Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Me and Pedro Down By The Arizona Publishing House With Hadji--Part One

There was a fantastic forum discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #agentspay yesterday. The discussion started when agent Colleen Lindsay asked the question, "How would publishing change if agenting moved from commission-based payment to billable hours?"

Victoria Strauss followed up this discussion by asking the question, “Are Agents Underpaid” on the Writer Beware Blogs.

And now here’s my take on it… Sharene will chime in later with hers.

I’m for reading fees. There I’ve said it. Five years ago, or even last year, I would have been scandalized for such sacrilege; that I’m in favor of charging for labor expended. I also like the idea of charging for critiques and for edits and for all those other things we now do free of charge that are above and beyond what literary agents are actually paid to do. What has changed? Can we now, please, have this fascinating open discussion in a reasonably calm fashion? Have writers and agents matured enough so that we can sit down together and discuss the hard times we are all now facing?

There is so much I’d like to say and so much bitterness about how shabbily those of us who have tried to have this discussion were treated in the past. I’m clinching my jaws and gritting my teeth while writing this, but I’m going to contain my wrath and stay on point. Hopefully, my anger won’t leak through as I give, in an agent’s point of view, my answers to a couple of the questions posed in the above discussion.

Yes, agents have taken on more responsibilities, but there have not been any payment changes since I became an agent. Probably the reason is that every move an agent makes is scrutinized, measured and quantified and because most larger agents are satisfied with the status quo, while the rest of us have to go along with rules made by writer advocates and agents more powerful. However, now that things are getting tight for many, here comes talk of change. We have always changed a 15% commission and have always felt underpaid for what we do to move a work through the long process from writer to publisher’s editor. We put up with all the crap and do it, of course, for the same reason as writers. We love books and the written word.

As for the specter of abuse, I think it’s mostly fantasy made up by those who have prospered by spreading rumor and innuendo. Secret files, also, don’t help alleviate my disbelief. As an example, I receive spam letters daily notifying me that I’ve won lotteries all over the world and winning a lottery is much, much easier than writing a novel or trying to get it published. I’m sure many fall for these scams, but we all should know better. There have always been and will always be those who try to trick others out of their hard-earned money. Writers’ advocacy groups might have had some successes, but their war against scammers has been about as successful as the war on drugs. Where there’s easy money to be made from those not too bright, there will always be scams. The best advice I can offer to not be scammed is to be more intelligent than those who might prey on you. Isn’t intelligence, after all, the only strength the human species has against predators and hasn’t our unique minds allowed us to move to the top of the food chain? Knowing who is prey and who is wolf, however, is becoming harder and harder to discern.

I’m also reasonably sure there were some, when this discussion began, who suffered from elevated blood pressure. The reason is because agents, over the years, have been portrayed as the enemy and for one of us to have the nerve to actually suggest that we aren’t rich by now is definitely something some writers don’t want to hear. These same writers were and are the kings and queens of popular writer discussion boards and are not too happy that Twitter and Facebook are more civilized places where agent and writer can be friends, instead of enemies--or maybe just frenemies. It’s still an improvement.

As far as job description, ours hasn’t changed. We are still charged with getting our clients published before we get paid. We still lay awake nights plotting and wondering if what we told that editor we spoke with about this wonderful author whose novel we’ve discovered; whether what we said was strong enough to make her consider fighting for it, too. We still hurt when a client’s work is rejected. But what hurts even more deeply is when that wonderful novel we love and have worked so hard to try to get published fails. No, our job has not changed. We still become heartsick when someone whose work we admire must be told that no matter how hard we’ve tried, we’ve still lost the battle. Then, after defeat, we still have to try to explain the wacky world of entertainment to a truly talented individual, even as mediocre and poorly written novels fly off the shelves. No amount of money or a different way of charging for this or that will help ease that pain. A raise of commission rate, reading fees or pay for edits or critiques will never make that painful pill easier to swallow.


ClothDragon said...

So then, if reading fees were common, when a loved story fails to sell the only one to not get paid would be the author who spent several years writing it and several hundred for reading fees and edits and mailing costs, right?

Would the author be paying reading fees to the agent (to each agent they wanted to submit to) and to each editor the eventually obtained agent thought to submit to, or just the agents? Would there be commissions on top of that or would the fees be enough? Would we be creating a world where only the wealthy could afford to be published?

What do you think would be a fair price for reading a query? For the partial? Or for the novel? Would each writer have to pay more each step along the way or would the introductory cost carry forth until you hit a no? If we started paying for readings, could we assume there would be no more form letter rejections. (How much could 'no' cost?)

