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.