Archive for the ‘Agents’ Category

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 | 0 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.

If I could sit down with a literary agent and ask ANYTHING…

April 16th, 2014 | Agents, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Self-Publishing, Trends | 10 Comments

This month I’m trying to get to all the questions people say they’d like to ask an agent, if they could just sit down with him or her for a few minutes and talk privately. Here are questions that people have asked recently…

Are the low costs of e-books costing authors money?

Sure. I mean, if a retailer sells a book for $20, the royalty is higher than if he sells it for $10. The average e-book is way down — many below $5, and often you’ll see specials where the books are 99 cents. That doesn’t leave much for an author. The argument is made that people want a deal, and the low prices build readership by finding readers who will spend a dollar or two without even thinking about it. And I think that’s true, to a point… but at some point, we have educated readers that they only need to spend a buck or two on a book, and that means the only people really making money are the bestselling authors.

I’m thinking of setting up my own publishing company. Do I need to trademark or copyright the company? Is there a contract template for doing that?

If you’re just doing it to keep the words “Amazon Publishing” off your title page, then create a business name, do a search to make sure the name & domain are available and not a copyright infringement, and start a bank account in the name of the company. In some states you’ll have to register the company name, so check your local laws, or talk with an attorney if you have greater legal questions. (For the record, I’m not an attorney, nor am I giving you legal advice.) You can find people willing to sell you all sorts of business-planning materials, but most authors who start their own companies simply start them online with a domain name and a bank account.

Can you recommend an affordable entertainment lawyer (i.e., “one who doesn’t charge $400 per hour”) but is still credible? Or can you recommend someone to look over movie/TV rights contracts?

I won’t recommend anyone by name on the blog, but there are plenty of good attorneys who specialize in entertainment law and intellectual property rights. You’ll want someone in your state, so do some research online. The AAR keeps a list of people by state, by the way. I would say the one thing to look for is experience — make sure you’re talking with an attorney who has done movie contracts in the past, since entertainment law is tricky and the average guy doing wills and rental property agreements won’t know what he is doing. That said, many literary agents have experience with this, and can help you with basic questions, and there are some “contract evaluation” companies that will review your paperwork for a flat fee.

How does a literary agent plan to make money with indie-published authors? I mean, if a writer is doing her own books on Amazon, and an agent is helping with things like planning and marketing and career strategies, how does the agent get paid?

There are several ways. First, the author might do a deal with a traditional publisher, so the agent makes a standard commission. Second, the agent might help with things like Amazon deals, Smashword deals, movie rights, foreign rights, and other subsidiary rights, earning a commission on those. Third, the agent might arrange for services that are paid (though you have to be careful not to run afoul of AAR guidelines with that). Fourth (and something we’re doing here at MacGregor Literary), the agent may help authors set up a writing community, where authors in a genre band together to do books in a genre. The books look and feel like a line from a publishing house, but they are owned and operated by the authors as a sort of co-op. The agents role is to manage it. We are doing this with a western line (www.DustyTrailBooks.com) and a romance line (www.ForgetMeNotRomances.com) and a cozy mystery line (www.SpyglassLaneMysteries.com).

What do you project as the future possibilities with audio books?

Audio books are exploding. Amazon bought Brilliance Audio just to make sure they had the capability of cornering the market on audio. More are being created and sold every year, and in a mobile society people are discovering the joy of hearing a well-read tale. The future is bright — but I think we’ll all begin to see audio books as something completely different than print or e-books, just as movies are different from books. Audio offers its own experience, and I think needs to begin to be viewed as a completely separate category of entertainment.

A couple years ago, you were touting the Google Book Settlement as the wave of the future, then it was challenged, and eventually the whole mess sort of disappeared. Can you tell me where that situation (of having Google control hundreds of thousands of out-of-print books) is now?

Sure — Google won. Hands down. It was a huge rights-grab by the company, they hired a plethora of lawyers, and they won in court (proving once again that the Obama administration is no friend of authors — they seem willing to take the side of every freaking corporate entity that comes along). Google now plans to make all those titles available, often for free, and everyone is hoping they’re going to treat authors fairly by not giving away the words others created. (Um… that’s a fool’s desire. Google is in this to make money and seize content so as to have control, and the hell with artists getting a fair shake.) The Authors Guild has proposed that Congress create a collective licensing organization — they have said, “something like ASCAP or BMI to deal with mass digitization and orphan books. Such an organization could pave the way for a true national digital library, but it would be limited in scope, just as ASCAP is.” In their letter to members, they noted that their key requests are the (1) authors get paid, (2) authors can say “no” and opt out if they want to, (3) this would be strictly for out-of-print books, and (4) there would be some sort of mediatory agency to handle disputes. My guess? The Obama administration will laugh and disseminate a photo of the Attorney General having drinks with the CEO’s of Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, and any other company who can buy their way into the White House. (Um… yeah. I tend to think our current government is not exactly looking after the little guy any more.)

It’s been a while since you shared anything crazy, Chip. What’s the worst query you’ve received recently?

