A Good Friday

April 6, 2007 | Written by admin

Happy Good Friday! Today is a day we remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for all of us, and celebrate our life in Him.

It’s also a day I answer questions, so here goes a bunch of "agenty" questions I’ve been sent…

Dana wrote to ask, "I was told I can’t sell my book in CBA any more without an agent. Is that true?"

More or less, that’s true. Most of the houses have instituted policies requesting authors to send them their proposals through an agent. It professionalizes the relationship, takes a bit of the emotion out of the process, and moves the task of skimming the dross from publishing houses onto literary agents. Of course, I think it’s still possible to find a deal with a publisher without an agent, but it’s considerably harder than it used to be. To use an analogy, think of it as trying to sell a home — realtors have pushed state legislators to pass so many requirements that it’s a daunting task just to fill out the paperwork on the sale of your house. Four times we’ve sold homes, Patti and I have used a realtor. But we’ve sold another four homes by owner, working to make the place presentable , buying our own ads and hosting our own open houses, so it’s still possible to do that — just a bit more difficult. It’s the same with selling a manuscript — if you have a great idea, you’ve put together a solid proposal, you have established a good platform for yourself, and you work to get a face-to-face appointment with an editor where you can pitch your idea, it’s still a possibility. It’s a lot of work, but it’s do-able.  Still…consider what you want handled by a professional. When I wanted a will, I didn’t use one of those free online downloads to do it. I felt it was an important enough process that I went to a lawyer and had a professional create it. When I was setting up my retirement account I did some of the investments on my own, but I also used a professional to set up and manage the bulk of it. Ask yourself if you have the knowledge, time, and desire to manage your book contracts and your publishing career.

One nameless individual sent me a note that said, "My agent won’t tell me who she sent my proposal to. She also doesn’t show me the rejection notices. Is that normal?"

Not showing rejection notices is normal. You need to understand that the days of editors sending long rejections detailing the perceived issues with a manuscript went out with the Johnson Administration. It’s not uncommon to get a brief email that says, "No thanks" or "We looked at this and we’re not going to pursue it." In other words, there’s not much value in my forwarding those notes to one of my authors, unless I want to drive her into depression and a possible drinking binge. (On the rare times I receive a thoughtful reply, with notes on how the manuscript could be improved, I try to always pass those along to the author.) However, I’ll admit I don’t know why an agent wouldn’t show you a list of who’s looking. I mean…it’s your proposal, so I wouldn’t think that would be a secret. You may want to ask your agent what the reasoning is behind that decision.

Stan (who he notes "is not my real name") wrote and asked, "Can an agent help me plan the marketing for my book?"

First, let’s note that "Stan" is a really weak fake name. I mean, if you’re going to write me with a fake name, put some thought into it and create something memorable. Maybe "Fiona" or "Mephibosheth." "Stan" is just plain dull. But on to your question: Normally an agent can help you think through some of the marketing, maybe even help you plan it or oversee pieces of the marketing plan. But a literary agent is different from a publicist or a marketing manager. As the author, YOU are most responsible or marketing your book, so don’t leave that up to your agent, your publisher, your sales staff, your publicist, your mom, or anyone else. YOU are in charge of marketing. Nobody knows the book better than you, nobody has more invested in it, and nobody is more committed to its success than you.

Another one of those fake named people ("Mephibosheth"), wrote to say, "I haven’t heard from my agent in six months. Is that unusual?"

My response: Um…really? Six months? Well, to each his own. (Or "her" own, depending on the sex of Mephibosheth.) The biggest complaint people have about their agent is generally "lack of contact." Everybody wants to be in touch with their agent. And I guess everybody’s work style is different. I represent a couple authors I speak to every week. I also have a couple authors I have to call every month or so, since they are so low-key I want to make sure they’re still breathing. Perhaps you and your agent aren’t on the same track (though I think six months is a bit much). My suggestion would be that you contact him or her and talk about expectations. Make sure you both can live with the amount of communication you have. And remember that you’re probably not the only client your agent represents, so be willing to understand his or her business and adjust your thinking a bit. 

And I swear I’m not making this one up — I had someone write to say, "I sent you my proposal three months ago! What’s wrong? I need an answer."

So, um, I gave him one. I won’t share my exact words, but it had to do with a cliff, and the author going there to jump off it. Good grief, learn to be polite. I never mind an author checking in with me. ("Hi Chip – I haven’t heard from you in a while, and I was just wondering if you had any updates for me. Have you heard from anyone?") That’s part of the business. But I have a different reaction when somebody presumes that I owe them a response just because they saw my name in a book somewhere and decided to write to me. What do I owe this guy? I didn’t ask him to write me. I didn’t invite him to send me his stupid proposal. Where does it say I even owe him a response? Man…politeness still counts.

Daiva (a name I’d not heard before, but I like) wrote me a note and asked, "What is the main reason you choose to accept or reject an author?"

