Q: Recently I queried an agent and, in her response, she told me she charged a fee for reading manuscripts. I had never heard of this before, so I'm hesitant to move forward with her. Are reading fees a standard practice with agents?
A: No, charging a reading fee is not a standard practice of agents. Most agents generally get a 15% commission on the earnings on the manuscript, meaning that they don't get paid until you do. If they mention any type of upfront fee (other than sending a self-addressed stamped envelope, or SASE), that should be an immediate red flag that the agent isn't legit.
The Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR), to which many agents belong, has a very strict stance on this, which is mentioned in their Canon of Ethics:
AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity.
All members of the AAR abide by this code, and nearly all non-AAR agents follow it too. About 15 years ago or so, there was a small collection of reputable agents who did charge reading fees, but most have dropped those charges so they aren't confused with scammers. It's also very telling that neither Writer's Marketor Guide to Literary Agents (GLA) list agents that charge upfront fees.
"You should never pay any upfront fees just so that your work is read or considered," says Chuck Sambuchino, editor of GLA. "If we find out someone has instituted a reading fee, we disqualify them and remove them from the book."
This is not to say that there aren't capable agents who may charge fees��you certainly may be able to find a few that have sold some books—but be clear that they are willing to bend the (nearly) universal rules to make a buck.