The Conundrum of Reading Fees

It’s understandable that you would think that the book publishing business is a wholesome industry. After all, books are things we give children in school. They’re the subject of many publicly funded ad campaigns to encourage basic literacy. Books are foundational, essential, and intellectually nourishing.

Or, if you grasp the fact that no business is benevolent, you could not be blamed for thinking that book publishing is a professional space where all parties, in the interest of building profitable relationships, deal with each other in an honest and clear manner.

Or, at the very least, you might believe that bad behavior only occurs against established and popular authors who have money to lose. Surely no one preys on the small-time authors—less still against unpublished authors.

But You’re Wrong

In any world where there is money to be made and where people are desperate enough to become trusting, there will always be scams.

It happens in all the arts, unfortunately. And it happens particularly often in places where art is lucrative. Hollywood, for example, is slithering with scam artists. While the book industry is considerably less lucrative, it has its fair share of shysters and con men.

Their victims are often unpublished authors, desperate to get their work out into the world. Such poor souls get tricked out of their money or, even worse, the publishing rights to their own works. Would be authors find themselves in a position where they are forever barred from getting their name in print because someone else owns their name.

An Ounce of Prevention

Thankfully, most predators follow patterns, and there are ways to identify the bad actors who exploit up-and-coming authors. With a little direction, inquisitive unpublished authors can discover ways to uncover nefarious business practices.

The assays are too numerous to list here. Many online resources explore the subject in depth (the best one is probably Writer Beware). However, there is one practice that frequently appears among a plurality of scams, and has become the biggest red flag.

Reading Fees: An Instant “No”

Any agent or publisher who charges a submission fee or reading fee is automatically a scam.

Always.

I can give you no counterexamples. There has never been an instance where anyone taking a reading fee has turned out to be a legitimate road to publication. Everyone in the writing and publishing communities is in agreement on this fact.

And it’s easy to see why. An agent has no more business charging a reading fee than an employer has charging for a job interview. The money you both intend to make will come from the joint customers who buy your product. You do not charge each other for the existence of your working relationship.

The parties who charge reading fees are generally testing the writer as a mark. If the writer can be coerced into paying a reading fee, they can be similarly duped into buying editing services, cover design and typesetting from the predator’s “in-house” specialists. In this way, the writer is paying all the same expenses as he would by self publishing, but gets none of the benefits of self publishing as he is now beholden to a phony company that has stolen his rights.

Thus, it is absolutely inappropriate to question the publishing community’s aversion to reading fees.

But Wait…

I need you to understand that I have put a lot of thought into this subject. You’re bound to misinterpret what I’m about to say, so I’m going to preemptively tell you that everything that follows is entirely hypothetical.

I am making no call to action. I have no demands or even requests.

But I must assert that there is a reality, divorced as it may be from our own, where legitimate agents and publishers could charge reading fees.

The Unthinkable Solution

Turns out, the publishing world has another problem—one which potentially larger consequences than those posed by scams. Scams are a problem for individual authors. But this other issue has the potential to harm, or even destroy, books as a whole. And the problem only gets worse with each passing year. It has a name:

Signal-to-noise ratio.

The number of people trying to publish books is effectively endless. There are a finite number of slots, every year, for new books to get published. Most of those slots are taken up by established authors. It’s nearly impossible for an unpublished author to break in. And, more importantly, many of the ones who do break in fail to find an audience.

You would think, in an industry as robustly gatekept as traditional publishing, that this would not happen. Each book that hits the shelves passes through the hands of so many people, and endures so much polishing, that every single volume published must be golden. Yet many fail to even glitter.

Turns out, agents and editors are not omniscient. Even the best of them cannot always augur a book’s future sales, and “the best of them” is a small group to begin with.

Complicating the issue is the sheer VOLUME of submissions they get every year, every week, or even every day. 99.99% of all book submissions are failures. Many of them fail to even meet a basic standard of competency.

