Tread carefully if you’re advised that your manuscript needs to be assessed by a professional service before a particular agent will consider it. Although there are many reputable manuscript assessment services, this concept is fast becoming a variation of the reading fee issue.
At first glance, this suggestion is not quite as blatant an upfront money-spinner as the reading fee. In fact it’s often disguised as a service for the writer struggling to navigate the ubiquitous slush piles. In itself, a manuscript assessment service seems like a great idea – an experienced editor reads through your manuscript and gives advice on whether or not your work is likely to be accepted by a publisher, and what you need to change and work on in order to get it ready for publication.
My ethics-alarm starts sounding, though, when a literary agent recommends having a manuscript assessed, and mentions that using one certain manuscript assessment service in particular will guarantee you consideration, or even representation, by the agency. Hop on over to the proposed manuscript assessment service, and notice that the name of the experienced editor who will read your manuscript is the same name as the literary agent who will represent your manuscript to publishers.
In my opinion, the only difference between a reading fee and an agent-run manuscript assessment service is the price. A manuscript assessment service could cost you as much as seventy times what used to be charged as a reading fee. Remember the rule: money flows towards the author.
Also, consider that literary agents moan about their slush piles for a reason. All those manuscripts to skim-read means less time to network and sell the manuscripts of the writers they’ve already signed. They get paid for selling manuscripts not reading them – that was the deal with the reading fee concept.
How many reputable agents can possibly afford the time to not only read all these extra manuscripts coming in from writers paying for an assessment, but also to critique them and suggest changes that would make them more publishable? Think about it. Would you really want to sign with an agent who spends their time critiquing newbie writers’ books rather than pushing yours under a publisher’s nose for a sale that may not happen?
If you do decide to have your manuscript assessed in this way, investigate the service thoroughly before you hand over your money. Determine which publishers are best suited for your type of book. Ring them up and ask them if they can recommend a manuscript assessment service or a freelance editor. Or speak to your local writers’ centre. You’ll be more likely to find a reputable service by asking and investigating, than by blindly using the one recommended by an agent.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in August 2006. © Elsa Neal
Make sure you research the agents you intend to work with. The 2007 Guide to Literary Agents edited by Joanna Masterson is an excellent resource. Or you may want to investigate How To Be Your Own Literary Agent : An Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Richard Curtis, and bypass the agents altogether.