Chip MacGregor

April 30, 2017

If you could ask any question of a literary agent…


I’ve been taking the month of April and asking readers to send in their specific questions of literary agent. So if you could have lunch with an agent, sit down face to face and talk, what would you ask? Here are some of the questions that have come in…

Recently a publisher stated that he thinks an author ought to plow some of their advance back into marketing — which upset me, since it seems wrong-headed to expect authors to bear the financial burden of book promotion. Why pick on the weakest financial link in the chain? Am I hopelessly naive? Or is that the new normal?

I saw that interview, and I’m of two minds. First, I agree that every author needs to throw himself or herself into their own book. Let’s face it, NOBODY has more at stake in a book than the author. Nobody knows the story better. Nobody has spent more time on it. Nobody is counting on the the success more than the author. So I understand a publisher trying to encourage an author to go “all in” on marketing. But second, I think it’s crazy for a publisher, who is hopeful for the book to do well but not completely tied to its success (because the publisher has other books to sell), to say, “The author ought to take his advance check and use that money to pay an outside publicist.” Um, maybe there are times where that’s exactly what needs to happen. But it comes across as out of touch and unrealistic, since most authors are trying to live on advances. I mean, I could just as easily say to a publisher, “If you want to be more successful, you need to reinvest your paycheck into training your people.” So no, this is not the new normal. I do think publishers are expecting more out of authors when it comes to marketing these days. It’s why I always remind authors, “the publisher isn’t in charge of marketing your book — you are.” The author is going to have to take the lead and complete much of the work. And that IS the new normal.

You’ve said recently there are some lousy agents out there. What makes a lousy agent, and how would we find about about them?

There are a handful of websites that track unscrupulous or illegal agents — Preditors and Editors is the best known, but they’ve fallen on hard times. Writer Beware (which was put together by the Science Fiction Writers of America) is also a good one, and there is an Agent Research and Evaluation service that tries to keep track of things. However, my criticism was aimed at some of the people who have started calling themselves agents, but who don’t really know what they’re doing. Think of it this way: If the agent has never worked in the industry, or never worked directly for a good literary agent so as to get mentored by him or her, it’s hard to take them seriously. (And if they worked for another crappy agent, it’s also hard to take them seriously.
That happens far too frequently.) I’ve seen several writers announce they’re becoming agents, and watched a bunch of people with no background in the industry announce that they are representing authors. Often times their experience is either (a) they’ve written a book in the past, or (b) they were part of a marketing campaign in the past. But they don’t really have any connections to publishers. They don’t have experience putting together a strong proposal. They don’t know how the economics of publishing work. They don’t know how to negotiate a contract, or even how to evaluate a contract. They can’t speak to trends in the industry. They don’t know how to give career advice. Then they say stupid things to authors, who are stuck with lousy contracts and bad decisions because a crappy agent told them something was true when, in fact, it was not. And I find this to be particularly true in CBA. (Yeah, I’ve been dealing with several of these things recently, and I’m a bit chapped about it.) Let’s face facts: If you check the Publishers Marketplace database of deals, or if you simply talk with a bunch of acquisition editors at publishing houses, you’ll find that 90% of the publishing deals at established CBA publishing houses are done by about fifteen to twenty agents. Most of the rest are pretending.

And there’s something else to note… When an agent joins the Association of Author Representatives, they commit to a code of ethics that says “we don’t charge fees or sell services to our authors.” So if you’re considering an agent, take a look at that agent’s website. If it says something like, “We offer author representation. We also sell editorial services. And we sell marketing advice. And we might charge you for career counseling…” That’s a sure sign you’re dealing with somebody who is not a member of AAR, and is probably trying to scam you. Why? Because an agent doesn’t make money from their authors. They make money through a commission on author earnings, not by charging fees. When you charge people fees to look at their work, or you try to sell editorial services on the side, or you charge them for marketing advice, everybody is a potential customer. There’s no reason to ever say “no” to anyone. And that has been rampant in CBA. So run away. Find a real agent who knows what he or she is doing and won’t be asking you for money.

I posted the first few chapters of my manuscript online, just to get feedback from writer friends, but was told agents and editors hate that. Is that true?

Not in my view. I think that’s become very common. It used to be that publishes would stay away from a manuscript that had been posted online — that is clearly no longer true. BUT… be aware that if you post your manuscript online, try to sell it as an ebook, and find you only move a hundred copies or so, the message to the publisher is clear: “This author can’t help us sell many copies.” So while I don’t think agents and editors hate it, you need to understand there is a risk in doing it.

What would you recommend for a writer who wants to start working with speakers, to help them do books?

You need to establish some sort of track record, in order to prove you can do it. So start small — offer to do a shorter piece for the speaker, or create a study guide, or write articles and blog posts. When I started collaborative writing (which was, admittedly, a couple decades ago), I offered to write some pieces for free, just so the speaker would know I had the chops to get it done. I actually hunted down possibilities, going to conference speakers and pastors and popular university profs so I could say, “Hey – this is good stuff… you should do a book!” Be aware that writing a book is not simply doing a series of articles — make sure you understand the logic and argument that is inherent in a complete book. There’s a scope and sequence necessary, and an argument that needs to be laid out in an organized, developmental, and creative manner. But I think every collaborative writer I know began by doing shorter pieces, then eventually hooking up with bigger speakers. I represent a handful of writers who make a full-time living doing collaborative books with others, and they all started on the journalism side, doing interviews and articles.

Do you have any handy MacGregor tips to help authors identify the target audience for their book?

If you’re doing a nonfiction book, you need to think problem/solution. Most nonfiction is written to offer solutions to problems people are facing (there are exceptions: history, humor, memoir, biography… but the vast majority of nonfiction is all about presenting answers to questions that are being asked). So your target audience includes everyone who is facing that problem, or everyone who is asking that question. So long as you keep them in mind, you’ll be writing the book they want to read.

If you are doing a novel, you need to think about setting, characters, and story elements. Readers of a feather flock together, in a manner of speaking. So people who like political thrillers tend to like other political thrillers… which is to say, if you’re planning to write an Amish historical novel, you may want to see where Bev Lewis’ readers hang out online, since they will tend to be very similar to your target audience. Does that help?

You spend a lot of time talking about making money at publishing, but is there room in the industry for an author who doesn’t want to make it a career? I have a day job that I like, but I enjoy writing historical romance on the side. Is there room for me?

Absolutely! In fact, most novelists in this country are either working a day job or married to someone who is working a day job — that’s the only way they can survive. Not everybody is driven to be a full-time writer. And that’s not even the dream for everyone who writes a book. I tend to focus on full-time writers because that’s the core of my business, but I represent plenty of people who have day jobs. Beth White and Jennifer Johnson, two novelists I represent, are both full time teachers. Mike Hingson and Sheila Gregoire, two bestselling nonfiction writers I work with, do speaking and consulting. Shane Stanford is a pastor. The wonderful novelist Jim Kraus runs a division for a publisher. Ira Wagler, who wrote a nonfiction book that has now sold more than 100,000 copies, runs a building supply company. Not every writer will be moving toward a full-time career writing books.

More questions came in last week, and I’ll be trying to catch up. If you’ve got a question you have always wanted to ask a literary agent, here is your chance. Send it in, and we’ll get to it this month.

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