Archive for the ‘Agents’ Category

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…

Having a Nite-cap with a Literary Agent

April 28th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 6 Comments

We’ve been taking the month of April and inviting writers to send in the questions they’d like to ask a literary agent. So if you could sit down one night, over a nite-cap, and ask a literary agent anything at all, what would you ask? These are the questions I’ve received recently…

How important is it for my agent to be knowledgeable about the specific genre I write in? If he or she have the same contacts at publishing houses as most other agents, is it important to find an agent with genre-specific connections? For example, let’s say I typically write women’s fiction, but want to do a New Adult series, and my agent says she knows nothing about NA. Should I be concerned my proposal won’t get the right treatment from editors?

Agents tend to work in certain genres. So we make connections with editors who work in those genres, and develop great relationships with people and publishers. So yes, it’s nice if you can work with an agent who has relationships with editors in the genres in which you write. That said, most agents are also willing to grow their business. So if you came to me with a really good proposal for a genre I’ve not worked before, I would admit that to you, and either say, “You might want to find another agent to do this one,” OR I might say, “You know, this isn’t a field I’ve done much work in, but I love this proposal — let me do some research, make some calls, and I’ll come back to you so we can develop a plan.”

I noticed you were highly critical of agents who sell services to authors. I approached an agent I met at a conference to discuss my book. He rejected it for representation, but said they had an editor who could work on it, and I paid about $700 to the company. They still decided not to represent it, but when I self-published it on Amazon, they offered to help me with the marketing, again for a fee. Is that wrong?

Here is the official wording from the Association of Author Representatives: “Members pledge themselves to loyal service to their clients’ business and artistic needs, and will allow no conflicts of interest that would interfere with such service.” Turning a potential literary client over to an editor who works for me part-time is a conflict of interest — I’m either an agent or I’m an editorial service, not both. The guidelines go on to state: “The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity.” (They give an exception to agents who get paid for evaluating a proposal through a writing conference, since writers to go there specifically to get a formal evaluation of their work.) I have frequently said to potential authors, “This needs a good edit — here are some editors I like.” But I don’t have any financial tie to those editors, nor do I receive anything back from them for sharing their info with writers. AND the guidelines also note that “Members may not receive a secret profit in connection with any transaction involving a client.” So no kickbacks are allowed. Holly Lorincz works with me part-time, and also runs an editorial business. I don’t profit from her editorial business — in fact, I don’t even know who she is working with. Her business is completely separate from mine. She’s a good editor, and I sometimes suggest her name to people, but I’m always quick to say, “And her editorial company is not tied to MacGregor Literary in any way.” The problem here is the potential to scam people… In essence, to say to a writer, “I don’t believe you’re good enough to be my client, but I’ll turn you over to an editor so I can make some money off of you.” That’s wrong, according to the AAR, of which I’m a longstanding member. Things are changing, and agents are doing more than they used to, but trying to make money directly from their authors by selling them services is not kosher.

At what point — if ever — in the process of grinding out a first novel should one begin to think about securing the services of an agent?

Did you know that most first-time novelists don’t sell their manuscripts? In fact, the industry average is either six or seven, depending on who is doing the telling. That is, most authors can expect to complete six or seven novels before they have something ready to sell. So, um, you may or may not be ready with your first novel. Most are not.

I was sent an e-book contract from a small publisher, and it demands all rights, forever, plus POD rights. Are there things I should look for in an e-book contract?

There are a bunch of things to look for in any publishing contract, including: What rights are you granting them? Is this just US or also foreign rights? Do they want dramatic rights? When is the manuscript due? What are the royalty rates? What is the royalty based on? How often am I paid? Is there a reserve clause? When will they publish it? What’s the process if they don’t like my manuscript? What does the competing works clause look like? What is the duration of this contract? How do rights get reverted to me? What you’re describing sounds like a rights-grab from an unscrupulous publisher. My advice: If you don’t know contracts, talk to someone who does. A contract is a legally binding document that will govern the entire business side of your book for as long as it’s in print. That being the case, you owe it to yourself to get it right. You probably wouldn’t buy a house without having someone knowledgable help you with the contract — treat your books the same way.

