Thursday, June 24, 2010

Me and Pedro Down by the Arizona Publishing House with Hadji—Part II

I believe in reading fees.

That caught your attention, didn’t it? Even though Robert already stated it, you probably thought I’d disagree just to play devil’s advocate. Not on this. Note that I didn’t say that I charge reading fees, but only that I would if I could. However, as an AAR member, there’s this whole Canon of Ethics thing to consider, and so I can only dream about charging reading fees as opposed to actually doing it.

Agents dream about lots of things, you know? Like repping a bestseller or meeting a favorite author, or living to see the day one of our brethren brings up the discussion of how and what agents get paid. We here at WMLA certainly couldn’t do it, because if we do, the Scary Scam People come after us, as we aren’t a large agency in a large city with a large legal department. However, the fact is that NYC agent Colleen Lindsay brought the subject up on Twitter a couple of days ago, and a discussion of it showed up on Writer Beware’s blog, so now we get to chime in with no worries except for how offended readers will get after scanning this post (yeah, we know you don’t read all of it lol).

The question posed specifically was should agents charge billable hours as opposed to getting a commission. I, of course, have a vested interest in this, since I’m an agent and I like to make money in my chosen field. You can read the whole discussion here, which covers the ideas being bandied about--including the initiation, once again like so long ago, of reading fees--and the positives and negatives of each payment structure.

I don’t have the space here to go into a lengthy discussion of the whole issue, and I really don’t want to. I want to just point out a few items I think should be noted. First, though, how about a little mood music from Paul Simon and Sesame Street to get us into the spirit, eh?

There is no other professional in publishing so reviled and despised as the agent. Even though editors, publishers, writers, and agents all serve their specific purposes, only agents are considered guilty until proven innocent of everything and anything, from taking reading fees to getting kickbacks from editing services to the current BP disaster. The fact of the matter is, I’ve been lied to by more editors, writers, and publishers and caught more of them with a hand in the literary cookie jar than I ever have literary agents. Editors, writers, and publishers have, too, but it serves everyone’s interest if there is just one scapegoat, and agents fill the bill.

I continually see this argument when talking about agent payment for services rendered: If you pay an agent no matter what, the agent could suddenly lose interest in actually placing your work. S/he could just sit there and take your money, because, you know, agents are like that. Because, you know, there have been agents who abused their positions and misled, misguided, or flat out defrauded their clients. Because, you know, agents, are you know…well, they’re agents!

We scalawags are only supposed to get paid when the author gets paid because we can’t be trusted to not take advantage of the writer. Not that we all would, mind you, but the opportunity is there and so as a group, we all have rules we must follow to ensure that none of us will be tempted to do anything bad because as a group we are more suspect than most to indulge in criminal or unethical activity.

Is this making anyone else a little uncomfortable? Ever since I’ve been in publishing as an agent, I’ve heard the same arguments, crude remarks, and lame explanations for attitudes and perceptions about my profession. I haven’t encountered it as a writer that I can remember, and I’ve been getting paid to write since I was a teenager. Reading the “how an agent should get paid” debate brought it all back, and I suddenly realized this is how it might feel to live in Arizona, have tan skin, speak Spanish, and be asked for my papers, or how it might feel to speak Farsi, wear a head covering, and have to deal with hostile glares in an airport.

It’s called profiling, and it isn’t fair. It’s based on prejudice. When one group of people is treated differently and subjected to having to justify their actions or having to overcome stereotypes when others are not, it’s wrong. Telling people they have to prove they belong somewhere—in a state, on a plane, in a profession—while other folks can roam freely in that domain doing whatever is called discrimination. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, there’s a book called To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee you might want to read.

The problem with prejudice is that it destroys not only those who are on the receiving end, but also those who engage in it. Studies support this, and publishing is a good example of it. For years, agents have been told they are not allowed to do anything but focus on placing their clients’ books. We are not allowed to do editing, charge for reading or critiquing manuscripts, or be publishers, etc., or if we do, we must have a list of rules to follow to make sure we don’t do anything wrong or unethical or inadvisable, because, you know, agents can’t be trusted.

