Chip MacGregor

May 18, 2015

What have you wanted to Ask An Agent?


I’ve been getting a lot of questions from writers about the author/agent relationship…

I’m a published nonfiction author, looking for an agent to represent my fiction work. How do agents view writers looking for a “new” agent, given my change in genres?

I tend to ask a lot of questions. I’d want to know if your nonfiction agent is on board with you working with someone else on your fiction. I would want expectations to be very clear. It’s true that most agents work predominantly in fiction or nonfiction, but it’s also true that most authors work with ONE agent for the bulk of their work.

I’ve noticed that many agent websites state they hope to have a long-term relationship with their authors and help them publish for many years. On the one hand, this is very encouraging and certainly a desirable goal. But it does raise a question for those writers who are… less young than they once were. How have you found that agents/editors respond to a newer writer who is chronologically older? Is there still a willingness to work with these folks as well as the younger writers?

Hmmm… I like the question, because it makes me think through the issue. Yes, I prefer to work with an author for several years and manage his or her career. But no, I don’t think I would normally say to myself, “This author is older, so I’m not going to choose to work with her.” The fact is, we’re all looking for great ideas and great writing, no matter what the age of the author is. I’ve taken on some writers who retired from their day jobs in order to focus their energies on writing.

My question is whether a writer who is new to fiction, but who has written several non-fiction books needs to have the book completed before submitting proposals?

An excellent question. Yes – if you’re writing your first novel, you’ll find it just won’t sell unless the manuscript is complete. (Okay… maybe it will sell if you’re Ellen Degeneres, or Lady Gaga, but aside from being an iconic cultural personality, your novel won’t sell unless the manuscript is complete.) Nonfiction is different – we can still sell a nonfiction book based on a proposal and sample chapters. But fiction? Very tough to sell a book without a completed manuscript.

More soon. And if you have a question you’d like to ask an agent, send it to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. 

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  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I’m all for the long term. I hope that my first agent is also my last agent.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a goal I love to have with authors, Peter — we’ll all work together for years, do great books, then retire to someplace warm to talk books, swap stories, and drink mojitos.

    • Jim Gullo says:

      Would it be okay if we stuck to single-vineyard Pinot Noir, preferably from the Dundee Hills? I’m projecting that my liver won’t be happy with rum after all of those published books.

  • Jim Gullo says:

    Chip, every agent says they want to manage your career. But the agent who sold my memoir about baseball won’t handle my new, middle-grade novel because she doesn’t know that market. The agent before her loved my literary fiction debut, signed me, couldn’t sell it, and then passed on the baseball memoir, which forced me to find a new agent who would (and did) sell it. Both of them initially said they wanted to handle my whole career, but in the end, they only wanted to handle the first book I brought to them. I wonder if those of us who like to play the genre field will have a tough time finding an agent with the contacts and commitment to stick it out with us.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Love this comment, Jim. Here’s my take on that: I represent some great memoirists. If one of them came to me with a middle-grade novel, I’d tell them the truth: “I don’t really represent children’s books.” We’d talk about it. I might try. I might hand it off to Erin Buterbaugh, who does a great job with children’s books. Or I might say, “You know, you might want to get a specialist for that project.” But… isn’t that offering career management?

    • Jim Gullo says:

      It is, kind of. I can’t expect you to sell something that isn’t in your field of expertise. Difference here, I suspect, is that both of those agents have turned me loose and I find myself starting from scratch (again) to find representation. I strongly suspect you wouldn’t do that with an author whom you’ve signed and sold.

  • Chip, always enjoy your thoughtful but frank answers. As a writer who was nearing retirement when I first acquired representation (not by you, but by an excellent agent, nonetheless), I can say that my age hasn’t been a hindrance. I agree with your assessment that agents are looking for good books–age aside. Do you believe the same holds true for editors?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Um… no. In fairness, I don’t, Richard. I could be wrong, but I think there is a lot of ageism in publishing decisions.

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