Fee-charging agencies, Part IV: non-charging agencies that charge fees

For the past few days, I have been examining agencies from the other side of the looking glass: not in terms of the well-advertised ways that an agency can help a writer make money, but instead how some agencies (and “agencies”) make money off writers by not selling their work. Today, I am going to discuss ways that ostensibly NON-fee-charging agencies charge their clients money, over and above the standard 15% of eventual book sales.

Some of you who went running to the standard agency guides after my last couple of posts were a bit startled, weren’t you? “But Anne,” I heard some of you out there murmuring, “I’m interested in an agency that the guides say charges for certain things — postage, for instance, or photocopying. Does this mean that I should avoid them?”

No — but this is an excellent question, one you should definitely discuss with any agent who offers to represent you. Hang on a moment, though, while I bring the folks who haven’t taken a gander at a guide lately up to speed.

The standard guides — the book ones, that is; the online guides tend not to — ask agencies point-blank whether they charge their clients any additional service fees or ask for upfront payments. (In the extremely reliable Writer’s Digest guide, the answers to this question are found under the TERMS part of each listing.) Pay attention: they are asking for YOUR benefit.

Most of the time, when non-fee-charging agents charge their clients, it is for office expenses: photocopying, postage, courier fees, and occasionally even long-distance calls, although this last practice has declined as long-distance calls have become cheaper. The AAR allows this, for much the same reason that the IRS allows writers to take query postage, letterhead, and printer cartridges as business deductions — these are all legitimate costs associated with selling a particular book.

Typically, these costs are deducted from your first advance check, but some agencies ask for office expense money up front; if you’re asked for hundreds of dollars, start asking very pointed questions about what they intend to do with it. However, the vast majority of agencies that charge these fees genuinely do try to keep the costs as low as possible. They just want you to pay for them.

Don’t be shy about asking — if your agency charges for such services, the costs should be spelled out in your representation contract, and you should discuss the details with your potential agent BEFORE you sign. Sometimes, the terms are negotiable, believe it or not. If the per-page photocopying charges seem excessive, for instance, it’s often worth your while to ask if you can make your own copies of your book and mail them to the agency; it’s usually cheaper per page.

For tips on how to go into the particulars of a proffered contract without offending anyone, see tomorrow’s blog. For now, let’s keep moving through expenses and tackle the upfront or reading fee.

The upfront fee is precisely what it says on the box: the agency either charges writers a fee for screening their submissions, as I discussed yesterday, or charges an advance against the advance, as it were. Again, the AAR frowns upon this, so if you are asked for such a fee by a member agent, feel free to report them.

Sometimes, though, the question of upfront fees is not so straightforward. 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 to pay them for editing services. These agents will find a query they like, respond enthusiastically, ask to see the manuscript, THEN ask for a critique fee in order to get the manuscript ready for publication. Sometimes, they even sign the client BEFORE asking for the critique fee, so it comes as something of a surprise.

Usually, these fees are not very much — $50-$100 seems to be the norm — but essentially, such an agency is asking the author to pay their in-house editor’s salary. And yes, Virginia, some of the agencies that do this are indeed members of the AAR and thus are listed as non-fee-charging in the standard guides.

How can they pull this off? Because less than 2% of these agencies’ income, ostensibly, comes from providing such services. (Or they are lying about it in the guides. If neither the AAR or a standard guide receives a complaint that an agency is charging clients fees, the chances they are going to be caught in the lie are slim to none.)

Thus, a request for a critique fee from ANY agent should prompt you to ask some questions IMMEDIATELY, such as how much of the agency’s income is generated by critique fees rather than by commissions (it should be under 2%), whether the fee will be refunded after your first book is sold (this varies), and whether any and all fees are spelled out explicitly in the agency contract (they should be). If the answers seem at all odd, or if the agent hedges, PLEASE report it immediately to the AAR (if the agency in question is a member), Preditors and Editors (so other writers may be warned), and me (ditto).

As with a reading fee paid to a fee-charging agent, bear in mind that ANY upfront fee does not necessarily guarantee that the agent will sign you. In fact, with an officially non-fee-charging agency, paying an upfront or editing fee COULDN’T be a precondition for representation; it would be false advertising.

Again, all a critique fee EVER guarantees is that you will get feedback on your manuscript. This can vary from an array of simple summary statements (“The murder is believable, but the manuscript begins to drag when the posse of nuns arrives”) to very specific, concrete revision suggestions (“Switch chapters four and five, and lose all of the semicolons.”)

Don’t let the power differential blind you to the sensibility of doing a little comparison shopping before you agree to see if you can get the service they are offering cheaper elsewhere. If the agent suggests that your work needs hardcore editing before it is sent out, check out what local freelance editors would charge before you agree to pay their in-house editor.

Also, be aware that the quality (and quantity) of commentary varies WILDLY amongst agents who charge critique fees — just as it does amongst agents who don’t charge for feedback. As I believe I’ve mentioned roughly 200 times in the last four months, over and above certain technical matters, an agent’s response to a manuscript is largely subjective. I’ve known agents to give five single-spaced pages of specific guidelines on revising a manuscript, and ones who scrawled two lines on the back of the title page, handed the MS back to the author, and called it good.

Familiarity with the current publishing market is also quite variable; as anyone who has ever attended a large writers’ conference can tell you, MOST agents speak about the market in general as though they were intimately conversant with every aspect of it. This is just not how the industry works: agents specialize.

So while it is obviously in your best interest to make sure that the agent representing you has strong connections in your chosen genre, it is doubly important that the agent who is charging you for feedback has firm basis for telling you what aspects of your book will and will not fly in the current marketplace. Emphasis on CURRENT, because this is an industry whose tastes change on practically a monthly basis..

Before you lay down a single nickel or 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, as would asking for a client list. Ask if you can talk to another client, preferably a published one, who has used the in-house editing service with success. Ask what about your book WILL sell; ask for comparisons to other books on the market.

And no, to a credible agent, these should NOT be offensive questions. If an agent who has already made a representation offer (or with whom you have already signed) is serious about feeling that your book needs in-house editing before he submits it to publishers, he should be able to give you concrete reasons why, not just platitudes about how tough it is to sell a book these days. Because, as many of us know from long, hard experience, manuscripts that aren’t already technically close to perfect very seldom receive representation offers: it’s not as though you would need to pay your agency to have someone switch the book into standard format, after all, or to make it coherent.

A good place to start the questions might be, “If you charged for this service, why didn’t you say so in your listing in Guide X?” Because if the agency is charging clients for services and not telling the standard guides about it, that should raise all kinds of red flags for you.

You need to be able to trust these people: if everything works out as it should, they will be handling the bulk of your income for years to come.

One final caveat about agents who charge this kind of fee: some of them do make good sales, but bear in mind that any 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.

This is true of non-fee-charging agents as well, of course. So when you are searching for agents, give it some thought: do you really want to be represented by someone who spends half his time reworking his clients’ books. Or traveling around the country, teaching classes for writers? Or who spends a quarter of every workday maintaining a fabulous blog?

The answer may well be yes — these sorts of activities do undoubtedly add to an agent’s prestige. But there are necessary time trade-offs that will have an effect on you.

And at the risk of repeating myself, despite the glamour of having an agent go through your work with a fine-toothed comb (ostensibly) and the burgeoning market of increasingly spendy 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 costs you only time and effort to research agents.

If you are willing to pay for services, do so for the right reasons, and not in the hope of jumping ahead in the agency queue. 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. Just do your homework, double-check the credentials of everyone who wants to charge you money, and try to avoid buying the proverbial pig in a poke. And, naturally, keep up the good work!

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