Thursday, February 16, 2017

RANT: that bright red flame you see is me on fire

 Lately, I've been seeing agents charge for query and page-evaluations, and I don't mean at conferences or for charities. (A pitch here for QueryShark which is free and excruciating, but still free.) Isn't charging for services--even as a separate business entity--while those same agents can benefit from or request mss, against AAR Ethics code, sect.8: ("...may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity...")

If not against ARR code of ethics, seems an awfully thin line is being crossed--if not a lot of hopeful writers getting fleeced. While I have no interest in waging a campaign here, (I have a lot of respect for honest, hardworking agents) there are a LOT of agents doing this, and as a writer organizing her next query round, I'd like to avoid any future problems. Or, is this some sort of paranoia on my part? Thanks.

Pardon me for a moment here while I set on my hair on fire.

Yes, this is incredibly NOT OK.
It does violate the AAR Canon of Ethics.
And NO you should not query an agent who does this.

There's a reason this is against the AAR Canon of Ethics and it's not cause they are big blue meanies trying to block poor little apprentice agents from making a living.

It's because some years back some very well known agents did this kind of thing and it fast became so lucrative that agents didn't need to sell anything to make a lot of money. Which is a problem if your job is supposed to be selling your client's work.

More to the point though: agenting is more than a full-time job, particularly for those just starting out in the biz. If those agents are busy critiquing queries they're NOT busy selling your work, or developing their agenting skills, or researching editors or publishers. They're busy doing editorial work.

If an agent needs secondary income while they ramp up (and a lot of agents do) there are many many other ways to do it that don't involve beguiling writers with the unspoken hope that for $50 you'll discover their masterpiece.

Interestingly enough, it's not the writers who complain about this most often. Writers have told me they'd mortgage their first born to Fagin for an opportunity to get query letter help, or manuscript comments from an agent.

To some young agents it seems harmless: get paid by willing writers for providing a service that's legal and most likely helpful.

The problem is: that's not our job. Our job is to sell our client's work.  Our job is to find revenue sources for our clients, not function as an editor.

The other problem is that no matter what you say, or how many times you say it: a writer who sends an agent a query for critical help also hopes against hope that the agent will fall in love with their work. This is human nature and nothing will change it. Thus, agents don't assume any risk here. To be an agent, you assume risk WITH your author. If the manuscript doesn't sell, neither of us get paid.

To offer an author a query critique means the agent takes no risk at all. S/he gets paid. The author may not end up with anything of value. That's not equal assumption of risk.

Let me put in the most simple terms I can: Writers are an agent's clients, not customers. 

If you want to critique query letters for profit, hang out a shingle as a freelance editor, but don't call yourself an agent.

Now, excuse me while I go dunk my head in an ice bucket to cool the flames.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Mortgage my first born? Hell, I'll hand her over, but I get to keep HER first born.

Theresa said...

"To be an agent, you assume risk WITH your author." Clients, not customers. Both very, very clear. Thanks to Janet for another great post.

Unknown said...

I love my books, but given what I went through with my first born I'm damn well keeping him!

Colin Smith said...

This is hard because I know some very nice, very well-meaning agents who, with the best of intentions, sell their time and expertise to writers. After all, it makes sense: if you need money, monetize your skills. I have a full-time job in IT (computers and stuff, not the Stephen King novel), but I'm hoping that I can make some money to help ease the pain of paying the bills from my writing. After all, I have few other skills that I can easily monetize. I'm a useless handyman, and working an evening shift in retail would take time away from my family (besides, you don't want my mathematical incompetence behind a check-out register). Of course, I don't write just for the money... but I don't think I'm the only writer who hopes to make enough from writing to at least be able to take the wife out for dinner once in a while. :)

So I get it, I really do. You're an agent. You have skills with language, you can edit a manuscript, you can see where a novel's going skewiffy and needs a drastic course correction, and you can turn a drab few paragraphs into a winning query. Fido needs his Kibbles and Bits, but you're making barely enough to pay your Manhattan one-room apartment rent (which given the cost of eating out in Manhattan, I can only assume is more than my monthly mortgage!). Until you find your John Grisham or Veronica Roth, you need some extra income. Why not do some freelance editing/critiquing? Makes sense!

