Like everyone in business, literary agents need to make money. They make theirs by taking a commission from the sale of their clients' books to publishers - and this is why agents only take on clients they believe have written a saleable book.
So, are reading fees a money-making scheme? Well, it’s a grey area.
Some years ago reading fees weren’t uncommon – the rationale being that it took time to read and evaluate a manuscript. But, as the numbers of writers grew so did the potential for agents to make a profit from reading fees alone, with no need to sell manuscripts to publishers. This put the reputation of all agents at risk, not to mention being to the detriment of the industry as a whole.
To help end the practice, the Association of Authors' Agents (AAA) made the prohibition of reading fees part of its official code of practice. Although membership of the AAA wasn’t - and isn’t - compulsory, its code of practice is followed as a general rule of thumb throughout the profession. As a result, reading fees are now very rare.
Not all agents are members of the AAA. New agencies must be established for three years before they qualify for membership and several large, well-established agencies are not members by choice. These agencies should not be discounted in a writer’s search for an agent because all should abide by the AAA's code of practice and not charge their authors fees.
So what about the (very) small percentage of agencies who do ask for reading fees? Quite simply, proceed with caution. Before any money changes hands take a close look at the agency’s credentials and ask yourself these questions:
- How long have they been in business?
- What is the agent’s publishing background?
- Do they have a decent client list? (Have you heard of any of the authors?)
- What manuscripts have they sold? (Are their books in bookshops?)
In short, if you aren’t 100% happy with your findings and your instincts are telling you to stay away, keep your money and move on. There are plenty more agents out there.
Warm wishes, Jo
(Editor, Writers' & Artists' Yearbook)
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