Ink-Stained Scribe

Reading Fees for Agents? Hmm.

[Listen to Pendragon Variety Podcast's discussion on this topic HERE . ]

The recent twitter hubbub is all about an old argument: should agents charge reading fees for the manuscripts they receive? I learned about the debate from THIS ARTICLE on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website, and followed it to THIS BLOG POST on the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency blog. Very interesting.

I'm not going to give a long-winded explanation of the debate here, so if you're curious about what everyone is saying, go to the links above. Below, is simply my feeling on the matter of agents and novelists, and how they're paid.

I agree that agents deserve to be compensated fairly for the of work they do, but I also agree that it shouldn't be at the expense of the writer (read: novelist). After all, would you expect an actor to pay to take an audition? I have no brilliant ideas as to where that money might come from, as there is only so much room for unpaid interns in the slush pile, and with publishing companies terrified of yet another economic downturn, receiving higher advances for the same quality of work is about as unlikely as a V.C. Andrews novel being well-edited.

Yes, there are thousands of aspiring novelists who would do better trying their hand at trapeze than at writing, and one of the main functions/jobs of an agent is to separate the Barnum & Baileys from the Bantam. That part of the process, however, isn't reimbursed, and nor is the novelist’s hundreds of hours banging out a draft, or the several dozen trips to Kinko’s Fed Ex. It's the sale to the publisher, the commission from the advance and the royalties that reimburses the agent, and the advance and royalties themselves that pay the novelist. Therefore, agents must go through a long and laborious process WITH the author to polish a manuscript and sell it to a publisher, whereupon both writer and agent get paid. At least, that is how I understand it.

So, if Novelist and Agent go unpaid until The Sale, and The Sale does not occur, The Agent has lost money and time spent, and so has The Novelist. Agents receive, on average, 15% commission. That means The Agent must do the same work with roughly 6 novels to receive the same amount as The Novelist. The difficulty is in saying whether or not this amount of work is comparable to the time spent by one Novelist in writing, rewriting, and polishing the manuscript. In my opinion, it's impossible to know, since I believe it's impossible (not to mention an unhealthy waste of time) to attempt quantifying the creative process.

If you think about it, both The Agent and The Novelist are sitting in the same boat. If one were to wax metaphorical, one could say that The Novelist is the rower, and The Agent is the coxswain. The Novelist and The Agent may be sitting opposite on the issue of reimbursement, but without the coxswain’s careful direction and encouragement, the boat will drift aimlessly. Without the rower’s strength and perseverance, the boat would go nowhere at all. Without either one of these two people, the publication destination looks pretty hard to reach.*

So talking of unfairness in reimbursement is an issue I think The Novelist and The Agent have wrongly taken out on each other. The part I’m still unsure of: what to do about it, if anything at all.

*(If we want to extend the analogy, we could say that the Agent is the coxswain for a quad, or even an eight, and the Agent's four-to-eight Novelists are powering the boat towards the finish line. The Novelist must share the coxswain with other rowers, and therefore be respectful of the other rowers' right to the coxswain's attention, because the cox only get's 15% from each. That's kind of like keeping time with each other, respecting the rowers in front of you and behind you by staying with the pattern. Let's face it: a crew boat that carries fewer than four rowers DOESN'T HAVE A COXSWAIN; it's not worth the extra weight. Some rowers are great with that, but many like the security of diving into the physical rush of the sport without worrying to much about strategy and direction--they like the security of a coxswain. Okay. Seriously. /analogy)