But Janet's right. The fine line that an agent might see between "this is editing for my clients" and "this is editing for Fido," is invisible to writers. When I query Janet, I want her to fall in love with my query--heck, I want her to fall in love with the way I say "Dear Snookums"--enough to want to offer representation. If I send her that same query along with a $50 check for her feedback, while I'm expecting my money's worth in critical notes, would I really object if her response was, "You called me Snookums!! The contract's in the mail!"?

"Ah--" one might object. "But when you pay for the query critique, the agent isn't counting that as a query submission. You could query that same agent a week later with your revised query." But you know what? If you manage to improve your query that much in a short space of time, there's no law that says you can't send it to an agent from whom you've already received a rejection. Sure, it's not "best practice," but if the query reads that differently, and the agent loves it, who gives a snot?

Anyway, I've rambled enough to say that, while there are agents out there I like and respect who offer query and ms. critiques for cash, I have to agree with Janet. There's a professional ethics line being crossed that really shouldn't be crossed.

Colin Smith said...

Oh, and while I wouldn't sell my FirstBorn, she will gladly cook and clean in exchange for NYC accommodation. :)

Lennon Faris said...

I wouldn't have thought this. My thoughts would've been, if they're open and honest about what they're doing, the submitting writer knows exactly what they're getting for their money (disregarding any human-like hopes), and any clients are aware that their agent has another hat, then it's OK.

My hubby gets so frustrated with me and my overly-capitalist ideas. As long as someone is open and honest from the get-go I have a hard time finding fault.

DLM said...

Not for nothing, but I've encountered plenty of agents who were crappy writers, too. Not all agents are editorial agents, and not all agents (present host excepted, of course) are excellent writers. There are many agents I wouldn't ask to critique my work even for free.

SOME agents are extremely good with words. Some agents run great blogs, or their agency websites are clear and enticing because their content is so well considered. Few of THESE seem to be the ones shilling services for money.

Lennon, the issue lies in Janet's point about hope. With the BEST of intentions, and most realistic attempts at curbing our expectations, more authors than not will hope an agent whose time they're paying for will look at their work not as a job but as an irresistible product. I think she's right; and therefore, this takes advantage of our emotions in a way most standard business practices do NOT.

Her other point - that agents acting as freelance editors are not acting as agents; that profit made on editing work can even crowd out the motivation to worry about making profits selling books - that's very sobering indeed. And it does make a lot of sense.

RachelErin said...

I'm curious to have you talk about the difference between getting pitches and queries critiqued at a conference (and paying extra for the privilege), and doing the same thing virtually. I can see the difference between conference spots and agents having a side critiquing business, but I think the distinctions get fuzzier when video-conferencing technology and virtual conferences get thrown in the mix.

Take a recent example: paying $50 in an online conference for an agent consult via Skype sounds 'virtually' identical to paying that amount for a spot at an in-person conference. But the former seems a lot closer to having a consulting business on the side than the latter.

I guess the virtual Meet An Agent things aren't specific - you can bring whatever you want (general situation, query, first page) and you have a time limit - more similar to the in-person conference than sending a query and $50 bucks for "review." Does the middleman involvement and limited availability put it in the conference bucket, where having it as an on-going, direct feature makes it a side gig?

The virtual conferences are only going to get more popular - how can agents and writers talk about the professional lines in a new modality?

S.P. Bowers said...

I waited 11 years for my first born and went through a lot of hardship for him. Think I'll keep him. Though I understand the sentiment. There are a lot of sacrifices an author would make to get their work in front of an agent. The thing is, if you write a good novel, the system works and you don't have to hand over a firstborn or equivalent. Now, if I can just get past the 'I just didn't love it enough' comments. Maybe the second born?

Colin Smith said...

