If you’re not familiar with me from my previous blog posts here (I stopped months ago) or my wildly popular Twitter account (where I’ve tweeted exactly six times in the past two years), my name is Erin Buterbaugh and I was an agent at MacGregor Literary working out of beautiful Denver, Colorado. My favorite piece of the agenting process, apart from the vast cash payouts, of course, was the editing/story development aspect of the job—I loved helping my authors make sure their manuscripts were in the best possible shape for showing, so the craft/mechanics side of writing seemed like the perfect area to focus some of my blog efforts on.
First lesson—never end a sentence with a preposition, the way I just did. (Second lesson—once you know the rules, do whatever the heck you want, the way I just did!) I’ll try to split my time pretty evenly between the mechanics side and the story/writing side of things so this doesn’t become “just” a grammar series, but until people stop sending me submissions in which the commas are outside of the quotation marks, I’m going to carry on reminding people of the rules Miss Stinson tried to teach them in 9th grade.
Since this is the first post of my new blog presence, I thought it would be fitting to look at what makes a great first line of a book. I’m sure you’ve read the same lists I have on Buzzfeed of the “21 Greatest First Lines in Fiction” or “The 100 Best Opening Lines of All Time,” etc., so rather than re-print all of those tired old “It is a truth universally acknowledged that it was the best of times and the clocks were striking thirteen” lines that everybody picks for their lists, I thought I’d pull some on my favorite first lines from children’s literature and look at some of the lessons they teach about great
I started this blog nearly ten years ago (we’re coming up on the ten year anniversary for this blog), as a way to simply answer the questions writers have about the process. Some people wanted to ask about writing, others about publishing, still others about marketing. Writers asked about careers, they asked about proposals, and they asked about contracts. Lately we’ve had a ton of people asking about indie publishing and working with Amazon to become a hybrid author.
Over the next couple of months, I thought we’d do an “ask me anything” segment. So… what have you always wanted to ask a literary agent? I’ve got a backlog of questions, but I thought I’d begin by simply asking the people who read this blog a question: If you could sit with me over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine somewhere, and ask anything you wanted, what would you want to know? What would you like to chat about?
Drop a question in the “comments” section below, or send me an email at chip (at) macgregorliterary(dot)com, and I’ll try to offer short answers to your questions. You can ask about books, about proposals, about writing, career planning, marketing, platforms, proposals, or anything else. If I don’t know an answer, I’ll ask someone who does. If they don’t know, I’ll just make up something that sounds good. (Or maybe I’ll ask someone else.)
So there you have it — October is gong to be “ask the agent” month. Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled questions yearning to breath free. I’ll do my best to get you a good response.
I try not to always blog about book marketing, since I don’t want this blog to sound like Johnny-One-Note (though I would say between 60 and 70% of the questions I’m sent have to do with marketing and publicity), but sometimes there are topics that are just screaming to be talked about. Recently I’ve seen a TON of blog posts on various writer sites about marketing opportunities, and many of them say the same things (get into Pinterest, learn to maximize Google ads, etc). I’ve yet to see a single blog post on what I think is one of the great under-utilized marketing opportunities…
Did you know that every fall, all the bookstores in your part of the country get together for a book show? The bookstore owners show up, and there are author interviews, publisher displays, book-and-retail educational classes, and all sorts of exhibits aimed at helping people get to know (and sell) more books. It’s the series of regional bookseller trade shows, and you’ve got one coming to your area sometime in the next two months.
Hey, print book sales have made a comeback, so publishers have renewed their commitments to regional shows. And the movement to support local artists has boosted the interest in the fall regionals. These are unlike BEA, where you have to travel to Manhattan, spend $300 per night on a hotel room, and wander through the massive Javits Center for days on end. There are fewer people, a lot of smaller presses, and an emphasis on authors and publishers in your part of the country. And as an author, you’ll be face to face with local bookstore owners, so you can talk to them about their customers, hand-sell your book, and maybe arrange for an in-store event. Some of the regionals even have smaller wine-and-cheese gatherings (at least one of the conferences is doing meetings in author homes), so that there’s potential for
All this talk about September 11 caused some people to ask about the books I mentioned in my previous blog post. Both books (Thunder Dog by Mike Hingson and Susy Flory, and Let’s Roll by Lisa Beamer) were big hits, and while I’ve had a long list of books that have hit the various bestseller lists, there’s no question that Let’s Roll was the biggest book I ever represented, and there’s a cool story behind it.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I was in a plane, flying to New York when the planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. It was just a couple of nights later, as I was sitting on the couch and watching President George W. Bush address the nation about the terrorist attacks, that the Prez re-told the story of Todd Beamer’s bravery — how he had said “let’s roll!” to the passengers on Flight 93, and how they had tried to take the plane back from the terrorists, resulting in the crash in the Pennsylvania countryside, and the deaths of everyone on board. After telling the story, Bush motioned to the gallery, where Laura Bush was, and he mentioned that seated next to the First Lady was Todd Beamer’s widow, Lisa. That was the first time most Americans had ever seen her, and I was touched at her poise and grace.
