Fee-charging agencies, Part III: the reputable ones

I’ve been talking for the last couple of days about the loathsome species of self-described agencies that bilk writers out of their hard-earned dosh by requiring “Independent Evaluations” and similar expensive services as a condition of representation, as well as practitioners of another kind of lower-level predation on aspiring writers, selling lists of those who query them to editing services and magazines or tucking brochures for such services into rejection packets. Generally speaking, you cannot run far enough from agencies that operate in this manner.

Are you wondering why I keep harping on that advice? The reason is alarmingly simple: in this industry, writers are discouraged from asking too many questions. We’re just supposed to be able to find our way around the biz.

By instinct, perhaps. Or some highly specialized sense of smell. Maybe agents and editors think we writers have some additional internal organ that extrudes bile whenever our work is near a poor agent and spurts perfume near a good one. Or a unique brain synapse formation that gives us an electric shock every time we even consider placing a book proposal in a non-black folder or going for broke and using a typeface other than Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

In any case, they certainly do seem to think we know a whole lot about the industry without being told.

The question of who is and is not a reputable agent is almost never discussed at writers’ conferences or in writers’ publications, so pretty much the only way you are going to find out about this sort of trap is from other writers. In the business, knowing about such pitfalls is assumed, in much the way that conference cognoscenti assume that every writer present already knows that a submission NOT in standard format will be rejected practically every time or that advances are typically not paid in one big lump sum, but in installments.

It’s yet another instance of knowledge equaling power in the industry, and I, for one, don’t consider it fair. One of the reasons that I started this blog was to give isolated writers — and aren’t all writers isolated, to a certain extent, by the nature of the process? — a place to learn the facts behind the assumptions. (For example: if any of the statements about proposal folders, typefaces, standard format, and advances in the previous paragraphs were mysteries to you, please check out the relevant categories at the right of these page.)

Since it is not an issue you are likely to see discussed elsewhere, then, let me be the first to confuse the issue by telling you: there are a few fee-charging agencies that are perfectly reputable. Which is to say, they are agencies who sell actual books to actual publishers, but who derive some significant portion of their income from other services they offer to writers.

Portion is the operative term here. To be considered non-fee-charging, an agency must generate more than 98% of its fees from its 15% share of their authors’ royalties. The AAR will not admit (or retain) agencies that rely more heavily upon other sources of income than that — on the grounds, I believe, that agencies that charge for a first read are essentially requiring writers to buy what most agencies offer for free. For this reason, fee-charging agencies are seldom listed anymore in the standard guides.

I have to say, I’m with the AAR on this one: I don’t think that a writer should ever have to pay an agency for a first read. Finding new writers is an integral part of how agents make their living; if they pick up the writers they have charged to submit material, they are being paid twice for the same work. It tips the already-stacked balance of power still farther in their favor – causing writers already reduced to begging for their attention to paying for it as well.

What’s next, rolling over? Fetching the latest copy of Publisher’s Weekly? Bringing them dead rodents as gestures of affection?

If a writer has been querying well-established agencies for a long time without garnering any positive responses, it might well be worth her while to run her query and chapters past more seasoned eyes, but those eyes can easily be found in a writer’s group that is free to join, or in a freelance editor who charges a flat rate per page or per hour. (See “How do I find an editor?” link at right.) With both, the writer never has to worry that there are hidden costs down the line.

However, if you do decide that you are willing to pay a fee-charging agent for a first read — and can accept the fact that his charging at all indicates that he either doesn’t sell enough of his clients’ books NOT to charge or doesn’t like writers much — make sure that you know in advance with which kind you are dealing, to avoid disappointment and unexpected bills.

How does one go about this, now that fee-charging agencies are no longer listed in the standard guides? Well, the most straightforward kind of fee-charging agent will tell authors up front on its website and in its literature that there is a cost associated with sending them a manuscript. Called a reading fee, the cost can run anywhere from $25 to $500.