Can you imagine telling Chris Gardner that he shouldn't have tried to try to break into the world of finance because of his humble beginnings? Can you imagine telling Leonardo da Vinci he had to focus on painting? How about telling Dr. Mae Jemison she should stick with being a chemical engineer because she wasn't qualified to go into space because she'd never been in space before? How about Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the neurosurgeon/CNN correspondent who picked up his scalpel when covering the war in Iraq to save the life of an American soldier or two? You want to tell him that he can't be trusted to work with his patients and be a journalist, even though he saves lives doing both?

Now there are more agents than ever who have chosen to do their own thing anyway and have gone on to become editors, publishers, and writers in their own right, regardless of the restrictions placed on them. In doing so, they’ve paved the way for other industry professionals to take part in endeavors they’d have never been able to otherwise, including writers who never would have had a chance otherwise.

Most importantly, they’ve produced some good books for readers--that oft forgotten, but oh-so-important group of consumers who truly, for better or worse, control the market (like me and you). Unfortunately, for as many of those opportunities created, there were probably thousands more lost because of the skewed biased attitudes and protocols that were allowed to develop and evolve over the last couple of decades. It’s refreshing to see these phantoms slog back into the mist as we gallop into the new frontier of publishing, the Wild West of literary adventures. As Bette Davis said, though she wasn’t on a horse at the time, “Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night!”

The majority of literary agents aren’t rich, although most people believe that I paint my cat’s claws every day with pure gold fingernail polish. They also believe that if you’re not rich, you’re not a successful agent. Everyone wants an agent like Jerry Maguire before his fall from glory, a wheeler-dealer who ideally has the phone number of every major publisher in his IPhone, who with the punch of a key can sell your book no matter what. You saw what happened to him, didn’t you? If you didn’t, watch the movie, which will clue you in to what agenting is all about (even though he’s a sports agent and not a literary agent).

Or, you can just watch the following clip, which takes less time and gets across a similar message: Sometimes in the entertainment industry, you find yourself doing things you never, ever imagined, like singing a re-tooled love ballad to an unkempt, grouchy puppet while a woman who can’t hear a word you’re singing signs along, instead of playing at the Grammys. You do it because that’s what you want your career to be, not what others tell you your career should be.



cato said...

This makes a compelling point about prejudice against agents. However, I think this also omits one of the core arguments against reading fees.

It isn't just anxiety that agents might take advantage of writers. It's that reading fees select out writers who can't afford them--writers who are often barely scraping by because they just spent a year working less so they could finish the novel they want to pitch, without offering more in return. While agents certainly don't deserve to starve, they do have multiple clients. Writers only get for their writing what an agent can provide. It does not seem equitable to make writers pay an agent (who is an agent, by definition, because he or she is already making some money representing other authors) to even consider their work.

Publishing would become less competitive, certainly, because fewer people would be able to submit to each agent, but even if it were twice as easy to get an offer, wouldn't that be a 4%, rather than 2% chance? Writers would still have to submit to dozens of agents with a very very good chance that they won't get an offer.

If the reading fee also included a detailed critique, authors would at least be paying for more than just a long shot, and could improve the MS and their odds with each submission. In other words, the form rejection, which does have a place in the current model (as Nathan Bransford pointed out today), would no longer be an acceptable response. If agents were to acknowledge that, maybe others in publishing would be a little less hostile to the idea.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Good points, Cato. Thanks for commenting. :)

I agree that one of the major arguments against reading fees is that writers without the funds to pay them would be at a disadvantage, but I don't necessarily agree with that idea and here’s why.

One of the examples I used in the post was Chris Gardner, who overcame many obstacles to become the successful person he is today. I have no doubt that if he had wanted to get a novel published instead of going into finance (prior to the book he wrote about his successes that probably sold on his name recognition alone), he would have done it. I don’t agree that “writers only get for their writing what agents can provide” because I don’t believe that every writer has to have an agent to get or stay published (that’s a myth), and I know of writers who market themselves in such a way that they get compensation for teaching and speaking, among other things. I see pix of these writers all the time on FB and other social networking sites (which are free promo for writers). In other words, writers have more power and potential for success, with or without agents, than most realize they do.

