If I were having brunch with a literary agent…

April 4, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

I’m spending the month answering questions authors say they would ask if they could sit down and have a conversation with me. I’ll be doing this the entire month of April, and I’m trying to get to all the questions that get sent in.

Can I query an agent if I’ve posted one or more chapters of my book online?

It depends on the agent, but with MacGregor Literary (and with many other agencies) YES we would look at a book that has been posted online. That’s one of the things that has changed over the past couple of years.

When an agent receives a standard commission, does it all stay with the agent or is it split with the agency?

If the agent works for a medium-sized agency, then yes, that commission is going to be split. Part of it will be paid to the agent, and part will remain with the agency. If the agent works for a large agency where he or she is paid a salary, the commission goes to the agency, but a bonus will probably be paid at the end of the year, depending on the size of the deal. Of course, at a small agency, the agent is probably keeping the entire commission.

How might I find the most appropriate agents to query? The usual advice seems to be to read agent blogs and websites, read the Guide to Literary Agents, and comb the acknowledgements in books by comparable writers. I’ve done a good deal of that. The problem: By vocation I’m an academic. I write religious non-fiction for a non-academic readership. Most people in my line of work write for other scholars and don’t have agents, and I haven’t been finding people like me on agency lists of authors — though my search has not been exhaustive. Like most of my colleagues, I sold my first book (to IVP) without an agent. Now it seems an having agent would be very helpful indeed.

I would agree that doing some research is the best way to locate an appropriate agent. You may want to add Publishers Marketplace (PM), which has a searchable database of agents and deals dating back six or seven years, and allows you to search by genre or key word. (PM is $20 per month, and well worth the price.) But if you’re writing for a trade audience (that is, not a scholarly audience, but the average reader who is walking into Barnes & Noble or looking for a book on Amazon), I think there are several good agents out there (and even more bad ones, frankly). Have a look at who is contracting the books, see who is already representing books similar to yours, and maybe ask around with some experienced authors. You may want to go to a couple of good conferences, where you can meet agents face to face — in some cases you can save money by going for one day, rather than paying for the whole schlamozzle.

I looked at the workshop line up for RWA National in July and more than half the conference is dedicated to self-publishing. A big part of my local chapter has self-published as well. I admire how a few authors are turning self-publishing into an empire, but for the vast majority of self-published authors it’s hit-or-miss. Yet there seems to be pressure on authors to self-publish these days. Do you think this direction is because it’s harder than ever to break into traditional fiction?

I think two things are at play… First, it’s as hard as it ever was to break into traditional publishing, and self-publising offers a potential opportunity to frustrated writers. I understand that frustration, and recognize why authors want to self-pub their works. Second, there is what I call the Amway Publishing Myth — that is, “All you have to do is to post your book onto Amazon and you’ll be making money, and soon you’ll be a star and the magical publishing faeries will smile on you.” Don’t get me wrong — I”m all for authors going indie and self-pubbing some titles. But it’s not a magic formula to success, it’s almost impossible to get noticed (Amazon now has 15 MILLION titles for sale), and my experience is that a lot of the folks who are pushing self-publishing as some sort of cure-all for every unhappy author are simply hucksters and wannabes. I hear from too many writers who talk big about their fabulous self-pubbed book, only to discover they’ve sold a couple dozen copies and made almost nothing. (Here I”ll be nice and say that if you don’t care about making money at your writing, and you’re only posting books on Amazon to express your creativity, then bully for you. But I do this as a business, so my inclination is to roll my eyes at people who say they don’t care of their ebooks sell or not.)

I have two questions which I would like to have a professional opinion about. First, friend of mine said the subject matter for my story may not be “publishable,” as it’s an historical about an unmarried girl from a wealthy family who is pregnant by a man of her social standing who rejects her. I’d wondered if this was too controversial for the Christian market. Second, Margaret Sanger had begun publishing “pro-choice” information at this time, and I wasn’t sure if it was legal to mention her by name or include her in the story. Is it?

To answer your first question, a novel about a young women of limited means who gets pregnant by a man of greater social standing who rejects her, is a fairly common theme in literature. I don’t see that as being too racy for a Christian fiction publisher. To answer your second question, Margaret Sanger was a historical figure, and novelists routinely tackle historical figures in fictitious/imaginative ways. It would not be at all uncommon or inappropriate to include her name or her words in your novel.

I write inspirational African American historical romance, and have won major writing contests. Still, it has been very difficult to get requests from CBA agents. My perspective is that in inspirational fiction, you need an agent to get to the editors. My options so far have been to self-publish or to take the inspirational label off of my works and go for general market agents instead. I think there is an entire market that is being ignored and most agents/editors don’t know what it is. So which do you think I should do? Self-publish or go for ABA?

A couple thoughts come to mind… First, you may not be talking with the right CBA agent. The best place to meet CBA fiction agents is at the ACFW conference, which happens every September. Let me encourage you to try and attend that this fall, if at all possible. It will put you face to face with a couple dozen agents who work in CBA. Second, it’s certainly possible that a more general market audience would be best for your novel (though I haven’t read it, so I’m obviously taking a wild surmise). Perhaps you could talk with a good editor of African-American fiction about the salability of your manuscript in the general market. Third, it’s also possible that self-publishing is a great choice for you, so long as you have a way to get the books in front of your audience. The reason most authors fail at indie publishing is because they can write,but they can’t market or sell their work. So evaluate your ability to get your manuscript in front of your intended readership. Does that help?

If you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, send it my way — I’ll happily get to it in April!

Posted in Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

  • http://rmabry.com Richard Mabry

    Chip, thanks for some frank answers. Because I have friends in both camps as well as so-called “hybrids,” I’ve been waffling about self-publication, but your comment about the “Amway Publishing Myth” echoes some of the thoughts I’ve had about it. I appreciate your sharing.

    • chipmacgregor

      Yeah, you’re welcome, Richard. I am very supportive of authors going the indie route, but I want them to be wary of those who pitch it as The True Path Of The Future. The fact is, most people who self-pub make very little money. It takes a concerted effort to get indie-publishing to work in a big way. That said, I’m still in favor of it, as landing a deal with a legacy publisher has become harder than ever.

  • http://www.consumedbyhimblog.wordpress.com Jessica Everingham

    Great to hear that you do look at books with their first chapters online. I posted the first few chapters of an early manuscript onto Authonomy to get other authors’ feedback, but then got worried agents/editors would have a problem with that. Are those sites okay, or should I steer clear?