Archive for the ‘Agents’ Category

Agent of the Year

September 29th, 2014 | Awards | 38 Comments

I was pleased to be named ACFW’s “Agent of the Year” for 2014. A bit of history… I had a great career, working as the senior agent at another literary agency, Alive Communications in Colorado. But then, ten years ago, I left that job to become a publisher with the old Time Warner Book Group (in a shrewd career move). I was at Time Warner just a couple years, never really feel like I hit my stride, then was cut loose not long after the company was sold to Hachette Livre.

It was July. and I was scheduled to speak at the ACFW conference that September. So I had to send a very tough email to the conference director, explaining that I had been given the boot, and telling her that I’d understand if the organization wanted to un-invite me and get someone else to take my place. I wanted to do the right thing, and let them know that, if I were to attend, the conference would no longer be getting a publisher from a Big Six house. I figured it was the right thing to do. So I sent it off, and about 48 hours later I heard back from them. The president of the organization sent me a very gracious note, telling me that she knew who I was, and they’d still be happy to have me speak, and that the invitation was still in place. It was a lovely gesture, from a great organization, and I realized at the time they were being exceptionally kind to me.

So I went. One of the things I did at that conference was to emcee a general session, in which I asked literary agents like Steve Laube and Lee Hough some questions about industry trends, the role of agents, and the usual stuff people want to know about at panels. Then at the very end of the session, after everyone applauded the participants, I said, “Oh… and I have an announcement: I’m going back into agenting, and starting my own agency.” Afterward, a number of authors came up to meet with me, and my agency was born. I met great people, did several deals, and was off and running. That was eight years ago. Whenever, someone asks me how I ended up representing so much Christian fiction, I tell them that story. So… I owe a LOT to the American Christian Fiction Writers organization. I feel I’m here largely because of their kindness to me. So when they called my name last Saturday night, announcing that they were naming me their “Agent of the Year” for 2014, I was really touched. ACFW is a great organization, I’ve been a longtime supporter, and I was proud to be there to accept the award.

Yeah, this is nothing but bragging. I promise to get back to “ask the agent” questions tomorrow. But first I wanted to take a moment to celebrate, and to say thanks to everyone at ACFW for bestowing this honor on me. I appreciate it very much, and I appreciate the role you’ve played in my success.

-Chip MacGregor

Agent of the Year

Ask the Agent: How do I prepare to meet an agent at a conference?

September 22nd, 2014 | Agents, Conferences, Questions from Beginners | 15 Comments

In a few days I’m going to be off to the ACFW conference in St Louis, where I’ll be spending two days listening to authors pitch their ideas. ACFW is a wonderful conference, with workshops aimed at both newbies and experienced types. All sorts of people will sign up to talk with me (I don’t have any say over who they schedule me to meet), and they’ll have a variety of questions: “Will you look at my proposal?” “Is this salable?” “What advice do you have for me in my current situation?” “Which houses might be interested in my story?” “How could I improve this proposal?” “Would you be interested in representing my book?” I never know what I’m going to see or who I’m going to talk with, so I was interested when someone sent me this question:

I’m getting ready for a writing conference, and while I think I have some great ideas for books, I find I always panic right before a pitch. I lose my train of thought (and my confidence), and have embarrassed myself more than once with rambling replies to agent & editor questions. What advice would you have for those of us who nerve out at key moments?

Happy to do this. Here are my ten keys to pitching an agent at a writing conference…

1. Review your book. I’m assuming you’ve already written your novel, since nobody is really taking on new fiction projects unless they are complete (or, if it’s a nonfiction book you’re working on, you’ve at least written a good chunk of it). So go back and look it over. Remind yourself what it is you want to say about your book. Be ready to give me a quick overview at the start of our conversation  (“This is an inside look at the biggest crime spree in Nevada history, told by the detective who cracked the case” or “I’ve got an edgy suspense novel — Fifty Shades of Grey meets James Bond” or “Imagine if there was a way you could reduce your chance of getting cancer by 50%, and all it took was a simple change in your breakfast habits?”). In other words, be able to give me something interesting about your book in a sentence or two.

2. Create your script. Write out what you’re going to say about your book, word for word, so that you’re sure you cover all the essential elements in as few words as possible. Some conferences only give you three minutes to do this, though many give you ten minutes — which means you want to get through the book’s description in order to engage the agent or editor in conversation. So give me a quick fly-over of your story. Hit the major plot themes, say something about your lead characters, and reveal why it’s unique. Use specific images in your wording to make it stand out. And have an ending, so it’s clearly time to engage in conversation.

3. Practice your pitch. That is, you’re going to want to sit down with your script, and say it, out loud, as though I was already sitting across the table from you. Don’t skip this part — it’s what will make your pitch better and give you confidence. It’s what will best help you prepare, so you don’t get tongue-tied once we’re actually face to face. (Sure, when you go into the bathroom to practice out loud, your family will think you’ve lost your mind. Don’t worry! When you told them you wanted to be a writer, they already determined you had lost your mind.) I think knowing what you’re going to say and having already practiced it out loud is the single best thing you can do to develop confidence. You don’t really want to sit and read it to me. You want to sit and say it to me, which means you’ll want to go over this enough times that it just feels natural. You may bring your entire script with you to the meeting, or you may just bring an outline with your bullet points. But practice saying it before you sit down and start talking with me.

4. Find the highlights. Think through how you’re going to make your book stand out to an agent who is going to hear 50 pitches at the conference. Maybe you have a great opening line. Perhaps your story is related to today’s news. Maybe you have unique qualifications for writing this book, or a huge platform to support it, or an endorsement from someone fabulous. Include that in your pitch. Don’t oversell the book (I don’t want to hear that this is the best fantasy since The Lord of the Rings), but let me hear something that will make me remember it. As my mentor once said to me, “Don’t tell me your novel is funny — read me a line that makes me laugh.”