RachelErin: Unless I'm wildly mistaken--and I could be--when you pay your pound of flesh for time with an agent at a conference, you pay the conference, not the agent. Granted, that money goes toward the cost of the conference (which may include money given to the agents to help cover their expenses), but that is, I think, a critical difference. Assuming I have that right. I've not yet attended an in-person, IRL, I-can-make-eye-contact-with-you-and-tell-when-you're-getting-uncomfortable-with-it conference. Yet. :)

Colin Smith said...

(continuing the thought from my last vomment)...

... I think I'm right in saying that even if you didn't pay for time with an agent at the conference, if you happen to run into Janet at the bar, and she asks you about your book, she's not going to say, "Hold up! You didn't hand over your FirstBorn to the conference organizer, so we can't go there. Let's talk about the weather!" Heck no! As a literary agent, her "client potential" radar is blinking 24/7. She's not thinking about the conference expenses. She's thinking about Fido and his Kibbles and Bits, and how quickly she can sell the novel you're pitching.


Kregger said...

Ah, the clues were so apparent, but I was so...

In the trenches, I do research on agents in preparation to send them a query. I like to use #MSWL to narrow my searches to agents with a preference for what I write. Makes sense?

On some profile pages, the info given is typically the agency's hyperlink and sometimes a blog link. Sometimes the blogs are simply personal data and cute cat pictures with their own links to the DoY. Some links are more commercial and advertise freelance services.

I had no idea.

My assumption is: if my agent is doing a side job, how hard are they working for me?

This adds another level of complexity to the list of which agent to query first to last.

And then remember the adage, no agent is better than a sober one.

Wait...that's not right...I'd better stop here...

Unknown said...


Lauren B. said...

This reminds me of how in Los Angeles they're cracking down on casting directors who essentially charge actors to audition by inviting them to attend paid "casting workshops."

Julie Weathers said...

Back in a former life I fell for one of those helpful agent people who loved Dancing Horses, but it wasn't quite there. They had an editorial department that could help me get it polished up. Was I interested?


$500 later, and at $8 a dozen for ironing and $2 per loaf of baked bread, that took some work to get that 100 pages critiqued.

I declined doing more as the helpful editing was stuff like comma help that I could look up in my handy dandy The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed that I had just bought.

They kept calling and telling me I had a best-seller on my hands if I would just finish getting it edited. Yes, yes, I know, but I've got kids to take care of. Thanks anyway.

I'm thinking seriously about sending Rain Crow to an editor when it's done and I've gone over all the polishing and back and forth in Books and Writers with it simply because I'm old. I don't have time to keep screwing around and I want to get it in the query trenches and get Cowgirls finished.

I am certainly not paying agents. We got into a tussle with one agent who was doing this during one of the pitch contests last year. She was favoring just about every pitch and then making a pitch to the authors about what a great editorial service, graphics design, and publishing service she also offered. Well, no, she hadn't sold any books yet, but she hoped to soon.

Criminy, run away little girl.

RosannaM said...

Interesting post and brings up things that are legal, but still unethical, and many walks of life, I'm sure, encounter this. Like I was a nurse for many years, and a lot of people had side gigs like selling Tupperware or children selling Girl Scout cookies. And this was allowed in the break room only. Not on a patient floor.

Because you would never want a patient in the position of thinking they had to buy an item from their nurse to get good care.

And agents, like nurses, need to foster a relationship that doesn't exploit someone who is vulnerable. And woodland creatures are very vulnerable beings!

Oh, Janet? Did you get the smell of burnt hair out of the office? I hate that smell.

Mark Ellis said...

I've gotten the you're-close-send-us-$500-to-get-the-cigar offers when I was sending scripts to Hollywood, but never from a literary agent.

I'll never forget one lit agent I pitched to in person at a conference. After hearing my pitch on two projects, she didn't ask for any fulls, but smiled and asked what about my childhood had made my mind think the way it did. I felt like Nick Nolte on the couch in Prince of Tides.

Elissa M said...

I really don't think this mix of hats is a good idea. As Janet says, an agent's job is to agent. I completely agree that an agent who wants income as an editor should become a free-lance editor and leave the agenting behind. I'm sure they could find more than enough work to stay busy.

