Monday, June 28, 2010

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.

48 comments:

Jodi Meadows said...

I think some people underestimate how much others are looking to find ways to cheat people.

The rosy glow of optimism is nice, and I certainly don't think we should ditch that, but the sad truth is that there are a lot of jerks out there. A lot. And they will take advantage of anything they can in order to make a quick buck.

Katiebabs/ KB said...

What's stopping agents from abusing this? I have to pay just to get someone to read my work with no promise that I would get an agent?

$50 for a partial read and then $100 for a full? That is insulting.

I would self-publish then and put my money elsewhere.

steeleweed said...

I might pay an editor but never an agent. If one performed both roles, I'd be suspicious of possible conflict of interest.

Sarah said...

I agree with Katiebabs!

Self-publishing is a legitimate option for writers if they don't get accepted by agents or publishing houses. If they bring back fees, they will drive writers to self-publish. It is not like new writers get much advertising from the houses anyway so why not try self-publishing.

Looking at all the scams going on now with major corporations, banks, and all that jazz, I can see agents abusing this. And trying to bring this back with this economy is just ridiculous.

Jane said...

Consulting fees, reading fees, hourly fees are not inherently unethical as this article posits. These have been standard in the legal field for eons. The problem is that agenting is entirely unregulated and until such time as that is solved, you are going to continue to have enormous problems no matter what the fee agreement.

But to say that flat rate fee schedules are a greenlight to scamming is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Lets start paying businesses to read our resumes, too. After all, agents have been telling us that we shouldn't expect a response because a query is just like responding to an ad for a job, and businesses can't be bothered to send a personal rejection to every applicant. We should really be paying people to seek the talent they profit from. Yes, that seems utterly reasonable. (You may have caught me in something of bad mood.)

Victoria Strauss said...

Jane, I'm not making a general statement about flat fee schedules, but a particular one about reading fees charged by literary agents. I don't think that hourly fees, consulting fees, etc. are inherently unethical--nor in fact do I think that reading fees are inherently unethical (see the next to last paragraph of this post). They are, however, burdensome for writers and too often unethically employed.

But you make an excellent point, and one I agree with: the problem arises in large part because literary agenting is entirely unregulated, and there's no official body to establish--and enforce--consistent practice. That's what makes reading fees (and other kinds of fees) a green light for scamming.

Victoria Strauss said...

Let's keep it civil, folks--I don't want this post to become a forum for agent-bashing (hence the deleted comment above).

Katiebabs/ KB said...

Agents aren't attorneys and don't go through years of schooling or take tests or renew their licenses each year.

Comparing an agent to a lawyer is like comparing apples to oranges.

Victoria Strauss said...

Yes, KB, but maybe agents should do those things. A better analogy might be to real estate agents, who also serve as intermediaries between sellers and buyers, earn on commission, and are regulated and licensed.

Dorothy Hearst said...

Another argument against reading fees, even if a way were found to guard against abuse: they would shift the balance of power in that they would essentially give agents exclusives or near exclusives. If an author has to pay $50-$100 per manuscript review, s/he will necessarily send to fewer agents, lessening competition for desirable projects and making it harder for authors to shop around for the right agent.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

The nature of human of human nature ensures that a policy that can be abused will be abused. It is why we lock our homes and our cars when we leave them.

Not everyone is a crook. But crooks exist. We lock our homes and cars. We prohibit practices too easy to abuse.

In fact, why bother trying to sell manuscripts at all when you can get a hefty monthly income by reading them?

Where there is no regulation, there will be abuses : a simple fact of human nature.

Raise the commission to 18% to motivate the agent to actually try to sell the manuscripts he has accepted. It would seem a way to placate the financially challenged agents.

Laura Resnick said...

"I have trouble taking seriously Sharene's suggestion that expecting agents to operate within ethical guidelines is equivalent to racial profiling)."


Oh, I am so tempted to say that, no, in my experience, expecting agents to operate within ethical guidelines is more along the lines of expecting water to turn into wine.

But I won't. Because that would be MEAN.

Michele Lee said...

I found both posts from Wylie-Merrick extremely insulting. The agents collectively have said that the only real pros are the ones who have a college degree proving it (neglecting the fact that that many writing related degrees are woefully behind on the times and even more are exceedingly unfriendly to fiction or genre fiction, not to mention how completely broke the higher education system is today) and that paying reading fees is the way a writer proves they're serious about their work (again, not the case, because in my experience the worst books come from the people who throw disposable income at the issue of getting published rather than learning the craft). To make these statements, then say writers thinking agents might not have the purest intentions is akin to racial profiling is fairly offensive.