Literary agents are drowning in submissions spam.

This problem has been accelerated by technology. It used to cost the writer a significant sum to send out a submission. He had to pay a typist to make copies of his manuscript for each publisher he submitted to, with a hefty postage fee attached.

The personal computer, along with copy shops, streamlined the process to the point where any yahoo with a word processor could print their submission themselves. Postage became the only barrier.

But as physical submissions were replaced with electronic ones, this problem escalated. What was to stop an author from sending a submission to every agent all at once? Today, the cost of submitting a query to an agent is virtually nothing, which begets a world where submissions of real value are lost in a fog of dead-on-arrival applications.

As blasphemous as it is to suggest, there may be a case for introducing submission fees into legitimate book publishing businesses.

Submission Fees vs. Reading Fees

A distinction needs to be made here, to prevent further misinterpretation of what I am hypothesizing.

A submission fee shall be defined as the money cost for querying an agent/editor. It guarantees that the query will be read and answered personally.

A reading fee shall be defined as the money cost which guarantees a complete reading of the manuscript by the agent/editor. Such a complete reading must first be agreed to by all parties.

With that in mind, let us consider an imaginary scenario.

In a World Where…

Imagine that tomorrow the entire publishing industry wakes up and decides that something finally needs to be done to repair the signal-to-noise ratio plaguing the book business.

Publishing is in competition with other forms of media, after all. And it is losing ground. Long-form television and videogames are captivating the public’s attention, and motion pictures are still more widely enjoyed than books. The people who produce books must, therefore, find better ways to sniff out the next bestsellers.

Suppose that, in service of that goal, the collected agents and editors decide to charge four dollars to receive an author’s query. The exact amount is not important, as the fee primarily exists as a disincentive for spammers (and is still cheaper than the old method of hiring a typist and mailing a manuscript). In this scenario, most people can still afford to query agents with regularity.

Most people cannot, however, afford to spam all the agents in their country at once. Such an effort would be cost-prohibitive. The incentives would be structured so that authors would not consider starting a query campaign until their manuscripts were polished and ready for the big time.

These measures would serve to balance the publishing world’s signal-to noise ratio, taking it back to a level not seen since the invention of the personal computer. Bad submissions would still exist, of course, but in much smaller quantities. In such a world, the receiving agents would have incentive to at least explain why they are rejecting a submission. The world might successfully do away with form rejections.

And What about Reading Fees?

The above scenario need not include reading fees, if submission fees alone are sufficient to fix the industry’s signal-to-noise ratio.

However, if the industry wished to provide the broadest coverage to up and coming authors, it could incorporate reading fees into the new way of doing things. These would naturally be more expensive than submission fees, and would guarantee a full read of the manuscript if the receiving agent pre-approved such a transaction.

For the writer who is absolutely convinced their manuscript could win over the receiving agent, reading fees would give him a chance to put his money where his mouth is, and succeed or fail based on whether his delusions are actually true.

Of course, this requires some assurance for the writer that the manuscript was actually read. Perhaps the agent could be obligated to write a synopsis based on their read-through.

Though even in such a world as the one I propose, it could not be the norm. There is no way for an agent to read every manuscript that crosses their desk, and they must have the right to refuse a reading fee.

Otherwise, you end up with bigger problems than an unbalanced signal-to-noise ratio.

Submission/Reading Fees are still a Bad Idea

Even in such a world as the one I propose, the arguments against agents taking fees are still valid. Such a system could still be scammed by agents acting in bad faith. And the signal-to-noise ratio is hardly the only problem the publishing world is facing right now.

There is also an ethos, within the industry, that an author should be able to arise from even the humblest circumstances. In reality, few bestselling authors begin from a place of destitution. Most have a steady day job that pays the bills until they are ready to go into full-time authorship. But the idea that there should be any kind of monetary barrier to entry is anathema to the publishing industry.

Still, the industry is being squeezed. Squeeze it enough, and it might try something desperate.

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