Is it advisable to give away printed materials to promote your book — bookmarks, postcards, stickers, posters? My publisher says they don’t have a budget for these types of things, but I have author friends who say they are essential.

They’re only essential if you have some evidence to suggest they’ll help you sell your book. Printed stuff like that used to be all the rage. Nowadays, they may help in certain situations (such as personal appearances or local bookstores), or in national campaigns (having giveaways with every purchase at a chain of stores, for example), but they’ve largely given way to online marketing efforts. If you have some evidence that printed pieces could be useful, then go ahead and invest in them… but my guess is you can find other avenues that will offer more bang for your buck. (And here I’ll invite any marketing types to weigh in on the matter. Do you find bookmarks and stickers to be helpful in promoting a new novel?)

What suggestions would you have to an author who wants to write pieces to boost her platform (in order to support her book)?

Ask yourself where your potential readers are. What are the sites/magazines/journals/blogs/e-zines where they congregate? What online communities do they participate in? Make a list of the top 100 or 200 places where your readers hang out. Then go visit all those sites. How does one participate with them? Do they take freelance articles? Are they interested in profiles? interviews? sidebars? numbers pieces? Would they like an interview with an author? Ask yourself how you can create a piece that fits the site, but promotes you and your book. Once you’ve figured out where readers are going, how you get onto those sites, you write something that’s a fit and send it to them. Put the topic or title in the subject line of your email. Include the piece, give a short bio of yourself at the end, and include links to other things you’ve written. That will get you started.

Are there companies that can help me turn my manuscript into an ebook?

Sure. There are a bunch. You can do it yourself easily enough on Amazon, or go to Smashwords so that it gets onto the iBookstore and B&N.com. BookBaby (whom I’ve never used, but heard nice things about) can do the basics for about a hundred bucks. You may want to find a company that will not only work with Amazon, but will get you onto Oyster and FlipKart and some of the other new book e-railers. But a quick Google search will provide you with several companies that do exactly that sort of work. Ebook assistance is a growing industry.

In the past, you’ve recommended several very funny websites. I haven’t seen you post anything like that in a while –can you recommend anything?

Sure. A good buddy of mine runs Slushpile Hell, which is a HOOT. Check it out at http://slushpilehell.tumblr.com/

This isn’t really a “writing” question, but more of a personal question… You represent a number of books. Can you name a couple titles you’ve represented that are just releasing, and that you’re excited about?

I always fear naming one or two titles, since it leaves me in the position of having some authors feel as though their book is being ignored. But there are several really cool books that are just now hitting the market. Susan Meissner’s first novel at NAL, A Fall of Marigolds, has just released. If you like action, check out Vince Zandri’s The Shroud Key, or Les Edgerton’s brilliantly written The Bitch. Lisa Samson’s latest, Runaway Saint, is just now coming out. If you haven’t been introduced to Jessica Dotta’s rich Price of Privilege trilogy, you’re missing out on a great new historical series. Meg Moseley’s The Stillness of Chimes is a wonderful read. On the popular front, Rachel Hauck has a hit with Princess Ever After, Leslie Gould’s latest, Minding Molly, is a fun twist on Shakespeare, and I always love reading Joyce Magnin’s work, so I’m enjoying Maybelle in Stitches. And there’s a debut novelist from the UK, Luke Wordley, who has done a guy’s novel, The Fight, which is remarkably good. On the nonfiction side, I can’t wait to break open Alton Gansky’s 60 People who Shaped the Church, since I love church history. And one book I think is going to be a huge hit is Bonnie Gray’s memoir, Finding Spiritual Whitespace, which I think is profound and moving. (You can see more of it here: www.thebonniegray.com ) Okay, I’m sure I’ve just made enemies, but those are the books I’m looking at right now.

If you could sit down for an after-dinner drink with an agent…

April 25th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Proposals, Publishing, Questions from Beginners | 4 Comments

Okay, so all month I’ve been having readers send in questions they would ask if they could just sit down and be face to face with a literary agent. Here’s the most recent batch of questions I’ve received…

Is it standard for most debut authors to have their manuscripts read by an outside copy-editor before submitting to a publisher? I’ve heard this is now common practice, but with the low advances publishers are now paying, it seems unfair to insist on the author funding the cost of an outside edit.