Sorry, the idea leaves me with many questions.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


I think the question that should be asked is what perpetuated this discussion in the first place.

Agents have been happy to not charge reading fees, or any other fees, for the past decade and a half. What’s changed? A person would have to live on a distant planet not to realize that there has been a world-wide recession going on for quite some time and that this recession has impacted everyone’s ability to make a living, and this is especially true if you try to make a commission based living. The question is what will happen to agents if they don’t find some other way to pay for rent, utilities, and salaries. When publishers cut back, it impacts everyone who depend on advances from them. Not only are writers effected, but everyone who depends on selling their work to make a living. A funding alternative must be found or many agents are going to have to stop being full-time agents. That’s the bottom line here.

Nadia Lee said...

I don't think anybody would consider reading fees "wrong" if it were standardized.

For example, half a buck or a dollar for a query / synopsis & 1st 5 pgs is pretty fair, PROVIDED that agents who charge don't adopt "no response is no" policy. This will force people to actually POLISH their manuscript before sending it over.

But I don't think that REQUESTED manuscripts / partials should require reading fees because agents wanted to see them.

At least this way, agents get compensated somewhat for reading queries if nothing else.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, few writers can afford to be full-time writers, so I doubt your position brooks much sympathy from the low-end of the totem pole.

It sucks we all can't get rich on writing, but if the current agent-author isn't working, I can't be convinced that the solution is to milk the writers for more of the next-to-nothing they're already earning.

Then again, I'm un-pubbed/un-agented, so my vision is colored. I can't afford to pay reading fees to 50 agents. I'd rather forgo an agent altogether and take my chances with the few remaining houses that accept un-agented subs, or switch to the e-publishing model.

Anonymous said...

"A funding alternative must be found or many agents are going to have to stop being full-time agents."

Same goes for writers, except, most of us haven't ever been able to be full-time writers because of the "funding system".

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Hi Nadia Lee,

As stated here, reading fees are not new, but even when these fees were common, they weren't changed for reading queries, which only take a few minutes of an agents time. Reading fees were charged for reading complete manuscripts and some agents even refunded the reading fee if the writer became a client.

I doubt that reading fees will ever be revived for the same reason they were banned--too easy to abuse. However, when considering other alternatives, that doesn't stop one from being in favor of them, does it.

The whole dynamic of publishing is changing, however. In a few years, the agent might not be necessary or the agency and publisher might be one in the same. Who knows where it's all going to end up. The only thing certain is there will be change.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Anonymous #1,

I beg to differ as many writers do quite well and are employed full-time. I believe you mean many novelist are forced to be employed part-time. The reason for this is that novel writing isn't as much in demand as other forms of writing. Another reason is that most novelists are untrained, amateur writers who decided one day that writing a novel just takes perseverance and therefore is something anyone can do. Those who write professionally, on the other hand, trained themselves by going to college to become journalists, paralegals, court-reporters, playwrights, content providers, etc.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Anonymous #2,

Low end of the totem pole contains amateurs who are depending on blind luck instead of skill to make them rich. Much less time and frustration and much more fun could be had at the slots in Vegas. Much the same as Anonymous #1, you seem under the assumption that all writers are novelists. Those who write non-fiction, on the other hand and for the most part, are either journalists, politicos, or other highly trained individuals. Yes, writing for them is probably part-time mostly because they have well-paying professions. Those others who write non-fiction, the celebrities, hire ghost writers to write their books and many ghost writers are also journalists or other highly trained writers, such as technical writers. So your "all writers" assumption leaves out over 60% of writers.

Reading fees wouldn't apply to these people, only to novelists, who mainly need someone, other than a critique partner, to read their novels. Also, agents, to my knowledge, never changed a fee to read queries. When reading fees were common, it was only in the last step, only after an agent had read the query letter, was interested and probably even read a partial that a fee was changed for reading the full MS. The reason for the fee, in the first place (which, of course, was abused by some) was to compensate for time lost if the manuscript failed to live up to expectations. If the MS was accepted and the client represented, the fee was usually refunded. For those who did it right and didn't cheat the system, a moderate reading fee was a good thing as many agents, if they rejected, expressed why they rejected. So for a modest fee, the writers got at least got something in return.

Another thing to consider is that when there were reading fees, there weren't as many so-called professional editors charging much, much more for doing the same thing the agent was doing. The only difference is that writers seem more willing to pay them a reading fee and aren't making as big a stink about it.

Laura Resnick said...