I understand that most writers work hard on their books, and I certainly know that writing is not easy. I’ve worked on pieces for a weeks or months, only to realize that the story or article is just not going anywhere, or at least not where I want or need it to go. But all that time is not wasted, because I’ll do something with those words, whether for money or promotional opportunities, so it all goes toward the investment in my work I’m making. In other words, I don’t believe that writers who write and write and write are earning nothing; it’s just they most of the time aren’t sure what to do with what they’ve written or too proud to sell a piece for less than what they think it’s worth. This is because most writers know little or nothing about publishing except what they learned on the Web or from “get published” books. Writers who write professionally have a better sense, I think, of what to do with all those words lying around their hard drives. My personal writing philosophy is “Write to sell, baby!”

I know offering the idea of a critique with the reading fee makes it more palatable, but I’m not one of those agents who agrees with this. That would make it a payment for a critique and not a reading fee.:) I know some agents used to do this, or they would refund the reading fee if they took the writer on as a client. I’m not one of those agents either. lol Nah, I want paid for the time I put into reviewing a manuscript. If an author really, truly believes that his/her ms is something I would want to work with and that he/she would want to work with me as an agent, then sending the ms along for my review with a check becomes a calculated risk as opposed to a desperate attempt to get someone, anyone, to look at his/her manuscript. Maybe then I wouldn’t have people still sending me manuscripts for types of projects that I haven’t been looking for for years. In the old days (when literary contracts were carved into rocks and we tossed them back and forth during negotiations), many established agencies charged reading fees. As a result, writers were more selective as to whom they sent their work and they usually found a better match for their career.

I don’t think there is any perfect system in publishing, but I do think running it more like a business where professionals get paid for their time (like professional writers get paid for short stories and magazine articles) will help cultivate better writers, better books, and more readers in the long run.

Anonymous said...

As a business, you're free to apply whatever charging model you like. Other businesses and professionals in your field are free to respond. You'll get plenty of wannabe writers paying up I imagine, but you'll lose credibility with the professional writers who really have value. I would guess you would also lose credibility with publishers. Not a good business plan.

Your argument can also be reversed. Why shouldn't writers charge reading fees to agents? They are also professionals, and are in effect providing a prototyping service to the publishing industry and too agents. Of course, a writer could try this. They would get about as far as an agent charging reading fees.

Publishing is a highly competitive industry, and that dictates certain dynamics. Agents work on percentages, because that is what the industry dynamic dictates.

Michele Lee said...

Oh poor agents. Not all of us feel that way about agents. In fact a lot of us don't, and are trying very hard to attract the attention of someone who loves out work and wants to see us published. We do target the right agents, read guidelines and do, or would gladly hand over a part of our earnings.

As much as you summed up that this topic is about people being prejudiced against and profiling agents it seems to me you've completely profiled writers in saying that those who would pay a reading fee would target agents better and care more about their career.

I recognize that it's hard job, with a lot of unlovable parts and agents deserve a lot more than they get but the idea that I can't afford to pay for agents to read my work equaling I don't care as much about my work is very, very wrong. That you have no problem paralleling yourself to being racially profiled while in turn dismissing people who are not rich enough to give you money is very sad.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Professionalism is a good point to bring up. It is widely known in the business world, beyond the publishing industry, that if you undercharge or give too much away for free, it shows a lack of professionalism. People who provide services expect to get paid for them. Other businesses and potential consumers don’t trust that you understand what you’re doing if you undercut yourself. I think when reading fees became taboo, it contributed to the idea that agents aren’t really professionals in an industry, but a necessary evil designated by publishers as the gate-keeper flunkies.

Professional writers who really have value will, because we’re in the same industry, know my name at some point if we run in the same circles (or not at all if they’re not looking for an agent or if I don’t rep what they write). I wouldn’t trust a professional writer, someone who expects to get paid for his/her knowledge, expertise, and skills, who felt an agent didn’t warrant the same treatment. As for writers charging fees—they do. It’s called an advance, royalties, or whatever you want to name it when you get paid for providing content, fiction or nonfiction.

Remember, not all writers need or want an agent, nor do they have to have one to get published. That, as I’ve said many times before, is a myth. The current dynamic is based on the fact that there is this perception on behalf of writers who don’t know any better and unqualified and/or untrained publishing “professionals” that agents serve a single purpose, and that is deliver, Igor-style, a manuscript to the desk of an eager editor waiting for the next blockbuster book. This is, to say the least, a bit skewed.

Thanks for your insights. :)

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


You bring up a good discussion question:

Do writers who can’t afford to pay reading fees care less about their work than other writers?