I think it’s an exaggeration to say publishers “insist” on an outside copyedit. The author is best protected when a manuscript comes in clean, since they’re not relying on some minimum wage, entry-level person to do the edit. And as the business has gotten harder, publishers seem to be doing less editing, and they love having their costs cut by having manuscripts come in as clean as possible. But I don’t believe we can say that’s any sort of official standard, except perhaps with mom-and-pop ebook publishers who can’t afford a good copy editor.

When it comes to book proposals, should a narrative non-fiction proposal follow the rules for a novel, or for a nonfiction book?

It’s a nonfiction book, so it should basically follow a nonfiction proposal format. But this is a great question, since narrative nonfiction is really a blend of the two. Still, you’ll find the core of a narrative book is telling a nonfiction story, so stick with the nonfiction proposal model.

I’ve seen contradicting opinions on using blog content in books… If I write a blog, does a publisher consider all content “published,” and therefore unusable in a future book?

If you write a blog post and stick it on your website, it has, in fact, been “published.” But no, that doesn’t preclude you from using that material in a future book, assuming you own it. It’s just that a publisher won’t want to do a book that contains 100% blog content, since that’s already been out there and is available for anyone to read for free. So the publisher will tell you they want somewhere between 30% and 70% “new” content in the book. (By the way, if you write an article and sell it to someone else’s site or to an e-zine, you may in fact no longer own the rights to it, and then you’d be unable to use it. Make sure to check your contract before using pieces you’ve sold to others.)

How do you find out who represents a particular author? And if I know an author who writes in my genre, is it okay to approach his/her agent? Or will they likely say no, since they already represent books in that genre?

To find out who represents an author, you can go to AARonline.org (the website for the Association of Author Representatives) and look it up. Or you can go to an author’s website and see if he or she has the agent referenced somewhere. But yes, agents tend to look for projects in the same genre — I represent several suspense writers, a bunch of inspirational novelists, and several literary novelists. Since I’m doing deals with editors at publishing houses who work in those genres, it only makes sense that I’d represent several authors in those genres.

When a publisher requests a “complete manuscript” at a conference, does an author include the acknowledgements, dedication, and personal author notes?

Nope. At that point they just want to read the book. All the personal asides can come later — they’ll only detract from the larger concept of the story.

I have an agent who I signed with six months ago. Is it fair for me to think he will respond to my direct questions? (Questions like “Who did you send my proposal to?” and “When did it go out?”) Those don’t seem unreasonable to me, but he never responds. Is there something about the relationship that I’m not understanding?

My advice: Call and have a chat with your agent about expectations. Agents are just people, and they come in all types. Some agents keep in touch regularly. Others choose to stay away and only show up when there is news. I’d suggest that a good agent should keep an author apprised of where you are in the process, but perhaps the two of you could simply have a discussion and clear up how each of you work.

Do editors at large houses ever look at the books at small houses and pick them up? What would get the attention of a larger publishing house? And would it be bad form to approach an editor at a conference and suggest they look at my already-published book?

It’s rare for an editor to look at the books at small houses with the intent of picking them up. Once a book is contracted, it tends to remain at that house (which is why you want to be careful of contracting your book at some small, crappy house). It happens occasionally, but almost exclusively because the book has busted out in a big way, or the author is suddenly famous. When I was a publisher at Time-Warner, we were doing books with several TV preachers (Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, etc). I noticed there were some other famous TV preachers who were gaining a large following, but who had done their books at a very small press. We approached that publisher and bought out the contracts for those books, in hopes of getting backlist titles for up-and-coming TV personalities. So it happens… but it would be a rare instance for an author to approach a big house to suggest they buy the rights to their book from a small house. The only reason you’d do it would be because your book is going nuts and the small publisher can’t handle it, or you’ve suddenly landed a measure of fame that requires a larger publisher to maximize.

I’ve been contemplating getting an agent, but I’ve also thought about starting my own publishing company. What are the biggest rewards for each?