I think if reading fees came back a lot of people wouldn't go for agencies at all. Instead they'd self publish or small press publish and "earn up" to the big houses, if not approach them directly any way. Likewise I could see publisher buying up more small press books (like Juno and Pocket, and Simon & Schuster picking up Permuted Press titles) cutting the agents out altogether (because the publishers get better deals that way) and using the small press as the gatekeepers. I don't see that solving the problem of agents trying to survive in these fiscal times. If anything I see it as detrimental to agencies.

Laura Resnick said...

Apart from the obvious potential for rampaging abuse of the practice... the other big problem I see with agents charging reading fees is that in my own experience, frankly, agents' opinions of MSs are not WORTH paying for.

Way back when I was an aspiring writer, a dozen agents all told me my first two books were unsaleable. I sold both of those books to a major market that same year.

Over the years, I've made numerous other sales of books that various agents who looked at the material (whether it was an agent whom I was querying, or an agent who represented me at the time) told me were unsaleable. Indeed, I'm currently under contract with several such books, 23 years after this first start happening to me.

So... the idea of reading fees is that people would be PAYING to get such useless, inaccurate commentary on their MSs?

There's something so... Ionesco meets the Marx Brothers about that notion.

Victoria Strauss said...

Laura, I very much respect your experience, insight, and control of your career. However, I think the thing to remember in talking about agents is YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). Not everyone has had terrible agent experiences, or found agents' opinions to be worthless. In fact, many writers love their agents, or at least respect them, for good reason. Going agentless can work well for some, but there are many writers (including me) who would not find it at all desirable, not just because we like our agents, but because they do good work on our behalf.

Jamwes said...

RE: - 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?

If that was the case, then why should I write anything without remuneration? Why should a Realtor work to sell a house without getting paid up front? Why should Hollywood make movies? There is a risk involved in everything you do, but that risk is what will get you paid in the end. There are so many other industries that get paid after all the work is done (and sometimes get shafted in the process) that this really isn't a great argument.

Like the old saying goes: Ya gotta spend money to make money.

That being said. This is an interesting topic and I enjoy seeing both sides. Makes me glad that my day job is one where I get paid before I provide the services.

Laura Resnick said...

All right, Victoria, then how about this: Economic need is a key justification cited in the Wylie Merrick post supporting the establishment of reading fees. But when an agent is charging reading fees because the proceeds his/her agenting aren't sufficient... how savvy will =that= agent's opinion of a MS actually be? Worth PAYING for? It doesn't seem likely.

Anaquana said...

My biggest issue with the concept of reading fees, hourly fees, and the like is a purely selfish one - why should an agent be guaranteed an income when I, the writer, am not?

Draven Ames said...

I hope this doesn't happen. I'd never make it as a writer then. The poor writers that live where suffering and angst are plaster wouldn't be able to contribute to societies literature. That would be a crime. Where do we find inspiration but from the bottom?

Sure, some will scrape through.

Not enough, I say. The beautiful word already bows before electronics in our children s eyes and the world cheers. This would only hasten its demise.

Tricia said...

If one argument is that a paying writer is a more serious one then what about me?

I quit my career to write full time. We, in my family, have made great sacrifices for me to do this. We are very financially strapped. I don't enter any contests or submit to any magazines which have reading fees.

I have been submitting parts of my novel to various lit mags, and I've been getting many publications from that. I'm building my platform and almost ready to query. Should they start charging fees, my career would be over. I would not be able to afford even one reading fee.

How does that make me less serious a writer than the one who started last week and has the money to promote it?

Victoria Strauss said...

Laura said,

Economic need is a key justification cited in the Wylie Merrick post supporting the establishment of reading fees. But when an agent is charging reading fees because the proceeds his/her agenting aren't sufficient... how savvy will =that= agent's opinion of a MS actually be? Worth PAYING for? It doesn't seem likely.

Basically I agree with this, but I think that the fearful/cautious state of most publishers right now, plus an unprecedented number of agents (as laid-off publishing staff transition to agenting), may be making it tougher for good agents, as well as mediocre ones, to make a living. So the fact that an agent needs or wants more income doesn't necessarily mean his or her opinion is less than savvy.

But this is really a moot point, since writers shouldn't have to pay for agents' opinions to begin with.

Writer and Cat said...

I started to calculate how much I would have had to invest in reading fees over the years to fill my "Look, IRS, I can haz profit motive" file of rejections (assuming $50 as the fee), and I had to stop because the hypothetical number made my stomach hurt. Sorry, kids, no food for you this year!

