Having coffee with a literary agent…

April 7, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Okay, so this month I’m asking people to send in questions — What is it you’ve always wanted to talk with a literary agent about? If you could sit down over coffee and just have a conversation, what would you ask? Send those in, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Here are some questions that came in…

Do you recommend self-publishing with your authors?

Absolutely. I think authors today have to think about doing a variety of projects through a number of venues. That could mean they are working with traditional publishers, non-traditional publishers, niche publishers, and self-publishing some projects. I’m a big supporter of what I consider the “hybrid” author.

What are the challenges of agenting in today’s publishing climate?

Well, agenting (like writing) has never been easy. You have to understand the market, have relationships with the editors, know what each house is looking for, keep current on things like trends and publishing contracts. Most importantly, in today’s market agents are called upon to be part of the marketing effort — something that we didn’t used to do much of. But in terms of the recent challenges, I would say advances are down, and slots are limited, making a debut for an author harder than ever. There are more books available, so it’s tougher to help an author get noticed. And there’s also been a bit of an anti-agent movement going on among the indie-publishing crowd, which I think is fueled by people who really do not understand the publishing business. But I have faced that a bit over the past couple of years, and it’s been interesting — people who really don’t know the industry, but are absolutely certain they know that an agent is unnecessary. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a challenge we face today.

I’ve heard you mention a couple times that you have some reservations about Amazon — can you explain to me in simple terms what the problem is?

Sure. I love Amazon. A great, forward-thinking company. They do a fabulous job selling books, and have positioned themselves to be the sole purveyor of ebooks. But… if the entire indie publishing movement is based on one company, we’re going to have a problem. Because Amazon, while I generally love them, is definitely a cut-throat, predatory company. (I’m not criticizing them. I’m just offering an opinion on their tactics.) We can say they’re just practicing good business when they lower prices to the point that they squeeze out other companies, but be aware that, as soon as it’s clear they are the only company selling ebooks online, they will cut their royalty rates. (They currently pay a 70% royalty on self-published projects. If there is no one to compete with them… why pay out 70%? Why not pay out a much smaller amount?) Lest you think that’s a scare tactic on my part, recently Amazon realized they didn’t have any real competition for self-published audio books. So what did they do? They cut their royalty rates from 90% to 40% Overnight. With no warning. And no negotiation, either — if you want to work with their ACX service to do your self-published audio book, you can expect to make 40% from now on. What happens when B&N.com and the iBookstore and the Kobo bookstore go out of business? You think Amazon will still pay 70%? Not if they don’t have to. So I love them… but I tend to think monopolies are dangerous. We’re in the Golden Age of publishing at the moment. A huge shift in royalties will mean far less money for authors, and an end to the halcyon days of indie publishing.

Since you seem to keep your finger on the pulse of fiction, what trends do you see in today’s fiction publishing market?

I don’t know that I have my finger on the pulse… and some days I wonder if there IS a pulse, at least on the CBA side. But some things I’ve noticed: Historicals are struggling; contemporary stories are where it’s at. Amish has waned, but it’s still a sub-genre that works because it’s sort of a blend between historical and contemporary. Paranormal has faded. New Adult has been hot, but unfortunately it’s turning into nothing more than upper-edge YA with explicit sex scenes. (Porn for an early 20′s readership, in other words.) A shame. Of course, romance just keeps selling — especially contemporaries with people who have interesting jobs or live in fascinating places. And romantic suspense seems to be growing as well (at least in our part of the business). I tend to think CBA YA is a major struggle, and wonder what’s going to happen with the genre. (My guess? It blends into spec fiction, and the spec side grows some. But the problem with that theory is that it’s never happened. Sci fi/fantasy has never been more than a slice of the overall publishing market. So what do I know?) On the nonfiction side, memoir is hot, so all you fiction people may want to use your storytelling skills and use your fiction technique to tell a nonfiction story. Books in the evergreen categories of money management, healthy lifestyle, career success, healthy relationships are also continuing to sell.

Of course, ebooks are the rage, and a growing percentage of all publishing. (While only a third of the sales of legacy publishers, they amount for roughly half of all books sold if you include all the startup, mini, and indie publishing ventures.) And, if you want me to talk about the business side of publishing, it should be noted that publishers have all gone to e-contracts (that is, a digital document, rather than a paper one). Also e-royalty reports. And e-catalogues. And e-editing. And e-breakfast, for all I know. Everybody is posting their books, so there is a boatload of under-edited, crappy novels out there, making it harder than ever for an author to get noticed. There are fewer editors, particularly at CBA houses, fewer slots for debut novelists at legacy houses, more expectations for authors to do their own marketing, less editing than ever, smaller advances, but growing royalty rates. And, of course, more crappy agents who don’t know jack and I have to apologize for their stupid errors. (I need to do a blog on this some day.) And more micro-publishers, most doing ebooks only, and starting to make their mark in the publishing market. That help you?

Have you always wanted to sit down with a literary agent and have a conversation? Here’s your chance. Send me a question, or post it in the “comments” section, and I’ll get to it this month.

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

  • Betty

    I would love to hear more about “crappy” agents and how to identify them.

    • http://www.johnrobinsonbooks.com John Robinson

      Hi Betty. Here’s a good place to start. Link: http://pred-ed.com/pubagent.ht

      • chipmacgregor

        I’ve been sent a couple questions on this, Betty, so I’ll do that. And thanks for that heads-up, John. You’re right — a great place to check on an agent.

  • Lynn Chandler-Willis

    Thanks for doing this, Chip. Of course I have a 1000 questions but can’t think of a single one when given the opportunity :)

    • chipmacgregor

      Well, if anything comes to mind, feel free to ask, Lynn.