In this tough economic climate, combined with rapid changes in the industry, the business has become more competitive. Agents with mediocre-to-poor business acumen will indeed have a difficult time. We've seen a couple of agencies close in the past year or so, and individuals agents leave the business. I believe we'll see that rate of agent-exodus hold steady or increase in the next few years, not decrease.

Some will probably try to survive by implementing reading fees, editing fees, commission hikes, etc. But just as writers who aren't selling well are perpetually squeezed out of the market and wind up leaving publishing, it seems likely that a number of agents who simply aren't good enough at their profession to survive in a more competitive climate will also wind up leaving.

I've been a professional novelist for 22 years, and I know a lot of writers. In particular these days, I know a lot of working, contracted writers whose former agents didn't want to send out their work and who, since leaving those agents (a) couldn't find another agent to represent them, (b) often couldn't even get a RESPONSE to their agent queries, and (c) are nonetheless still selling books and earning.

So the question one must ask is: How many agents are suffering fiscally because they're making bad business decisions? My impression: a significant percentage.

I ceased working with agents at all three years ago. Since then: my response times have improved; my advance levels have increased; my contractual clauses have improved; my foreign subrights business has improved.

Meanwhile, throughout my 22-year career, the majority of my book sales have been projects that agents declined to represent, declared unsaleable, and/or gave up on after 1-4 rejections (and then I went on to sell those books myself). When I began my career, for example, 13 agents told me my first two MSs were unsaleable; I sold them that year, on my own, to a major house (and made 8 more books sales on my own before I looked for an agent again—the first one I hired dumped me after the first project I gave him was rejected 5 times; the next one I hired =reduced= my income by taking a 15% commission without getting me better advances or improved terms). More recently, to give another example, I've made good sales on my own in the US and overseas with a series that every agent who ever saw it dismissed and belittled, and which most told me was unsaleable.

So, based on my own experience, I am very skeptical that a literary agent's reading of a MS could possibly be =worth= paying for. (Just as I am very skeptical that an agent could possibly be =worth= the 20% commission being discussed on the internet this week; in my own experience, at 15% of my income, agents were already more expensive than their services merited.)

Anonymous said...

Another reason is that most novelists are untrained, amateur writers who decided one day that writing a novel just takes perseverance and therefore is something anyone can do. Those who write professionally, on the other hand, trained themselves by going to college to become journalists, paralegals, court-reporters, playwrights, content providers, etc.

This is highly offensive. I am a professional novelist without a day of college to my name. I know several other professional novelists without college educations, and I know a heck of a lot of college-educated people who want to be professional novelists but aren't capable of it.

Melissa said...

I love all the anonymous posters who have strong opinions and are very knowledgeable, but don't want to give a name.

As someone who has worked in bookstores and libraries for nearly 20 years, I can attest to the number of people who assume that being able to read means they are able to write. People solicited information from me in the bookstore about how to get a publisher for their great book. When I have suggested they look into getting an agent, they've stated they don't need one. Why hire an agent when I can get a bookseller or librarian to give me the information? While no one would expect another human being to put their time and energy into helping them secure a career opportunity, for some reason many writers do. There are people who make a living by giving resume writing and interviewing advice. Do we call them vultures? But for some reason, the work that agents do is seen as unnecessary. Hurrah for Ms Resnick for securing a writing career without an agent. Maybe, Bob, you should start sending her all your unsolicited manuscripts.

Deborah said...

In response to an anonymous post pointing out that writers are basically the bottom rung of the industry and need other jobs, Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency said: "I beg to differ as many writers do quite well and are employed full-time. I believe you mean many novelist are forced to be employed part-time...Those who write professionally, on the other hand, trained themselves by going to college to become journalists, paralegals, court-reporters, playwrights, content providers, etc."

This discussion is about agents' compensation. Agents represent novelists. It's all well and good that all those other writers listed above make a living full time BUT as they do not use agents, it's not relevant to the discussion.

Novelists are the writers who use agents. Novelists are indeed at the bottom of the publishing food chain. To claim otherwise seems to be attempting to blur the focus of the discussion.

I still say that the most fair *and* the most logical way for agents to increase their income is to get better advances for their clients. Then both parties get a raise.

Just my 2¢ (which is worth exactly two cents). Yes, I'm a writer. I'm a published writer of fiction. I've also made a living as a tech writer and as a translator. And I work in a bookstore.

Do I think agents provide an important service? YES. There are plenty of great agents out there. Do I think agents should get a raise at the expense of the authors? Sorry, no, I don't.

JDuncan said...