Victoria Strauss said...

Tricia, the pro-reading fee argument you mention--that a paying writer is a more serious writer--is also commonly used by fee-charging publishers to convince writers to part with thousands of dollars to "publish" their books. IMO, it's one of the most offensive and insulting arguments of all. The ability to shell out cash shouldn't be equated with either literary quality or career drive.

Victoria Strauss said...

Writer and Cat, it's more expensive even than you think. Back in the days when reading fees were still fairly common, they averaged in the $150-250 range. Anything below $100 was unusual.

Writer and Cat said...

Victoria, thanks a lot for that clarification. $150... $250... Now my hair is on fire and it's upsetting the cats.

Laura Resnick said...

"But this is really a moot point, since writers shouldn't have to pay for agents' opinions to begin with."


I don't agree that it's a moot point. The discussions on the subject are covering whether or not authors can afford a reading fee, and whether or not a reading fee creates an opportunity gap between authors with the money to spend and authors without.

On that basis, the obvious horse to place before that cart is: Would this money even be worth spending? It is, after all, a practice more likely to be implemented by agents who are NOT among those whose agenting work is very successful. (One of my former agents, for example, hasn't read slush in years, and another is doing well enough to maintain two homes while putting children through college. I think it unlikely that either of them will start charging reading fees.)

Since we know the practice is vulnerable to abuses, another obvious question (in addition to "How would it work?") is: What form of oversight would exist to prevent or deal with abuses?

Lynne Connolly said...

I think it could work against agents in the long run, maybe even marginalise them. There are ways to get on without an agent - write for Harlequin, write for an epublisher, send in queries first (many publishers take queries without partials).
And what publisher is going to trust an agent? It could be regarded as paying to submit, too.

Laura Resnick said...

"IMO, it's one of the most offensive and insulting arguments of all. The ability to shell out cash shouldn't be equated with either literary quality or career drive."


Agreed!

When I started out, just the -postage- to query 12 agents was all I could afford. NO WAY could I have afforded even one reading fee, let alone a dozen!

And I was indeed a serious writer. I sold both those books--on my own, after 12 agency rejections--and thus began a lifelong professional writing career which so far comprises over 2 million published words. My inability to pay reading fees to the 12 agents whom I had researched as potentially suitable for my work in no way means I was less serious than someone with more cash, for goodness sake.

Daniel M. Clark said...

"Consulting fees, reading fees, hourly fees are not inherently unethical as this article posits. These have been standard in the legal field for eons."

Right, because we all know that lawyers never overcharge, never bill for the most trivial expenses and are definitely not out to squeeze their clients for as much as they can. Sorry, using the legal profession as a standard... wow. Just... wow. No, thanks.

Reading fees are evil.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I was talking this situation over with my best friend who pointed out something. As with labor negotiations, sometimes you propose something so financially devastating to make your real desired option sound more feasible.

Perhaps all this talk about hourly rates and reading fees is just to make agents' true desire more readily agreed to : an increase in their commission rates, say to 25%.

Just a thought, Roland

Laura Resnick said...

"Right, because we all know that lawyers never overcharge, never bill for the most trivial expenses and are definitely not out to squeeze their clients for as much as they can. Sorry, using the legal profession as a standard... wow. Just... wow. No, thanks."


Which is why the question of "What form of oversight would exist and how would it be implemented?" is so relevant to the question of agents charging fees.

There are indeed abuses by some lawyers, and lawyers, at least, are formally educated in ethics (agents are not), lawyers have to pass a licensing exam (agents do not), and lawyers have an established form of oversight (the state bar association), whereas agents do not (the AAR is a voluntary org with no power other than to eject a member--and membership doesn't affect an agent's ability to practice his profession).

A fee-charging system which relies strictly on the ethics and practices of individuals (moreover, the individual with no formal training, requirements/qualifications, or licensing) is vulnerable to abuse and needs some form of effective oversight.

And agent who hasn't thought through how oversight would be established probably shouldn't be proposing the establishment of reading fees.

Jennifer said...

If I had to pay a reading fee for each submission? I would have to give up trying to get published. Period. I am incredibly serious, I am working very hard, I am making financial sacrifices as it is. Yes, I COULD afford to pay reading fees, but I would have to ask my highly supportive spouse to give up even MORE so I can write instead of going back to the work-eat-sleep world.

janni said...

Echoing Roland's thought here ... I think many of us agree reading fees are a bad idea. But that doesn't make increasing commissions a good one.