While letting people think about this, I would like to mention that I don’t agree with your interpretation of my words. I said I thought having to stop and think about paying a fee would make many writers, especially those giddy with the thought of publication regardless of how much they care about their work, stop and think before shot-gunning queries off to agents. Shot-gunning is what we call it when writers get a list of agents, usually about 100-200 or more, and query them, no matter whether they take the writers’ genres or not. In the old days, when few agents took e-mail queries, the cost of postage for shot-gunning those agents could have easily paid for reading fees for a more targeted agent audience of 1-5. In essence, I was saying what is true: when money is involved, people tend to stop and think a little more. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, especially if those dollars and that time spent can be more efficiently directed in a more fruitful search effort, thus helping writers make better choices about their careers.

Back to the question at hand: I don’t equate the ability to pay a reading fee with how much one cares about his/her work, but perhaps how much one cares about getting an agent. Since this can be just one part of a writer’s journey to publication, I feel like there are other avenues for those who really want to get published to do so if they really want that kind of life (because being a writer is not as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be sometimes). Say you don’t have money for reading fees or just don’t feel right about paying them because you just don’t understand all this agent stuff, but you want an agent because you’ve been told that’s what you’re supposed to do. There are other ways to get the attention of an agent without going through that process and with spending little money or getting three or four times the exposure for less than the reading fee. One example would be volunteer to help with a writers’ conference, either brick and mortar based or online. Blog. Get on FB or Twitter. Promote yourself and your work, and agents will come to you, or publishers will, and then you can pretty much e-mail an agent with a contract in hand. I’d say a contract from Random House would definitely go a long way in waiving a reading fee. :)

Btw, I do have little patience for certain types of writers, but not so much as an agent; rather, as a writer, one who takes the job very seriously and gets a little rolly-eyed when folks bounce into the profession and don't take it seriously at all or take it so seriously that Hemingway would roll HIS eyes.

Thanks for commenting! :)

Laura Resnick said...

Another big problem with agents charging reading fees, one which I don't see being raised here, 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 (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 that people would PAY to get such inaccurate commentary on their MSs strikes me as an absurdist comedy without the laughs.

Rachelle said...

Smart and thoughtful post. I'm tweeting it.

Jan said...

Wow. Okay, I do think agents get talked about like dogs more than they deserve. I also think publishers/editors get talked about like dogs more than they deserve. And I definitely think writers get talked about like particularly stupid dogs more than they deserve (but, of course, I'm a writer so I'm sensitive about that sort of thing).

Granted mostly editors/publishers/agents are accused of being greedy bastids while writers are normally just called stupid, annoying, and deluded. Basically though, whichever category you fall into...that's the category you feel is picked on most.

Ask lawyers if they think it's fair that everyone assumes they're monsters? Should we do away with guidelines/rules/laws for ethical behavior by lawyers just because many of them would never consider being unethical? Should we stop drunk driving laws just because most drives aren't stupid enough to drink and drive?

Rules aren't for the good guys, they're awareness that all the guys aren't good. And comparing rules/guidelines in an occupation you CHOSE to enter to being abused for race is just...well...kind of insulting to those who've experienced actual racial profiling.

Reading fees can be and have been badly abused to the point where organizations like AAR accepts that it's just not okay. Opening the door to them again based on the "most of the guys are good guys" argument just leaves too much room for the bad guys to do tons of harm.

But, as an aside...I teach writing in a limited way and I totally agree that there is something debilitating about reading really bad writing as a daily diet. I totally agree. I think it's why so many folks burn out as writing instructors -- it does something to you after a while and it's not anything good.

Still, in my experience, many of the folks doing the really painful work were fully capable of dishing out big bucks (and many of them eventually do by going with self-publishing companies).

And some of the folks who never could have afforded reading fees (like I was), go on to support a family on what they make from writing. I may not be a great writer but I make a living wage from my work.

There must be a way to slow the flood of submissions OTHER THAN making the depth of a writer's pockets into the access point for agents.

Patrick said...

I'll admit, I barely made it past reading fees.

I'm not saying that agents shouldn't be compensated for reading slush, but it was agents who let publishers push that responsibility on them.

Writers did not push that on agents and it should not be their responsibility to pay the agents for that.

