A code among consultants

<p>Clare Alexander recently launched a <a href="http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/43467-money-for-value.html">strenuous attack</a> on the unregulated world of literary consultancies. In her view, 'many vulnerable people are being fleeced'. The practice of asking for finder's fees from agents is described as a 'questionable practice' which threatens to 'taint' the entire industry. She concludes by recommending a code of conduct set out by the top agencies to regulate fees and conduct.<br />
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As MD of one of the countries 2-3 largest consultancies, I've got mixed feelings about all this. First off, I'm pleased that someone as prominent as Clare Alexander should be calling for a code of conduct. In fact, I can claim to have beaten her to the punch: I first spoke with her <a href="http://www.agentsassoc.co.uk/">Association of Authors' Agents</a> (AAA) colleague about this some weeks ago.<br />
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But Clare's piece went a lot further than that. For starters, she thought that a code of conduct should set guidance as to fees. Interesting idea &ndash; except that price collusion is illegal.<br />
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Secondly, her main concern seems to be to do with the prices charged to writers that she sees as both 'desperate' and 'vulnerable'. Who are these writers she refers too? My clientele is neither desperate nor vulnerable. I'd say that they were better educated than average; grimly aware of the difficulty of finding an agent, but determined to to their damnedest anyway. Just because someone comes to us wanting a service doesn't make them take leave of their senses. On the contrary, most clients want us to demonstrate our credentials. Since our editors are a fairly stellar bunch (with prizes or shortlists including the Orange, Whitbread Best Book, Orange New Writer, Guardian Fiction, Guardian Children's Fiction, Crime Writers Association Best First Novel and many, many more), we don't find that hard to do.<br />
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Finally, Clare's piece attacks those editorial agencies who ask agents to pay 'finder's fees' if books placed with those agents go on to get a book deal. I simply don't understand the logic here. We do ask for such fees, and I'm not about to stop doing so. In fact, many of the country's best-known agents have either agreed such arrangements with us, or are in discussion about doing so. We always inform our clients whenever we expect to collect a finder's fee. No client has ever raised an issue, and why would they? They don't pay it. Indeed, I hope that finder's fees become an established part of industry practice. The best consultancies &ndash; the ones most adept at helping their clients make the grade &ndash; will thrive. The rest will be left behind.<br />
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Yet for all that, I think a code of conduct is much needed. Editorial consultancies should never prey on hope: clients should be aware from the outset, that the odds of achieving publication are low. Secondly, there are some consultants, whose experience seems to me to fall vastly short of the minimum standards required. There should be some rules setting out what counts, and what doesn't. That single rule alone would rule out most of the worst abuses. There are other issues too that a code could and should get to grips with.<br />
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All this would help punters be confident that they were buying quality, but that's not the only benefit that would arise. At present, there is only one literary agency whose website even informs writers of the existence of editorial consultancies. Some literary agents make recommendations on a selective or case-by-case basis. Many never have anything to do with editorial consultancies at all. These attitudes are hopelessly outdated. Good writers need editors. That's true of experienced writers. Why in hooting heck should it not also be true of first-timers? And why should those first-time writers not be perfectly capable of assessing for themselves whether it makes sense to spend some money on an editorial service? Why continue to treat them as 'desperate' and 'vulnerable'; infants who can't make responsible choices for themselves?<br />
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A code of conduct for editorial consultants would help us all. I think the AAA could even determine guidelines itself, in conjunction with the leading consultancies. We'd be pleased and proud to help. Once done, punters could buy with confidence &ndash; and literary agents could start letting writers know of the resources that have sprung up to help them. That would be good for writers; good for literary agents; and best of all, it would be good for the practice of literature itself.</p>