I've had a couple dozen people write and ask me about my role and how I got into agenting, so let me start the new year by posting an interview I did a while back with Jeff Rivera at his magazine…
How long have you been an agent, and how did you get your start?
I used to make my living as a collaborative writer, and about 20 years ago I decided I needed to educate myself regarding the industry. So I became the writer at conferences who could talk to authors about contracts and negotiations; about what makes a good proposal; about who is buying what. Soon I had authors asking me to look over contracts, then to help them shape proposals, then with talking to the right people. Eventually I figured out I was working as an agent without actually getting paid for it. I spent three years as the Senior Editor for Harvest House Publishers, then Alive Communications came calling and asked if I was interested in becoming an agent. It took me a nanosecond to say "yes!" I joined them, and spent several years working as a literary agent at Alive (which at the time was the 800-pound gorilla of Christian agents). Eventually became a publisher at Time-Warner. Got into the business early, when there were only about a dozen of us who were qualified literary agents focusing on Christian books. That gave me my start working with a big agency.
What makes your agency different from any other agency?
There are several things that make me a bit unique, I guess. First, I made my living as a free-lance writer for several years, so earning money as a writer isn't just a vague notion with me — it's a real-world experience. Second, I'm a multi-published author. The idea of putting together a good proposal and buttressing that with strong writing is something I've done for myself as well as others. Third, I have a strong track record — I've done deals with every major publisher, and books I've represented have been on all the major bestseller lists (even hitting #1 on the New York Times bestseller list). Fourth, while every agent seems to parrot an answer about doing "career development," my business sense tells me that most of them can't define what that is. While I was working on my doctorate at the University of Oregon, I had a position as an Assistant Director of the Career Planning and Placement Office, specializing in working with students graduating in the Arts. So I have actual training in helping artists put together a workable career plan.
What are you looking for specifically?
It may seem funny, but that's actually a hard question to answer, since I"m not the type who is usually looking for a particular type of project. I mean, right now I'm not shopping for the next Amish novelist, or for someone to do a Christian exploration of Obama. Instead, I'm usually looking for great writing with a strong voice. So my answer is probably "better voice." I see too many things that aren't bad — they're just not outstanding. They don't have a particular voice that stands out and demands to be read. There's a lot of flatness in writing (conferences have a tendency to foster that, by telling prospective authors there is a "right" way to do things), and I'm always interested in the clear, quirky, outstanding voice coming out on the page.
What are you tired of receiving?
You'll hate my answer. I'm tired of seeing overly positive pitch letters for novels that aren't very unique, or for nonfiction books by people with no expertise or platform. The vast majority of novels I see are similar, with little to make them stand out. And most NF proposals I see are done by people who have nothing behind them — it's not that the idea is bad, but that there's no vehicle for moving copies, which means the publishers are going to turn it down. And when these come across my desk, they always seem to be introduced by a letter that promises more than it actually delivers.
How can an author get your attention?
By showing me a big idea, expressed through great writing, supported by a strong platform. And no, that ain't easy. I'd encourage authors to spend the time working on their craft in order to make sure they are great writers. Because here's a secret: Most people reading this aren't great writers yet. I know this because most of the projects crossing my desk aren't great. There are few great writers, and all the great writers I know are published. Therefore, if YOU become a great writer, I'm fairly certain you'll get published as well. So I'd encourage writers to focus on finding their voice, and making sure it's strong, and having a great message to share through that voice. The fact is, voice in writing will always get my attention in a good way.
How does an author you represent stay in touch without driving you insane?
This isn't usually a big issue for me. I represent a relatively small num
ber of authors, I pick carefully who I'm going to represent, and they become friends. (And no, I'm not sugaring this up for you. It's true — feel free to ask the authors I represent.) Nobody really hates hearing from friends. So I don't get too worried about authors I represent driving me insane.
What do you wish more writers understood that they don't seem to understand now?
Just because I work in publishing, and represent authors, and am a Christian, I don't "owe" you anything. If you send me an email and I've never heard of you, there's nothing written that says I owe you consideration, or a rejection, or even a response. I certainly don't "owe" you career advice. I receive a couple hundred emails a day, and while my goal is to represent Christ to people as much as I can, I don't believe there's anything in Scripture that says I somehow owe everyone ten minutes to talk about their book idea. This is a tough business, so while I always aim to be polite (and sometimes I fail), some writers don't seem to understand my role.
Let's say you're a baker. You're in an industrial kitchen, mixing and testing and baking bread. Do you mind having a tour group come through sometime, to ask you questions about baking? Nope — happy to help others. But if you had a steady stream of people wandering through your kitchen each day, some of whom are rude, some wanting to make suggestions for improving the quality of the bread, and some acting as though you OWED them an answer to all their questions… well, you get to the point where you decide your first job is to make the bread, not to answer every question that comes from a visitor. (If you were a tour guide, you might feel differently. I'm not a tour guide to publishing. I'm an agent. In fact, the only way I make money is by selling my author's manuscript. I don't charge the author a fee, so if I can't sell projects, I can't make a living. So guided tours are a courtesy extended to people because I believe in the process of helping others. But it's not my main job.) Does that help you understand?
I know, having said this, someone is bound to complain. "Chip doesn't care about authors!" That's rot, of course. But I'd love it if writers, especially newer writers, took the time to educate themselves about the role of an agent, and saw this as my business, rather than as my ministry.
I took a week off to rest and relax, and now I'd like to tackle a bunch of short questions in 2010. So whatever your question is about writing and publishing, send it to me or post it in the comments section, and I'll get to it in the next few weeks.