The biggest rewards for starting your own publishing company would be that (1) you’re the boss and can make all the decisions, (2) you’ll make roughly three times as much money on each book sold, (3) it’s faster to do your books yourself, and (4) you have creative control. And, of course, the downside is that you have to do it all yourself. Some people love running a business, others couldn’t run a business if their life depended on it.

The biggest rewards for working with an agent would include (1) having an experienced person offer counsel on things like contracts and negotiations, (2) having someone make introductions to you with both foreign and domestic publishers, as well as with subsidiary companies like movie people, (3) having someone with specialized knowledge assist you in your career, your marketing, your covers, your brand, etc, (4) having someone encourage you, as well as having someone plead your case for you when there’s a problem, and (5) having someone who knows the business seek out new opportunities. I suppose there are other things (editorial help, etc), but those are some of the first things that come to mind. Again, I’m not here to serve as a commercial for literary agents — I think most of the authors I represent feel I provide a good service for them, but I understand why some authors want to go another route, and that’s fine.

If you could sit down to dinner with a literary agent…

April 22nd, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 9 Comments

Imagine this: You get to sit down to have dinner with the literary agent of your choosing. You can ask anything you want? So… what would you ask? I’ve been taking the entire month of April to let people send in the questions they’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent. Recent questions include…

A friend of mine in our writers’ group asked me if she can be sued if she uses the name of a real town — i.e., Witch Hazel, Oregon, in her novel. Is that true?

Okay– I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not giving you legal advice. If you need legal advice, go talk to an attorney. What you’re getting is my take as an agent… Sued? For what? No. You can be sued for defaming or libeling someone, but you can’t be sued for simply using the name of a town. Does she think she can’t say, “The plane flew to New York”? (But thanks for the call-out to my hometown of Witch Hazel!)

It’s my understanding that publishers will often pay higher royalties for hardcover than softcover. Why is this?

It’s true. The standard book contracts pays 10% of the retail price on the first 5000 hardcopies sold, 12.5% on the next 5000 copies, and 15% thereafter. A trade paper pays a flat 7.5%. The cost of the hardcover is higher, the production costs are a bit higher, people are willing to pay more, so there is more money to divide. Thus the royalties are higher. (By the way, most CBA publishers pay on net contracts, so it’s a bit different.)

I’d like to know what goes on in a Pub Board meeting, and why does it sometimes take so long for them to make a decision on a book?

The pub board is where a decision is made to publish or not publish a book. Usually it includes the editor presenting the project, the head of editorial, the head of sales, the head of marketing, somebody from accounting, the publisher, and, depending on the house, it can include a publicist, a special markets person, an online specialist, someone from production, and a trained monkey. The editorial people are there to present the book and explain why it’s a good idea. The sales people do some research so they can explain to everyone how the retail accounts will react to it. The publisher gives strategic direction to the line. The accounting guy will look bored a lot and wonder why they’re not doing another book with James Patterson, since “his books always make us a lot of money.” The marketing people are there to explain why, no matter how hard they try, they won’t be able to get any marketing for the book. So they debate the merits of the book in the marketplace — will it get attention? Does it speak to a particular need or fill an opening? The sales and marketing reps may ask for more time to go back and talk to accounts, to see if Wal-Mart wants to buy 3000 copes, or if Good Morning America wants to have the author visit. All that takes time. And every book has a profit-and-loss sheet, which spells out the hard costs for producing the book, plus the marketing and overhead. Sometimes they want more time to re-jigger the numbers on the P&L, in order to make sure they can project a profit with the book. But the conversation that happens in a pub board meeting is pretty much like any other meeting — the editor presents the book, tells about the author, explains the story or concept, and people discuss the merits. At most houses they disperse the proposal and sample chapters before the meeting, so everyone involved in the discussion can read the author’s words before making a decision. Then, at some point, they vote. In my experience, most pub board decisions tend to be “most everyone agrees to do this” or “none of us can really get behind this.” In other words, there aren’t a ton of split decisions. The group usually comes to some sort of consensus. (That’s not always the case. There are a few publishers who dominate their companies, and if they don’t like a book, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. But those are more rare than you might think.) In other words, the pub board is a business committee meeting, with everybody involved trying to make money for the company and keep them afloat. At larger companies they meet every week, at medium sized companies they meet once or twice a month. At a small company they may only meet when they have something to discuss.

