At first glance, the idea of literary agents charging fees to read unsolicited manuscripts appears to make sense. The volume of submissions from hopeful writers is so great that it seems reasonable, even logical, for the agent to charge a nominal fee for his time and expertise in reading and evaluating material. Besides, the opportunity to get valuable feedback from someone on the inside of the publishing business is so rare that many aspiring writers are glad to pay $75, $150, or even $500 or more for a professional evaluation of their manuscript.
Unfortunately, writers seldom — if ever — get what they pay for when they submit their material and their personal checks to fee-charging agents. The practice is so ripe for abuse that the Association of Authors' Representatives prohibits its members from charging clients or potential clients any upfront fees for any purpose.
In the 1960s, agent Scott Meredith began charging reading fees to consider the works of unpublished writers. Today, his agency continues the practice with its “Discovery Program,” which charges $450 to assess a manuscript. There are several hundred fee-charging agencies in the United States, and not all of them are dishonest. However, you need to be aware that most reputable agents will not charge upfront fees.
By Any Other Name
The backlash against reading fees has led some creative and less-than-scrupulous agents to rename their upfront fees. They may call it a marketing fee, a retainer, or a fee to cover office expenses. Whatever they call it, it's still upfront money that you are expected to pay the agent, and that's a bad deal for you.
Reputable agents make their money from the 15 percent commission they get when they sell a manuscript to a publisher. Reading submissions and determining which are most likely to sell is an integral part of an agent's job. In fact, the possibility of discovering a great new writing talent is what keeps most agents motivated to pore over the piles and piles of manuscripts and proposals they receive.
Agents do have costs associated with marketing a manuscript to potential publishers. They have long-distance phone bills and overnight shipping costs and expenses for office equipment like computers and copiers and fax machines. These are all part of the agent's cost of doing business. The 15 percent commission should cover those costs and leave the agent with a fair profit. There is no good reason to charge an author for these routine expenses.
Occasionally, an agent will pass extraordinary costs on to her clients. For example, if your agent has an unusual number of international telephone calls when she's trying to sell the foreign rights to your book, you might be asked to foot the bill for that expense. Your agent should always discuss these extra costs with you beforehand.
Follow the Money
The easiest way to figure out if you're on the right path in the publishing business is to follow the flow of money. As a writer, you should get paid for what you produce. You should not have to pay for the privilege of being represented or published. Any setup that involves you writing checks instead of cashing them is likely to lead to financial hardship and bitter disappointment.
Unfortunately, scam artists are adept at making these sorts of arrangements sound plausible. Suppose an agent charges a $200 “contract” fee for new clients. If you question that fee, the agent might explain that this is how much it costs to have her attorney draw up the contract for representing you. Sounds reasonable, right? It isn't. Most good agents have a boilerplate (standard) contract they offer to all clients. If, for some reason, they need an attorney to change something in the boilerplate contract, that expense should be factored into the agent's overhead.
Money should come to you, not from you. An agent who charges any upfront fees from new or potential clients is likely making her living from those fees, not from selling manuscripts to bona fide publishers. If you run across one of these fee-charging agents, get as far away as you can and continue your search for a reputable agent.
Any request for money upfront should set off your internal alarm. Reputable agents do not charge upfront fees; they get paid only if they sell their clients' work. Royalty-paying publishers pay the author; they do not charge the author for the expenses of producing, marketing, and delivering the book.