It's a false dichotomy. Better to continue looking for other options that serve everyone well ... as well as to continue questioning whether things are truly so dire that the current model is untenable across the board.

Anonymous said...

I haven't yet heard a good (or any) problem statement. If we are just ranting, fine, I'll listen and post a bit but not take it too seriously.

Is the problem that agents aren't paid enough? The evidence for this is that there are too few agents.

What's the problem?

Dave K

J. Nelson Leith said...

The core model of publishing is that content flows from authors to agents to publishers to booksellers to readers, and money flows in the opposite direction.

If agents are finding that return flow of cash reduced to an unworkable trickle, they're looking in wrong direction for the solution by charging writers for anything.

Dana King said...

Thanks for posting this, and for the link to the Wylie-Merrick post. At the least, you have allowed me to remove an agency from those I might query. Her comparison of agents to giants in other fields, as well as to those who have been discriminated against arbitrarily because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or other criteria over which they had no choice, was off-putting enough to convince me never to want to do business with any agency she works.

I have no quarrel with agents; I've had a couple who taught me a great deal, and were quite helpful and patient with me. I accept full responsibility for my books not selling; the agents did what could be done. That being said, I know of no other profession so eager to complain about their lot in life. The horrific hours, numbers of submissions, low pay, and thousand other vicissitudes described in some--some--agents' blogs are enough to make one wonder why they don't just quit.

As for the "why should I work for free?" argument, they're not. The money comes down the road, after the sale. Just like it does for the author, who agents are happy to tell to be patient when the author has spent a hell of a lot more time working "for free" than the agent will on that author's book.

Shawn James said...

I think reading fees would put a nail in the agents' coffin. This would drive more people to self-publish. the $50, $100 or $150 an agent would charge to read a manuscript would be better spent printing up a few dozen copies with Lulu, CreateSpace or Lightning Source. Why spend this kind of money for an agent's opinion when a writer can self-publish and get reviews from places like Midwest Book Review or Apex Reviews for free?

At those prices, I'd definitely cut back my queries to agents to 0 and self publish. 20 agent reads at $100 is the cost of a good POD run and a POD promotion budget. Forget reading fees. That Money can be better spent elsewhere.

Jan said...

I thought of something related to the Wylie-Merrick posts. One of the things cited was the pain of reading really bad writing day in and day out.

Isn't the query system supposed to help agents avoid really bad writing? Writer's don't pay to query and agents choose the best of the queries to request. In theory, that means they never read really bad writing. (Either that or the query system doesn't work).

But suppose it now costs $100 every time they request a manuscript. How do you know if they requested the manuscript because they really thought the query worked and sounded like a book they could really sell or because they need a quick $100 and who knows, maybe the manuscript won't totally suck?

It seems it would actually REMOVE what little implied feedback we get on queries (namely, if NO one requests a manuscript from your query -- you've got a problem you need to address).

Clearly, agents who can't keep up with the time pressures of the job NOW are not going to suddenly find the time to thoroughly read and crit full length manuscripts that they don't accept -- not without that time being cut out of what they're actually supposed to be doing...working for their clients.

So even with the BEST intentions. It's almost impossible for reading fees not to do something bad. They're either going to drive up manuscript requests for manuscripts the agent REALLY probably knew weren't going to work...thus charging us $100 for something the agent already knew. OR they're going to cut into time agents need to be spending on their clients. Or both. And that's assuming NO bad intention from the agent, just normal human nature and the realities of "only so many hours in a day."

Laura Resnick said...

"Better to continue looking for other options that serve everyone well ... as well as to continue questioning whether things are truly so dire that the current model is untenable across the board."


Janni, this is a very good point. We are not, after all, seeing successful agents introducing or participating in discussions of implementing reading fees or a 20% commission. Note that in these discussion, we do not see advocates for these measures among agents whose careers, like my former agents, involve making six-figure and seven-figure deals more than they involve reading slush.

Just as "the way to save your career is to increase your sales figures" has been true among writers in recent years, we're also seeing a crunch among low-level and mid-level agents: The way to keep your agenting career is to GET BETTER at it. I cannot find this requirement "harsh," since it's the one that –I- live with as a full-time, self-supporting professional novelist, after all.

I also think "reduce your expenses" is another avenue struggling agents should be exploring, rather than "use your clients' money to solve your problems." To maintain my current lifestyle, for example, I'd need three times as much money if I moved to NYC. Baen Books, major sf/f house, moved from NYC to North Carolina three years ago, and the house is thriving. Kristin Nelson, a reputable literary agent based in Colorado, recently added staff to her thriving literary agency.