Have you considered looking at publishers and charging them a fee for giving them an opportunity to look at a book?

They need books. If they want to buy them, they should have agents on retainer. For XXX we'll show you YYY unpublished authors per month.

Either that or they can start reading slush again, if they don't want to pay.

The absurdity of a reading fee is as simple as this. A writer is trying to sell a product. An agent can't buy that product. An agent can only resell that product. A writer should not pay someone to consider buying their product.

smsti said...

I don't buy it.

There is an obvious and extreme power imbalance between an established agent and the horde of unpublished hopefuls. It is perfectly acceptable to create and champion systems to prevent a more powerful party from exploiting the other.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

That would most certainly be a sea-change in the industry, but if I can extend Michelle's comments and your response.

I think you're absolutely right that reading fees would push out a great deal of the looky-loos--folks who took a swag at a manuscript in their spare time and want to blast it to every agent on the island and beyond. That's good for agents, authors, and publishing as a whole, because it lowers competition to serious writers and frees up agents' time.

Where the damage happens, I think, is that it pushes out most of the serious folks who can't--or, in this day of other shifting paradigms--won't and don't have to solicit publishers nor, by proxy, agents. And you touched on that, but I don't think far enough.

I, for example, have a completed MS that I have been querying for several months. This is my first completed book; I have spent a great deal of time and effort not only doing my absolute best writing, but learning the business side of publishing as well. I have been writing for over a decade, but for the better part of three years I have been learning how to actually get a quality book published: talking with folks in the industry, reading everything I can get my hands on to help me learn how, what, where, etc, submitting novels and short stories, and learning, and working, and sweating. My point being: what I hold in my hands is the result of a serious, dedicated effort--and that's how most of my author friends roll as well.

Now, flash forward to today. Using QueryTracker, I can tell you that there are about 400 listed agents who rep my genre. Given the frog's-ass nature of the publishing houses right now, my odds aren't good to begin with. Now, couple with that fact that I would then have to pay some fee--$25 at least, I imagine--to have someone read the first three chapters of my MS. My odds become better if I have $10k laying around to query those agents, because most of my competition doesn't have the cash.

Or, I can spend that money on a good book doctor, and put my polished work out on CreateSpace, Lulu, SmashWords, etc and keep all of the proceeds after my expenses. The agent/publisher chain becomes a boutique model for guaranteed-sales low-fruit books (successful authors, celeb memoirs) and vanity projects for those with cash to burn, and a bulk of the fiction stream goes to self-pub land, which is now full of good books, semi-dreck, dreck, and toxic waste.

(Notice that I'm not offering any alternatives to our joint dilemma here. If I had the answer, I would have written a book about it already and happily sold you each a copy or three...)

Reena Jacobs said...

I understand reading query letters can be a time consuming process for agents. Some queries aren't worth the time it took to type (I wouldn't be surprised if some of mine were in that category.) And still, agents weed through these on a daily basis hoping for a treasure (and without a brown penny for the efforts).

Honestly, I can't see the system going away any time soon. When I researched getting my first complete novel published, one of the first things I read was: money flows to the author not the other way. I've taken it to heart. Not because I don't trust agents, but because I read reputable agents don't charge.

Until recently, I hadn't even considered whether agents should receive reading fees. They're taking the same chance I am. I write with the hope of publication. Agents read with the hope of selling a worthwhile project.

From my experience with responses to query letters, my feelings are mixed. I've received some flat out rejections "thanks, but no thanks" which gave very little insight. I've also received some rejections that clue me in to why the project didn't work for the agents. I ABSOLUTELY LOVE THESE. And yes, I'd pay for an insightful rejection.

In many ways, contests are like that. Writers enter contests for a little feedback on what works and what doesn't. At least I have. The contest fees are nominal ($10-30), but enough that writers have to pick and choose which contests to enter.

Heck, if an agent offered something like that at the query stage, I'd go for it. Something on the lines of, "I know you're time is valuable. Rather than a simple, 'not for me' I'd like to pay your fee for a definite reason why my project isn't a fit for your agency." But I still would like the option to query an agent with the chance I might receive the "thanks but no thanks" response for free.