“Dear Literary Agent – Prior to earth, our immortal Santa lived among the Tarwoos on the planet Tsixodi where male Tarwoos were called Manwoos and female Tarwoos were called Woos…” I kid you not. I also had a query about a fantasy novel where people get “a magical disease” which causes body parts to break off, fly around, and start talking — and the young lady in the story discovers “adventure and science” when “a detached talking penis…” Well, you get the idea. And, to top off this fun-filled trilogy, we received a proposal for what I can only guess is a crappy porn novel about two high schoolers that features “342 pages filled with numerous bazaar sexual escapades.” That’s right — “bazaar.” I assume that means the couple is having sex in an open-air market, but I didn’t bother to check it closely. I don’t think I’m old enough for bazaar sex.

This month we’re encouraging writers to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask a literary agent. So what’s your question?

Sitting down with a literary agent for a latte…

April 15th, 2014 | Agents, Books, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 8 Comments

So if you could sit down at Starbucks with a literary agent, and ask him any question you wanted, what would you ask? I’m taking the month of April to let you ask those questions you’ve always wanted to talk over with an agent…

Does being a self-published author with several books help or hurt your chances of getting an agent to read something?

If the books are well written and have a good track record of sales, that will improve your chances. If the books are poorly done, or if you can’t show that you’ve sold many copies (or worse, the Amazon numbers suggest you haven’t sold a bunch of books), it will hurt your chances. I guess that’s not a surprise to you. But understand that self-pubbed books don’t disqualify you from landing an agent, nor does having a printed book you did on Create Space help your cause very much. An agent is going to be looking for a great idea, expressed through great writing, from an author with a great platform who has a strong track record of sales.

What advice would you give a first-time author? I’ve been trying to network, but not sure what else to do.

Know your audience. Take charge of your marketing. Have goals. Talk with someone who really knows how to market. Go to everyone you know. Do everything the publisher asks you to do. Research where your likely readers are online — maybe make a list of the top 100 sites your potential readers are gathering — then find ways to get onto those sites and get your name and book title in front of those readers. Learn to talk about your story in a way that’s interesting, and find venues to do that. Solicit reviews. Use the Amazon tools. Figure out some strategies you are comfortable with, and which you think will be effective, then do them. Don’t expect miracles. Don’t give up after two months.

Do you see the possibility of “New Adult” ever working in CBA?

Yeah, I do. New Adult is the (relatively new) category in publishing that appeals to those just past YA fiction, but maybe not interested in the romances and suspense stories we consider “adult” fiction. NA appeals to those in the 17 to 25 age group, and it’s been all the rage in publishing circles — growing like crazy. The genre began by looking at the issues closely related to people that age: relationships, career choices, new jobs, new cities, new adult friendships, the freedom that comes with growing up, etc. But it’s slid into a sort of soft-porn-for-younger-women trough, so authors are complaining that they can’t get their books looked at unless they raise the slut factor. Will this genre make its way into CBA? Yeah, it will, since Christians tend to buy books. Trends often hit the general market first, then trail along a year or two later in CBA. I think it’s just a matter of time before we see more New Adult fiction at CBA publishers.

What is the impact of e-books on “out of print” status of books? Do books never go out of print, and thus an author’s rights to have book and artwork revert back to them never take place?

You pretty well summed it up. Publishers have changed the wording of contracts to include e-books as qualifying for a “book in print.” And, since e-books don’t require warehousing, it basically means a book need never be declared “out of print.” That’s why authors have to be very careful with what they sign — have a professional look over your contract, just to protect yourself. One publisher recently sent contracts to dozens of authors, telling them they wanted to include their out-of-print works into e-book collections. That sounded like a great idea to several writers, and they signed the contract and sent it back without checking with anyone. The problem? The document they were sent grants ALL book rights to the publisher, and once publishers have a right granted them, they rarely want to give it back. This is why agents are pushing for either sales thresholds (“if the book doesn’t sell 500 copies in a year”) or term limits (“this agreement is in force for five years”), so that an author will eventually be able to get his or her work back.

How long does it take, on average, from when you agree to take on a new novelist to when you sell their manuscript?

It’s unique with each book, of course, but I would say an average for a first-timer is less than a year. Still, I have a couple novelists I represent, whom I’ve worked with for almost two years, and I’ve not been able to sell their work. (Not proud of that fact, but being honest.) I believe in them as authors, and want to sell them, but the fiction market is in a state of revolution. So I preach patience, and sometimes self-publishing, and continue talking with them about the future. They’re good writers, but it’s tougher than ever to land a debut novel with a publisher.

I see you’re responding to email questions, but I sent you a query letter two weeks ago for a sure hit suspense book and you have yet to respond. How long should I wait for you (or any other agent) to get back to me?

I’m trying to think of a sensitive way to say this… Cry me a river. I’ve got authors I already represent who require my time — is it fair to ignore them (who I know) so that I can take care of you (who I don’t know)? I’ll get to it when I can — usually in a month or two. That’s about the norm in the industry. But whining at me about taking time to write my blog isn’t going to win you my friendship. Besides, where is it written that I owe you a response for your proposal? I didn’t ask you for it. My website basically discourages a lot of writers from sending in something cold. I do that because I can’t respond to everyone who decides they have a “sure hit book.” (And I’ve got a secret for you: There are no sure things in this business. I’ve seen great books fail completely.) Of course, a nicer, gentler agent would say to you, “Have patience, my friend. All in good time.” Unfortunately, you didn’t write to that nicer agent; you wrote to me. And my feeling is that you sound impatient and entitled. When I have time, I’ll get to it. If I feel it deserves a response, I’ll write one. If you don’t like my answer, you are free to withdraw your proposal and talk to someone else. I’ll cry all night.