An interesting question. The "rejection" part is easy: Most of the people whose projects I reject are not turned down because I don’t like them, or because they’re unknowns, or even because I dislike their ideas. Most authors are turned down because THEY CAN’T WRITE. Simple as that. Not all, of course. I just saw a very good nonfiction idea, but I’m already trying to sell a similar project and felt it would be unethical to take on something so close. And with the advent of so many good writing resources, I’m often seeing novels that are well-done, but not of the knock-my-socks-off quality. Still, I get sent some really crummy stuff. Bad ideas. Projects where the author doesn’t speak English. Proposals written in crayon (presumably because the wardens won’t let them play with anything sharp). I hesitate sharing some of them, since I’m always afraid I’m going to really tick off someone who sent me an idea they thought was brilliant, and I found laugh-out-loud bad. But…

I just got in a proposal for a book called something like "How to Make Out With Girls." The author was either thirteen or stopped growing emotionally and intellectually at thirteen. (From the tenor of his advice, he was not writing from experience.) I received a proposal I thought was a joke, until I checked it out and discovered the guy was serious — a novel about a boy who falls asleep and wakes up as…Harry Potter! Hey! I’m sure Scholastic is going to allow that to get published. And some guy just sent me the very unique idea of turning the Book of Revelation into a novel! Wow — why hadn’t somebody thought of that one before? (The best part — he says he’s going to use his novel to correct all the theological errors in Left Behind. A fabulous idea. Sort of combination novel/theological treatise/literary critique. Could be a whole new genre!)

Most of us keep a "dark file" — the worst of the worst crap we’re sent. They’re fun to pull out and look at after a bad day, just to remember that, somewhere in the world, there is someone even dumber than me. Years ago I got a full-color proposal for a book about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’s second cousin. Um…without going into the gory details, you should know that his nose didn’t glow — his rear-end did. (Really. And no, I have no idea why. Rudolph’s nose lit the way for Santa during a bad storm. I don’t know what his cousin’s glowing butt did…maybe give Santa a tan?) Anyway, the proposal even came with a t-shirt, which I took home so my kids could wear it and share the blessing.

Of course, the author probably sold it to somebody. You gotta love this business. Back to the question — you wanted to know the main reason I agree to represent an author. It’s because I like their writing. And I like them (this life being too short to work with jerks). And I either like their idea or I like their writing enough to believe they’re going to come up with a great idea. Sorry to make it sound so simple, but it’s the truth. If we meet at a conference and I like your work, think I’d be a good fit for it, and you come across as a (relatively) normal soul, I’m apt to explore representation with you. But I’m picky about the writing I like — I have to be, since it’s how I make my living. And for years I’ve made a pretty good living with my writing judgment. It doesn’t mean I’m always right (I’ve whiffed on a couple projects that turned out to be huge), but I’m reasonably secure in my own judgment ability with writing. I see some bad writing. I see a lot of okay writing. But I see little great writing…and you can check out my web site to find some writers offering great writing.

I’ve said it before: If you want to be published, the best thing you can do is to become a great writer. I don’t know any great writers who are unpublished.

Happy Easter! He is Risen!

Posted in Agents

  • http://www.mastersartist.com Fake Name

    You like me and I’m not even close to normal. See everyone, don’t lose heart — Chip makes exceptions.

  • http://christianbookscout.blogspot.com/ Crystal Miller

    He is Risen! Happy Easter! (It snowed on Good Friday here in Indiana. Better than a tornado, I guess.)
    This was all good information, and I liked it that you shared some of the proposals you passed on. Gives us a clue on “What Not to Propose.” (Note to self: scratch that idea on Rambo the Red-Derriere Reindeer…)
    What amazes me most is that some of these people writing proposals to people like you do not know what is being published and do not read current books on the market. Reading is fundamental to coming up with a fresh idea in my book.
    I like it that you are not totally perfect and passed on the greatest selling Christian books of all time (or close to it.) But, man, you sure picked some of my favorites–Phil Gulley, Siri Mitchell, Ginger Garrett,Lisa Samson, Brenning Manning…so you obviously have the “eyeball” for this.
    By the way, this is my real name, but I don’t like it much. I’m considering Jane Doe. I hear she’s not using it.

  • Pam Halter

    I used to hate my name, but it’s not too bad now that I’m no longer thirteen. But if I were to pick a fake name, I’m leaning towards Gomer. :)
    Chip, you agreed it’s pretty much impossible to get picked up in CBA without an agent. Is that the same for children’s/YA authors?

  • http://www.heatheronthenet.com heather jamison

    Thanks for the answers to the questions!
    I invite you to stop by a recent post of mine which contemplates writing & Jesus — and whether He would get a publisher in today’s Western market. It’s titled: Thoughts from the Ballet in Aspen, Colorado. Here is the link:
    http://www.heatheronthenet.com/conFESSions/B3D3F904-58C0-4301-9E24-17F98BADF730.html
    Heather Jamison (author, Kregel Publications)
    Kitale, Kenya

  • http://juliesjoyfuljourney.blogspot.com Julie

    You’ve got a point, Chip. We tried to sell a house By Owner once and nothing happened, unless you count dozens of people traipsing through our open houses and gobbling our cookies. Once we hired a realtor…zoom! We had a sale.
    Happy Easter!

  • Elizabeth Wehman

    Hi Chip:
    Thanks so much for your guidance on writing. I enjoy your posts very much and have learned so much from them.
    I have a question regarding agents. I tried to submit a proposal to two agents at the Write To Publish Conference in 2005. Both agreed to let me send them my proposal for a book I was working on at the time. My father became ill right after the conference and my writing took a major halt until he passed away that December. It took me much longer to finish the book which I have just done. Is there an etiquette issue or a length of time problem with still sending them my proposal. Thanks in advance for your help.