I recently turned in a contracted book with a publisher, and have started working on my next book idea. But I think this new book might be a better fit at another house. Do you think I’m obligated to show it to my current publisher? Or is it an industry courtesy to submit the new book to my current publisher first? There are no first refusal rights in the contract.

If your current contract doesn’t have any sort of option or first-look clause, you’re probably free to show it to others. However, if your current publisher is doing a good job with you, you may want to show it to them first, just to be polite and maintain the relationship. In my experience, newer authors frequently want to bounce around to various houses, but the happiest authors I know are those who have been at one house for a long time. Having several books at one publishing house allows them to cross-sell your various titles, and builds a stronger relationship with them over time.

How do you feel about using a pen-name when writing a novel? Is it worth it? I imagine there is extra red-tape and lots of questions?

In these days when even J.K. Rowling can’t keep a pen name secret, I think it’s hard to make this work. Doubly hard if you expect to keep it up with multiple books — you have to have another identity, you can’t use author photos or do appearances, and of course radio and TV become very difficult. Nora Roberts writes as J.D. Robb, but she’s very open about it. I’d probably ask you why you feel a need to write under a pseudonym. Usually writers simply want to do this because they want to stay hidden, and staying hidden in this day and age is tough. Of course, if you want to use a pen name simply because your real name is “Hepsiba Von Schlossenpfepfer” or “Ferral Cronk,” I’ll understand, and encourage you to pick something salable and stick with it. But in those cases, you maintain that as your writing identity long-term. (And yes, I once knew a woman named Ferral Cronk.)

Are the online writer’s conferences worthwhile for those on a limited budget?

I like writing conferences in general, since they’re a place to meet people — you rub shoulders with other writers in your genre, you talk with people who are facing some of the same struggles you’re facing, you get introduced to editors, you hear some good idea. Writing is a solitary endeavor, and meeting other people in the industry is the single best part of a conference. But, of course, the “other” reason for attending a conference is for the training they offer. There will be workshops on creating characters or outlining or building suspense or negotiating contracts — all interesting, usually taught by people with good experience. But that’s when you’re going to a regular conference. An online conference? The value is strictly in the content, since there is no rubbing shoulders with others. You attend so that you can get solid information on specific subjects. So check to see who is teaching, and ask yourself if you need the information. Then look at the price and determine if it’s worth the cost, or if you’d be money ahead to simply buy a book from Writers Digest on the topic. Without great content, offered by an experienced and knowledgeable instructor, I question the value of an online conference.

I once heard writer and writing guru Cecil Murphey say that an author shouldn’t get an agent too early in her career. Do you agree? And when does an author need to get an agent?

I asked my buddy Cec Murphey about that quote, and he said, “Too many writers think that because they’ve finished their first book, the next step is to get an agent. They’re probably not ready and need someone else to go over their manuscript. From my earliest days as a writer, I paid someone to read my first drafts. It was an investment in my career. And I learned from their comments. One of the cliches in publishing says, ‘Your first book is probably your fourth.’ That is, it takes time to learn the craft and to be ready to publish. Too many just-finished-my-first-book writers are so eager for acceptance and approval, they refuse to hold back and truly learn to write.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Cecil. In my view, an author needs an agent when he or she is ready to move forward in a writing career, and many newbies aren’t ready yet. For some, “being ready” means the manuscript is completed and the author’s platform has taken shape, so they’re probably about to begin dealing with publishers. For others it means they need to be introduced to US and foreign publishers, to movie producers, and to other people in the industry. For still others they’re ready when they have interest in their book, but don’t understand contracts or negotiation or marketing. There’s no one right answer, but I get what Cec was saying — that too many writers jump the gun, and seek out an agent before they’re ready to get published.

What makes a great cover?

