Literary Agents And Upfront Fees

A few days ago, a group of writer friends and I were discussing the well-worn topic of whether it is legitimate for agents to charge an upfront fee to submit a manuscript or represent a writer. The conversation started because one of the writers received a request for submission (synopsis and partial manuscript) that required a $35 processing fee.  According to the agency, the fee was used to fund an intern program for those interested in learning the business of publishing.

There are plenty of articles floating around the blogosphere about agents charging fees for submission or representation. I won’t rehash the issue but what I will do is summarize what I’ve read, provide some links, and hopefully you can make an informed decision if you encounter an agent who has requested upfront fees.

For those unfamiliar with the issue, the industry standard for how literary agents are paid is a percentage-based commission on contracts negotiated with a publisher on the author’s behalf. Some agents, however, request fees for submission or representation (in addition to the standard commission) that must be paid up front before a manuscript has been sold. For example, some require a reading fee, manuscript evaluation fee (with critique), editor submission fee, an administrative fee for expenses and marketing, or a processing fee, the proceeds of which are used for various purposes like funding an intern program. For a review and assessment of the various types of fees some agents charge, see this article on Writer Beware by Victoria Strauss – Fees in Their Infinite Variety or these articles on Writer’s Relief (How Literary Agents Get Paid and How to Spot a Bad Literary Agent). For a discussion group on agents who charge fees, see this discussion thread on Absolute Writer (Fee Charging Agents: Right or Wrong?).  Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America posted a list of agencies with abusive practices based on a large number of complaints about the agencies received by Writers Beware over the years.  Many of these agencies have operated under multiple names.  One of the seven abusive practices is upfront or flat-rate charges as a condition for representation.

While one, maybe two, of these upfront fees might be trending toward acceptable (reimbursement of expenses, for example), most are not. And certainly not when the fee is an upfront payment prior to representation. Sadly, as one of my friends commented (and I paraphrase), we work in an industry that some believe it’s okay to prey on writers to make a profit.

Apparently, reading fees weren’t uncommon sometime ago. But this practice was ripe for misuse by disreputable agents when submission numbers escalated. It was easier to collect a profit by charging aspiring writers upfront fees than to do the work and sell manuscripts to publishers. For a history of the practice of reading fees see Writer Beware – A Brief History of Fees by Victoria Strauss.

Lawyers have a canon of professional ethics by which they practice. Literary agents do too, sort of – a canon of ethics supported by the Association of Author’s Representatives. While the AAR is not a compulsory organization like most state bar associations are for licensed attorneys, the AAR canons do provide guidance generally followed and respected by the agenting industry (AAR Canon of Ethics). And just like the small segment of lawyers who push ethical boundaries (and sometimes give the profession a bad name), the same is true with agents. See and The Case Against Reading Fees by Victoria Strauss for a discussion of the canons.

Sections 3 and 8 of the AAR Canon of Ethics state:

3.      In addition to the compensation for agency services that is agreed upon between a member and a client, a member may, subject to the approval of the client, pass along charges incurred by the member on the client’s behalf, such as copyright fees, manuscript retyping, photocopies, copies of books for use in the sale of other rights, long distance calls, special messenger fees, etc. Such charges shall be made only if the client has agreed to reimburse such expenses.

8.      The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients a fee for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity.  For the purposes of the foregoing, the term “reading and evaluating literary works” includes providing editorial services with respect to such works. The term “charge” includes any request for payment other than to cover the actual cost of returning materials.

Section 3 supports the argument that agents can request reimbursement of expenses (i.e. charges accrued until a sale is made then deducted from the author’s advance) but not as an upfront fee, which sounds suspiciously like a reading fee. Likewise, section 8 supports non-fee based submissions only.

It’s an agent’s job to sell a manuscript to a publisher (and hopefully sell enough to support overhead, feed their families, and take vacations to undisclosed locations without cell service). Writers want, or should want, a reputable agent or agency that follows professional industry standards, has an established track record, and is respected and trusted with both editors and authors alike.  There are tons of reputable agents that earn their keep legitimately. Do your research on agents prior to sending queries. Charging fees to read a manuscript should raise suspicions and warrant deeper consideration.  Ask yourself how long has the agent and agency been in business, what’s their reputation in the industry, what’s their track record, who do they sell to, who are their past and present clients?

Then follow your instincts – pursue or go fish again.

Photo credit: brizzle born and bred via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND

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