Could you shed some light on the reality of “movie rights?” I read recently that a book to movie was finally beginning production—10 years after the contract was signed. And they say publishing is slow!

You have to learn to see movies as being completely different from the book world, just as dance performance is completely different from the world of costuming. I mean, every dancer onstage is wearing a costume, but the two things are unique businesses. If a book publisher offers you a contract for your completed manuscript, the odds are better than 90% that your book is going to come out. If a movie production company offers you a contract for your completed screenplay, the odds are less than 5% that it will come out. (As I said — different businesses.) If a book publisher contracts for the rights to your book, chances are very good you’ll eventually see that book on sale in a bookstore. If a movie production company contracts for the rights to your book, they are only buying an option to talk about it for a period of time, and the vast majority of those options will simply expire with nothing concrete ever happening to move the story toward a production in theaters. If a book publisher accepts your manuscript, you’ll probably see your book on store shelves in 12 to 24 months. If a movie production company accepts your manuscript, you might see your movie in theaters in four to ten years (but probably not, since they’re just going to cancel the project anyway). It’s fun to have a production company contract for the movie rights to your story, but the odds are long that they’ll ever make a film of it.

The numbers you shared in the blog the other day (about how many people we need to be connected to as authors if we are to do a good job marketing our books) seemed awfully high. What constitutes a good platform for a beginning novelist?

I’ll stick with what I said. Publishers like big platforms. A small publisher will be happy to see an author have connections to 10,000 people (they may contract a book with an author who has a smaller platform, but they LIKE to see 10k or larger). A mid-sized publisher is happy with 40k to 60k. A large publisher wants large numbers. Again, any publisher may do a book with an unknown author who has a small platform — but the odds of landing a deal increase as your platform increases.

I know you do some Christian or spirituality books, and that makes me wonder… Why aren’t there any books for men? “Wild at Heart” was published about fifteen years ago, and people still hold that up as a contemporary men’s book.

Yeah, that’s something CBA publishers tend to weep and wail and gnash their teeth over. The problem is that men don’t buy that many books in CBA stores, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — “Men don’t buy much, so we’ll design stores that basically appeal to women, so men will buy even less.” I have no idea what the solution is, though I hope publishers don’t give up on male readers.

Is there any chance that Barnes & Noble and the Nook survive?

I’m always hoping, and I think the industry is better having a national bookseller, but realistically it’s hard to see. They are obviously squeezed by Amazon, and I think we can expect them to continue to shrink. But dang! I really want B&N to survive. Like you, I’ve heard nothing but negatives about Nook, what with executives leaving and staff shrinking — so let me just state here that I LOVE my Nook, and think it’s a great e-reader. And the Nook team just announced they’ve grown the international side, so they’re in 32 countries, and 19 languages, with hopes of being the leading international e-reader. Like the boys in Monty Python said, always look on the bright side of life.

Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent? Send it along to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary. I’ll do my best to get you an answer.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN AGENT

April 14th, 2014 | Agents | 8 Comments

By Sandra Bishop
Agent and Vice-President of MacGregor Literary

Just what DOES an agent do all day?

It’s no great mystery that good agents work hard. But what we do EXACTLY is obviously not well known. I’m sure most people, if asked, would think we sit around coming up with ways to reject manuscripts, and counting our money.

At the moment I AM in money counting mode because I’m busy hunting down every last allowable deduction on the money I owe the IRS on the commissions I earned, though most times the work I do doesn’t even seem directly related to making money.

As far as rejecting manuscripts, most of my time is spent serving my authors, staying in touch with editors to keep proposals and projects moving forward, and keeping my work associates happy (i.e. “Yes, Chip, I will blog next week.”)

So, let me lift the veil a bit and show you what it is we do that no one sees. This is somewhat of a reconstruction, based on my notes and email records, of one of my work days last week:

• Left voice message with an editor to discuss timeline for author from whom they want two books; the first one in less than nine months if possible

• Wrote author to let her know we still haven’t connected, but that I’m trying.

• Called and talked with Chip about an offer, double checking that the deal points were solid and fair and in line with a deal he received recently from same publisher.

• Updated my internal document to reflect status of new offers, completed contracts, and deals in negotiation

• Called author to let him know an editor declined fiction ideas we’d discussed at a recent conference. Asked her to take another look at synopsis and let me know if he wanted to retool it, or move on to another idea.

• Left message for a sales manager to call me so we could continue to discuss possible interest in alternate version of book released in hard cover last year.

• Wrote her back asking if she’d send me the latest version of each along with title ideas.

• Helped author answer questions about a speaking engagement – suggested we ask about suspending until she is further along in completion within her upcoming deadline.

• Opened file showing proposed cover. Called author to discuss my recommended comments.

• Wrote editor to ask if they would consider submitting a title for an upcoming award.

