Questions you’d ask an agent…

April 1, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

So this month we’re going to let you ask whatever you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent. You send me the questions (or stick them in the “comments” section), and I’ll try to answer them, or get another agent to answer them. First up, some questions that came in yesterday…

Suppose you have a character in your novel that would be perfect for a particular actor. Should you tell your agent about it and let them handle it?

You could… but it probably won’t get very far. It’s rare that a project gets pitched to an actor in a role, unless it’s a major actor with clout. (So, for example, if you had a role that was perfect for Leonardo DiCaprio, you could try and talk with his agent. Um, and you would be author #5962 who has the “perfect” role for him.)

If I have an agent, then decide to write a self-pubbed novel, how can I include my agent in the process?

This is one of the things happening in publishing these days that is still in process, so there’s no one right answer for every situation. You could ask your agent to help you with it — the editing, the copyediting, the formatting, the uploading, the cover, etc., then pay a percentage as a commission. OR you could see if your agent is producing a line of books, make it part of that line, and pay a certain commission to him or her. (For example, we’re helping our authors create a co-op line of clean romances.) OR you could do it all yourself and not pay the agent anything. OR you could do it yourself, but work with your agent to help with things like marketing and selling, and pay a commission.

I am brand new to the industry, and delving into the potential of writing fiction. So what are the first steps in identifying the right agent, reaching out and establishing that agent/author relationship, and writing and getting a publisher to release the first novel?

Okay, the first step is to learn to write. That might seem too simplistic, but without a great manuscript, you’re not going to land an agent, editor, or publishing deal. This is particularly true in fiction, where a debut novelist will not be getting a deal without a completed manuscript. So I’d recommend you complete your manuscript, then join a critique group to get some other eyes on it, listen to what other writers have to say, and eventually talk with a good fiction editor about what needs to be done in order to create a great manuscript. You should know that the average number of completed manuscripts an author creates is SIX before he or she lands a publishing deal.

As for the next steps, once your manuscript is ready, you’ll probably find it’s easiest to connect to agents either face to face at a writing conference (check the conference website to see which agents are attending, then do some research to see who is there that might be a fit for your novel), or through a friend. I find the majority of authors I currently represent were introduced to me by authors I already represent. Once you’ve got a great manuscript and an agent, you’ll be off and running.

Do you think Christian fiction is where Christian music was a couple decades ago – where certain music was deemed “UnChristian” or was too controversial to be accepted by the mainstream? My opinion is that after all that type of controversy cleared out, Christian music got really good. Or maybe it was vice versa — the music got better and then the controversy died.

I’ve had various forms of this question asked of me quite a bit recently. (For those who don’t know, we represent a lot of inspirational fiction, as well as general market fiction.) I can see why you might think that, but I don’t believe the two situations are analogous. Contemporary Christian music was faced with having to break out of the narrow, church-youth-group type of audience, so some performers (Any Grant is a great example) was criticized as being “too worldly” when she began doing music that was not strictly about Jesus or her spiritual life. Eventually contemporary Christian music saw a bunch of performers bust out, much of it became part of the mainstream, and the entire industry saw the financials change as it moved away from full CD’s and toward single-title downloads — so most music performers these days make the bulk of their money from concerts and other live venues, rather than from music sales.

Book publishing is going through a different change. We’re still selling complete projects (books, not just chapters), but the vehicles are altered. A reader can download an ebook from Amazon, or buy a printed book at Barnes & Noble, and each choice is unique. The end result is different, the delivery mechanism is different, the marketing is different, the basic audiences are different… and that’s why I keep telling people that we need to see digital books as completely separate projects from printed books. (Whereas music was music, no matter how it arrived in the customer’s hands.) The advent of ebooks has led to a ton of startup companies, a revision in royalties, a scaling back in advances, a decline in intermediaries, more crud on the market, but more opportunity to make money for authors. A seminal shift in publishing. But back to your question — No, I don’t think we’re seeing authors being viewed as “unChristian,” so much as we’re seeing a combination of more publishing categories for CBA fiction, declining overall sales for the legacy CBA fiction publishers, and a desire to play it safe (which is why Christian fiction is swimming in romances, but has a limited number of new literary titles being released by major houses). There is still a place for thoughtful inspirational fiction, but right now that’s become tougher to sell to traditional publishing houses.

Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent? Sent it along and I’ll get to it shortly.

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

  • Ted

    “digital books as completely separate projects from printed books. Whereas
    music was music, no matter how it arrived in the customer’s hands.”

    I love that you are doing this series of question. While my writing is not yet at the point of being ready to query agents, I am always anxious to learn about the industry.

    I was confused by your analogy of CD = book to song = chapter that you employ. Maybe you can help me out.

    As I understand it, while it is indeed true, as you state, that writers do not sell chapters, selling a chapter would be more analogous to selling a verse of a song. A chapter is an incomplete retail unit, like a chassis without an engine. The song is a whole, a complete retail unit.

    It is worth observing the largest retailer these complete units of music today is a
    computer company (Apple).

    The CD was a compilation of many complete units (songs). This would be more similar to an Omnibus edition of a book which is a compilation of many completed full length stories.

    If we look further at the comparative digital models, we see that indeed writers
    offer chapters as a ‘sample’ on eBook sites. What do songs offer? Usually it is
    the chorus. But in both cases, the consumer is offered an incomplete retail
    unit (chapter, chorus) to aid in the buy decision for the full retail unit
    (song, story).

    What the music industry sells are songs. They used to sell mandatory
    compilations of 12 song sets called CDs.

    What writers sell are stories.

    As I look at it, from the outside looking in, it appears that digital or print is simply the media that completed units (stories) use to get to the place where they become tangible – the mind and imagination of the reader.

    Again, thanks so much for this Ask an Agent series. I look forward to reading more of it.

    • chipmacgregor

      Perhaps there’s no perfect metaphor, Ted, but here’s how I view this: A musician is creating an album, which is a complete unit with a bunch of songs. A writer is creating a book, which is a complete unit with a bunch of chapters. While we occasionally see a writer sell one chapter, it’s still not really a good, workable model yet, for the most part. But musicians sell individual songs all the time.

      I see what you’re saying — that one song off an album is equal to one book, but I don’t know that I find that an apt metaphor. A three-minute song strikes me more as a chapter, a section of a longer album. You’re free to disagree. But maybe what we can agree on here is that the changes in the music business just aren’t the perfect example to follow for book publishers. They are very different businesses — in the way the projects are created, edited, produced, designed, marketed, and sold. There are some analogous elements, but overall they are two very unique industries.

  • April

    As an American who lives outside of the US (and doesn’t have the budget to fly between countries more than once every few years), is there anything I should keep in mind? Are agents going to have different expectations for me than for someone living in the US? Are publishers going to be leery of taking on projects from people like me?

    Also, you often stress the importance of writer conferences. Though it would be a major expense, I could save up for a writer’s conference… but if nothing comes of that, then what? I wouldn’t have the budget to try again for several more years since a plane ticket between each country is so high. How can I network from so far away when you say face-to-face is so important?

    • chipmacgregor

      Answered in the next blog, April.

  • Jeanne Dickson

    Hi Chip! Your thoughts on the direction RWA is taking – I looked at their 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 authors such as Sylvia Day and Bella Andre have turned self-publishing into an empire and they are super smart, super stars, but for the vast majority of self-published authors it’s hit-or-miss and done poorly. Yet, there seems to be so much 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?

    • chipmacgregor

      Happy to respond to this in my next blog, Jeanne.

  • Patricia Zell

    About the first question–while actors are not that interested in particular characters, they are interested in strong visual stories. Also, many actors have their own production companies which are on the look-out for great screenplays. Authors can research particular actors on Wikipedia and IMDB.
    I have shifted to the screenplay venue in my writing because I absolutely hate writing descriptions. If a novelist wants to see his book turned into a film, he must construct a strong visual story. In a sense, words are the icing on the cake in a screenplay. The visual images are what keeps the audience engaged.