I do wonder if agents had the option to offer additional feedback for a fee, if the quality of queries/samples would improve in the long run. Each time I receive a personal rejections, I review my work and look for ways to improve it based upon the comments. It doesn't mean I take every suggestion, but it certainly gives me food for though, which is a whole lot more than I had before.

Tobi-Dawne Smith said...

Excellent post... but I do agree with Cato. Reading fees would leave those of us who live below the poverty line without options. We can not pay with what we do not have.

Personally, I love agents. Agents are there for the sole purpose of fighting FOR their writers. Agents are on OUR side. Agents protect us. Agents ensure we are treated fairly. Agents keep us from unscrupulous publishers. I for one, appreciate agents and all they do.

Jessica Nelson said...

Interesting post! Reading fees would make me more selective in who I queried, but also, I might stop querying agents first and just go directly to editors via conferences, etc.
I'm sorry people make agents feel that way. It stinks. I don't think bringing up the immigration bill is a good correlation though because you only have to show proof of citizenship if you've already broken the law somehow. Showing proof isn't based on looks. Profiling is actually something that happens everyday. If I want to buy wine, I have to show my ID. Age profiling, right? LOL
Anyway, insightful post. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the future with this. :-)

Anonymous said...

Agents can't be trusted? Scalawags? Kickbacks? Gosh, I hadn't even considered such things until I visited your blog. I haven't heard anyone ever say or even imply such things. My sisters in law love their agent. I heard another author speak a couple of weeks ago and she loves her agent. Relax. It's not so bad. I'm sure most people don't think such harsh things. Good luck to you-- and me.

Mad Scientist Matt said...

Part of the suspicion directed at agents is likely to be because if you happen to be a bastard with no morals and are looking to set up an operation to separate hopeful writers from their money, a fee charging agency is the easiest racket to break into. You just need to put up a website, maybe take out a few ads in writers' magazines, and then string your marks along with vague promises.

Other types of businesses are a bit more work. A talentless book doctor still has to at least read his clients' books and make some corrections to look like he knows what he's doing. A vanity publisher or PublishAmerica style author mill has to deal with printers, throw together covers out of clip art, and otherwise put some measure of effort into the job. But running a phony agency requires a lot less effort.

Anonymous said...

@WMLA et al: I don't object to reading fees anymore than I object to paying the grocer or the florist. A service rendered earns a fee. Basic. I pay my lawyer. I pay my doctor. I pay my dentist. Having to pay my agent seems a logical step and a serious shift in power base.
Two possible issues come into the equation: qualifications and access. How do I know that my lawyer is doing her best for me? First, I know her very well and if I can't depend on Mary, there isn't another lawyer I could. Second, she is a member of every legal association going. Third, she is a professional and has a reputation that makes her colleagues quiver.
And how did I gain access to this paragon? I hired her. She works for me and I pay her.
What makes literary agents any different? Not all of us need a lawyer or an agent. Do your own thing, no problem. Why can’t those of us who want or need an agent go out an hire one, shop around and make a choice?
Every profession has its bad apples. Don’t use them. The usual paradigm stands: if it sounds too good to be true, it is. There are a plethora of ‘buyer beware, consumer protection safeguards’ out there. Agents belong to professional organizations. If they don’t have signs & logos all over their shop window, don’t use them. If they mess up, sue ‘em.
Codes of Conduct should be enough to control the industry. There are always the greedy and gullible – they will come together as sure as W.C. Fields declared.
Wouldn’t it be wild to call an agent, tell them you want to pay them for their advice and get a professional, considered response from someone who wants your business?
Mary tells me when she’s not the right legal mind for my job and gives me a referral to someone else. I also trust her to tell me when I haven’t got a chance.
A relationship like that with my literary agent is worth a few bucks.

DA Kentner said...

Interesting post and comments.
Regarding reading fees:
The topic is ‘reading fees for manuscripts,’ not for queries.
I’d have a huge problem with charging for scanning my single page query.

An agent who finds the query interesting enough to request a partial of the ms is displaying a willingness to examine my work. A service is being offered. Here’s where I need to do my homework.
Is the agent truly someone I have faith in, that s/he is not taking advantage of me? The burden of finding out is on my shoulders. I need to decide whether or not the expenditure is worth the risk. I need to determine whether or not the investment is a sound one.
But first, I need to discover if my product is saleable. That burden is also on me.

