The Ethical Question of Conference Fees

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jun 12 2019

Yesterday’s blog post addressed the overall cost of conferences and how exclusive that cost is.

Today I want to talk more directly to the question first asked by a reader. A question about the ethics of conference fees outside of those you pay to attend.

Are Conference Fees Unethical?

What do you think of charging steep fees at conferences for dedicated time with an agent? Isn’t that dangerously close to the maligned practice of ‘bad’ agents charging for reading queries?


For those who have never attended a conference, let me explain. Attending a conference means paying a pricey conference fee. This usually includes speakers, workshops, presentations, and maybe a meal or two. In some cases, it will also include a one-on-one pitch session with an agent or editor.

At some conferences, those pitch sessions are included in the initial fee. At others, you need to pay an additional fee for this scheduled and promised one-on-one time.

The reasoning for this fee is varied. Obviously, it helps offset the costs of bringing in agents and the conference itself. Sometimes the fees are paid to agents which I’ll discuss more later this week. I suspect the fee is also used as a way to shorten the list of authors taking pitch sessions. Agents just can’t successfully handle more than 2-3 hours of pitches a weekend which often means not everyone can pitch.

The ethics of this additional fee has been of much debate since I opened BookEnds 20 years ago, and I’m sure it will be up to debate for years to come.

Before I jump in let me honestly say that I don’t have an easy answer. Personally, I think the biggest problem to this fee isn’t the ethics of the agent, but the exclusivity the fee creates as I discussed in yesterday’s post.

Are Paid Pitches the Same as Charging for Queries?

One argument against paying to pitch is that it is akin to charging authors to read queries. It is true that agents should only be making money off commissions for the sale of books. Not for editing or reading queries (which are part of the agent’s job).

I don’t think paying extra to pitch is the same as charging for queries. These meetings are not the same as reading a query for a simple yes or no. These are consultations with an industry expert. The opportunity to get real advice on your pitch and your career. Not something that happens from a query letter.

Making the Most of Pitch Sessions

Meeting for a pitch session is not just about pitching your book. It is an opportunity to meet one-on-one with someone in the business. How you use that time is up to you. You could pitch a book of course. But I believe the most successful meetings are when authors take those ten minutes further, asking for guidance and career advice. Or, even better, insider publishing knowledge.

In those meetings you can find out, from the source, what the current market is looking for. You can ask advice from an industry professional. And you can network with someone to see if they are the right agent for you.

Another way to handle pitches is to make them editorial consultations. In many of my recent paid pitch sessions I’ve been asked to provide editorial feedback on previously submitted material. This means extra work on my part as well as extra work on the part of conference organizers.

While I don’t think extra fees are unethical on the agent’s part (many times we don’t have a say in whether or not these fees are charged). I do think, maybe, there’s a better way to make them more inclusive. Because, again, the problem for me isn’t so much the ethics for the agent, but making conferences affordable for everyone.



One response to “The Ethical Question of Conference Fees”

  1. Avatar AJ Blythe says:

    Conferences are really expensive. I know always look at the additional cost activities and rarely choose them because of that additional investment. For that reason, if conferences want participation, they are better off including the cost in the overall ticket – but that pushes up the price of the basic conference ticket. Vicious circle.