I got a letter yesterday from a writer who signed with an agent who has long been on Writer Beware's watchlist for charging reading/evaluation fees. (Reading and evaluation fees used to be the most common kind of upfront fee, but writers have become so aware of the fact that they're non-legit that most fee-chargers have switched to the more benign-sounding "submission" or "marketing" fee. You don't often run across reading fees these days.) Not a lot of money, as these things go--just $350.
That's canny fee-charger strategy, by the way. For many writers (though obviously, as the following will make clear, not for all), $300-350 is right on the borderline between "I'm tired of getting rejections--what's a couple of hundred dollars?" and "You want me to pay WHAT?!!"
Anyway, the writer was kind enough to include a copy of the agent's contract (I love it when people send me documentation). Reading through it, my jaw hit the floor. Reading fees, apparently, are no longer lucrative enough. The agent is now charging "a minimum retainer of Eight Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($8,500)."
Do you love the way it's all spelled out, so there's absolutely, positively no mistake about the amount? And here I'd thought that the agent with the $3,250 retainer was the fee-charging champ. No matter how bad an agent is, there's always room to be badder.
I picked up my jaw and read on. In addition to the retainer (which the agent obligingly allowed the author to pay in monthly installments of $500), the writer was required to reimburse "all expenses including long distance telephone, Xerox, postage, and wire transfer charges" (what, $8,500 isn't enough to cover paper and stamps?) and to pay a 20% commission. That nonstandard commission, of course, is the one thing the writer didn't have to worry about paying, because this particular agent, like most fee-chargers, has no record of recent sales.
The writer was with the agent for seven months. During that time, the agent mailed her manuscript to a number of inappropriate publishers...including PublishAmerica (which of course offered a contract. Fortunately the writer did some research and didn't sign it).
Some of you may be thinking, "How ignorant was this writer?" or "Only idiots give their money away." But this writer wasn't ignorant or stupid. She'd done her research, and knew that fee-charging wasn't kosher. She'd also spent nearly two years submitting her ms. to established agents without success, and had decided that "it was impossible for a new author to get an agent" (her words). This is what desperation will do to you, folks. Think it can't happen to you? Think again.
One of the ways this agent acquires clients is by holding writers' workshops in various locations, including businesses and schools. Yet another reason to check the reputation of any agent you plan to take a course from or to meet with at a writers' conference.