• Wrote an author to let him know we’d received a request for his proposal, but that based on offer and that it was fair given his sales on sales of his previous books; it wasn’t looking good that, if we did get an offer, it wouldn’t likely be in the range he is hoping for.

• Answered an author’s questions asking about requesting forewords and endorsements. I suggested we get the contract settled and allow time for the editor to get the manuscript on their editing and production schedules befor pursuing so he could have timeline in mind when requesting them.

• Started email to editor to answer questions she had about an author’s platform, previous sales numbers, and future ideas.

• Took a phone call to discuss timeline and next books for author.

• Started email to author to recount highlights of our conversation. Decided to call instead.

• Called author to let her know she should sign her contract, that all is as is should be and that we’d covered every negotiable deal point.

• Phoned four editors to ask about interest in seeing proposal I’d sent several weeks back. Left voice mail in each case. Noted on my to do list to follow up with email next week.

• Sent conference call info to the manager of a sports figure I am hoping to work with, to ask if they have questions about our agency agreement.

• Lunch break – went outside to enjoy some beautiful NW spring sunshine and play fetch with my dog.

• Considered an email from a former client that though I didn’t have the time to act on her behalf, I would be happy to support her current agent’s request for rights to her books we’d place for her.

• Received author’s response to a deal memo. Wrote back letting her know I would ask for all her requests except the one requesting specification of a manuscript acceptance date, as release dates are never stipulated in contracts.

• Called editor to discuss author’s need for an extension, and to ask about their process for adding trade reviews to an author’s Amazon listing.

• Called an editor to ask if she could refer someone else at her house for a project I’m developing that doesn’t fit her imprint. We also talked about next an author I rep and discussed possible timing of next offer. She asked me to talk with author to see if she’d be willing to continue writing for them and if she should start putting together an offer.

• Wrote a publisher to suggest a final resolution to expenses he claims author has owed on books he destroyed because of accusations against the publisher that the third party didn’t have permission to include their information in the book.

• Declined request to travel to a regional conference (at my own expense) to speak to new authors.

• Prepared notes for conference call with network executives on behalf of a reality show client I am developing a book with.

• Made phone call. Discussed proposal I’d sent them prior week, and learned they would like to cooperate with us but want to know how much revenue the book will bring in.

• Started drafting a deal memo, but tabled until I gather more information from interested publishers on range of advance they might see fit to offer.

• Looked over a publishing contract for an author I’d recently added to my list. Wrote to confirm that I agreed the requested edits were above and beyond reasonable, and that the book – if edited as recommended – would not reflect the book as contracted. Told her I would reach out to the publisher to try and resolve for her.

• Called the editor, received a recording that her voice mailbox was not working. Wrote email to request phone call.

• Wrote editor I know to ask for referral to a collaborative writer about a non-fiction project

• Helped an author finalize estimate of travel costs for upcoming speaking event.

• Called editor I met with in NY last month to see if she’d had a chance to review manuscript.

• Emailed editor to forward link to an article in which our author’s book was featured.

• Took a break, decided to table rest of To Do list until next day.

• Wrote up a couple deals to report on Publisher’s Marketplace (I’m always way, way behind on this.)

• Made a list of phone calls I still need to initiate.

• Received email from our contracts administrator letting me know her review of my contract notes was ready for my approval.

• Gave author my input on the suggestions she received about story idea we’ve been discussing with her current publisher. Editorial team liked idea, but wanted some tweaks to better fit their publishing model. With some back & forth, the author and I came up with what we hope will be a more suitable storyline.

• Sent the revised idea to editor.

• Carried over undone tasks to my next to-do list.

 

Of course I won’t identify or discuss particular details of any of these items, but if you see anything here that raises questions about what agents do (besides the obvious), feel free to ask.

Sandra

Sitting down with a literary agent over a cappuccino…

April 11th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Proposals, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Resources for Writing, The Business of Writing, Trends | 16 Comments

So I happen to be sitting at Cafe Greco in North Beach (the Italian section of downtown San Francisco), and thought this was the perfect place to suggest authors sit down to have a cappuccino and talk. This month we’re just inviting authors to send the question they’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, if only they could be face to face. I’ve been sent a bunch of questions, and I’m trying to get to each of them…

I know many agents are looking for an author to have a big “platform.” What does a big platform look like to you?

A platform is a number. You speak? How many people do you speak to over the course of a year? You write a column? What’s your readership? You’re on radio? What’s your listenership? You blog? How many hits do you get? You do a column? How many people read your work? You belong to organizations? How many people are you connected to? All of those are numbers — just add up the numbers, and you’ll know how big your platform is. The bigger the number, the happier a publisher is going to be. More important is how many people you actually have some sort of relationship with — that is, how many of those folks do you speak to or consider an acquaintance? Can you suggest what percentage might actually purchase a book? A small publisher may be happy with a platform of ten to twenty thousand. A medium sized published may be looking for a platform that is at least forty to sixty thousand. A large publisher may not be all that interested if your platform is less than 100,000 — possibly not interested if your platform is less than 250,000, depending on the project.

Is it pointless to seek publication before launching a blog? I have substantial Facebook and growing Twitter followings, but haven’t launched my blog yet.

