There are some agents who feel that the time taken to work through the slush pile is disproportionate to the benefit that it brings, as they find so few good new clients there; and that if they were paid to do this work, via a reading fee or similar, they might even be able to offer feedback on all the submissions that they receive. I can see their point: slush is a monster time-sink, and writers clamour for feedback at every opportunity (although when they receive it they aren’t always pleased).
Even though I can understand their reasoning I don’t agree with them, because when writers pay reading fees to literary agents or publishers they’re in breach of Yog’s Law:
Money Flows Towards The Writer
Yog’s Law is a very simple rule to remember: and it works in all sorts of situations. But why is it so wrong for literary agents to charge reading fees?
Agents may reimburse themselves from money collected from third parties on their author’s behalf for money properly spent for such expenses as photocopying of manuscripts or proposals and/or for the purchase of proofs or books for submission, for bank charges in relation to overseas payments or other exceptional postage and/or courier expenses. However, no member shall charge a reading fee or any other fee to a client beyond his/her regular commission as notified to the Association without the client’s or prospective client’s prior consent in writing.
My bold. Now, I might be misreading the end of that clause: it suggests to me that reading fees might be acceptable if the client or prospective client agrees in writing prior to the event, and I’m concerned that could provide a loophole for less scrupulous agents to duck through. There’s little chance of that happening with America’s Association of Authors’ Representatives, which is a lot less forgiving in its canon of ethics:
Reading charges. Members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works, including outlines, proposals and partial or complete manuscripts. Members may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from charges levied for such services by any other person or entity. There are two exceptions to this rule:
- Members may asked to be reimbursed for the actual cost of returning materials.
- Members may read or evaluate a writer’s work at a conference or other event where writers are charged separately for individual consultations.
The AAR believes that the practice of charging for readings is open to serious abuse and may reflect adversely on our profession. The exception for conferences is granted for these reasons:
- The agent is not acting independently but within the context of an independent writers’ conference.
- The potential benefit to writers cannot be duplicated in another manner.
This exception does not in any way dilute the AAR’s belief that literary agents should not charge clients and potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works in the ordinary course of business.
As fee-charging agents get paid regardless of how much or how little agenting work they do, they have to collect as many fee-paying clients as possible in order to maximise their income, regardless of the quality of their clients’ writing. They have no incentive to establish good contacts within publishing; to consider what’s best for their clients; or to even attempt to place any of the books on their list. And, as it costs money to make submissions and they’re not likely to make many sales because much of their clients’ work is of questionable quality, then the only submissions that a fee-charging agent is likely to make are to vanity presses.
How about if agents were to charge those reading fees or some other kind of upfront fees instead of their usual commission on sales made? No matter how good the intentions are behind such suggestions, I don’t see how agents can charge such fees without risking unethical behaviour.
This isn’t because literary agents don’t deserve to be paid for all the hard work that they do: but because if agents can earn money simply by reading submissions, unscrupulous people could easily take advantage of that. All they’d have to do is set themselves up as a literary agent, advertise widely for writers, then accept those reading fees and accrue for themselves a decent living–all without ever selling a single book or even making a single submission for the writers they are supposed to represent. It would also make it far more difficult for writers to distinguish between the good and the bad, which can’t be a good thing.
Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware discusses the problems involved in good detail in this post, from the SFWA website; she provides a very useful list of the twenty most complained-about agents on Writer Beware’s books here, many of which make it onto the list for charging reading fees, or for running editorial agencies which present a severe conflict of interests for the agencies concerned; and finally, Victoria has written a very clear blog post here in which she analyses the arguments for and against reading fees.