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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Agents, Editors and Ethicality

I love to be controversial! But just in my books. In real life, I avoid controversy like I avoid scales. However, when controversy knocks on my door to see if I'm home, I'm not going to shut the door and cower under the covers.

Two days ago, controversy knocked loudly and now I'm answering or better yet asking. What do all of you published and want to be published writers think about agents and editors who offer to read your book for a charge and then give you a critique? I'm not talking about anyone who says I'll read your book if you pay me X amount of dollars.  I'm talking about people who will  read your query for free and then may read your partial or full if they like what they read without charging one red dime.  However, seperate from this they also offer a service of reading your work for a fee. You can employ them before you ever contact them, or if you are turned down, you can still hire them. They don't promise to then buy your book or sell it for you, but they do list in big, bold letters that they are well connected in the publishing business and have a large number of contacts. It's almost irresistible, isn't it? But is it ethical?

I know of an editor for a major publishing house who is also a book doctor. This person charges a hefty sum to read your manuscript and give you detailed comments about what works and what doesn't. This person also advertises their enormous contacts and years of experience. They do not promise anything outright, but is the promise unstated by the simple act of the advertisement?

I also know there is a major publishing house that advertises their editing services on their website. They make no promises if you use these services that you will get published, but once again, is there an underlying promise or a temptation to the thousands of desperately hopeful writers that is too great to resist?

I could also write for you a list of agents who have been on and off the RWA approved list because they edited for a charge. Most of these agents never said it was a requirement for them to sign you. The editing was simply another separate service they offered.

I ask again if this is ethical? I'm not saying it is or it isn't. I want to know what YOU think.

Julie Johnstone, Marchioness of Mayhem


  1. I'm not certain if agents and editors have a code of ethics they must abide by or not. I'm sure there are standards of practice expected by the RWA, which is the reason some people go off the approved list.

    In other professions, such as the helping professions like social work, psychology and counseling, it is against the code of ethics to engage in dual relationships. In fact, it is possible for the professional to lose his license depending on the nature of the boundary crossing.

    I think this is a fine line agents who engage in this practice are walking. On the one hand, they can say they are offering a service to non-clients and no dual relationship occurs. But then what happens if they want to sign with the writer later? Does it then become a dual relationship? Is there a contract that exists between the agent and writer that clearly outlines what the writer will get in return for the fee? How is the writer to know the agent offering a critique is truly qualified to give one? If the writer is unsatisfied with the quality of the critique, is there any recourse?

    I'd be much more likely to pay a published writer in my genre for a critique, but I'm pretty happy with my critique group. :)

  2. Good question!
    I think if they're employed by a publishing house, they shouldn't offer such services as there's always the lure of a potential contract for the hopeful writer, even though they claim that it doesn't automatically lead to one. Misleading at best.

    But if it's a freelance editor, I can understand that 'doing their job', i.e. editing manuscripts, provides part of their income that they wouldn't want to miss out on. And if there's a good enough ms to tempt them to take on to promote, then the better. But they should keep both sides of their business strictly separate and be very clear about it.

    Just my tuppence worth... :-)

  3. Well, many agents belong to the AAR and are therefore bound by the AAR's canon of ethics. There are certainly agents out there who are not members of AAR (for any number of reasons) but who still hold themselves to the AAR's ethical standards. That said, I'm not sure where this particular issue would lie within that canon.

    Is it ethical to encourage writers a publishing house has rejected to utilize their editing services (which they must pay for), in the misled hope that they'll then be able to gain an acceptance instead of a rejection? In my opinion, no. Is it ethical for an agent to charge someone a fee for editorial services, when that has no bearing on whether the agent will then offer representation? Again, my answer is no.

    But I do not claim to be an expert on ethics, either within the publishing industry or otherwise.

  4. For agents who are members of AAR such a fee is prohibited.

  5. I think in writing, just like in most other creative industries, there is room for people to take advantage of those looking to get their works published. My advice, since I have worked in the book industry for 13 years now, is to always network with published authors and take reccommendations from them concerning who they used as resources. Attend signing events and during Q & A sessions ask for their advice or write in for advice on their blog sites. Getting ahead in this world or succeeding, if you read books such as Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, is part talent and practice then other piece is opportunity. Networking with those that are already successful in your field of interest is the best way to get that opportunity and good direction.

  6. Interesting post, Julie! I used to do a lot of modeling and acting and my dad always said, "Make sure YOU'RE the one getting paid." Aka, don't pay any "professionals" who say the best way to get ahead is by paying them to do a service for you. I actually didn't always follow my father's advice and got stung for hundreds of dollars. I've since learned my lesson, and it would be my advice to any budding author to steer clear of these people. There are plenty of people willing to help you for free - it's an incredibly giving community - you don't have to pay anyone to become a published author.

    Great post!

  7. To me it definitely smacks of conflict of interest - regardless of if any official entity tells them so. I see those people too and usually lose respect for them and steer clear. Even the appearance of impropriety can damage a career in this business, so it always amazes me when they play both sides of the fence - so to speak. I understand those who have to take on multiple jobs to pay the bills, but those two just don't go together well.

  8. I love Jerrica's dad's advice. I think that just about sums it up perfectly. The money should flow toward the author, not the other way around. There are enough people willing to assist you for free along the journey to publication. There is no need to pay anyone to do so.

  9. I would do some research to find out their creds and most recent published books before submitting just to make sure they were really legit. I don't think I'd use their services though, no need to pay for such a vague promise of "fame and riches".

  10. I'll have to side with everyone here on this, money flows to the author or it should. Just my .02 cents worth. Great blog Julie, and a great question.

  11. Hi Julie,
    Interesting blog. I'd say I side with many of the others who have commented saying it isn't the place of the author to have to essentially pay for publication, as this then becomes more like vanity press. Fortunately, there are many honest, helpful, kind people in the industry as well ... even if the not-so-kind ones, or those just out for a quick buck or to dupe others sometimes seem to be more noticed.