I’m not sure a blog is as vital as it was a few years ago. Some authors have built a platform using Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook. Others have really used GoodReads and Amazon in lieu of a blog. I think the important things to consider are (1) the numbers, (2) the connection they have with you, and (3) the content you’re sharing. Here’s what I mean — if you have a bunch of friends on Facebook because you’ve shared a lot of conservative political flamethrower stuff, but you’re writing a contemporary romantic suspense, the content doesn’t connect with the book’s expected readership. You may or may not need a blog, but the important thing with a blog these days is to get noticed, just like in publishing a book. There are currently roughly 20 million blogs available… how is yours going to grow a readership?

I’ve been asked to write a column for an online magazine which sounds good, but they refuse to tell writers what their numbers look like. Also, they pay, but they demand all rights. As an agent, do you think I should participate?

That depends on your expectations. If you need the money, a paid writing gig like this is great. As for demanding rights, lots of magazines these days are moving that direction — you have to be at peace with the fact you are basically using this as a work-for-hire. You could do some research on third party sites to find out some basic numbers for the magazine and make an educated guess at the numbers they’re hitting.

Do writers these days write specifically for the ebook market, or are they really writing for a print market and settling for a digital book?

Love the question, because for all the excitement about dedicated e-book authors, I find most writers are still hoping to land in print. Not all, certainly, but most. Why? Because traditionally that’s where success has come (and yes, that may be changing), and because legacy publishers can get authors into stores around the country. So it’s really a “reach” argument — that legacy publishers offer greater reach. That said, we’re in an era of revolution, and there are plenty of writers who have basically given up on the notion of working with a legacy publisher, and have become focused on creating their own ebooks and taking them to market via Amazon, Nook, and the iBookstore.

I heard you say at a conference that the one thing you look for most in a book proposal is “voice.” What are you really looking for when you say you want to see a strong voice in a proposal?

Voice is personality on the page. I love seeing proposals that offer strong personalities. Too many of the proposals I see are flat — they all sound the same, and could have been written by anyone. So I love seeing a project come in that seems different — big, unique, funny or insightful, with words/grammar/style/thought patterns that reveal your unique personality. If you read writers with great, unique voice, you just don’t confuse them with other writers. Great ideas come and go, but great voice lasts a long time. I see lots of ideas each month; I see very little great voice. And if you’re really interested in this topic, go to Amazon and pick up a copy of Les Edgerton’s FINDING YOUR VOICE. A wonderful book to help beginning writers figure out how to get their personality onto the page.

Do you still teach “proposal” workshops? Does a proposal still matter in these days of self-publishing one’s ebooks?

I do still teach my one-day proposal workshop. (Commercial: If your writing group or regional conference is looking for a cost-effective one-day seminar, you should get in touch.) Proposals continue to be vital for nonfiction books, and the way we usually start the conversation with fiction. I asked a senior editor at a Big Six publishing house about this, and she wrote me back to say, “One thing I think aspiring writers need to know about proposals is that they function as a business plan for a book. That is, they demonstrate why and how a project will be viable because of the idea, the author platform, and the market environment. In nonfiction, as you know, publishing a viable book is not so much about writing as about what will happen (either because of the author or the publisher) in the market to get people to buy it. Most people don’t want to hear that because they want to believe it’s all about writing, but that is very far from the truth these days. New writers need to understand this basic fact and see the proposal as an opportunity, not a chore to be gotten past.” A great proposal can help you find success, in my view. It won’t overcome a lousy idea, but it will certainly help you sell a good idea.

Who puts a manuscript or new book into the running for awards and contests? Does the author seek them out herself and submit her entries? Does the publisher submit completed manuscripts automatically to certain contests? Would an agent make recommendations for contests and/or award to go after?

Most major writing awards are submitted by publishers. Mid-level awards can be submitted by publisher or author. Most smaller writing awards are submitted by author. These usually cost money. And yes, in almost every case the entire completed manuscript is sent (though I know of no publisher who “automatically” submits to contests). An agent will certainly make recommendations for contests and awards, and I encourage authors to have that discussion with their agent. Publishers tend to like manuscripts that proved themselves by winning contests.

I’m working on a non-fiction manuscript for which I have some personal experience, but I don’t really have the full technical expertise to completely address the topic. Would an agent consider my proposal and connect me with an expert in the field? Or do I need to do the legwork myself to find the expert?

I have occasionally connected a writer and an expert, but it’s rare… Much more commonly I’ll just say to the writer, “You know, this would be a much stronger idea if you were to partner with an expert in the field.” An example: I once did a healthy lifestyle book, and encouraged the author to connect with a nutritionist and exercise physiologist, since her personal story was great, but I felt publishers were going to insist on some sort of recognized expertise.

I notice you do a bunch of religious/inspirational fiction. Do you also do fiction for the wider market?

I’ve received this question a hundred times… YES, take a look at my list. I do Christian fiction AND lots of general market fiction. So do Sandra, Amanda, Erin, and Holly, the other agents at MacLit.

I did a book with a smaller publishing house earlier this year, but the information on Amazon is incorrect. Try as I might, I can’t seem to get them to fix it. What do I do?