“Good lord,” I said to my family as I sat on the couch, watching, “What a brave woman.” I remember being impressed with her ability to represent the families left behind, so soon after having lost her husband. “She could do a great book.” The truth is, my kids prayed with me about the idea of helping her do a book. Really. And, in my view, that’s how the project was born.
Two weeks later, after commercial flights had begun again, I made my way to Chicago, for one of
I wrote this a few years ago, to remind myself of the events of that day. Life has changed since I wrote this, but on the 15th anniversary, I wanted to share it again and remind everyone what happened, and why we need to remember.
On September 11th, 2001, I was flying along at 36,000 feet, in a United jet heading from Denver to Chicago, then on to New York. I was working as a literary agent for Alive Communications in Colorado at the time, and flew out of Denver regularly. There wasn’t anything special about the flight — I was in first class, seat 3B, and directly across the aisle from longtime Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, who had been in Denver to call an NFL game on television.
We’d been in the air about an hour when I said to the guy next to me, “Something’s wrong. We’re going down.” So I motioned to the flight attendant (a tall, young guy who looked all of 20) and asked him. He clearly didn’t know what was going on either, but said he’d check with the pilots. I watched him knock on the cabin door, enter, stay inside 3 or 4 minutes, then come out, white as sheet. He motioned to me that all was fine, but he was obviously upset, and I knew right away something was deeply wrong. I reached for the phone (in olden days, they had phones in the back of the seat, and you could call home five miles up). The phone didn’t work.
The captain came on the speakers and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to remain seated. There have been terrorist attacks against the United States of America, and all planes have been ordered out of US airspace. We’re going to make an unscheduled stop. Please do not leave your seats. There’s nothing wrong with the aircraft.”
I turned to
Since it’s our tenth anniversary, I thought I’d pull out a couple of questions I’ve had sitting around for a long time, just because they’ll be fun to explore. SEVERAL people have asked me what my favorite proposal of all time is. Certainly having a romance novel manuscript sent to me wrapped in a thong would be in the top five (a true story, by the way — and I didn’t know if I should touch it, since I wasn’t sure where that thong had been). And getting not just a manuscript, but a box filled with a musical CD, t-shirt, and plush toy about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s little brother remains a highlight (in case you’re wondering, his nose didn’t glow — his tail did… in case Santa wanted to put him in the back of the line and, I don’t know, get a tan or something). Also the time I got a threatening letter from a guy who claimed he and his son were “the two secret witnesses of Revelation,” and had been “sent by God to Chip MacGregor by name, in order to reveal the truth to the world.” (I’m not kidding. The author included a letter that said he expected to see “a sizable advance” and warned me that if I did not, God was going to “send heavenly weather events that will kick your ass.”) This is one of the many reasons I’ve loved having part of my career in the religious market. However, the BEST proposal letter I’ve ever been sent is this one…
Yes, this was sent to me by “The President of the Invisible World,” and her two books were Sex with Angels and Hearing Voices? You’re Not Mentally Ill! (If you read through it, you’ll find the author has written a screenplay to Sex with Angels, though I’m probably not old enough to read the manuscript.) I’ve always wondered why I
This week marks the tenth anniversary since I started MacGregor Literary. I’d been working as a publisher with the old Time-Warner Book Group, got the axe not long after the sale to Hachette, and realized I was being given a chance, in my forties, to remake my life.
The fact is, I’m a lifer in publishing. I got my first job in the industry working at Clearing Magazine back in the 70’s as a part-time copy editor (and, um, the fact is, I didn’t really know what a “copy editor” was when I applied). But I stayed at the Mag (a monthly for junior high science teachers, now part of Ranger Rick and the World Wildlife Federation), became a staff writer and eventually the managing editor. I kept my hand in writing and publishing forever — managed the newspaper at my graduate school, wrote hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers, coordinated the print resources for a couple organizations. No matter what job I had (I taught at a college, worked on staff at a church, hosted a syndicated radio show, did some consulting, even spent a year starting a speech team at a high school), I was always writing.
