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THE BOOK TRADE

Literary Agents Putting on the Fee Bag

January 06, 1991|ELIZABETH MEHREN

NEW YORK — You've finally finished your novel, your first. Nobody's ever heard of you, but don't worry, after this book is published, the whole world will know who you are. Fans will mob you. Publishers will beg you to write for them. Agents will beat at your door.

That is, after an agent finally reads your manuscript and realizes how brilliant it is. It's simple. All you've got to do is get that big-time agent to take a look at it.

Only it's not that simple.

Literary agents are swamped by manuscripts, said Scott Meredith, a 44-year veteran of the business. With very little effort they could spend every working day plowing through unpublishable drek, Meredith said. From time to time, with luck, there might be the rare jewel of an oeuvre. But only rarely.

That is why, when he set up shop nearly 50 years ago, Meredith began charging a fee to read incoming manuscripts. Ten dollars then; $400 now. (Reading is apparently an inflationary experience.) With the manuscript for your first novel displayed proudly on your coffee table, you can learn how this process works by perusing the snazzy four-page brochure that Meredith sends out. It includes a newspaper article titled "The Superagent."

"We've never called it a reading fee," Meredith said. "We just call it a fee."

Meredith views the fee as a service to new writers. "The publishing houses won't even read material by an unsolicited writer," he said. "There's very, very little over the transom."

With "99% of the stuff" coming from literary agents, "there isn't even a slush pile" at most houses any more, Meredith said. As a result, "I decided years ago for purely selfish reasons to open the door to new writers."

Meredith boasts established, big-advance clients like Norman Mailer, Judith Krantz, James Clavell, Carl Sagan and Stephen King. But "You need the new writers to produce new material," he said. To accommodate these unknowns, "we decided to charge a fee to cover our costs."

In fairness, Meredith's fee provides that each manuscript goes to three readers. Each writes an analysis and opinion of the book, which then is discussed among Meredith's 51 agents.

But other agents are less sold on the notion of fees for reading manuscripts. In fact, reading fees recently were the subject of a long discussion among the 100 or so members of the Independent Literary Agents Assn. (ILAA). The debate resulted in a policy adopted by the ILAA to "regulate the charging of reading fees by its members."

Rather than banning the practice outright, the organization took the position that any member charging a reading fee must "make full disclosure to prospective fee-paying writers of all the terms and conditions of the fee agreement before the writer incurs any obligation to the agent."

The ILAA measure also "officially discourages the practice of charging reading fees."

"We felt that this was a solid compromise," said Peter Ginsberg, an agent with the Curtis Brown Agency who is on the council of the ILAA. "We felt that an educated author would be far less susceptible to abuse," such as excessive fees, or readings by "people who are not involved in day-to-day selling of books and rights."

Ginsberg's own agency does not charge reading fees. "We don't feel that falls into the realm of what a literary agent does," he said. But he said he could understand the rationale of agents who do charge reading fees. "Their point of view is, 'Look, we have a small operation and we can't afford to read all the material that comes in the transom.' "

Writers may be willing to pay the fees, Ginsberg said, because "it's harder and harder these days for a writer not only to find a publisher but in many cases, an agent."

As a young agent starting out in the business, "it occurred to me that maybe I ought to charge reading fees," Carol Mann said. But after close to 15 years of agenting, Mann said she has become "philosophically opposed to reading fees because I think there is room for abuse." Besides, Mann said, "I think that reading manuscripts is part of the job."

But Denise Marcil, the vice president of ILAA, said those who oppose reading fees are clinging to outdated ideas about publishing, when publishers and editors "stuck around and developed their writers." These days, Marcil said, editors move around, without always taking their writers with them.

"Really, the responsibilities of the editor are falling more and more on the shoulders of the agent," Marcil said. For proposals and manuscripts alike, "I keep doing revisions," Marcil said.

As an example, Marcil said she "just spent the last week working on a 650-page manuscript, and this is not a book that is under contract."

Marcil's reading fee is "really nominal, way under $100." She added that she accepts "10 to 12 new people each year" as clients, but receives about 100 manuscripts each month.

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