It’s Time to End Free Agent Labor

Nearly every week an agent at BookEnds receives a request to speak at an event, conference, or group meeting. Almost universally there is an expectation that the agent will do so for free. While this has been the norm for generations, it’s time to put an end to free agent labor.

As publishers are raising starting salaries, the rest of us need to do our part. That means dispelling the myth that conference work is a favor to the agent. It’s not. It’s work. A full weekend of exhausting work, missed family time, and travel costs that are not, let’s be honest, worth the reward.

The True Cost of Conferences

Most conferences offer to pay travel expenses–specifically hotel, flight, and most meals (not all) But as anyone who has ever flown knows, that’s never the extent of true travel expenses. You also need to get to and from the airport, eat meals (or snacks) that aren’t included, and you’re expected to schmooze with conference attendees that can often amount to at least a moderate bar/food/snack bill (depending on how you like to schmooze).

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while conferences say they pay travel expenses, very rarely have all my travel expenses been covered. There’s always something that isn’t factored in (a $200 airport parking bill anyone).

But Zoom is Free

In the era of Zoom, many see this as a real boon to their agent networking. Now they can have agents attend without any costs. Those pesky travel expenses are a thing of the past.

They are. That’s true. But time is money people and asking an agent to spend an 8-hour day, or a 16-hour weekend, working in front of Zoom is ridiculous. That’s time that could be spent submitting a project, revising, or reading submissions. In other words, time that could be spent working with clients who are earning us money.

If I’m to spend time at your conference I should be fairly compensated for my work. Real money that will pay real bills.

The Myth of Conferences

It’s a myth conference organizers have told themselves for years that conferences benefit agents. A myth that paying travel expenses is beyond generous. Sure, it’s expensive to pay travel expenses, but these agents are driving people to your event. It’s worth the cost, as is paying them for their work.

In my 20 years as an agent, easily over 100 conferences, I can count on one hand the number of clients I’ve found. Most clients come through connections I make after reading or hearing about their work or, truthfully, through Query Manager.

Speaking at conferences is hard work. It’s exhausting and often leads to 12-15 hour days. It’s a benefit to the conference to have agents attend and they need to be paid for the benefits they bring.

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11 comments

  1. I think any person who is working in a professional capacity should be compensated for that work. My brother is an electrician, and he’s always being asked by friends and family to do work for free.

    1. The same thing happens to doctors, veterinarians, lawyers, computer geeks – well, pretty much anyone who has friends or relatives. The only person who should ever ask anyone to do work for free is their mother. Period. (Because she already did a lot for them for free! 😀 )

  2. As a former agent myself, I completely agree that agents need to be compensated for their time speaking at events, as well as doing one-on-one sessions with authors at conferences. I seem to recall talk of the Association of Authors Representatives making a policy several years ago that said their members shouldn’t be paid to appear at events where they might find new clients. Is this no longer the case? Clarification on that point would help conference organizers understand that payment to agent speakers is appropriate and won’t compromise the agent’s standing with AAR.

      1. Interesting conversation. I’m not sure how this would work for smaller conferences who use big name agents and editors to pull in attendees. OTH, my husband, who is not in publishing, gets all travel expenses and a speaking fee at most of the conferences he attends. But this is mainly for when he is a key note. Otherwise it’s just conference expenses. And you/we do get to write off the travel expenses, whereas my husband can’t because he’s not self-employed. I don’t know from an author standpoint I do pick my conferences based on who is attending from the publishing world. And a newer agent might welcome the chance to meet aspiring or established authors. I know I’ve been compensated for some speaking engagements at conferences and then again most I do gratis. And yes, the costs does add up. It will be interesting to see if conferences are willing to pay a fee in addition to travel, hotel etc. I think they should. Agents and the speakers at workshops are the ones bringing in the attendees.

  3. It seems “free” agent labor falls into the same trap as teachers. Both should be compensated. Whoever said that someone should work free?

  4. It’s an interesting trade-off in our trade, isn’t it? Agents are asked to attend conferences to speak, in exchange for meeting writers whose manuscripts would hit the slush pile otherwise. I’ve lost count of how many authors I’ve advised to use their connection with an agent at a conference to open up a query letter. At least the agents aren’t being asked to pay for admission, plus travel, plus network for long days. That’s the deal the unpublished authors face. I hope in-person conferences like the Writers’ League of Texas survive the changes. I suppose they’ll have to compensate talent like agents. They might already be doing so.

  5. I remember when I first found out that so many of the agents I was querying weren’t even being paid – I was just appalled! I had no idea I was communicating with some poor wonk who was doing all this work just in hopes of “maybe making a useful connection in the industry someday.” I’m glad I was always polite to them (I mean, I would’ve been anyway!) My son is in a band and people are always asking them to play for free “for the exposure.” Any business that can’t afford to pay the people who work for it does not belong in business.

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