THE TRUTH ABOUT LITERARY AGENTS’ FEES
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?
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 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, 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 yet dodge reading fees’ increasingly bad reputation, some agents attempted to 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 involved handing over cash?
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 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.
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 asked in advance to defray the cost of submitting his or her work to publishers.
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, postage/Fed Ex, long-distance calls, 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; these days, with most business done electronically, you shouldn’t expect to be on the hook for more than a couple of hundred dollars total.
Everything else–travel, legal fees, office supplies, rent, utilities, the editing assistance many agents offer to get manuscripts ready for submission–should be absorbed as normal business overhead. 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 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 even a per-submission fee. 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 upfront fees have no or minimal track records.
Reading and evaluation fees used to be the commonest form of fee, but these days the marketing or submission fee 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. Among new fee-chargers who set themselves up in business, the marketing fee is the fee of choice.
Not all agents who charge marketing fees are dishonest. Some are merely inexperienced or inept. But scam or amateur, the bottom line for the writer is the same: a smaller bank account and no sale.
Following are some of the fees you may encounter. 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.
- A reading or 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 it to sign a waiver absolving the agency of any responsibility for the submission–including reading it.
- 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 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.
- 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. 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.
- Asking for a large number of manuscript copies. Most business is done electronically these days, but there are still agencies that will ask you for paper submissions. If an agency requests that you provide multiple paper manuscripts, however, be wary–the agent may be an old-time semi-scammer planning to shotgun your work to a (likely 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. A common racket in the pre-digital era was to give clients 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. This scheme is rare these days, but there are still a few agencies that employ this bait-and-switch tactic.
- 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, or ask for a sample bill so you can see what the agent considers reimbursable. If the agent expects you to pay for things like stationary and envelopes, or if items like business cards and photos are included, 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.
- 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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