5. Research the agents and editors. I don’t represent children’s books or poetry or gift books. Yet I know somebody is bound to make an appointment with me and start by saying, “I’ve got this wonderful gift book of poems for children that I want to tell you about.” (Then, when I explain that this might be a fabulous project, but it’s not going to be a fit for me, they’ll looked hurt and panicked, and they’ll turn in a critical comment about me to the conference director. Sigh…) Look, what I represent is on my website. The books I’ve represented are listed on Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly. I have a blog where I talk about authors and projects. Anyone who can’t figure out what I do and don’t represent simply isn’t trying very hard. So spend some time researching, to make sure you approach the right people.

6. Know what you want. I will often say to writers, “What’s your expectation for this meeting?” Do they want career advice? Do they want to talk about the salability of their story? Do they want to ask questions about creating a better proposal? Knowing what you want from the person you’re meeting is critical. And if it’s simply, “I want to find an agent to represent my work,” then have realistic expectations. You’re not going to get signed by an agent at a conference. (And if you get offered representation by somebody who hasn’t so much as read your work, be aware that you’re about to sign with a bozo.) A more realistic expectation would be, “This agent agreed my story sounds interesting, and he/she is going to go back, read my proposal, and engage me in a conversation of some kind.” This is a business, and you don’t race to say YES to the first guy who expresses random interest in your work. You do your due diligence.

7. Have something with you. I differ from a lot of agents in that I think you’re always best to have a short overview and some sample pages with you at the meeting. You may not get to them, but what if you tell me something and I say, “Holy cow — that sounds amazing! Can you show me some writing?” Publishers aren’t buying ideas, they’re buying writing. So having some with you is a good idea. I realize some conferences will dissuade authors from bringing any writing, since the fact is most of us won’t take pages with us — too bulky for a carry-on, the pages will just get bent, and we really just want to read it on a laptop anyway. Still, I like talking with an author, then having him or her show me the first couple pages of the book. That tends to reveal if this person is actually a writer, or just someone with a cool idea.

8. Look good. You’re meeting with a professional. Dress like one.

9. Be polite. Everybody likes meeting nice, interesting writers who can talk naturally about their books. Nobody likes meeting an arrogant know-it-all. (On more than one occasion I’ve had authors ask me to sign a non-compete before talking. Good grief… I decline, and start looking at my watch.) So have a conversation. Don’t stalk me. Show me you’re a real person. If you’re nervous, take a deep breath and tell me you’re nervous (I’ll say to you, “then forget the speech, and just tell me about the book you wrote”). Editors and agents are simply people working in the industry, the way you work in your field. Most are pretty good at what they do. You really don’t have to fear them, or act like you’re meeting the Royal Family. They are there to talk with you about your writing.

10. Listen to the response you receive.  Don’t be surprised if an editor doesn’t like your idea, or if an agent suggests changes. They could be all wet, but they’re trying to do their job by offering you some experienced perspective. So listen, take the criticism, and reflect later on whether or not you’ll implement their idea. But don’t use your small bit of time to argue. I think my least favorite part of one-on-one meetings is having an author argue with me — not because I’m always right, but because they paid money to come hear what I have to say, and now they want to haggle with me over it. (But, if you’re taking notes, I am always right.)

Let me know if you found this helpful, or if you have other questions about pitching agents and editors at conferences. Hope to run into you at a conference soon!

 

Thursdays with Amanda: How to Get a Publishing Job

September 11th, 2014 | Agents, Career | 8 Comments

Publishing JobAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

I’m going to deviate from talking marketing this week and instead will address a question that I get asked A LOT.

I look quite young (okay, I guess you could say that I AM young, but 30 is also considered middle age, so…). Because I look young, I’m always fielding questions as to how I got in the business, how one becomes an agent, whether or not this is an internship (yes, I’ve heard that one), etc.

Though I must admit these questions are coming at me less and less (probably indicative of me looking older and older), they still pop up, and I can see the wheels turning as folk try and figure out how a 24-year-old (this is the age they typically give me) could possibly be an agent AND have been in the industry for five years AND have held a marketing career before that AND worked in higher ed AND be married.

Fact is, there are lots of people in the business who are much younger than I. I once talked with an editor at Penguin who was 24 at the time. 24!!! 

Young Publishing Professionals

Me with fellow youngsters in publishing!

 

So HOW does one get a publishing job? There are a few different tracks.

1. THE COLLEGIATE TRACK. Many young people are getting into the business these days by pursing publishing or editing or writing or marketing or design (or pretty much any kind of program that would be useful in a publishing setting) in college and then doing internships. The internships then lead to jobs or at the very least, recommendations. The 24-year-old Penguin editor I mentioned had done an internship at a major agency. She got a recommendation that landed her the spot at Penguin.

2. THE NETWORKING TRACK. In this instance, people get into publishing because they know someone who makes it happen or at the very least whose name gets them an interview. This business is very much about who you know, and it can be a tight-knit group with editors jumping from house to house and very little room for names to be pulled from the endless HR file. If your plan is to apply to a publishing job and sit back and wait, it’s probably not going to happen. You need to be able to name drop to get noticed.

3. THE “I FELL INTO IT” TRACK. You’ll many times hear publishing professionals say that they weren’t planning on a career in publishing. It just happened. Maybe they happened to be sitting by an agent on a plane and one thing led to another. Maybe they started in the warehouse and worked their way up. Maybe they sent a note about a book to a publisher that resulted in the publisher hiring them as a freelance editor (haha, not sure that has ever happened, but hey!). This track is hard to force, because it’s all a matter of being in the right place at the right time and then saying YES to the doors that open. (That last part is key…so many people say no because they feel they don’t have the time…or they don’t want to work for free for awhile, etc).

