Writers in the 1990's have been confronted with changes -- revolutions -- in the publishing industry that have worked against their interests. Two of these changes, fewer publishing opportunities and a new trend in the way literary agents do business, are connected. Today, most of the literary agencies available to unpublished writers charge fees -- up front. These agencies represent a growing number of fee-based enterprises operating within a profession traditionally dependant upon commissions on sales. Although fee-charging agencies present themselves as traditional, commission based operations, they do not derive significant income through manuscript sales to royalty paying publishers. These agencies mainly exist on money from unpublished writers. Fee charging is not an illegal act, and it is not unethical as long as the agent does not mislead the writer, or fail to act in the client's best interest. Whether or not the practice is professional, or good for writers, is another question.
Fee generated literary services range from one-time reading fees to expensive editing jobs. Many agents who boast that they do not charge reading or evaluation fees, require so-called contract fees for the client's privilege of being represented. A few agencies impose contract fees on a per book basis, renewing the charges annually. Other agents, in addition to reading and representation fees, collect marketing fees to cover the cost of sending manuscripts around to publishers, a practice unheard of ten years ago.
Most of the unpublished writers who contribute to fee-based literary agencies do so because they have been unable to acquire agents who work off commissions. These writers, and there are thousands of them, assume that having a fee-charging agent is preferable to being without an agent. This comes from the widely held belief that one cannot get published without an agent.
People continue to write books as the opportunities to publish them shrink. This has created an enormous backlog of manuscripts, an expanding source of income for enterprising literary agents. These agents trade off writers' hopes and dreams. The rapidly expanding pool of manuscripts has also produced more than a few charlatans, scoundrels, and thieves.
It is not surprising that many fee-based agent-client relationships end unhappily. After hope has been replaced by rejection, the client's money has not purchased what he or she really wanted -- to get published -- to become a respected author. Writers who have paid agents hundreds, and in some cases thousands of dollars, are left feeling angry, depressed, and victimized. They have lost their money, their hope, and their self-respect. Ashamed and embarrassed, some of them, unable to trust anyone, stop writing.
Have you broken into print, or recently signed a contract with a commercial publisher of trade books? If so, Jim Fisher would like to hear from you. Your story could inspire and enlighten other writers. Please e-mail Jim (firstname.lastname@example.org) a summary of your tale of success.