The short form: Reading fees. Don’t pay them.
“What?!” You’re saying, “But… but I paid for a critique at a conference.”
I know. It’s that ambiguity I want to address. Doing critiques is exhausting, but it’s also really valuable to attendees. So as a compromise, some writing conferences offer them with a fee attached. That way the agent/editor/author gets paid for their extra effort and the student gets the individual attention they need. Also, the conference makes money for providing a space, etc.
Personally, I would ONLY do this if if there were a problem with a piece of fiction that I couldn’t identify and thought that this specific agent/editor/author could help me puzzle it out.
Outside of a conference, you should never pay a fee to an agent or editor for a critique.
(An exception is if you are hiring a freelance editor to actually edit your manuscript. That’s a whole different business arrangement.)
But if you’re looking to sell your work to an agent or editor and they tell you that they’ll look at it for a fee… Don’t. Run. That person is unethical and is taking advantage of you.
It’s like this… everyone knows how desperate writers are to sell their work. It’s super-easy to tap into that and add a little income stream by charging a “reading fee.” What early-career writers don’t grok is how equally desperate agents and editors are for good work. Selling your fiction is how they make their living. So anything that you have to pay them to read? That’s not a thing they’re likely to be able to sell. Right? But the unethical agents assume you won’t know the difference. They’ll use your hunger as a tool and their position as bait to prey upon you.
Never. Ever. Pay a reading fee.
Money flows to the writer.