The Case Against Reading Fees

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I never thought I’d be re-visiting the issue of literary agents charging reading fees. After all, the problems inherent in the charging of reading fees are recognized by all four literary agents’ professional trade groups (the USA’s AAR,  Australia’s ALAA, and New Zealand’s NZALA prohibit them outright to members; the UK’s AAA allows them only if the client or prospective client is first informed in writing). And “never pay a reading fee to a literary agent” is one of the few pieces of anti-scam wisdom that has passed into the collective consciousness. Even if they aren’t aware of other scams and schemes, most new writers know that reading fees aren’t kosher.

But one of the most surprising things–to me, anyway–to come out of last week’s vigorous twiscussion of how agents should be paid (see the #agentpay hashtag) is the proposal that agents should once again charge reading fees. See, for instance, this blog post by writer Nadia Lee. Several commenters on my blog post last week also suggested a return to reading fees; similar suggestions are scattered in the comments of other blog posts about #agentpay (including Colleen Lindsay’s partial roundup of these posts). The idea has even been put forward by some agents; see this pair of posts by Robert Brown and Sharene Martin of Wylie-Merrick Literary (though I have to say I have trouble taking seriously Sharene’s suggestion that expecting agents to operate within ethical guidelines is equivalent to racial profiling).

Here are four arguments in favor of reading fees, and why, in my opinion, three of them don’t hold up.

– The Darwinian argument. Requiring writers to pay a fee to submit their work would winnow out the non-serious and the non-ready, providing relief to agents’ overburdened inboxes.

Unfortunately, one of the things you learn when you deal with large numbers of aspiring writers is that many are deeply deluded about the quality of their work. An unmarketable writer is just as likely to be convinced of his or her readiness as a marketable one, and therefore just as likely to pay a reading fee. (In fact, there may be an inverse relationship between confidence and quality–but that’s a whole ‘nother question.)

Some people believe that if writers are stupid or unschooled enough to throw away their money, they deserve what they get. Possibly. But again, that’s a different question.

– The It’s For Your Own Good argument. If writers had to pay to submit their work, it would force them be more cautious about whom they queried, diminishing the likelihood that they’d fall into the clutches of the scammers and amateurs who would also be charging reading fees.

In some cases this might be true. But more than twelve years of documenting the pointless and fraudulent things that writers can be persuaded to pay for tells me, sadly, that money is not a barrier to bad decisionmaking. Plus, this argument ignores the power of desperation, which drives some writers into the arms of dubious publishers whose charges make reading fees look like chicken feed.

– The You’ve Got to Give Something to Get Something argument. One of the things that’s most distressing to writers is the impersonal nature of rejection. A reading fee might offer genuine benefit if it guaranteed some sort of personal feedback or evaluation.

But what would ensure that the fee was commensurate with the feedback? If you’re paying $150, or even $50, will a couple of scribbled lines suffice? A page of generic writing advice? More to the point, do overburdened agents have time to provide this kind of service? (That, I suspect, is why this argument is most often advanced by writers.)

– The Why Should I Work For Free? argument. It takes time and effort to carefully evaluate manuscripts. Why should agents undertake this crucial task without remuneration?

For me, this is the one convincing argument in favor of reading fees, at least at the partial and full level. It is time-consuming to read manuscripts–and more often than not, the reading results in a rejection, so this really is time for which the agent doesn’t get paid.

Is it convincing enough to justify a return to reading fees, though? No, in my opinion.

– Reading fees would unfairly burden non-wealthy authors. Like hourly billing, reading fees would disproportionately disadvantage writers with fewer financial resources. Agents may justifiably feel they deserve income beyond their commissions–but creating a world in which only the well-off could afford to seek agents doesn’t seem like the best long-term solution (especially since fewer writers looking for agents means less need for agencies).

– Reading fees are incredibly easy to abuse. How? Well, for instance, by requesting manuscripts in which the agent isn’t interested, just in order to obtain the fee. Given the volume of queries most agents receive, even a small processing fee–under $50–can bring in a substantial yearly income.

Or using the carrot of possible representation to entice as many writers as possible to submit and pay–as the Scott Meredith Agency did with its (now discontinued) Discovery Program, employing a bevy of readers to bang out three-page evaluation letters for which writers paid several hundred dollars. Some writers did move from the Discovery Program to the agency proper–more than twenty-five, according to the agency’s website. Compare that, however, to the hundreds or even thousands who paid for evaluations over the years that the program was running.

Or charging an evaluation fee and providing not a real evaluation, but a form letter slightly personalized for each writer.

Or running a full-on scam, where the agency’s sole purpose is to collect reading fees, wait a couple of weeks, and then send a form rejection. Reading fees are easy, easy money; of all the writing-related scams, they involve the least amount of work, and guarantee the least contact with the marks.

I’m not making any of these examples up. All come directly from information in Writer Beware’s files. We have voluminous documentation of the ways in which literary agents–not necessarily scam agents, either–can abuse reading fees, and their ugly cousins, evaluation fees. You don’t have to take my word for it; here’s what the AAR’s Canon of Ethics has to say:

Members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works, including outlines, proposals and partial or complete manuscripts…The AAR believes that the practice of charging for readings is open to serious abuse and may reflect adversely on our profession.

When Writer Beware was founded in 1998, reading fees were in decline among reputable agents, but were the dominant form of literary scam. That they are almost nonexistent today–even among scammers–is, I think, a direct result of their rejection by the AAR and other professional agents’ groups.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens when a bad practice is eliminated, people eventually begin to question whether the practice was really so terrible, or even whether it existed at all. In his post defending reading fees, agent Robert Brown observes, “As for the specter of abuse, I think it’s mostly fantasy made up by those who have prospered by spreading rumor and innuendo.” It’s hard to know what to say about a remark like this, except that the ethical codes of the AAR, the AAA, the ALAA, and the NZALA didn’t just pop up out of the blue.

Is it impossible for agents to charge reading fees in an ethical manner? Certainly not. Even before the AAR, etc. prohibited them to members, there were agents who were entirely ethical and careful in their use of reading fees. I have no doubt that this would also be the case if reading fees came into wide use again. But they are also a green light to scams and abuse–and that’s no fantasy. It’s a can of worms I don’t think we want to re-open.

Edited to add: It was becoming apparent that my original title, Should Agents Charge Reading Fees?, was causing people to assume I was advocating reading fees. Since I most emphatically am not, I’ve changed the title to be more reflective of the content of the post.