My journey was an “I Fell Into It” example. I was happily working in higher education when I met Chip, who happened to be serving as a visiting professor. He took an interest in me, gave me some side projects to do, and it grew from there. It wasn’t easy, though! For THREE YEARS I maintained a full time job while spending my evenings and weekends doing work for Chip and building an agent list. I finally got to a point where my side job could no longer be a side job if it were going to grow. It was then that I went full time as an agent. Fall of 2011.

Did you catch that? I juggled two jobs for three years. But I knew what I wanted and so it was worth it.

PURSUING YOUR DREAMS CAN BE HARD WORK

Agent Publishing Job

Me with my first agented book!

Many times, we want the path to be easy. We want to be able to fill out an application, get interviewed, and then get the job. But gosh, if it were that easy then everyone would be chosen! And these jobs wouldn’t have value.

If you’re wanting a career in publishing and if you’re still in school, I highly urge you to do as many internships as possible! Go out to New York. Get in with the big houses. It may cost money and it may be out of your comfort zone, but the collegiate track is where it’s at for young people.

If you’re wanting a career in publishing and you’re out of school, then I recommend surrounding yourself with industry professionals. Attend conferences. Make connections. Be polite, give space, but figure out a way to keep the conversation going.

book marketing

Get a head start on author marketing!

What was YOUR road to publishing? Or what questions do you have in terms of how to get there? Let me know!

 

Ask the Agent: How long should it take to hear from an agent?

July 28th, 2014 | Agents, Current Affairs, Proposals, Questions from Beginners | 0 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “When is it appropriate to inquire on the status of a submission to an editor or agent? I sent something in to an agent four months ago, but have yet to hear. How long should it take?”

Every agent has his or her own system. I try to get to submissions once every other week, but sometimes I go four or five weeks between looking. And that’s just for a quick look — if I like something, I have to read it through, and that means I could have it for a month or two before I can give the author a firm response. In my experience, most agents would like to have two or three months to consider a proposal before they render a “yes” or “no.” During busy times (like Christmas, summer vacation, and stints in rehab), it may take longer. So if you sent a project to an agent four months ago, and she hasn’t responded to you, it might be appropriate just to drop a friendly note — something like, “Hello, I’m just checking back with you on that proposal I sent you a few months back. I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to look it over yet, and if there’s anything more you need. I know you’re busy, so thanks very much for giving it your consideration.” No need to whine, beg, or wheedle. Just check in, and be polite.

On a related note, one writer sent me a note to complain that an agent hadn’t responded to his proposal in a year… but when I checked with that author, he noted that he’d never actually met the agent, nor had he queried via email or letter. In other words, he had just sent in a proposal cold. And that leads me to ask,“Where is it written that an agent must respond to you just because you wrote to him or her?” Answer: It isn’t. An agent isn’t obligated to respond to everyone who writes him or her. I’ve got a job to do, and time is money, so I really can’t take the time to read every project somebody sends in cold. I don’t feel that’s a deriliction of my duty, either — I simply don’t believe that I owe every writer a favor.  I state very clearly on my company website that I’m not looking for unsolicited proposals. Still, people send them. I also state on my site that I don’t have time to read every project coming in over the transom, and that I don’t return unsolicited proposals, even if they come with a postage-paid envelope. It’s just not my job to take responsibility for someone else’s idea. Still, I have people I’ve never heard of write to complain that I didn’t respond, or that I didn’t return their materials — as though their decision to mail me something puts a burden on me, merely because I work as a literary agent.

Wrong. I generally represent people I know — maybe we met at a conference, or often they were a referral from a current author. But it’s a very rare thing for an agent to yank something out of a slushpile and offer an agency agreement. So make sure you have realistic expectations.

Another person wrote and said, “I’ve noticed more authors using the term bestseller or bestselling author in their materials. Is there a rule about this? Must an author make an established bestseller list in order to use that term?”

Absolutely. An author needs to have a book that hits a recognized bestseller list in order to claim he or she is a “bestselling” author. That would mean your book needs to land on a legitimate bestseller list like the New York Times list, the LA Times, the Denver Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Barnes & Noble’s list, or the Amazon Top 100. (It’s also fine to note that you had a book land in your regional paper — say the Portland Oregonian or the Cincinnati Enquirer, though those lists don’t quite have the same cachet as the major lists.) Several outlets (Publishers Weekly, CBA, etc) release their own bestseller list every month, and a few track the various genres as well as offering an overall “top 50 titles” in terms of sales. So if an author claims to be a “bestseller” in her proposal, she needs to be able to back that up with evidence of hitting a list.

By the way, BookScan is the reporting vehicle for most bookstores. Many religious bookstores use a different tracking system, called Stats. These are supposed to track book sales by ISBN number, and create a reporting data base for publishers. But one of the reasons this can confuse authors is because some books can sell incredibly well and never have their sales reported. Books sold in Sam’s Club and Costco, for example, are not reported to any bestseller tracking system — so you could sell 100,000 copies and never appear on a bestseller list. And, of course, books you sell at personal appearances or through your own website aren’t reported via any channels. The success of The Shack is a good example — the book moved a couple hundred thousand copies through alternative sales channels before any reporting store picked it up and began noting sales, so it had sold a bazillion copies and never appeared on a bestseller list. Once it was trackable, it hit #1 in the religion category. It’s reasonable to ask the question, “Would it have been fair for the author of The Shack to declare himself a bestselling author prior to making the list?” Maybe… but that’s not the way the system works.