A great cover grabs the attention of potential readers, who can tell from the mood and images on the cover what the book is about. It has something visual — a focal point which draws the reader in, leading them to the book title. It’s easily readable, fits in with other bestselling books in its genre, and matches up with the author’s brand. I tend to like covers that are simple but still able to stand out. I look at them and think, “What an interesting cover.” Covers are essential for selling books in our visual society, but too many self-published ebooks have either bad color, bad stock art, or images that don’t fit the story.

I sent a proposal to an agent, who acknowledged receiving it, but the next day I heard from an editor I’d met at a conference. That editor didn’t want the book as it is, but had some suggestions for improving the text. My question for you: Now that I’ve made those changes, should I re-send my revised/updated proposal to the agent, or let him continue to review the old version? And if I send him the new one, what do I say?

Yes, send the new one. Just include a note that says, “I had a talk with so-and-so, a wonderful editor at Big Publishing House. She had some very helpful suggestions for me, and I’ve been revising my proposal to reflect those changes. I thought you might find it helpful to see my revised/updated proposal. Do you mind taking a look?”

I read your answers the other day, and have a question for you: Let’s say a writer has a platform that reaches twenty thousand people. What do they need a publisher for? If I can hire someone to do the cover, to help with the editing, and to help set up things with Lulu to print off copies, why bother giving all that away to a publishing house? I even know of an order fulfillment company who could manage to send the purchased copies off to readers. So why would I want to hand off all that power to someone else?

You may not want to. If you’ve read my blog regularly, you know that I’m supportive of authors working to self-publish. If you’re entrepreneurial and you don’t mind working with a developmental editor, hiring a copyeditor, arranging to have somebody manage your print files, paying an editor or a service like BookBaby to upload your ebook, and coordinating with a fulfillment company to manage orders and sending, you can set yourself up as your own micro-publishing house. You may even hire a marketing firm to assist with the publicity for your book. For some, that scenario is a perfectly valid option. Just realize that not every author is cut from the same cloth. Not every writer wants to do that, has the knowledge or drive to do that, nor has the money to do that. There’s no one “right” way to be an author today. But why turn a manuscript over to a publisher? Because there are far more success stories from authors who worked with publishers than from authors who posted a book on Amazon and waited for success to come find them. Traditional publishers still have validity in today’s publishing market. They have reach, they offer great editing, they produce a quality product, they take care of things like production and fulfillment, and they have a long track record of success working with chains and independent bookstores. I’ve nothing against an author going indie, but I’m starting to tire of the folks who are prophesying the death of traditional publishers… Legacy publishers still have a role in our industry.

I’m getting flooded with questions. So what’s yours? If you could sit down and have dinner with a literary agent, to ask all those questions about writing and publishing that you’ve always wanted to ask, what would your questions be? You can drop them into the “comments” section or send them to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com — and a hint for those of you who struggled with that… No, you don’t really use the words (at) or (dot). Sorry to be unclear about that…

If you could sit and have a beer with a literary agent…

April 18th, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Trends | 2 Comments

I’m taking the month of April and letting people send in ANY question they have about writing and publishing. If you could sit down for an hour over a beer with a literary agent, and ask him anything you wanted, what would you want to know? Here are questions I’ve been sent recently…

If I am offered a contract, should I then get an agent?

That depends on the situation. Although I’m a longtime literary agent, I’m not an agent-evangelist, insisting everyone needs an agent. So think about the big picture here — your agent didn’t discuss the idea with you, or help you sharpen your proposal, or introduce you to editors, or send it out to publishers, or offer career advice. Once you’re offered a contract, the agent is going to step into it and earn a commission. So here’s my thinking… IF the agent can bring value, in terms of doing a great negotiation, and improving the contract & terms, and getting involved in the marketing, and stepping in to help with dramatic and foreign rights, and offering advice for your future, then it might be worthwhile to have an agent step in. But if all he’s going to do is say “yes” to the offer, it may not be worth paying him 15%. Consider talking with a good contract evaluation service, which might only charge a couple hundred dollars. (Or you might talk with an attorney, but be careful — they tend to charge by the six-minute increment and want to keep the clock running, so it can be expensive. Maybe consider this option if you’ve got something complex, such as a series offer or a movie deal.) But don’t sign with someone just so you can have the honor of saying, “I have an agent!”