So one relevant question, certainly, is, "Should agents who are struggling to survive look at reducing operating expenses rather than raising fees or implementing new ones?"

Laura Resnick said...

"But suppose it now costs $100 every time they request a manuscript. How do you know if they requested the manuscript because they really thought the query worked and sounded like a book they could really sell or because they need a quick $100 and who knows, maybe the manuscript won't totally suck?"


Excellent elephant-in-the-living-room example of the abuses to which reading-fees are vulnerable--and which the Wylie-Merrick teams is claiming in their posts is NOT a big smelly pachyderm sitting right there in the center of the room.

behlerblog said...

If agents are collecting $150 for reading fees, where is the incentive to actually bother selling the work? Need a few bucks? Simply request to read a few more manuscripts.

I see too much wiggle room for abuse. And who loses? The author - always the author.

janni said...

Laura: Yes, to all of that.

I'd add to reducing expenses taking a look at which roles it makes sense for an agency to pay. Because there are agents who have decided not edit deeply and/or not play a direct role in marketing once a book is acquired--so every time I hear someone say these things are required for agents now, I want to ask, required by whom? If doing developmental editing is too time intensive, maybe it's worth weighing that cost against the extra income it does or doesn't generate. (Maybe, after doing so, it's still something worth doing. But maybe this shouldn't be assumed from the start, especially given how problematic this discussion have been making it seem.) The same's true for pretty much any other practice that seems to be taking up more time than an agent can afford.

As far as I can tell, editors aren't saying to agents, "We need you to edit and market books for us now." What they're saying is, "We need you to give me books we like and think we can sell."

I don't know why so many are assuming in these discussions that there's only one way to do this.

Victoria Strauss said...

Janni, I don't think it's so much that editors are expecting agents to edit. Rather, I think it's the pressure of the intensely crowded and competitive marketplace (not just because publishers are shrinking their lists, but because there are so many agents competing for editors' attention) that causes many agents to feel they have to edit in order to get submissions into what they feel is tip-top shape.

My original agent (a former editor) never edited my manuscripts, sending them out as I gave them to her (she told me once that she thought the book could lose at least 50 pages, and indeed, that's one of the things the editor who bought it asked for). My current agent (at the same agency) does edit, and while it's extra work for both of us, I'm grateful for her input--there is no wiggle room in this very tight market.

janni said...

Victoria: I think we must simply be seeing different corners of the marketplace, because I think you're seeing agents editing as a lot more universal than I am. (I'd put it at ... maybe half and half? But that's entirely anecdotal.)

I don't think it's as clear cut as "there's no wiggle room." In any direction, really. Because an agent, however talented, can as easily edit a manuscript away from what a particular editor wants as towards it--tastes vary tremendously, and none of us can read minds. And because, for all that I hear that editors don't edit anymore, they actually do--maybe the work has to be closer than it once did, but it doesn't have to be at a point where no editing at all us required--already well-written books that editors see ways to improve get bought all the time. That happens all the time--it's what the revision process is.

Yes, we have to make our books as good as possible before we send them off. That's more important than ever. But there are many ways to do this, and working with an agent is only one of them. And we really don't know how often agent editing makes a book more sellable and how often less--even when the agent is a talented editor in their own right--because tastes still do vary, and there's wriggle room there if nowhere else.

So I do think we need to think really hard before we decide that agents need to be paid more because they "need" to edit and market books. It's not at all that clear cut.

Anonymous said...

In general, I agree with the premise that money should always flow TO the author. So reading fees are bad.

However, I can think of at least one occasion when a reading fee is justified. It can give the author more control, to hire someone to really read the material, rather than just put it in the slush and pray. The best agents often don't even HAVE a slush pile; they're only available word-of-mouth. Novice writers, regardless of talent, can get shut out. The reading fee becomes a way around that. More and more writers are wanting more control over their work; money buys you that.

Irene said...

anexuestAgents would then become book-doctors. For $150, I'd sure expect to be taken on by the agent.
But that's me. I don't have the money to waste to have somebody read my ms. and reject it.
Agents probably only read the first three pages of a ms. to know whether it is worth continuing to read further.
Pay somebody to read three pges? Not on your life.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

We should start forcing agents and publishers to pay us reading fees, haha. :P

Money flows to the writer. It's that simple, folks. You shouldn't have to debase yourself by paying THEM anything at all. They're there to help you, not the other way around.