And someone wrote and noted, “You have advised authors to spend some serious cash in order to create a dynamite website. Can you tell me how many zeroes serious cash has? And are there templates or places a prospective author could view in order to begin making plans?”

I think a good website can be a great marketing tool. We used to think of sites as akin to a highway billboard — something you drove by, read, and moved on. But now sites are incredibly useful tools — a way to stay on top of the industry, communicate with readers, and let people know about books and speaking events. They have also proven to be content-centered — so if you have a plumbing company, you don’t just say “great rates and quality service” like you might in a yellow pages ad. With a website, you’ll have suggestions for fixing common plumbing problems, a place to ask questions, introductions to the company personnel, a way to schedule an appointment, maybe even a “history of plumbing.” In other words, the site has become the repository for information. It’s why we’ve quickly become a nation of readers again. And it’s always changing. We recently updated our corporate site, have begun doing more on Twitter and Facebook, and updated the software for this blog to the latest WordPress version. Now I’m having people tell me we don’t use Tumblr and Pinterest enough, and we could make better use of video. Like I said, it’s always changing.

If you’re an author who speaks, wants to stay in touch with readers, and can devote time to it, your marketing people will probably encourage you to create a good website. And it will mean you can expect to spend somewhere in the $3000 to $5000 range. You can go cheaper, of course (some places offer a do-it-yourself site for $99), but you get what you pay for. And you can spend a heck of a lot more, too. (I know an author who just invested $10,000 in a fabulous site.) There are thousands of experts you can talk to about establishing a strong site — there’s no reason to have a crummy website any more. If you want to check out author sites, visit some author pages and start clicking. You’ll find all sorts of authors with a variety of styles and choices to their sites.

Got a question about books or writing or publishing? Send it in, and we’ll answer it in a future “Ask an Agent” post.

 

Can you explain how my agent gets paid?

July 16th, 2014 | Agents, The Business of Writing | 7 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “Can you explain how an agent gets paid? Does the publisher send the author’s checks to the agent? Or does the money go to the author, who writes the agent a check? And is all this done before or after taxes?”

Happy to explain this. Traditionally, when it was time for the publisher to send money, they would send the entire amount to the agent, who would then deduct his or her commission (the standard is 15%) and send a check for the balance to the author within ten days. This was the system that was in place for years, and many agencies still work with that system. The strength of it is that the agent knows the author has been paid, and paid the full amount. This is all pre-tax money, so at the end of the year the agent would send a 10-99 form to the author, detailing how much money was paid.

When I started working as an agent 15 years ago, I was working for Alive Communications in Colorado, and they used a different system — divided payments. With that system, the publisher cuts TWO checks. The first is sent directly to the author, for 85% of the deal. The second is sent to the agent, for 15% (along with some sort of evidence that the author has been paid his or her amount). To my way of thinking, that was a better system. The author got paid faster. There was less bookkeeping for me. I didn’t have to fill out the 10-99’s. And, most importantly, I would never get a phone call from an author saying, “Hey, you big doofus — the publisher says they sent you my money two weeks ago! Where’s my check?!” I’ve found too many fights in business occur over money, and I prefer that the authors I represent feel as though we’re on the same side, and we have no reason to fight over money. (That’s why I’ve never charged back any expenses to an author… I don’t want to have to call anyone and say, “Um, gee, do you think you could maybe send me that seventeen dollars and fifty-two cents?”) So when I started my own company eight years ago, I decided to keep in place the “divided payments” system.

Both work. Neither is better than the other — they’re just different. Think of it like this: some agents are great at editorial work, others are great at contracts and negotiations, others are really strong at marketing, others are strongest at career development. Nobody is great at everything, and you want to find the agent that fits your style. It’s the same way with payments — either system can work well. I use the one I’m most comfortable with.

By the way, I’ve occasionally heard other agents say that not everyone will do divided payments. But in my 15 years of doing this full time, I’ve had exactly ONE US publisher refuse to cut two checks (it was Overlook, a fine small publishing house in New York, and the woman who bitched and moaned about it there retired soon after that deal was done). Few of the foreign publishers want to be bothered with cutting two checks, so if your agent is doing foreign deals, that money will most likely be paid to the agency and forwarded on to you.

Back to getting paid: Publishers used to all pay your advance half on signing, half on delivery. Now most pay a third on signing, a third on delivery, and a third on publication (with the people at Random House fighting to pay a quarter on signing, a quarter on delivery, a quarter on publication, and a quarter when the book flips from hardcover to trade paper… sigh… another sign of the apocalypse — they’ll soon be asking for a quarter to be paid upon the CEO becoming eligible for social security, no doubt). Of course, an advance is all recoupable against your royalties, so with each book sold some money is credited to your account. You earn back your advance with royalties, then when the book earns out the publisher starts setting your money aside and will send it to you either quarterly or semi-annually, depending on your contract.

What other questions do you have about the money side of book publishing?

Ask the Agent: “If I already have an offer, do I need an agent?”

July 14th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 7 Comments

Someone wrote me to say, “I was just offered a contract on my novel. Since I don’t have an agent, should I seek one at this point? Would it be better to have the agent simply review the contract for a fee?”

There’s quite a debate about this issue. I know several agents who would say, “If you already have an offer — call me!” I mean, they’d be happy to get 15% for a deal they’ve done no work on. But I have some doubts about the value in that type of situation. Let’s say you got a contract offer featuring a $10,000 advance. If the agent steps in, he or she takes $1500. Is the value of their work worth that? You can ask a contract service to review your contract for around $500. (But be careful… there are good and bad authors, good and bad agents, and good and bad contract review services. Make sure to ask questions, so you get someone who knows what they’re doing and has done it before.) A contract service won’t negotiate for you or improve the deal — they simply evaluate and report back to you. So if you have a bunch to negotiate this may not be your best choice.

