November 23rd, 2003

books

Money flows towards where?

Quote from a recent query letter:

"If there is a reading fee for ? pages, I will be pleased to mail you a check by return post, along with the portion of the text you'll require."

By way of good karma (and just where did you think I got all those voodoo points I was using up last week?), I plan on writing this individual a personal letter alerting them to the danger of their position. But while I was at it, I thought I'd take the time to relate a little story....

Once upon a time there was a panel at a writer's conference. I was a fairly new agent then (you'll be able to tell by the punch line), and I hadn't been on many panels. There was another agent and a newly published author keeping me company in the front of the room, so it wasn't as scary as I had expected when they opened the floor to questions. I don't recall the exact question that was asked but it had something to do with reading fees. But I do recall feeling just completely appalled by the 20 minute commercial the other agent launched into explaining at great length and in much detail just what you would get from him if you paid his reading fee of $300 (low by many standards as I know now). And I remember with great clarity that as this other agent finished speaking, everyone in the room focused on me, awaiting my answer to the same question. I said simply: "My reading fee is 32 cents." And, thus, the kingdom was saved.

Reactions to this story vary. The other agent in question turned an interesting color, I believe. And made sputtering noises. The audience at the time responded with, in some cases, a stifled laugh. Others in the room seemed surprised, while some gave off an air of vindication. And there were a few that seemed somewhat vaguely embarrassed. Of course, this was all years ago, but it seems to continue as a pervasive problem despite the strides the industry and various writers groups have made in attempting to make useful information available to those who seek publication. Letters with similar lines to that above aren't as rare as I'd like, and even worse are those in which the unfortunate author tells a story of woe amounting to the several hundred (or even several thousand) dollars already spent in vain in this manner. So, how do you tell the good agents from the bad ones? Research, research, research.... You're handing over your baby, er I mean manuscript, to this person. A good place to start is Writers Beware. Or if you're not sure the agent you're dealing with is above-board, check and see whether they can match the requirements of the AAR Canon of Ethics (whether they're a member or not). But don't take any one person's (or site's) word for it, no matter how good their reptuation. Triple-check anything you hear or any policy put forward. It only makes sense to protect yourself and your work, especially after all the time you've already invested in it.
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