how it can lead to abuse: agents who invite submissions whether they’re interested in them or not, solely in order to obtain the reading fee. Eventually, this kind of abuse became so widespread that most professional agents’ associations adopted policies prohibiting members from charging reading fees.
(For a more detailed discussion of reading fees and their abuses, see The Case Against Reading Fees, from Writer Beware’s blog.)
To keep collecting upfront money from writers but dodge reading fees’ increasingly bad reputation, some agents attempted to add the appearance of value by throwing a critique or evaluation into the mix. Thus evaluation fees were born. The idea was that writers wouldn’t receive only a reading, but a written assessment of their manuscripts’ strengths and weaknesses, or at the very least, an explanation of why the manuscripts were rejected. Who wouldn’t want that, even if it involved handing over a little cash?
From a business perspective, though, writing helpful evaluations for rejectees isn’t a terrifically appealing use of a busy agent’s time, even with a fee attached. As a result, many of these evaluations weren’t especially useful. Often they were produced not by the agent, but by an intern or clerical employee. Sometimes they were cut-and-paste jobs, consisting of generic advice modestly personalized with a smattering of specific comments on plot, style, grammar, etc. Occasionally they were complete frauds, with the exact same evaluation sent to everyone. Some agencies were really just fronts for generating evaluation fees, as others had been fronts for generating reading fees.
Still other agents, searching for a stigma-free way to obtain money upfront, came up with the notion of submission fees. These fees go by many other names–marketing, contract, processing, circulation, preparation, administrative, retainer–but basically the idea is the same: the writer is asked to defray the cost of submitting his or her work to publishers in advance of any of that submitting being done.
Some confusion arises here, because it’s standard practice among reputable agents to expect clients to reimburse some of the expense related to the marketing of manuscripts. Usually, this means expenses incurred on the client’s behalf over and above the ordinary cost of doing business–photocopying, Fed Ex, advance reading copies or finished books sent to co-agents overseas. (In the pre-digital era, this might amount to a few hundred dollars a year; nowadays, with most business done electronically, such expenses are minimal.) Everything else–travel, legal fees, office supplies, rent, utilities, the editing assistance many agents offer to get manuscripts ready for submission–is absorbed as normal business overhead. Any applicable charges are accrued and reimbursed from the author’s advance, or billed to the author after they’re incurred.
By contrast, an agent who uses submission fees as an income stream will want money the minute you sign a contract–whether as an upfront fee on signing, a recurring fee every time the contract renews, a monthly or quarterly allowance, or a per-submission fee (paid in advance of actually submitting). They may expect you to fund not just the extra expenses described above, but every file folder, envelope, and paper clip, or unnecessary extras such as photos, business cards, marketing plans, and fancy binders.
For questionable agents, the appeal of submission fees is that they present an appearance of legitimacy (since “everyone knows” agents expect clients to bear some of the cost of submission) and enable fee-chargers to use semantic trickery to distract writers from the fact that they’re being asked to hand over cash upfront (hey, it’s not a fee, it’s an advance on expense reimbursement!) Even if the claimed expenses are real (which they may not be: some submission fee-charging agents don’t send submissions out at all), they are likely seriously inflated. The agent may try to sweeten things by promising to reimburse you if your book is sold–but appealing as that may sound, it’s usually a safe promise, since agents who charge upfront fees typically have no or minimal track records.
Not all agents who charge fees are dishonest. Some are just inexperienced or inept. There’s also a relatively small number of successful agencies that charge some sort of fee. But scam or amateur or even successful, the bottom line for writers is the same: your agent should profit solely from commissions on sales, and from no other source.
Fees in Their Infinite Variety
The good news: fee-charging agents are much less common than they used to be. Mostly this is because of the decline in the number of scam agents, driven by the expansion of self-publishing and small press options. When fewer writers need literary agents, it’s harder for scammers to entrap victims.
There are still plenty of marginal and amateur agents out there, though, so you may encounter one or more of the fees described below. All reflect complaints Writer Beware has received over the years. Some are straightforward (if you discount the sleazy rationales that accompany them); some are delightfully sneaky.