I've known of agents who are also writers, and this, too, gives me pause. Where do they find the time? Presumably they have an agent and don't represent their own work, but still it seems a bit off kilter. I've also noticed that many of these writer/agents dropped agenting as soon as their writing careers took off. How did that work out for their clients, I often wonder.

I want an agent whose only concern is getting her clients' books published and in as many readers' hands as possible. (Not saying agents should be publicists or in marketing, just that their goals should match their clients'.) That seems like a big enough job on its own.

Craig F said...

Every year around this time, things get pretty dry... Wrong song

The seasons go round and round, the painted ponies go up and down and every couple of years a new crop of idjits come up with a bright idea. It is really just a reincarnation of a bed idea from the previous time.

If it isn't taking the easy way out it is the last throes of failure. I can imagine how hard it is to keep a networking network in tune. Falter a bit and it all falls apart. You could feel sorry for those who go this route if they weren't skirting the edge of a scam.

Yes keep watching your step and keep your manuscript above water.

Lennon Faris said...

OT - Trying to hone the description of my mss. Could you say 'this is a YA magical realism novel'? Is that the correct form? Or just 'this is a YA magical realism?'

Terrified of saying the equivalent of 'fiction novel.'

The Sleepy One said...

Colin, in my experience (from the conference I helped organize), the critiquers do get paid for the critiques. Usually, the conference attendee pays extra for the critique (conference +critique) and part of the critique fee goes back to the agent/editor/writer performing the critiques.

But they're not making that much money--imagine the time needed to thoughtfully critique ten pages for up to 10-20 writers, and then the energy to meet with said writers to discuss their work during a busy conference. Especially since the faculty are also on panels and most likely lead presentations.

In my experience, out of town faculty receive airfare/housing/food/transportation, and then get an honorarium for the conference. Local faculty receive an honorarium for presenting (but don't get a hotel room and such).

Colin Smith said...

OK, Ladies and Gentlemen--it's song time!

Thinking of Janet and her hair on fire put me in mind of an old Bob Dylan song, covered by many over the years here's a version that was popular in the UK). So, here's my encapsulation of today's post into a little ditty called...


If your memory serves you well
We were goin’ to submit and wait
You said my novel rocks like a Weeble
We’ll roll before it gets too late
Then these writers all come to you
With sorry tales to tell
How they need your help to fix their words
If your memory serves you well.
My hair’s on fire
Screaming down the road
“You only got one job to do,
“Don’t make my head explode!”

If your memory serves you well
You were goin’ to confiscate my time
And sell it to these hapless scribes
As if it was not mine
But you need some help to pay the rent
And Fido needs his doggie swill
And they need your help to fix their words
If your memory serves you well.
My hair’s on fire
Screaming down the road
“You only got one job to do,
“Don’t make my head explode!”

If your memory serves you well
You’ll remember you’re the one
Who loved me and my work of art
Who said we’ll get this done
And I promised fifteen percent
If you could only make the sell
But they need your help to fix their words
If your memory serves you well.
My hair’s on fire
Screaming down the road
“You only got one job to do,
“Don’t make my head explode!”

Unknown said...

Geez Colin, why are you messing around with literary agents? Get yourself a music agent, or better yet, a talent agent to get you on the SNL writing staff. What character would sing your great lyrics? Understated folk balladeer, flamboyant opera star, metal rocker?

Unknown said...

Interesting conversation. Taking arguments to a logical conclusion kind of screws us writers though. If agents should only focus on selling writers' work, we wouldn't have this blog. I think the larger issue is if writers should be able to gain access to agents by paying. Of course, no one just outright pays (that's a bribe). Instead, agents provide services for the payment, then the access/influence is indirect, and both parties agree to participate. (That's lobbying).

If we dislike selling services, that should include pitch sessions at conferences. Since many agents advise attending writing conferences to meet/talk with agents (i.e., to gain access), it matters that agents attend too. One great way to ensure that lots of writers and agents both attend is to sell access (e.g. pitch sessions).

The disconnect is in running author selection as a meritocracy, even though the publishing business as a whole is a highly competitive capitalistic market. (Lots of parallels here with running a democracy inside a capitalistic economy, but that's a different story).

