Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Assessors and agents: a reply

A little while ago, in this post, I addressed the issue of manuscript assessors and agents existing within the same body. Full disclosure: the agency I work for is a member of the Australian Literary Agents Association and bound by codes of conduct. Therefore, we can never accept a fee payment to assess a manuscript in addition to performing our agent duties. However, more than once I have wondered at the economic wisdom of that in a market the size of Australia. It is extremely difficult to make an agency business work here because there's just not that much money in it, and it would certainly make life economically easier if we could charge for editorial advice. But there is some murky water there.

In response to the post I received the following from Sally Bird, which I'm publishing in the interests of a balanced view. Thanks to Sally for her permission to do so.

Dear Agent,

Not having read your blog for some time I've just had a squiz and feel compelled to comment on the issue of agents and manuscript assessors 'in the same body'. I have thought long and hard about even contacting you because you have the luxury of anonymity and I am 'exposing' myself here but I have also thought long and hard about this issue and I do not believe it is one about which you can generalise.

I was invited to join ALAA when it was first formed and I was still living in Sydney. At that stage my agency business was very much a part-time operation while I was a salaried employee in the book trade, which is the way I understand quite a few agents began. You may recall at the time ALAA was set up that there were murmurings about the conditions for membership from manuscript assessors?

While I do understand that reputable literary agents do not charge any upfront fees I do not feel that agenting and assessing need to be mutually exclusive. In my own case, the decision to take on manuscript appraisal came partly out of financial need. More importantly though, having seen a number of so-called assessments sent to me by potential clients, I felt that I could provide a more professional service - one that would at least give the client an honest opinion and not be a financial rip-off. Some of these 'assessments' were merely a synopsis, many were semi-literate and/or littered with typos and at least one was done by someone listed on the AALA website under 'Literary Contacts', so there is no quality control there either.

I do many assessments myself but I also have two Sydney-based senior editors I can and do call on for assistance or to do the entire report. If I liked a manuscript enough to think that I could find a publisher for the author I would offer representation and, on securing a contract with a publisher, refund the fee the author had paid for the assessment. I have a note (under Submission Guidelines) on my website stating the reason I am no longer a member of ALAA and that as an agent I do not charge a fee. I decided against stating that manuscripts considered outstanding would be offered representation as I didn't want to open the floodgates! I don't know whether you have thought of this 'scenario' - it would seem not because you appear to assume that anyone asking for a fee is a charlatan and I object to this and would like to see your comment/reply to my email on your blog.

Sally Bird