- A fee for consideration of your manuscript. Sometimes the agent will be honest and call this a reading fee, but s/he may also come up with euphemisms–an “advance on commission,” for instance, or a “processing fee”. As noted above, reading fees are relatively rare these days, but they are still out there, and the agencies that charge them aren’t always scams. For instance, on quite well-established agency charges a $35 processing fee for every manuscript it requests in response to a query–and it requests a lot of them.
- A reading or submission fee that buys you something–a critique, marketing advice, faster consideration. Sometimes the fee will be optional–but don’t expect the agent to pay much attention to your submission if you don’t pay. One agency that charged an “optional” evaluation fee required writers who chose not to pay it to sign a waiver absolving the agency of any responsibility for the submission–including reading it. A successful agency that offered an optional fee to “expedite” response time prioritized those submissions over the rest.
- A flat fee due on contract signing. Such fees go by many names–submission, marketing, circulation, expense, retainer–even advance, as in “advance on expenses”–and can range from two figures to as much as four. Some questionable agencies maximize their income flow with short-term contracts–six or even four months’ duration.
- A flat fee billed monthly or quarterly. Ditto.
- A per-submission fee. Rather than charging on contract signing, or billing you on a regular basis, some questionable agencies charge for each submission. Since more submissions mean more income, such agents have a strong incentive to send your manuscript to as many publishers as possible (or to claim they did)–whether or not they’re appropriate for your work.
- A per-hour charge. Some reputable agents provide consulting services, but no reputable agent charges clients by the hour.
- A critique or editing fee as a condition of representation. Sometimes the agent will be honest enough to tell you that the critique or editing fee goes into his or her pocket, but other agencies will outsource you to critique or editing services they themselves operate under a different name. This allows them to pretend that “they” are not charging you a fee. Many reputable agents do work with clients to polish manuscripts for submission to publishers, but they don’t charge for this–it’s part of the service their 15% commission will eventually pay for.
- An option to provide a large number of manuscript copies or pay a fee. This was a common racket in the pre-digital era: clients were given the option of paying an upfront fee or providing 20 or 30 manuscript copies at their own expense. The idea was that it’d be so expensive to make all those copies that the fee would look like a bargain. These days everything is done electronically, so if you encounter an agency that wants you to provide paper copies for submission–even if only one–be wary: that agent is way behind the times.
- A monthly expense cap. A questionable agent’s contract may declare that you’ll never be charged more than a set amount per month for submission expense. However, the agency will treat this like a blank check, charging you that amount or close to it every single month. (Note: a monthly expense cap is not the same thing as a general expense cap–an amount above which your permission must be sought for any single expenditure. The latter is a standard part of an author-agent agreement.)
- Excessive billings. As noted above, reputable agents charge only for expenses over and above the regular cost of doing business. Ideally, reimbursable expenses will be enumerated in the contract. If they’re not, find out exactly what expenses will be included. If the agent expects you to pay for things like stationary and envelopes, or travel and legal fees, beware.
- Fees for adjunct services. Some questionable agencies require or pressure clients to buy various services (website creation, sample cover mockups or illustrations, social media listings) or to participate in various pay-to-play schemes (a catalog supposedly offered at book fairs, a special page or section on the agency’s website, podcasts featuring agency clients). Since these charges come after contract signing, and may be optional, the agency can argue that they’re not actually fees. The bottom line, however, is still that you must open up your wallet.
- Minimum advance fees. This is really rare, but if you encounter it, beware. Some agencies require authors to pay up to four figures if the advance they’re offered for a publishing deal falls below a stated number–say, $2,500. In other words, the agency expects clients to compensate it over and above its commission for low-advance deals. Agencies that levy these charges are actively selling manuscripts, so they aren’t scammers or amateurs–but it’s still a predatory practice, and not the norm.
- Some combination of the above. For instance, one questionable agent charges a reading fee, a per-submission fee, and an hourly fee (at the rate of one-half hour per submission). Another charges a critique fee, a submission fee, and periodically bills clients for services such as website creation. Another charges clients for “copyediting” their manuscripts, and then bills monthly fees for submission. The permutations are endless.
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