Ok, have to take issue with this quote. "Another reason is that most novelists are untrained, amateur writers who decided one day that writing a novel just takes perseverance and therefore is something anyone can do."

You're insulting a lot of writers with this. Yes, I agree there some who come at it from exactly that vantage point, but many go into it with professionalism, dedication, and a pretty clear understanding of the difficulties involved. One clearly doesn't need an MFA to be a good writer. There are a multitude of ways to perfect the craft of writing that don't involve a single college course. Many have done just that. So, to lump so many writers into that blanket statement is doing most of them a great disservice.

Anonymous said...

I have been a professional literary agent for decades. In all of those decades, maybe two manuscripts came along among the tens of thousands that I have seen that were ready to be sold as is. Every book I have ever sold had to have input from either the agent or the publisher to make it into what it became, a best seller. Writers are a vain and stupid bunch and the socalled watchdogs are shills for vanity presses and royalty paying houses like Random housse that publish celebrities like edward kennedy and michael jackson and then charge everyone else 20,000 to get published and put 500 books in a stack in their garage.. That's Ok to pay 20,000 if Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss say it is.(I am being sarcastic) An agent is an author's best friend. They get you money, even if it isn't a whole heck of a lot. Vain writers think their books are all best sellers. Know what? Their own friends and relatives would rather buy a six pack of beer than read their crappy books. They should be grateful that agents are willing to invest their time in them. Reading fees were charged for years. then when those agencies who charged the reading fees opened up their own publishing houses, they said it was unfashionable to charge the fees. I am sick and tired of writers wanting to get services for free. And the biggest scammers and liars are the ones who are constantly accusing literary agents of scams. Why? Because the liars lie and cheat all the time, so they think everyone else must be lying and cheating too. Writers stink, and that is why their books don't sell. Stop sending us stinking books that need to be fixed, and stop complaining you cheapskate flakes!
Oh, and one more thing, let's see some of the socalled complaints in that big old writer beware database, no one has ever seen one, and none have ever been produced. Writers are a gullible bunch of sheep, willing to be taken in by a bunch of liars. There h ave never been any complaints shown or produced, because there aren't any. Just a lot of made up fantasies from a bunch of wacked out fat ugly pigs sitting in front of their computers shoving chips in their mouths.

L. Scribe Harris said...


In my understanding of it, both Novelist and Agent go unpaid until The Sale, if The Sale should occur at all. If not, The Agent has lost money and time spent, and so has The Novelist. Agents receive, on average, 15% commission. That means The Agent must do the same work with roughly 6 novels to receive the same amount as The Novelist. The difficulty is in saying whether or not this amount of work is comparable. In my opinion, it's impossible to know, since I believe it's impossible (and an unhealthy waste of time) to attempt to quantify the creative process.

Both The Agent and The Novelist are sitting in the same boat. If one were to wax metaphorical, one could say that The Novelist is rowing, and The Agent is acting as the coxswain. The Novelist and The Agent may be sitting opposite on the issue of reimbursement, but without the coxswain’s careful direction and encouragement, the boat will drift aimlessly. Without the rower’s strength and perseverance, the boat would go nowhere at all. So talking of unfairness in reimbursement is an issue I think The Novelist and The Agent have wrongly taken out on each other.

The part I’m still unsure of: what to do about it, if anything at all.

L. Scribe Harris said...

I'll start off by saying that I'm an unpublished aspiring novelist, and therefore have no creditable experience of the following. This is purely my understanding, and should be taken with whatever amount of salt it deserves, as determined by whoever cares.

I think there have been some very good points on both sides. I agree that agents deserve to be compensated fairly for the amount of work they do, but I also agree that it shouldn't be at the expense of the writer (read: novelist). I have no brilliant ideas as to where that money might come from, as there is only so much room for unpaid interns in the slush pile, and with publishing companies terrified of yet another economic downturn, receiving higher advances for the same quality of work is about as unlikely as a V.C. Andrews novel being well-edited.

Yes, there are thousands of aspiring novelists who would do better trying their hand at trapeze than at writing, and one of the main functions of an agent is to separate the Bantam from the Barnum & Baileys. That part of the process, however, isn't reimbursed, and nor is the novelist’s hundreds of hours banging out a draft, or the several dozen trips to Kinko’s Fed Ex. It's the sale to the publisher, the commission from the advance and the royalties that reimburses the agent, and the advance and royalties themselves that pay the novelist. Therefore, agents must go through a long and laborious process WITH the author to polish a manuscript and sell it to a publisher, whereupon both writer and agent get paid. At least, that is how I understand it.