Fee-charging agencies — and agencies that charge fees

If you have read virtually any guide to North American agents, you will have learned that there are two types of agents: fee-charging and non-fee-charging. Most of the agents found in guides are non-fee-charging, which is to say that the agency depends for income upon sales of its client authors’ work. Fee-charging agents, however, charge writers for feedback and/or representation, and thus often subsist not upon a cut of their authors’ royalties, but upon direct payments from writers.

As you may have noticed from the agent guides, fee-charging agencies tend to be frowned upon in the industry: if an agent cannot make a living purely through promoting its authors, maybe he should be seeking another line of work. In a way, though, this assessment is not fair. In a tight writing market, it can take quite some time for an agent to build up the contacts necessary to sell books rapidly; many new literary agencies go under after just a couple of years. (If you don’t believe me about the amazingly high turnover rate amongst agents, take your most up-to-date agent guide, go to a local library, and check out an earlier editor, say three or four years old. Randomly select ten agents from the old guide — not agency owners, just agents — and try to find them in the new guide. Were you able to find more than half?) To a struggling agent, the masses of frustrated, unrepresented writers out there yearning for attention might well look like a very tempting source of income.

Sad but true, one of the primary byproducts of the increased difficulty in gaining literary recognition has been a whole industry that serves the ostensible needs of the struggling writer. Agent guides. How-to manuals. Books on how to become a better novelist, written by people who have never written a novel. Classes. Magazines. Weekend seminars. Even my own field, freelance editing. We’ve all heard the hype: learn the secrets here of succeeding in the publishing world! Don’t miss out! You can’t ever succeed unless you buy this book!

There is no denying it: a tough market makes writers willing, even eager, to shell out big bucks to anyone who seems to be promising a quicker road to publication. Some are helpful, some are not: let the writer beware, especially of people who claim to GUARANTEE publication if you buy their products or services; a reputable provider of services to writers will be the first to tell you that there are no guarantees in this business, only probabilities.

To be fair, there are fee-charging agents who do make major sales, and most of them are far more willing to read entire manuscripts than non-fee-charging agents. Just make sure that you know in advance with which kind you are dealing, to avoid disappointment and unexpected bills. As a general rule, fee-charging agents are listed separately from non-fee-charging agents in the agents’ guides, so it is fairly easy to tell them apart. To be listed as non-fee-charging in one of the standard guides, an agency must generate more than 98% of its fees from commissions, which is to say from 15% of their authors’ royalties.

The most straightforward kind of fee-charging agent will tell authors up front that there is a cost associated with sending them a manuscript. Called a reading fee, the cost can run from $25 to $500. A higher price tag, alas, is seldom a guarantee of either eventual representation or more substantial feedback, or indeed of any feedback at all: what the writer is buying here is simply the agent’s reading the manuscript and considering whether to sign the author, not advice on how to make the book more marketable. This is, I should point out, a service that non-fee-charging agents provide for free, when they are interested in a manuscript. Fee-charging agents, however, tend to be open to a broader array of manuscripts.

With few exceptions, the reading fee is nonrefundable, so do make sure that you understand clearly what you are being offered in exchange for your money. Use the same judgment you would use for any other agent. If your work is similar to someone the fee-charging agent already represents, it might well be worth your while to submit a manuscript. If not, try non-fee-charging agents who represent work like yours first.

There are agents who are technically non-fee-charging agents (i.e., they do not charge for an initial read) who nevertheless ask potential (and sometimes even current) clients fees. These agents respond enthusiastically to a query letter, ask to see the manuscript, THEN ask for a critique fee in order to get the manuscript ready for publication. As with a reading fee, do be aware that paying a critique fee does not necessarily guarantee that the agent will sign you. All it guarantees is that you will get feedback on your manuscript.

A request for a critique fee should not automatically put you off a potential agent, but it should prompt you to ask some questions, such as how much of the agency’s income is generated by critique fees, rather than by commissions. Some critique fee-charging agents do make good sales, but bear in mind that an agent who spends a significant proportion of his time critiquing the work of potential clients must necessarily spend a lower percentage of his time selling the work of his existing clients.

Also, be aware that the quality (and quantity) of commentary varies widely amongst agents who charge critique fees. If the critique fee is low and the agent has sold many books in your market niche, it might be worth your while, especially if the agent has told you up front what specific areas she believes require work. However, an agent’s feedback carries weight that, say, a writing group’s does not. Before you invest significant amounts of time in following the advice you receive in return for a critique fee, do your research, to make sure that the critiquing agent does indeed have a good grasp of your market. Checking the Publishers Marketplace database to see if she has sold anything like it within the last two years would be a good place to start.

Another type of down-the-line fee involves agents referring querying authors to a specific book doctor or freelance editor. I’m not talking about their giving a general piece of advice after reading a manuscript, along the lines of “Gee, this could really use some professional editing” here, but about agencies that either sell their query lists to editing companies or who include an editor’s brochure as part of their rejection packet in exchange for a commission.

Often, such agencies will have asked the writer to send an entire manuscript before suggesting the book doctor, which can make the referral seem very credible. The implication is, of course, that if the author hires that specific editor, the agent will offer representation at a later date, but these agencies seldom put that in writing. No matter how complimentary a referring agent is about your work, this is still a rejection, and you should regard it as such.

I find this practice ethically questionable, because it plays on the author’s worst fears and insecurities. When such a recommendation is made by an agent who allegedly knows the market, about a manuscript that he has ostensibly read carefully, it sounds like well-informed advice. But think about it: how do you know that the agent DID read the manuscript carefully, or at all, before making the recommendation? Perhaps the agent automatically refers EVERY manuscript he rejects to that editing agency. Perhaps he gets a kickback for each writer he refers.

How can you avoid getting caught up in this type of disappointment? Check for membership in the AAR(Association of Authors’Representatives), which prohibits its members from charging reading fees; most agent guides list such memberships. Similarly, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) does not allow member agents to charge its members reading fees — which usually translates into not charging any potential clients reading fees at all. If you receive a fee request from an agent who lists membership in one of these organizations, report it to the organization immediately.

Many AAR and WGA agents do charge their clients for photocopying, postage, courier fees, and occasionally even long-distance calls, although this last practice has declined as long-distance calls have become cheaper. If your agency does so, it should be spelled out in your representation contract, and you should discuss it with your potential agent first. Often, these costs are deducted from your first advance check, but some agencies ask for some money up front; if you’re asked for hundreds of dollars, start asking very pointed questions. If the charges seem excessive, ask if you can make your own photocopies and mail them to the agency.

My point here is that you should be every bit as careful in dealing with a fee-charging agency as you would be in dealing with a freelance editor; there are good ones, and there are bad ones. Ask a whole lot of questions before you plunk down your cash, and make sure that you know what you will be getting in exchange.

And do be aware that despite the burgeoning market of products and services available to the up-and-coming writer, it is possible to navigate these waters on the cheap. A good writers’ group can provide you excellent feedback for free; libraries tend to stock the newest writing books rather quickly, and it only costs you time and effort to research agents. It may well be worth it to you to pay a freelance editor, rather than investing a year in a writing group to get feedback on your book, or to take a reputable weekend seminar on how to polish your novel, rather than reading all of the books available on the subject. It’s up to you. But for heaven’s sake, make it a conscious choice, not one unduly influenced by hype or the elusive hope of jumping the queue.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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