You can also talk with an intellectual property rights attorney, but be cautious — they’re generally paid by the increment, usually by the six-minute increment for every phone call, email, conversation, or reading you ask them to do. It can add up fast. A good attorney can certainly help, and should be able to strengthen the contract. But in my experience you want to be careful who you’re working with — I’ve had too many situations where the goal of the attorney seemed to be nothing more than to keep the clock moving (though expect some attorney to come onto the comments to claim that never happens). The longer it takes them, the more they are paid. I know of several authors who ended up paying more to have a top-flight entertainment lawyer review the contract than they were paid in advance dollars. Yikes. Generally speaking, your family lawyer won’t have enough experience to really help you with a publishing contract — the guy doing grandma’s estate or your last real estate closing probably doesn’t know much about current publishing contracts.

As for getting an agent, I would say that you want to make sure the agent actually does something to earn the commission. He didn’t help craft the idea, didn’t help you polish the proposal, didn’t shop it to editors, so ask what exactly he’s going to do in order to bring value. Review the contract? Negotiate better wording and royalties? Assist with marketing? Shop your dramatic and foreign rights? Handle potentially sticky situations? Help with long-term career advice? Assist with other services, such as helping you self-publish your backlist? I’ve often had authors come to me with offers in hand, and I’ve frequently told them to pay for a contract evaluation, since it’s less money. I have sometimes agreed to take on an author, but usually for a reduced commission. And I would encourage you to think long term — Is there someone you want to work with? Is there an agent you like and trust, who can help you with your career, and not just this book deal? A good agent may be willing to take less in order to work with you. My advice: I don’t think it’s fair for me to take the full commission on a book I didn’t sell, but not every agent out there agrees with me, so talk with others and solicit some opinions. Congratulations on getting the book deal, by the way.

By the way, on a related note, someone asked, “Should I worry about a literary agent who turned me down, but suggested I work with his editorial service?

Absolutely you should worry. Here’s how this commonly works — you send a manuscript to an agent, who says, “I really like this, but it’s not ready. However, we have an editorial service here who can help you. For just $500, they’ll get this proposal ready for us to represent…” The agent sends you to his editor co-worker, then pockets half of that “editorial fee,” so he or she is making money off the author. That’s a total violation of ethics for literary agents (and I’d argue the reason we’re seeing some agents do this is because we’ve had a group of people jump into agenting who don’t really know what they’re doing). The Association of Author Representatives has a clear canon of ethics printed on their opening web page which precludes an agent from doing this very thing. It’s ripe with potential for abuse, since it’s too easy for a slimy agent to say to every author, “Hey, this has potential — let our editor work on this for a fee!” It turns authors into marks. Look, I have a bunch of freelance editor friends, and I will frequently say to writers, “This needs considerable editing. I can send you the names of some editors I trust, but what you work out with them is between you and the editor.” I don’t get a fee for recommending anyone, so I’ll send them three to six names of editors who are probably a fit for their type of manuscript. But we’re not an editorial service, and we don’t charge for that type of work. My advice: If an agent tries to cross-sell you some other literary service that charges you a fee, stand up and walk away. You can find a better agent.

And, since I”m on a roll, one other question: “I signed with an agent, but wasn’t happy. I fired that agent, and moved on to another. But now my first agent is claiming that anything I ever talked with her about is her responsibility! She claims that if I ever get a publishing deal for the projects she represented, she is to be paid the agent’s commission. Is that legal?”

This is another one I can’t fathom. I understand getting paid if I’ve done the legwork. Let’s say that I’ve worked with an author to develop a project, showed it to publishers, and started to get some interest. If the author hears about the interest, fires me, then approaches the same publishers to try and get the deal and save themselves the 15% commission, I should still get paid. I state in my agency agreement that if I’m working with a publisher on your behalf, I’ll still get paid even if you fire me and do a deal with one of those publishers I was just selling your work to. But I’ve seen the situation you’re describing a few times lately — an agent claiming that if you EVER sell the book they represented, they’ll still get paid. I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot give legal advice, but I would think this would be awfully tough to have stand up in court. My advice: read any agreement carefully before you sign it. If the agent has a clause that’s incredibly restrictive like this, ask to have it altered.

Does a beginning writer need an agent? (and other questions from authors)

July 11th, 2014 | Agents, Career, The Business of Writing | 5 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “In your opinion, does a beginning writer need an agent?”

In my view, it depends on the writer. There are some authors who are well connected in the industry, don’t mind dealing with contracts and negotiations, understand career direction, and can survive without an agent. But in my experience, it’s rare to do those things well while maintaining a writing career. I used to tell people that I’m not an evangelist for agents, and over the past 15 years or so I’ve tried to maintain a balance — I haven’t always believed that every writer needs an agent in order to succeed. But in light of all the changing issues in publishing today, I’m now changing my tune. Most legacy publishers require you to have an agent or they won’t look at your material. And most traditional publishers have moved toward relying on agents to be the first filter in the system, reviewing proposals and weeding out the chaff. Working with an agent professionalizes the relationship — an agent is not as emotionally tied to a work as an author, so he or she can be more dispassionate about discussing a project, and the agent is going to be more familiar with the business of contracts, so ostensibly things will move along better for both sides.