Talk to someone in the marketing department at your publishing company, tell them EXACTLY what is incorrect and EXACTLY what you would like it to say. Be clear, be polite, don’t blame, and don’t act like your life depends on changing this information. Amazon sometimes gets this stuff wrong, and publishers often try to fix it. I ran this question by a senior editor at a large house, and she replied: “Amazon is an automated system, at least with us, but I suspect with most other publishers. Amazon’s system goes into our system and pulls the data it wants when it wants it and then puts it up on the site, often as long as 4-6 months in advance. That’s why the data are often wrong. Authors get upset when they see incorrect data and copy but that’s because Amazon is pulling the early stuff before it gets polished. Pre-orders are good, but this is what comes of it. And this is Amazon’s doing, for their own mysterious and not-so-mysterious purposes.”

Okay — got a question you’ve always wanted to sit down and ask a literary agent in some face to face setting? Send it my way. Meanwhile, I’ll be here, eyeing the cannoli and ricciarellis. Ciao!

If you were sitting down for tea with an agent…

April 9th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing, Trends | 26 Comments

All month we’re inviting writers to send in their questions — if you could sit down and be face to face with a literary agent, what would you ask? Here are some of the questions that have come in…

At a big writing conference last summer, I noticed that most agents and editors now insist on seeing a “completed manuscript.” I have a manuscript I’ve rewritten several times — you even once took a look and suggested I work with an editor to improve it. So what is the definition of a “completed manuscript”?

I have two answers for you… First, when an editor says they’re only looking at completed manuscripts, that means they aren’t going to seriously consider a proposal and sample chapters. They insist on an author showing them a finished book, so that they lower their risk (no worries about missed deadlines, or the story going off the rails, etc). That’s the industry norm for first-time authors these days. But my second answer is that “completed” to an agent can also means your manuscript has been revised, rewritten, and is ready to show to a publisher. I frequently see novels that have promise, but they need more work, so I’ll suggest changes to the manuscript, or I’ll encourage the author to work with a writing coach, or I’ll just give the author the names and emails of half a dozen editors and encourage them to get some professional assistance.

I know you represent a lot of thrillers. Is it possible to have a female protagonist in a thriller? Does she have to be teamed with a strong male in order to survive?

Sure, it’s possible. In fact, there are some publishers right now that are looking for strong female leads in some contemporary thriller novels. Examples of books wit strong female leads include Mercy Gunderson, V.I. Warshawski, Vanessa Michael Munroe, Kathleen Mallory, Jade de Jong, Jane Whitefield, Eve Dallas, um.. Charlie Fox. All great characters; not all require a male backup to save them.

Is it possible for an indie author to get his books onto bookstore shelves? I have copies of my book ready, but the local Barnes & Noble won’t carry it. Is there anything I can do?

Your local independent bookstore may take a few copies, if you go in and talk with the store manager. But outside of face to face meetings, you’ll find it’s awfully tough to get your book onto store shelves. Stores are used to dealing with publishers and distributors, not directly with authors (except in the rare instance). And big chains like B&N and BAM generally won’t take hard copies of self-published books. That’s why most indie authors are pushing hard on the web. But again, I encourage authors to think about becoming a big deal locally — so if you’re close to a major city with a bunch of bookstores, invest in getting around to all of them, meeting the store owners & managers, and chatting up your book. Offer them great terms, and show them how you’re supporting the book locally and online if you want them to partner with you.

I have a mid-grade reader, a women’s self-help book, and a contemporary romance novel all completed. When you have a variety of projects like that, do you need separate agents for each category? Or should you try to find one agent to represent everything?

I know some authors who have a separate agent for their children’s books, and several who have a separate agent for their film or screenwriting projects, but the majority of authors have one agent who represents all their work. That allows the author and agent to create a more comprehensive career plan, and it keeps vital information (like finances and marketing plans and release dates) with the same person. Either can work, though you’ll eventually find the more spread out things are, the more tension there is in your life.

I sent my agent a manuscript three months ago, and he has yet to read it. Is that normal? Should I be concerned? He sent out a manuscript of mine nearly a year ago, and he says people are still considering it, and things are simply slow in the industry these days. Is that correct?

I don’t want to hammer someone — maybe there’s a reason your agent hasn’t read your work yet. But yes, I’d say three months is a long time to wait for someone who is already your agent. I’d encourage you to call and have a chat about it. My guess: The agent doesn’t really believe in this project, and is too nice (or perhaps too conflict-resistant) to want to tell you. As for the wait with publishers, I would agree that things are very slow at the moment. Publishers are taking a long time to decide on projects. Still, if a publisher has had a manuscript for a year and not decided… well, they HAVE decided. If they had any enthusiasm for the project at all, they’d have said so. By not saying anything, they’re really rejecting it.

How do I find out if the novel I just completed has similar books in print? I want to include that information in my proposal. Do I look by topic?

You do some research. Go into a great bookstore and spend some time perusing the store shelves. Talk with the sales staff, or with a librarian, or with your writer friends. Then go onto Amazon.com and search by key words, and perhaps by likely authors who have also written on the topic. Finding comparable titles is simply a matter of time and deduction.

Like many of your readers, I dream of the day when I can be a full time writer. (Unfortunately, these things called “mortgages” and “car payments” and “college tuition” keep getting in the way.) In your role, have you found there are certain jobs that are tailor-made for writers who have to work?

