QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

When your agent wants to charge you a fee

Every so often I hear an icky agent story and know you guys need to be warned.

There are two kinds of lousy agents. The first is the scammer, the kind who wants to get money from authors without in any way performing the services an actual agent ought to perform. When you know the basics about the business, you'll recognize those. They ask you for money just to read your manuscript and refer you for "necessary" editing services to their friends, many of whom are actually themselves operating under a different business name.

The second kind of lousy agent is just...slippery. That agent is harder to recognize from the outside. While you know to run from agents who charge reading fees, for example, what do you do about one who brings up "administrative charges" after the contract is signed?

Today a writer sent me a copy of an email his agent had sent him. This agent is a legit agent at a legit agency. It's just that....well, you'll see.

The agent sent the writer an email about changes to their literary agency agreement, with the expectation that the writer would sign it and be thrilled. (Note: I've removed all references to The agency and rephrased in order to clarify in parts. The content is the same, and I verified on the agency's website.)
In the current contract, the only charges are for any extraoridinary expenses that may occur (courier services, foreign exchange, etc.), $250.00 per year, and a $500.00 cancellation fee should the author wish to terminate the contract.
Please note: don't sign a contract with that stipulation. Why should the author be charged a fee to break the contract? There's no matching fee for the agent if the agent decides to fire the writer, after all. Usually an agented writer is pleased to stay onboard. When the writer wants to leave, often it's because the writer has issues with the way the agent is representing the manuscript. By charging this ridiculous contract-breaking fee, the agent has stated that s/he would rather have a bitter, angry client than just part ways amicably.

Right from the start, this stipulation sets up the agent/writer relationshp as an adversarial relationship, one in which the writer is the child who must be punished if there's a disagreement with the agency.

(Industry standard is for both parties to have the right to leave with thirty days written notice, and the agent would be the agent of record on any sales resulting from pitches already made as long as they occur in a certain timeframe. Most agents are glad to have a pissy writer slam the door OR they're willing to work hard to come to an understanding with an earnest but unsettled writer. Remember, agents are negotiators. If they can't negotiate with their own clients, they're missing an important job skill.)

Then we get to the fun part, where the agency describes their new contract, introducing an administrative fee structure:
The first year we represent a manuscript we charge five hundred dollars ($500.00), then an additional two hundred fifty dollars ($250.00) each year until we place it with a publisher. Upon securing a publishing contract, the agency receives 15% of net revenues. 
On their website, they try to sweeten the deal: they explain that this fee helps them partner with writers who are serious and willing to invest in their careers. 

No, folks. This is not normal. You don't have to prove to an agent that you're serious and willing to invest in your writing. As Gavin DeBecker says in The Gift of Fear, statements like that are designed to get the target to act against his or her own self interest in order to prove s/he isn't whatever the speaker is accusing them of being. 

So let's step back and be serious, as the agent wants us to be. This agent seriously wants you to fork over five hundred bucks before even starting the job, and that $500 won't come out of the advance when the book sells. Then, if the agent fails to sell your book in one year, the agent gets rewarded with an additional $250.

In what reality does this make any sense for the writer? After taking your five hundred dollars, why would the agent work hard to sell your manuscript? Agents should get paid by commission. If they don't sell, they don't get paid.

Agents do not get to charge you $500 to make them do their job, then collect commission if they do it correctly, then collect an additonal $250 if they don't do it correctly, and then shake you down for a final $500 when you decide to leave because they didn't sell your book.

If anything, most writers stay with a bad agent far too long because they don't want to be out there on their own again. They stay because they feel like this is their book's only hope. I'm afraid a lot of authors will sign this amended agreement because they think no one else will want them, or because they want to prove their seriousness. But this is not normal.

Run away. Fly like the wind.

I understand that an agency with insufficient cash flow might want to tap additional sources of revenue. But you, you dear writer, should make sure you are not the source of this revenue.

Also, keep in mind that as soon as an agent starts charging this fee, all the agent's good writers will find a way to get out of the contract as soon as possible (not signing the new one, for example) and who will be left with that agency? Only the writers who don't know the industry and don't have a lot of experience or contacts. How long will an agency survive when all its experienced writers leave?

I have nothing against agents making money. I hope your future agent makes lots of money! May you be the occasion of your agent receiving truckloads of revenue, but only because they're getting their 15% after you've gotten your 85%.

Jane Lebak is the author of Honest And For True. She has four kids, eleven books in print, three cats, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and tries to do one scary thing every day. You can like her on Facebook, or visit her at her website..


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

What a scam! Thanks for the warning.

Jane Lebak said...

You know, looking at this again, it occurs to me that if an agent working under this kind of agreement is at 11 months and seems very close to an offer on the manuscript, s/he might not push to close the deal because it benefits the agent to drag out the process for longer. Yet another reason this is nonsense that in no way benefits the writer.

Mirka Breen said...

A talented writing friend told me she had paid $1,200 to her agent, and still, no sale. She eventually found a small publisher by herself!
She's still with this agent, and hoping to place her next novel.
BTW-- agent is so-called reputable. Agent is a known-name. Agent has sold to big publishers as recently as four months ago.
To me this would have been a red flag, but now I just don't know what to make of it.