Chip MacGregor

March 6, 2017

Three Things to Consider Before Talking with an Agent…


Erin Buterbaugh is filling in for Chip today and has some great thoughts to share…

A lot of new authors I get emails from give the impression that the query/agent search is the culmination of their writing journey– they’ve written the book, maybe had it professionally edited, polished their query letter, and now the end of the road is in sight, nothing left to do but wait for an agent to say yes and hand over the reins, right? A little bit of tunnel vision is understandable; after all, you DO have to spend a substantial amount of time and mental energy getting your project in the best shape possible and getting it out to an agent, but when an interested agent wants to talk about the project and about your career goals, it’s important for you to be able to think beyond just whether or not that agent is going to say “yes” and give them the information they need to be able to judge whether you’re really ready for the next step in your career and whether their approach to agenting will be a good fit for you. Here are three questions/considerations that frequently seem to take authors by surprise when I ask.

1. What are you working on now/what do you want to do next?
I want to work with authors long-term, and help them build careers, not just pursue a single deal based on a single title so the author can cross “publish a book” off his bucket list, so I hesitate to take on even a great project from an author who has no idea what she wants to do next, or who isn’t already doing it. Sure, there are a few authors that just have one story to tell, but these are usually non-fiction projects and are the exception, not the rule. Think Aron Ralston, the guy who had to cut off his own arm when he became trapped between two boulders while hiking– the agent who got that query didn’t say, “Well, this one story is pretty cool, but you have no vision for your long-term writing career, so I’m going to pass,” but that’s because Ralston’s “one story” was a darn good one and would sell well enough to justify taking him on for that one book. (And also, I have no idea how that deal went down; most likely, agents fought to the death in an arena for the chance to represent Ralston rather than him sending out queries, but the illustration still stands.) For everyone who didn’t cut a limb off with a pocketknife, I’d like to hear that you’re already thinking about what’s next even before an agent has said yes– if you’ve written another novel or two in the meantime or have actually developed the outline for a potential sequel rather than just “being open to the idea of a sequel,” I know you actually WRITE, present tense, not just “have written,” and that there’s the potential for more to our author/agent relationship than just a single deal.

2. How does this project figure in the big picture of your publishing career?
Do you want to build a career writing in this genre/style, or is this project the exception to the rule? Are you writing for adults now, but eventually want to write for children as well, or instead? The red-flag response I get to this question generally falls into the category of “I have four million ideas, in every genre imaginable!” Writers are creative people. It’s in our nature. I certainly don’t read in a single genre, and I’ve written (and enjoyed writing) comedy, mystery, romance, and sci-fi. So, if my first novel was a romance because I had a great romance idea, and I used that manuscript to try and get an agent, an agent who represents a lot of romance and has great contacts in that genre might be happy to offer me representation based on that project, but if I haven’t given some thought to the arc of my publishing career as a whole (and done some writing/experimenting to support it), they might get me a deal for my romance and then really struggle to sell my sci-fi stuff when I decide that’s really the universe where the bulk of my ideas and where my voice are really at home. That, in turn, will lead to my being disappointed that my agent doesn’t seem as excited about my subsequent books as she was about the first, and to frustration when she has trouble selling them. Obviously, It’s impossible to know whether I’ll love/connect with every book an author will ever write, but the more I know about the author’s goals and vision for their career, the better I can judge whether we’re a good fit or not. I’m not necessarily more likely to take on an author who definitively identifies as a romance writer than one who wrote a romance but whose next two ideas are sci-fi, that knowledge just helps me to know what each relationship will look like and to know what to expect.

3. What do you want from an agent relationship?
Hint: I love when you answer this question in your query, before I even ask. This is where the research you’ve done on the agent you’re querying comes into play. Queries that include a reference to a project I’ve worked on or a part of my bio that an author connected with or a part of the MacGregor Literary philosophy that appeals to the author demonstrate that an agent is not simply a one-size-fits-all means to an end (getting published), but that a literary agent is someone that the author wants to partner with and feels can offer something valuable to his career. An agent should NEVER be paid up front (in case the weekly admonition from Chip on that front hasn’t sunk in yet), but they will be paid a percentage of your earnings on any project they represent for you, and it’s vital that you feel that their contributions are WORTH this percentage and that they are valuable to your career beyond simply knowing the magic password that will get your book on an editor’s desk. Obviously, you do want an agent to sell your work and to be a strong advocate for your financial and intellectual interests, but I want to know what other aspects of my role in your writing career you will value– do you want someone to help you develop ideas/brainstorm? To give you writing feedback/edits? To interpret contracts? To offer career direction? To grow your career by securing bigger deals or placing your work at bigger houses than you’ve previously published with? No two author-agent relationship will look alike, and knowing from the start what you want yours to look like with me will help me to meet your expectations going forward, or might alert us both to the fact that I won’t be able to meet your expectations, and that I’m not a good fit for you. Trust me, you will be ten times happier in the long run being honest with an agent about what you expect from her and having her decline you because she’s not a good fit than in letting the excitement of an agent showing interest in you cause you to compromise or forget your expectations and entering into a working relationship that doesn’t look like what you wanted it to.

Regardless of whether or not you’re ultimately a good fit for a particular agent, putting a little thought into life after “yes” from an agent is going to help generate traction and bring you closer to meeting your writing goals.

Erin Buterbauch is a former agent with MacGregor Literary, and a talented writer and editor. A graduate of Taylor University’s Professional Writing program, she interned for another literary agency, taught dance, performed, choreographed, and has worked in the world of the professional arts.

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