That’s a fascinating question… There probably are day jobs that many writers have — jobs that aren’t taxing mentally or physically, so the writer still has some energy left to exert on the creative process. But I’m not sure I have any real-world wisdom on this. I’ve represented several beginning authors who worked in food service (i.e., waiter or barista) and on the telephone (chatting up customers) or doing retail sales. But I’ve never really noticed there was one job that attracted a bunch of writers, so let’s ask readers: Do you have a job that you find meshes beautifully with your writing life? Could you share your thoughts in the comments section?

If you could sit down with a literary agent and ask anything you like, what would you ask?

If you could have lunch with an agent…

April 8th, 2014 | Agents, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners | 4 Comments

So I’m taking the month of April and asking readers to send in some specific questions: If you could have lunch with an agent, sit down face to face and talk, what would you ask? Here are some of the questions that have come in…

Recently a publisher stated that he thinks an author ought to plow some of their advance back into marketing — which upset me, since it seems wrong-headed to expect authors to bear the financial burden of book promotion. Why pick on the weakest financial link in the chain? Am I hopelessly naive? Or is that the new normal?

I saw that interview, and I was surprised. Certainly every author is throwing himself or herself into their own book. Let’s face it, NOBODY has more at stake in a book than the author. Nobody knows the story better. Nobody has spent more time on it. Nobody is counting on the the success more than the author. So I think it’s easy for a publisher, who is hopeful for the book to do well, but not inherently tied to its success, to say, “The author ought to take his advance check and use that money to pay an outside publicist.” And maybe there are times where that’s exactly what needs to happen. But it came across as out of touch and unrealistic, since most authors are trying to live on advances. I mean, I can’t imagine saying to a publisher, “If you want to be more successful, you need to reinvest your paycheck into training your people.” So no, this is not the new normal. That said, publishers are certainly expecting more out of authors when it comes to marketing. The publisher isn’t in charge of marketing your book — YOU are. The author is going to have to take the lead and complete much of the work. And that IS the new norm.

You’ve said recently there are some lousy agents out there. What makes a lousy agent, and how would we find about about them?

There are a handful of websites that track unscrupulous or illegal agents — Preditors and Editors is the best known, but Writer Beware (which was put together by the Science Fiction Writers of America) is also a good one, and there is an Agent Research and Evaluation service that tries to keep track of things. However, my criticism was aimed at some of the people who have started calling themselves agents, but who don’t really know what they’re doing. Think of it this way: If the agent has never worked in the industry, or never worked directly for a good literary agent so as to get mentored by him or her, it’s hard to take them seriously. (And if they worked for another crappy agent, it’s also hard to take them seriously.) I’ve seen several writers announce they’re becoming agents, and watched a bunch of people with no background in the industry announce that they are representing authors. Often times their experience is either (a) they’ve written a book in the past, or (b) they were part of a marketing campaign in the past. But they don’t really have any connections to publishers. They don’t know how the economics of publishing work. They don’t know how to negotiate a contract, or how to evaluated a contract. They can’t speak to trends in the industry. They don’t know how to give career advice. Then they say stupid things to authors, who are stuck with lousy contracts and bad decisions because a crappy agent told them something was true when, in fact, it was not. And I find this to be particularly true in CBA. (Yeah, I’ve been dealing with several of these things recently, and I’m a bit chapped about it.) Let’s face facts: If you check the Publishers Marketplace database of deals, or if you simply talk with a bunch of acquisition editors at publishing houses, you’ll find that 90% of the publishing deals at established CBA publishing houses are done by about fifteen agents. Most of the rest are pretending.

And there’s something else to note… When an agent joins the Association of Author Representatives, they commit to a code of ethics that says “we don’t charge fees or sell services to our authors.” So if you’re considering an agent, take a look at their website. If it says something like, “We offer author representation. We also sell editorial services. And we sell marketing advice. And we might charge you for career counseling…” That’s a sure sign you’re dealing with somebody is not a member of AAR, and is probably trying to scam you. Why? Because an agent doesn’t make money from their authors. They make money through author earnings, not by charging them fees. When you charge people fees to look at their work, or you try to sell editorial services on the side, everybody is a potential customer. There’s no reason to ever say “no” to anyone. And that is rampant in CBA. Run away. Find a real agent who knows what he or she is doing and won’t be asking you for money.

I posted the first few chapters of my manuscript online, just to get feedback from writer friends, but was told agents and editors hate that. Is that true?

Not in my view. I think that’s become very common. It used to be that publishes would stay away from a manuscript that had been posted online — that is clearly no longer true.

What would you recommend for a writer who wants to start working with speakers, to help them do books?

You need to establish some sort of track record, in order to prove you can do it. So start small — offer to do a shorter piece for them, or a study guide, or articles and blog posts. When I started collaborative writing (which was, admittedly, a couple decades ago), I offered to write some pieces for free, just so the speaker would know I had the chops to get it done. I actually hunted down possibilities, going to conference speakers and pastors and popular university profs so I could say, “Hey – this is good stuff… you should do a book!” Be aware that doing a book is not simply doing a series of articles — make sure you understand the logic and argument that is inherent in a complete book. But every collaborative writer I know began by doing shorter pieces, then eventually hooking up with bigger speakers. I represent a handful of writers who make a full-time living doing collaborative books with others, and they all started on the journalism side, doing interviews and articles.