I don't really have an opinion about how publishing should be. It just is what it is. It's not perfect, but I think it's better than a total meritocracy or a total market-driven economy. At least there is no totalitarian control of the book market, and no book burning. (That's not a political statement. I truly am grateful that we can print and read whatever we like!)

AJ Blythe said...

I think the other difference between a conference and a 'business on the side' is that a conference is an occasional (or even once off) event while a business is just that - a business. I can't imagine any agent making enough money from attending conferences and offering crits for it to be viewed as a money making endeavour. Even more so when you consider the agent is 'working' the whole day and into the evening (if you've ever been to a conference you can easily find said agent by the mass of people hovering on the fringes waiting for a chance to chat with them).

For that reason paying an agent for their time to attend and present/crit/take pitches at a conference doesn't bother me (plus it's a service that attracts attendees to the conference).

Anonymous said...

Yesssss thank you Janet

A great post and a terrific warning. (besides some of us writers just don't have the money to pay for query analysis... gosh have you seen the US/AUD rate exchange let alone the AUD/GBP or AUD/EUR!)

Besides, as you always say... opinions on queries and therefore manuscripts are subjective! :-) we all want someone to say our work is great or point us in the right direction but golly-gee to have someone to tell me my work is great... that's what my BF is for!


Craig F said...

Another thought (yes, I am brain dead right now): Maybe this is related to the demise of P&E (Preditors & Editors). With no reporting service for scams you could get more out of it.

Boris Ryan said...

So are we talking about all the "popular" twitter agents at Manuscript (Wishlist) Academy violating AAR Ethics? They're peddling $40 ten minute pitches, $70 query letter critiques, $90 ten page ms critiques. I've been wondering about this since I first heard of this money-making website.

Panda in Chief said...

This reminds me of the vanity galleries that used to (and may still) exist in abundance. If you are getting income from desparate artists paying exhorbitant "wall fees" who needs to put any effort in to actually selling the art.
At laeast as far a SCBWI is concerned, I believe most of the fee you pay goes to supporting the conference. The agents and editors don't get much more (if anything) than transportation and hotel and some meals. I know in the mentor program I attended in 2015-16, the mentors got their transportation, lodging and meals. Maybe a small honorarium, I'm not sure about that.

But I got 6 months of pretty intensive critiquing and feedback and two weekends lodging and meals as well. I guess agents and editors particpate in conferance critque and pitch sessions more to eduate and give back, not to mention the possibility of finding a great client, not for the money they make doing the sessions.

I'm not sure what to think about the #MSWL academy. I think they started off with very good intentions but maybe are heading down a slippery slope.

And Colin, between your Music Man parody yesterday and the Dylan one today, I think your talent is being wasted. Seems like there should be some $$$ in this. ���� I was singing the Music Man one in my head while.

Colin Smith said...

kathy & Panda: You're too kind. :) I did a Hamilton parody on Tuesday, but I posted it in the evening, so you probably missed it. I'm quite pleased with it--took me a while to do. As for monetizing this... I don't know. If only there was an agency that handled the full media thing, you know, from books to movies to illustration to, perhaps even poetry and songs... Know anyone that works for such a place? ;)

BJ Muntain said...

Wow. I've only ever seen this done for charities. Well, in the last 15 years or so. I seem to remember when there were a bunch of agents who became the reason for that AAR rule.

One thing, though: Are you looking at UK agents? Because AAR is American. In the UK, their AAA allows them to charge reading fees only if the client or possible client are informed in writing ahead of time. According to their code of practice on the AAA website: "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."

But the UK is the only place this is okay.

And you know something? When I bid on agents' critiques for charity, I admit: I hoped. I hoped they would be interested, and want to read more. Unfortunately, I rarely had the money to win any of those auctions, so I can't tell you what the results might have been.

RachelErin: Some very good questions. Thank you.

Craig: As far as I understand, P&E isn't dead. It's just paused, looking for a new caretaker. I've applied, but I haven't heard anything yet.

And if anyone is asking: Yeah, I'd sell my firstborn. But since that (the firstborn) hasn't happened yet, and time is getting on, anyone who wants him or her had better hurry.

