THE TRUTH ABOUT LITERARY AGENTS’ FEES
If you’ve queried literary agents based on the information 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 upfront or in regular installments. No matter what the stated purpose of such a fee is, it’s 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?
Once upon a time, quite a few agents charged reading fees. The rationale behind this was that it takes time to read and evaluate a manuscript, and 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 solely in order to obtain the reading fee. Eventually, the 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.)
Some agents, who wanted to profit from reading fees but to dodge the practice’s increasingly bad reputation, attempted to sanitize their charges and add the appearance of value by throwing a critique 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, as well as an explanation of why the manuscripts were rejected. Who wouldn’t want that, even if it cost a bit of money?
Problem was, most of these evaluations weren’t especially useful. Often they were produced not by the agent, but by an inexperienced intern or unqualified minimum-wage employee. Sometimes they were cut-and-paste jobs, consisting of some vague comments about plot and style, a few remarks about grammar and punctuation, and a hefty load of the sort of basic advice found in how-to-write books. Sometimes they were complete frauds. Writer Beware has a file on one agent (now out of business) whose critiques were so generic they could apply to any manuscript–which was no accident, since he sent the same evaluation to everyone who paid his fee.
Still other agents, searching for a stigma-free way to obtain money upfront, came up with the notion of marketing fees. These fees go by many other names–submission, contract, processing, circulation, preparation, administrative, retainer–but basically the idea is the same: the writer is being asked in advance to defray the cost of marketing his or her work to publishers.
Some confusion arises here, because it’s typical practice among reputable agents to expect clients to reimburse some of the expenses 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, postage/Fed Ex, long-distance calls, advance reading copies or finished books sent to co-agents. 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 (in other words, it’s covered by the agent’s eventual commission). Applicable charges are accrued and reimbursed from the author’s advance, or billed to the author after they’re incurred.
Questionable agents, by contrast, want expense money the minute you sign a contract–usually as a fixed amount billed each time the contract renews. And they often expect you to pay not just for the expenses described above, but for every file folder, envelope, and paper clip, or for unnecessary extras such as photos, business cards, marketing plans, and fancy binders. Such agents often promise to reimburse you if your book is sold, but though this may sound appealing, it’s usually a safe promise, since most agents who charge marketing fees have no or minimal track records.
Reading and evaluation fees used to be the commonest form of fee, but these days the marketing fee (under one name or another) is the one you’re most likely to encounter. It allows questionable agents to present an appearance of legitimacy–since “everyone knows” that agents expect clients to bear some of the cost of submission–and has the added benefit of enabling 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! Many agents who formerly charged reading or evaluation fees have switched to marketing fees, and among the dozens of new fee-chargers who set themselves up in business every year, the marketing fee is the fee of choice.
Not all agents who charge marketing fees are dishonest. Some are simply inexperienced or inept. But scam or amateur, the bottom line for the writer is the same: a lighter wallet and no sale.
Following are some of the fees you may encounter–some straightforward (if you discount the sleazy rationales that accompany them), some delightfully sneaky.
- A fee due on submission. 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. As noted above, reading fees are relatively rare these days.
- A submission fee that buys you something–a critique, a more detailed rejection letter, marketing advice from the agent. Also relatively rare. 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 to sign a waiver absolving the agency of any responsibility for the submission, including reading it. (Not that this was an agency any writer would want to be represented by. Its entire income came from fees.)
- 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 digits 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 the more submissions they make, the more income they realize, such agents have a strong incentive to send your manuscript to as many publishers as possible–whether or not they’re appropriate for your work. (Or to claim to send it. Some fee-chargers never bother to send anything out at all.)
- A per-hour charge. No reputable agent charges 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.
- Asking for a large number of manuscript copies. A reputable agent may ask you to send a couple of printed manuscripts at the outset, or agree to provide them as required (though with so many agents and editors doing business electronically these days, paper may not be needed at all). Requests for lots of paper manuscripts, however, suggests amateurism–the agent may be planning a shotgun submission of your work to a (possibly ill-targeted) laundry list of publishers, which is both unprofessional and ineffective.
- An option to provide a large number of manuscript copies or pay a fee. Some questionable agents give clients the option of paying an upfront fee or providing 20 or 30 manuscript copies at their own expense. This is a bait-and-switch tactic: it’d be so expensive to make all those copies that the fee looks like a bargain.
- 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. Odds are that the agency will treat this like a blank check, and you’ll be charged 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. If an agent tells you it’s her policy to bill submission expenses, find out exactly what those expenses will include, or ask for a sample bill so you can see what she considers reimbursable. If she expects you to pay for things like stationary and envelopes, or if she includes items like business cards and photos, be wary.
- 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 pay to participate in various schemes (a catalog supposedly circulated to publishers or 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 are often optional, the agency can argue that they’re not actually fees–but the bottom line is still that you must open up your wallet.
- 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.