I recognize that some have said the future is in self-publishing, so that means authors won’t need agents. I think that’s completely wrong-headed. If you’re going to be responsible for your book, you might think about working with someone who knows the industry already and can help you. Think of the way realtors have changed the home buying market: You can still sell your home by owner, but it’s gotten considerably more complex to do so. You’ve got to know the market, understand how to show your home, know how to get the word out, feel comfortable negotiating a price, and perhaps most importantly, understand how to fill out the mountain of paperwork that goes along with every home sale. (My wife and I sold three homes on our own, and another five homes through realtors, so I understand the difference a professional can make to a deal.) There are still plenty of small publishing houses that prefer to work directly with the author, but any publisher of size will want to work through an agent. And if you’re going to go indie, an a good agent ought to be able to help with your career, your self-publishing decisions, your marketing, your dramatic rights, and your foreign and other sub rights.

All of that leads to the question, “How will I know I need an agent?”

If you’re a novelist, but you don’t have a completed manuscript yet, you probably do not need an agent. (And, to be completely honest about it, you’d have a tough time landing an agent.) Most fiction writers will need a polished draft of their first manuscript completed before landing an agent. If you’re a nonfiction writer, having a great idea and great writing in a proposal is essential, and bringing some sort of strong platform to the table will help a lot. The bottom line is this: if you have something that is worth selling, then unless you know how to sell it and who to sell it to, you maybe be out of your depth and need an agent. If you have a great book idea and a solid proposal, you probably should at least consider interviewing potential literary agents. Again, you can learn to do some of this on your own, if you want to put the time in.

And that leads to the obvious question, “What should an agent do for me?”

The answer depends on your needs. My relationship with one of my authors (say, bestselling novelist Vince Zandri) is quite different from my relationship with another one of my authors (let’s say a first-time nonfiction writer). Each author is going to have a unique set of needs. But, generally speaking, an agent should help you evaluate ideas and discuss publishing trends and the salability of your manuscript. He or she should help you create a dynamite proposal, tweaking it as necessary and working with you to make the writing as strong as possible. (You get one shot with a publishing house, so don’t turn something in that’s only 80% ready.) A good agent will help you improve your work, understand the industry, suggest editing or writing help if you need it, introduce your work to key acquisition people, and sell your proposal for you. He or she will negotiate a good deal on your behalf, paying special attention to key contract issues, and help you create a partnership with your publisher. The agent should ensure contract compliance, help you maximize your marketing opportunities (something that’s becoming more important in the current marketplace), be a pain when you need someone to kick things into gear, read a royalty statement and spot errors, be your biggest fan and encourager, and work through your marketing plan with you. Most importantly (at least in my view), a good agent should assist you with career planning, champion your projects, and grow with you over time.

So the follow-up question probably needs to be, “What do YOU need in an agent?” Because your needs may be very different from your friend’s needs. And every agent is different. Some are great editors. Others are great contract people. Some are basically sales people. Others are negotiators. And still others are life coaches. If you figure out what you need most from an agent, you’ll be better equipped to find the agent that’s right for you.

I recently had someone send me this question: “I feel stuck — you can’t get an agent unless you’re published, but you can’t get published without an agent. Help! What’s the best way to go about finding an agent?”

You’re right — it’s not fair, and you’re screwed. Sorry! The most important step in finding the literary agent that’s right for you is to make sure you’ve got a great idea, expressed through great writing, and you can back it all up with a strong platform. Those are probably the first things you need to have completed. Once you’re ready to start looking for an agent, you can begin by looking in any of the “find an agent” books that are on the market. Check with Writers Digest books, and look at B&N for a book that lists literary agencies. Next, you can meet agents at writer’s conferences, book shows, or at publishing functions like BEA or ICRS. These are still the best places to get 15 minutes of face-time with an agent. It allows you to get a feel for him or her, and see if you think the two of you might work together. At some writers’ conferences, you can send in your material ahead of time and sign up for an appointment. If you’re going to do that, remember to create a good presentation — after all, you are selling yourself. Put together a cover letter that tells about your life and work. Include your previous writing and book sales. Show the agent a great proposal, and make sure it’s as strong as you can make it. Be ready to talk about yourself, your books, your ideas, and your platform. An author who shows huge potential for the future is much more likely to garner interest from a good agent.

Got a question for a literary agent? Send it to Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com and I’ll get you an answer. It may or may not be correct, but at least it will be an answer.

What should I ask a prospective agent?

June 2nd, 2014 | Agents, Career, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 4 Comments

A friend wrote to say, “You’ve said several times that an author should ask a prospective agent some questions in order to get to know him (or her). I’m going to a conference in a couple months — what sort of questions should I ask?”

I’ve talked about this question a couple of times, and I think the answer keeps changing as the industry evolves. Here are some thoughts to get you started…

-How long have you been doing this?
-How many contracts have you negotiated for authors?
-Who do you represent?
-What publishing houses have you worked with in the past year?
-Which editorial personnel have you done deals with?
-How many deals have you done in the past year?
-What sort of authors and projects do you represent?
-What do you like to read? (Ask for titles.)
-Can you give me a couple book titles you sold that you loved?
-Can you give me a couple book ideas you sold that you loved?
-Do you offer editorial input to authors?
-How often will we be in touch?
-What would you say are your best skills?
-What’s unique about your agency?
-What percentage do you earn on a book deal?
-Are there any hidden fees or charges? Any up-front costs?
-Do you charge back your expenses?
-How do you handle legal or accounting issues?
-In what ways do you get involved in marketing?
-Have you ever worked in publishing or done any editing or writing?
-How do you approach career planning?
-Do you work by yourself?
-Are you full time?
-Are you a member of AAR?
-How long have you been in business?
-How many people work at your agency?
-About how many books do you contract in a year?
-Will you be handling my work, or will someone else?
-What are your expectations of me as a client?
-Can you help me if I want to self-publish?
-How do you assist hybrid authors?
-With all the changes in publishing, what do you think the future holds for agents and authors?