My big break came when I was out of work, waiting for my first book to come out, and wondering when I was going to have to grow up and get a real job. I was in my thirties, had three kids, and was trying to find a way into the system that was traditional book publishing. Out of the blue, a guy by the name of Steve Halliday approached me. We’d gone to the same church, and Steve was building a reputation as an excellent ghostwriter who was connected with important people in publishing. I’m not sure who told him to talk with me, but he gave me an extra project he had that needed some help. I did
I used to regularly include updates of the books I’m reading on this blog, until I had some people complain that my personal reading habits weren’t that helpful to their writing careers. So I stopped doing it, and I’ve found I have missed talking about the various titles I’ve read, and being able to discuss books with readers books we liked or disliked. So when I received an email over the weekend that asked, “So what have you been reading lately?” I thought it was time to chat about some of the best and worst of the past few months. (Be warned: I’m a binge reader. I read a LOT in my job as a literary agent, and sometimes I’ll get on a roll and need to read several books on a topic. So maybe you won’t find all of this helpful, but at least you’ll know what an agent is reading — and I’ll encourage you to drop by the “comments” section at the bottom and tell me what YOU’VE been reading.)
-Over the past six months, I read a bunch of Malcolm Gladwell titles. I re-read Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point, then read David and Goliath. He’s one of those writers I always find interesting, and one of the few I feel I can go back and re-read without being bored. I learn a lot from Gladwell, and he causes me to think in new ways.
-In a flurry of reading on art forgery, I read several titles: Provenance, The Rescue Artist, The Art of the Con, Stealing Rembrandts, Caveat Emptor, Priceless, and Art of the Deal (the Horowitz version, not the Donald Trump version… though I suppose that book also touches on con men). I thought Priceless was great, Provenance was interesting, Caveat Emptor was awful, and the others fell somewhere in between. If you want to learn about a subject, reading a half-dozen books on
Someone wrote in to ask, “Can you explain the difference between an acquisition editor and any other type of editor? Who do they do? How are they hired?”
There are a bunch of different types of editors at any particular publishing house. An “editor” works on the story and wording of a manuscript, a “production editor” oversees the creation of the actual book, a “senior editor” gets to lord it over the other editors and grab the first donut in editorial team meetings, etc. At most houses nearly every editor acquires some manuscripts and is responsible for editing them and getting them ready for production. But some houses have dedicated “acquisitions editors,” who talk to agents, find authors and manuscripts that will be a fit, sign them to the house, then turn them over to developmental editors, who will actually work on the writing. Usually an acquisitions editor has spent time with the company so they have a feel for what he or she should be acquiring. And yes, personal tastes will shape the books they bring in. Therefore, a publishing house gets shaped by the editors who work there, so it’s important the people they hire know the distinctive of the house. Very few editors (just a handful of senior or executive editors) have the authority to simply go acquire whatever they want.
In general, the acquisition system looks like this:
Step one is that the acquisitions editor finds a project that fits the house. Maybe an agent has called to talk with her about it, or the editor and author met at a conference, but there’s a connection, and the editor likes the project. He or she works with the agent and author to sharpen the proposal and make it as strong as possilble.
Step two occurs when the idea is taken to the editorial board or team. In this meeting the merits of the book are discussed,
I’ve had a bunch of people write to ask some version of “How does a writer create a career plan?” There’s a lot of talk about it, but not much in the way of specifics.
As regular readers know, I have a background in organizational development — that is, the study of how an organization grows and changes over time. In my job as a literary agent, I’ve found it’s proven very helpful when talking to writers about their careers, since the core of it is “figure out where you are, decide where you want to go, then determine a plan to get there.” That the core of org development, and its also the core of career planning. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of specifics about that in our industry. My contention is that some agents pay lip service to “helping authors with career planning,” but many don’t really have a method for doing that. (Actually, from the look of it, some don’t even know what it means. I think “career planning” to some agents is defined as “having a book contract.”) During my doctoral program at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), I served as a Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Career Planning and Placement Office. The focus was on helping people graduating in the arts figure out how to create a career plan, and that experience allowed me the opportunity to apply the principles of organizational theory to the real-world setting of those trying to make a living with words. So here are a few things I like to consider when talking with a writer…
First, I want to get to know the author. Who is he or she? What’s the platform he brings to the process? Does she speak? If so, where, how often, to whom, to how many, and on what topics? Does he have experience with other media? What kind? What’s her message? What books has