In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
You should be especially wary of agents who promise to read your work for a fee. A few such agents are reputable, but all too many are unscrupulous fucks.
One more thing to be said about literary agents? Don’t work with any who demand a fee up front.
Yes, literary agents work really, really hard. And yes, they deserve to get paid.
But the way it works is this. You query your novel to multiple literary agents, which costs you, the writer, no money. You might receive partial or full requests from literary agents who want to see more of your work. You promptly send the requested pages to the agent, and then they read your work for no money.
If you’re lucky, one or more of those agents will offer you representation, and hopefully you’ll be able to accept one of those offers. Then you’ll begin the revising process of your novel with that agent, again, for no money.
Throughout this process you shouldn’t be paying your agent anything. You should never be pressured into paying him or her a dime.
The only time the agent gets paid is if your novel sells, and then that agent gets a percentage.
I believe the industry standard is 15% for the sale to the publisher, and then 20% for any foreign sales / film options / and the rest. The agent makes money when you make money, that’s how it works. That’s what you should always keep at the back of your mind as you search for representation.
One other thing you should keep at the back of your mind? There will be people out there who want to take advantage of you. Who will feed off your total desperation to get an agent, to get published, that after awhile you might feel it’s okay to pay an agent to read your work or that it’s okay to pay an agent before your book is even pitched to editors.
This is not okay. This is not a person you should be working with. Any agent who does something like this will probably be out of the job eventually as soon as the complaints start rolling in, but you never know. Anyone can become a literary agent, after all.
Your job is to seek out the ones that will help guide your career and help get your books published, and avoid the ones that are total scam artists.
The only agents worth considering are the ones that don’t demand any fees up front, remember that.
I don’t care that you’ve queried five novels and finally someone has shown interest in your work. I don’t care that you’ve been at this for years, and this one particular agent is interested in your novel… for a fee. Don’t do it! Do not work with this person!
At the end of the day, there’s one last thing to keep in the back of your mind: it’s better to not have an agent at all than to have a bad agent. It’s better to have no agent than to have an agent who scams you for money and gives you nothing in return!
Searching for a literary agent is an exciting time, but remember to keep your business hat on always. Make good choices. Do your research.
There are a lot of literary agents out there. Go with the good ones.