If my novel is women’s fiction, is it best to target a female agent?

It’s best to target an agent who does a lot of work in your genre. If you write historical romance, you don’t need an old romantic to represent you — but it helps to have an agent who has sold a bunch of historical romances. I’ve sold as much romance over the past fifteen years as anyone, I think, and I’ve done pretty well for the authors I represent. Of course, you need to feel comfortable with your agent, so don’t sign on with the first person who offers you representation. Check them out and make sure they’re legit. Have they done deals? How many in your genre? Who were those deals with? Do they have authors who have stayed with them and grown their careers? I occasionally do conferences, and I’ve been amazed at the lack of experience I see in some of the people posing as agents.

If you are a member of a group that has an interest in a certain period of history (say “the Old West”), and you are allowed/encouraged to peddle your novel to the group, does that count towards your platform? If there are 9000 members in the group, can I claim that number, or does it have to be people who are actually following you on Facebook?

Sure that counts toward your platform. Those are people who are interested in what you’re writing. By all means include them. My one caution: Don’t push writing organizations too hard in your pitch. A romance writer who tells me, “I belong to RWA” isn’t really impressing me — LOTS of people belong to RWA. And while the organization is fabulous (for those who don’t know, RWA puts on one of the best writing conferences on the planet), it’s made up of writers who won’t really buy a lot of your books. Your friends will buy books, of course, but they’re buying the books because they are your friends, not because they belong to RWA.

Building a platform is one thing, but how does one build a real-world platform if they don’t live anywhere near a big city?

You build a platform by developing contacts and friendships. So you use the internet to connect with some folks. You write articles that get noticed, then interact with readers. You do blog posts or interviews, and interact with the people who come on to comment. You tweet and discuss things with online groups. Maybe you do webcasts or radio interviews from the comfort of your small-town home. You work to get endorsements and reviews. You partner with organizations and peers to get in front of others. You seek out your target audience and get in front of them — not to sell books, but to engage them as possible friends. You don’t need to be in a big city to make that happen; and I can tell you of several successful authors who don’t live in big cities. (Case in point: Tracie Peterson is a New York Times bestselling author who has built a career living in, um, nowhere. But I like to use her as an example because it allows me to tell everyone that Tracie and her husband Jim once named their dog after my son. Really. “Here, Colin MacGregor!”)

When my book was declared out of print, why wouldn’t my publisher give me the rights to the cover art?

A fiction publisher wrote me to say, “Authors never hoid any rights to the artwork for their book’s cover design. Publishers license those images for their product use or have staff photographers and designers create the covers. Once print rights revert on the book, in all but a very few cases the publisher can’t give the author that artwork, since the cover art is contracted between the designer and the publisher.”

I know you do a lot of inspirational fiction, so can you tell me why it is that modern day CBA agents and publishers seem to shy away from fantasy in Christian literature?

Because it doesn’t sell. It’s the same reason most publishers currently shy away from westerns — they don’t sell in big numbers. As soon as they determine the genre will sell well, publishers will start producing more of those books. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about publishing, it’s to be patient. Things come into style, then they go out of style. Jane Austen books were huge, now they seem to be waning. Dystopian was all the rage, now nobody is contracting them. Be patient. Fantasy is big with young people, so my guess is that as this generation moves toward adulthood, fantasy will make a comeback. As I like to say, publishing is a tidal business — the tide comes in, the tide goes out.

What is the most creative or memorable pitch someone has made to you?