When I returned to writing after a thirty-eight year hiatus, I sat down and wrote – reams and reams. I ‘knew’ the world was just waiting for my novels. I didn’t know the craft, didn’t have the skills. Over two hundred form rejections over the course of two years kind of leaned in that direction anyway. Obviously, something was amiss.
One agent responded by mail. The rejection was a form letter, but she had signed the letter – not a stamped signature.
Grabbing the straw, I sent her a letter (not an email), begging forgiveness for the annoyance, and asking her what had caused the rejection. I included the first page of my ms - - just in case.
She sent me a letter specifying it wasn’t my writing, but the storyline.
Finally, I had a reason, something to improve upon.
Next, I located an editor who agreed to take a look at one of my manuscripts and give me an honest opinion of the writing potential.
His response? Stop writing.
I love a challenge, and he’d challenged me like no other. I began writing and reading with an insatiable appetite.
The next step of the learning process was to locate a critting partner. Luck, and refusing to give up, led me to one. We critiqued each other’s WIPs, and eventually she recommended me to ERAuthors, a small and select crit group she belongs to.
They graciously took me into their fold.

As I write this, I am considering royalty-paying contracts from two small publishers for a novella I wrote. They also asked me to consider them for future works in that particular genre of M/M Romantic Comedy. I believe I owe my thanks to ERAuthors.
A literary fiction novel’s first chapter is in the hands of two agents.
One asked to see it.
The other, I paid for. Yup. We’re back on topic.
This particular agent has a book (a client’s – not her own) she is promoting. Buy the book; receive a written critique of the submitted chapter. There are no other promises, actual or implied, whatsoever. I had/have no problem with that. The terms were laid out in black and white, and I had the option of ignoring it, or investing in the opportunity.

So, knowing I have improved my skills enough to receive contract offers, I’m willing to fork out a few dollars if I believe the investment will help me reach my writing goals.
Would I shell out money to receive “Not for me?” No. Such a non-response doesn’t help me improve. Yeah. I want something for my money, just the same as an agent, or anyone, wants something for their investment of time.
A form rejection with checked boxes for ‘storyline,’ ‘writing skills need developing,’ etc? Maybe.
A return of my attached document with red-letter notations, such as, “I stopped reading here; the characters are underdeveloped; the story doesn’t hold my interest (too slow, plodding, boring, doesn’t flow, too choppy); the writing is not at a level I represent, please look at the books of my clients before submitting in the future,” and so forth, I’d probably consider worth the investment. At least it would be something my crit buddies and I could reexamine and work to improve.

In other words, if reading fees returned, I wouldn’t expect a full critique of the requested material, but I would expect some type of comment(s) allowing me to understand what needs work.
I don’t think that’s asking for too much.

Anonymous said...

Your profession is the easiest target by scammers. That is why literary agents are held to a code of ethics.

And being an agent and an editor is like being a judge and defense attorney in the same trial. Do you really not see a conflict of interest?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Your profession is the easiest target by scammers. That is why literary agents are held to a code of ethics.

And being an agent and an editor is like being a judge and defense attorney in the same trial. Do you really not see a conflict of interest?

The first part of this question make me think that this Anonymous person has never dealt with an investment councilor or broker. Yes, some agents do handle large sums of money, however, we don't invest it for our clients. If you'll Google on the term fiduciary what comes up is investment professionals, not literary agents. There are huge numbers of profession in which trust is a major issue, so singling out literary agents as the sole profession in which there are those who scam others is a little much. Have you had a surgery lately?

The second part; being an agent and editor and the conflict of interest therein is a little confusing. Do you mean that agents shouldn't edit? If that's the case, then apparently you know nothing about an agent's job. We are editors. If we didn't edit, many times our client's work might not be sold.

Now if you're speaking of acquiring for a publisher, that would be somewhat of a sticky wicket. But you might ask yourself if it's not a conflict of interest for an editor to also write, acquire and publish his/her own work, unless of he or she owns the publishing house. If you'll look around a little, I'm sure you'll find editors who are published.

Anonymous said...

I found out that Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss were scamming writers with that Miss Snark blog. That is why they shut it down so fast. Claiming it was a real agent, and it turned out to be just them and some bloggers. Talk about scams. They have no credibility, in my opinion. Their actions are very dishonest and disreputable.

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