That will get you started. Again, I think an author needs to consider what he or she needs from an agent before interviewing prospective agents. That way you’ve got some idea of whether or not this person would meet your needs, rather than simply asking yourself, “Do I like this guy?”

FINDING, AND TRUSTING, AN AGENT

May 21st, 2014 | Agents, Career, Publishing | 2 Comments

BY CHIP MACGREGOR

Someone wrote to say, “I heard an agent speak at our writing group. He sounded interesting, so I went to his website, which is interesting but I wasn’t sure I could trust it. You have to contract with them for a year and pay an up-front fee of $195, though it’s not clear if that is per project for for all your works. Is that the usual course?

Yikes. Several thoughts come to mind . . .

First, don’t go to any agent that asks for an up-front fee. That screams rip-off. I don’t know of any credible literary agent who asks you to send him or her a check right off the bat. You can’t be a member of AAR by charging fees, and you’ll get listed in “Predators and Editors” if you do. Stay away from fee-based agents. (And if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book Ten Percent of Nothing, which offers a fine expose’ of scam agents.)

Second, you don’t want to sign up with an agent you know nothing about. Websites are marketing tools, and some of them over-promise when in reality the agent will under-deliver. I can claim anything I want on my website (that I’m the best agent in history, that I’ll make you a million dollars, that I look exactly like Brad Pitt), but if we don’t know each other, and if we’ve never met, HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE? Be cautious over sites that over-promise. (For the record, I look exactly like Brad Pitt. Especially if you stand far away. And squint. And are blind.)

Third, be wary of agents trolling for business by sending you advertisements. It’s one thing to meet someone at a conference, or to begin a dialogue over a submission you’ve sent in — most of the authors we represent we met somewhere and had a discussion with, or they were introduced to us by current authors we represent. I think that’s true of most agents. What you’re describing is akin to a lawyer chasing ambulances. Sorry to sound negative, but this sounds like a scam.

As a follow-up, someone else wrote to say, “I have heard the best way to contact agents is to attend conferences. I’ve also heard it is possible to schedule a meeting in order to have the agent look at your material at a conference. Is that true? And if so, how does an author find out about conferences? And how does one go about scheduling an appointment with an agent at a conference?

That’s true, in my view. There are few venues left for getting a face-to-face meeting with an agent any more, but a writers’ conference is one of the best. And many conferences will simply post meeting schedules, where you can sign up with an agent either before the conference or on the first day of meetings. Usually you’ll come in with your one-sheet or proposal, make a quick pitch, and have about 15 minutes to talk. You can’t totally “sell” them in such a short time (so don’t think you’re going to land an agent at a conference), but you can certainly start a conversation, make a good impression, and begin the process of working together. To find writing conferences in your area, just google “writers conference” or talk to your local bookseller. You can also check out an online writing group or join a writing association such as Romance Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers, and the like. I’m a big fan of writing conferences because it puts writers and agents in touch with each other.

And another person wrote and noted, “A publisher requested my manuscript at a conference. They later sent me an evaluative memo with some editor notes and a request that I rewrite it and send it back. Is this worth mentioning in an agent query?”

Sure it is. Understand that many editors will request a proposal at a writers’ conference. Unfortunately, many time they aren’t really “requests.” They are more “resigns” — as in, “The editor was resigned to saying yes to every author who showed them a proposal.” That’s because the bulk of editors, while exceptionally nice people who know their jobs, are also big weenies. They hate looking you in the eye and saying “no, that doesn’t fit us” or “no, this isn’t ready” or “no, did you stop taking your medication?” Consequently, I’ll often hear authors tell me an editor requested a proposal, when in actuality the editor did nothing more than agree to look at it later, so as to reject it later, by letter, thus saving himself from having to tell the author “no” face to face. (Okay, I’m exaggerating. A bit.) However, if the editor has taken the time to review your work and make notes, then has suggested you do some revising and re-submit, that shows genuine interest. So yes, I’d tell a prospective agent that bit of news. I hope that helps.

What questions do you have about agents and agenting?

What would you ask a literary agent? (the wrap up)

April 30th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Resources for Writing, The Business of Writing | 10 Comments

A handful of leftover questions from our month of “sitting down with a literary agent” series…

Can a person who does not aspire to fame be a successful writer?

Of course. Some writers are looking for fame, but in my experience most get into writing because they have a story to tell. By the same token, some writers embrace the “fame” aspect of getting published, and love the attention it creates, while others hate it, and just want to write and maintain their privacy. There are plenty of examples of both. Perhaps this is getting skewed today because of social media, which can sometimes make it seem like every author is required to be an extrovert. But my feeling is that there are a lot of introverted writers, who don’t seek to be everywhere, all the time, commenting on everything.

If I have a really well-written book, how can I meet literary agents?

You can go to conferences and meet some agents face to face. You can go to a book show or industry event and get in touch with agents. You can talk to published authors about their current agent. You can look at Chuck Sambucino’s Guide to Literary Agents, or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. You can go to the Association of Author Representatives website, or to AgentResearch.com. You can find out who the busiest agents are, or which agents tend to work in your genre by joining Publishers Marketplace and researching their database. Or I suppose you could do it the old fashioned way and try to get a face-to-face meeting by sending them a fabulous proposal and showing up to talk. No matter what you do, spend some time researching the agent to make sure he or she is a fit, what they require in a proposal, and how they work with authors. You can also go to Predators & Editors and Writer Beware to do some research as to which literary agents have warnings against them from other authors.