Um… you won’t much like my answer. Most of the authors I represent are people I knew, or friends of current clients whom I met and started working with. My list isn’t really filled with authors who wowed me at a ten-minute pitch session at a conference (although I realize this would be a considerably more fun answer if I said that). So the really memorable ones, to me, were the authors who came in with a great idea, and showed me some fabulous writing. Christy Award winner Ann Tatlock simply showed me a proposal at a conference, and the writing was so good I think I fell off my chair. Sheila Gregoire got up and spoke at a conference in Canada, and immediately had the audience in the palm of her hand, making me want to read her work. Bonnie Gray (who you don’t know, but her book White Space is releasing later this spring) had a great story to tell. Romance writer Vickie McDonough handed me a wonderful idea at a conference in the mountains of Colorado. Holly Lorincz showed me a proposal over coffee that made me laugh out loud. Gail Martin was speaking at a conference with me, and had so much wisdom to share with people that I think I pitched myself to her. Kimberly Stuart met me on a shuttle bus, and I was so charmed I had to read her work. Every one of them was a writer, with a strong voice, and I was impressed by their professionalism. While I like each of them, I’m not representing them because I like them — I’m representing them because I like them AND THEY CAN WRITE. That’s probably not the answer you were looking for. But I do have one great story…

I was at a conference, and talked on a panel about the pluses and minuses of working in the CBA/religious/spirituality market. I said to the audience that one of the interesting things about it is that I’m an Anglican, and CBA is populated with a variety of religious types — the ultra-conservatives, the leftist social types, the wild charismatics, the quiet fundamentalists, the angry, the loud, the wacky… all sorts of people, most of them very normal, and some of them wondering if I’m “Christian enough” for them. And at times some of them can be sure they have “the call of God” — which makes it a bit awkward when I have to say, “God may have told you to write your book, but He didn’t give me any instructions about having to represent it.” Anyway, that night there was a fancy dinner, and as I walked up to my table, I noticed someone had left a card on my chair. It read, “GOD TOLD ME HE WANTS YOU TO BE MY AGENT!” I laughed, as did the woman who wrote the card. We became friends, and I’m proud to represent romance writer Jennifer Johnson, who is a hoot.

What is the most fun you’ve had at a writing conference? And what’s the worst experience you’ve had at a conference?

I love writing conferences, since it’s a chance to see friends and share some fun in what is largely an individual business. I’ve got great memories of dancing into the wee hours while being the only male at the Harlequin party (me and 500 women getting down to “It’s Raining Men”). Gnoshing with fellow faculty members Michael Chabon, Yann Martel, Katherine Peterson, and Francine Rivers at the 2008 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, or at the 2006 Festival with Lauren Winner, Walter Wangerin, Alice McDermott, and Salman Rushdie (who, I must be honest, I only met for a moment). Ditching the way-too-uptight Mount Hermon conference with editorial friends one night to (1) hear a blues band, (2) accidentally wander into Lesbian Night at a dance club, and (3) take a dip in the Pacific Ocean at 3 in the morning. But my favorite time at most conferences is usually late at night, having quiet conversations over a glass of wine. I was introduced to the fabulous novelist Lisa Samson one time, and she immediately said, “You’re always saying nice things about my books!” We’ve gone on to work together for years. I had a great conversation with the wonderful writer Susan Meissner at a conference, and later got to work with her (Susan is one of those authors that I simply have to tell everyone about — her craft is so great that she inspires other writers). I met #1 best-selling novelist Mindy Clark at a conference, sitting in the restaurant and watching a terrible karaoke show, and she turned out to be one of the most fun people, and one of the most dedicated craftspersons I’ve ever known. (She won’t sleep until she gets the sentence right.) I met the incredibly gifted Rachel Hauck at a conference, and was struck right away with the way she processes a story. It’s the late, quiet conversations I think I like best.

My worst conference experience? This is a true story (and one that keeps showing up in other people’s writing)… I was at a Northwest writing conference at Seattle Pacific University years ago. (I remember the location, since two of my kids graduated from college there.) I had this weird guy who kept following me around, trying to pitch his book to me. Every time I turned around — BANG! There he was, holding his damn manuscript. Once, in trying to get away from him, I walked into the men’s room. As I was standing at the urinal (and that’s not an exaggeration: AS I WAS STANDING AT THE URINAL) I realized he was beside me, and he said, “um, if you could just take a look at my book sometime…” as he slipped it in front of my face. True story. I yelled at him, “NOT NOW!” and if I’d have been thinking, I would have turned and yelled at him, if you get my drift. A memorable experience.

Hey, we’ve invited writers this month to send in the questions they have always wanted to ask a literary agent. Drop me your question, and I”ll get to it next week.