Megan V said...

While the information in this post could be a reason a poor woodland creature might want to refrain from nonmembers, its important to remember agents who aren't members aren't bound by AAR rules. They might not consider it unethical to use their skills on their own time to earn a little extra dough for Fido.

BJ Muntain said...

Megan: Unless those agents who aren't members work for agencies whose lead member does belong to AAR. And most respectable agencies have at least one agent who belongs to AAR. If an agent working for such an agency starts charging reading fees, that would look bad on the AAR member. The non-compliant agent would probably wind up looking elsewhere for a place to work. That's why it's more important for an agent's agency to have an AAR member than it is for the agent herself to be a member, especially if the agent herself is too new to qualify for membership.

And even if an agent isn't a member of the AAR, it doesn't mean that charging reading fees is ethical. They'll never get to be members of the AAR, and they probably won't be respected agents.

Steve Stubbs said...

Lauren B..

There is a critical difference between a casting workshop and a casting call. If you ever sit in on a casting call and watch the totally unprepared people who think they are the next Brad Pitt walk in and hear what the casting director says when the hopefuls are not in the room you will see why workshops are needed. Some of them are cool people, but if the casting director asks them to bring music of their own to sing and they bring nothing, or if they come in with no head shot or resume they look like amateurs. Not good. You have to look professional. Nobody can risk using an amateur when money is flying in every direction.

I had to think about what Ms Reid said, but it makes sense. There is no way an agent can be agent and editor to the same client without screwing up the incentive system. It creates what is known in the counseling racket at a dual relationship. I hope the rules are not as strict in the publishing biz as in the counseling racket. Counselors are strictly forbidden to have dual relationships of ANY kind with clients. It would be a real drag on our careers if we can’t bribe Ms. Reid with free drinks. Of course she has no wy to know it does not contain a Mickey Finn.

Megan V said...


No argument here. Just wanted to point out that AAR membership is something woodland creatures might want to look for, particularly since every individual person has a different stance on ethics. Membership in AAR is a good barometer for determining whether agent and writer ethics align.

Cheyenne said...


That is precisely what came to mind when I read this. I just stumbled over a Tweet advertising the "Manuscript Academy" and was a bit confused. Red flags all over the place for me. I don't mind paying for professional feedback given through charity auctions and workshops and even the occasional webinar, but this doesn't sit right with me. Particularly as Janet points out, agents should be up to their eyeballs in working with their own clients, navigating incoming queries, and working with editors.


RachelErin said...

The Manuscript Wishlist Academy is an instructive example. II assume everyone is working with the best intentions, but the blurring of lines by technology is evident.

Teleconferencing technology is becoming unbelievably sophisticated. There are now major universities (e.g. Berkeley, Harvard Business School) charging lotsa cash for fully online degrees that rely heavily on internet conferencing. Online conference/class opportunities can provide just as much value as in-person, and virtual services don't necessarily cross the line Janet pointed out.

But it is also true that the copy advertising these services sounds a lot like freelance editor websites, and the services are available to people who aren't engaged in conferences or classes. As Colin pointed out for conferences, the money is paid to the third party virtual educational organization, not directly to the agent, but costs are lower to participate since there is no travel, so agents could presumably make more money virtually than attending in-person events. Does the indirect nature of compensation keep it within the ethical okay zone? Or is it the amount of potential compensation - since that is what twists the incentives?

I think an ethics organization, perhaps the AAR is the right group, needs to discuss how their code of ethics applies to new technologies specifically (or promote such guidelines if they already exist). I think professionals developing a few standards to demarcate principles would be helpful for agents and writers. And innovative services could have an ethics page, explaining how they designed their services to follow the accepted ethical standards.

DLGardner said...

Thank you so much for speaking out on this subject! I will know better next time and hang on to my money. This is valuable.

Liz Penney said...

A group of agents and even a couple of editors have a new academy where you can buy 10 minutes or get a critique. But as someone who got pub offers on books I couldn't get an agent to rep, how valuable can this be? Better to take craft courses I think.