I was told at a conference that every fiction genre has “rules.” Is that true? And how would I know what the rules are?

The entire concept of genre fiction holds that each genre has certain rules that most novels must adhere to. So the rules for a traditional romance would include that the hero and heroine must meet early in the book, and that they must get together at the end. The rules for a cozy mystery is that something bad (usually a murder) happens at the start of the story, an amateur sleuth will have some suspicions and start to look into it, and that the mystery will be solved at the end of the story. So, yes, every genre has rules. You can find the rules by doing some research — for example, Harlequin maintains a list of rules for romance writers on their website.

How do you define literary fiction?

Generally speaking, novels that do NOT have rules. More specifically, novels that explore the great questions of life — who am I? why am I here? does my life have meaning? what should I be doing? who is God? why does He allow such pain in the world? Most literary fiction will offer characters I care about who explore the great questions of life and make choices, then examine the ramifications of those choices and their effects on the lives of the characters. It’s a way for me, as a reader, to explore my own life in a deeper way by seeing things through the lives of other people. That’s what great literature does — causes us to think more deeply about life, see things in a new light, and offer some sort of insight into the great questions.

As an author, how do I negotiate a movie option for my novel? Do I give a free option? Do I demand money for the option?

You don’t normally grant an option for free — you negotiate the option for the production company to pay you a certain amount of money, for a certain period of time. What the customer is buying is really the exclusive chance to explore turning your book into a movie. They’ll talk through the idea, figure out if there’s a market for it, how the story might change, who might be possible to direct & star in it, what the costs are, etc. And you normally go through a literary or film agent who has relationships with film and production companies, and who can make sure all the details are done correctly. A note on this: If you think publishing contracts are tricky, just wait until you see a film contract. There are a lot of stories about authors who sold their idea cheaply, then made nothing when the concept moved to the screen. It’s called “Hollywood Accounting,” and if you’re interested in this, just google the horror story of Deborah Gregory, who created The Cheetah Girls for Disney. She made some money on the books, but when they went to the stage, TV, and the big screen, she was promised 4% of net profits… and the accountants have always been able to show there were no net profits. So while Disney has generated millions in cash from the Cheetah Girls, Ms. Gregory has made nothing. Ouch.

What determines if a book is YA or adult?

Normally there are two issues involved: themes and characters. YA novels focus on certain themes — coming of age, the transition to adulthood, exploring sexuality, fostering independence, self-identification, problems at school or with parents, etc. Adult novels focus on more adult themes. In other words, novels have themes that are directly relatable to the intended readership. And YA novels generally have younger characters, so that traditionally the protagonist is the age of the readers. (That’s not always true, since some YA fantasy has very old characters suddenly dealing with independence or self-identity issues, but it’s true more often than not.) Evaluate your novel in light of those two issues, and you can usually figure out where it should land.

Have you run into situations where smaller publishing houses offer very small advances with a higher-than-normal royalty? What’s your take on a deal such as this?

Sure — most of the new micro-publishers that got started doing e-books over the past six or seven years do exactly that. They pay a small advance, or perhaps no advance, but offer a 50% net royalty — twice that of legacy publishers. The risk is that the guarantee is smaller; the reward is that, if the book does well, the author can make more money. Of course, larger publishers will explain that they have an advantage in terms of reach and marketing, while smaller publishers will tout greater author control and a bigger percentage of the take. Every business decision like that is a risk/reward equation. You have to be comfortable with the decision.

There happens to be a lot going on in my family at the moment, and I’m putting together a book of family stories. Can you recommend a self-publishing or POD company that would be good to use for this kind of project? I probably won’t need more than 50 copies.

The easy solution? Go to CreateSpace at Amazon, or to the iBookstore. Both have the capability of creating fun books with lots of photos of your family.

I’ve been at this writing career for a long time, and feel as though I don’t have much to show for it. I’ve done two novels at a small house, then two more at a bigger house, but they didn’t sell well… so now I’m having a hard time landing a contract. I’ve enjoyed myself, but I’m not sure all the time and effort have been worth it. I love my art, but… I wanted more. And I go to conferences and it feels like everyone is having more success than me. Any advice for a writer facing the big question of “Is all this worth it?”

I’ve been agenting a long time, and I’ve had a form of this question thrown at me countless times. An author signs a deal with a small house and does okay, so she signs a deal with a bigger house and, even though she writes good books, those books tank. Maybe the house did no marketing. Maybe the readership couldn’t find her. Maybe the author and publisher didn’t know how to work together. There are a million reasons a book doesn’t work, but suddenly the author finds herself stuck. She has lousy sales numbers, maybe she can’t get a deal, or she CAN get one, but it’s back to SmallTimeVille. Hey, it happens. Does she stick with it? Change her name and start over? Try a new genre? Look for a collaborative job? Go back to the drawing board and try to come up with a blockbuster idea? Self publish? Give up?

There’s no one answer that’s going to fit every situation, of course. And if you hang out at conferences, it will feel like everyone else is going better than you (but they are not — trust me). I love the fact that the writer who emailed me this question was quick to say she had enjoyed the ride and loves to write. Because I think a writer in this situation really needs to look at his or her motivation, and think through goals — what do you want to accomplish? What will constitute success? What will make you happy? Maybe having a good agent to talk with you about career plans could come in handy. So here is some great advice from musician and writer Bill Withers: “One of the things I always tell my kids is that it’s OK to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through all right. When you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.” Amen, Bill. Some wisdom there.

I’ve loved this month of writers sending in anything they wanted to ask. Thanks to everyone for participating. Make sure to check out Amanda’s wonderful marketing blogs every Thursday. And coming up — our annual Bad Poetry Contest. Another reason to go on living…