To put this in perspective, a written manuscript critique without line editing, which is what the reputable fee-charging agencies provide, will usually run about $150 – $250. (If you are looking for line correction or substantive editing as well, the costs will be higher, of course: this is just for a basic read-and-advise.) But at least with an editor, you can negotiate up front precisely the type of feedback you want.

With an agent who charges to consider manuscripts, you have no such leeway. A higher price tag on a reading fee, 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 promise to have someone in the office read the manuscript to consider whether to sign the author, not advice on how to make the book more marketable.

Which is, I reiterate, a service that non-fee-charging agents provide for free, when they are interested enough in a manuscript to request it. Admittedly, though, fee-charging agents tend to be open to a broader array of manuscripts than their non-fee-charging brethren and sistern. Why not? They’re making a profit, and they will only pick up what interests them, anyway.

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. Look for a written critique, with no further commitment on your part — basically, what you would get from a freelance editor. Do some comparison shopping.

And don’t forget to use the same judgment you would use for any other agent. Ask what books the fee-charging agency has sold in recent years before you put dime one into the process. If your work is similar to someone the fee-charging agent already represents, it might be worth your while to submit a manuscript. If not, try non-fee-charging agents who represent work like yours first.

Had I mentioned that I would HIGHLY recommend that you stick with the non-fee-charging ones altogether, and go to a writing group or a good freelance editor for feedback? Either of the latter is FAR more likely to give you concrete advice (everything from “Did you know that your slug line isn’t in professional format?” to “Why does the protagonist’s sister’s name change from Gladys to Gertrude halfway through?” to “It pains me to say this, mon ami, but that scene with the hippopotamus on the carousel simply doesn’t work.”) rather than the generalities associated with manuscript reviews (“Your pacing needs to be tighter” or “Your protagonist should be more sympathetic.”)

Did I just hear a chorus of gasps out there?

That’s right: a fee-charging agent’s feedback on a rejected manuscript is not necessarily going to be any more substantial than that in any other rejection letter. If you honestly long to have a professional tell you, “I just didn’t fall in love with this book,” I assure you, there are PLENTY of agents out there who will diss you for free.

Which is precisely why the querying and submission processes are so incredibly frustrating, right? When we submit a manuscript over which we’ve slaved, we writers (unreasonable beings that we are, the industry thinks, with all of those strange internal organs and oddly-arranged brain chemistry) want to receive in return, if not an acceptance, than at least a brief explanation for why the agent is not picking up the book. That way, the submission process could be progressive: with professional feedback on what is and isn’t working, our manuscripts could be better each time we submit them.

Ah, we can dream, can’t we?

What we want, in other words, is for rejecting agents to give our work an honest manuscript critique: a once-over without suggesting line edits (although that would be nice), but giving us written feedback on how to make the book more marketable. What agents ACTUALLY give submissions, unfortunately, is manuscript reviews: a quick read purely intended to judge whether the book is marketable and if it is something they would like to represent. And that differential in expectations leads, in my experience, to a whole lot of heartache, second-guessing, and a horrible, creeping feeling of futility on our side of the Rubicon.

Obviously, no sane person would set up a talent-finding process this way, but if we want to get published, we do need to work with the status quo. So while I can utterly understand longing enough to receive professional feedback on why your work is not being picked up by agents to be willing to pay for it, I think that if you’re going to pay an agent to read your work, you ought at least to be guaranteed a manuscript critique, not merely a manuscript review.

Ask a whole lot of questions before you plunk down your cash. Including: am I really going to get anything out of this that a writing group or freelance editor could not give me? Because, hype aside, you would be paying a fee-charging agent who does not sign you for precisely the same services.

The moral of the day: you should be every bit as careful in dealing with a fee-charging agency as you would be in dealing with a freelance editor. Both are providing you services that should help you get your work published; as in any other service industry, there are good ones, and there are bad ones, and they tend to look as similar as good and bad orthodontists do. Do a little background checking — and make sure that you know precisely what you will be getting out of the exchange.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

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