Do you have any handy MacGregor tips to help authors identify the target audience for their book?

If you’re doing a nonfiction book, you need to think problem/solution. Most nonfiction is written to offer solutions to problems people are facing (there are exceptions: history, humor, memoir, biography, but the vast majority of nonfiction is all about presenting answers to questions that are being asked). So your target audience includes everyone who is facing that problem, or everyone who is asking that question. If you are doing a novel, you need to think about setting, characters, and story elements. Readers of a feather flock together, in a manner of speaking. So people who like political thrillers tend to like other political thrillers… which is to say, if you’re planning to write an Amish historical novel, you may want to see where Bev Lewis’ readers hang out online, since they will tend to be very similar to your target audience. Does that help?

You spend a lot of time talking about making money at publishing, but is there room in the industry for an author who doesn’t want to make it a career? I have a day job that I like, but I enjoy writing historical romance on the side. Is there room for me?

Absolutely. In fact, most novelists in this country are either working or married to someone who is — that’s the only way they can survive. Not everybody is driven to be a full-time writer. And that’s not even the dream for everyone who writes a book. I tend to focus on full-time writers because that’s the core of my business, but I represent plenty of people who have day jobs. Beth White and Jennifer Johnson, two novelists I represent, are both full time teachers. Mike Hingson and Sheila Gregoire, two bestselling nonfiction writers I work with, do speaking and consulting. Shane Stanford is a pastor. The wonderful novelist Jim Kraus runs a division for a publisher. Ira Wagler, who wrote a nonfiction book that has now sold more than 100,000 copies, runs a building supply company. And one of the up-and-coming novelists I’ve been working with, Kim Gillis, is the coroner for Sacramento County (a fascinating job for a thriller writer, don’t you think?). Not every writer will be moving toward a full-time career writing books.

More questions came in over the weekend, and I’ll be trying to catch up. If you’ve got a question you have always wanted to ask a literary agent, here is your chance. Send it in, and we’ll get to it this money.

Having coffee with a literary agent…

April 7th, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing, Trends | 5 Comments

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

Do you recommend self-publishing with your authors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I were having brunch with a literary agent…

April 4th, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitting down to breakfast with an agent…

April 2nd, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Trends | 3 Comments

Okay, so if you could sit down to breakfast with a literary agent, what would you ask him (or her)? I’m taking this month to let people send in questions of any sort — whatever it is they want to ask, if they could be face to face with an agent.

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

Yes, there are some things to keep in mind… Publishers are going to want to know if you ever come stateside, and if so, how often. They want to know if you’re going to be an active participant in the marketing of your book. They want to make sure you understand the American market, and are willing to market to US readers. (I represent authors in England, France, New Zealand, and Austrlia, so I’m familiar with the expectations.) So you can expect an agent will query you about these types of issues. I don’t think an agent will necessarily have different expectations of you (except for wondering why the rest of the world is always in love with Bill Clinton, when most Americans tend to think he was a good politician and a slimy human being), but the core will be the same — can you write? will you meet deadlines? will you help promote your book? will you be low maintenance?

It’s fair to ask if publishers will be leery… My sense is that US publishers are certainly more cautious with an author selling into the US market who lives overseas. They realize that things like radio and TV interviews are harder, there are few personal appearances, and sometimes cultural differences will arise. So make it clear that you’re an enthusiastic participant.

I’m under contract for my first two books. At what point should I try to find an agent? And should I wait to see how they do, or talk with agents now? I was told by someone I don’t need one now.

Excellent question. There’s no right or wrong time to get an agent. And I’m not an agent evangelist, trying to convince every author they need to sign on with someone. I would say you need to consider some things — do you know the contract you signed? Do you understand it? Did you push for the best deal possible? If there is a problem, can you speak up for yourself and get it resolved? Can you negotiate the next contract yourself? Do you need someone to talk through marketing with? Do you know how to decipher a royalty statement and talk through any problems? Most important, who is going to give you career advice? (Warning: Do NOT go to your publisher for career advice.) You may not need one now, or you may feel it’s the perfect time to start talking with someone, just to create a plan for the future.

For the record, I often hear people give the whole “you don’t need an agent” advice, but I notice it tends to come from people who don’t know jack (unpublished authors or writers who re self-publishing and claim to have it all together, when in fact they’re not making any money) OR from super-bestselling indie authors who hit the jackpot and can’t understand why everyone doesn’t do the same. The authors of THE SHACK were famous for saying they didn’t need an agent… and then it all fell apart and they started suing each other, since the deal was so badly put together. Now they all have agents. Color me surprise.

I’ve not had an agent to date, but I’m considering getting one after having had 15 books published by various publishers. However, I write picture books, middle grade, and YA. Some religious, some secular. Would an agent insist on (and be able to) rep all my future books, considering they are as varied as they are?

Agents tend to be strongest in certain fields. I do a lot of fiction — literary, suspense/thriller, romance, noir, the occasional other genre. I also do a lot of nonfiction — spiritual, business, self-help, lifestyle, memoir. There are also things I don’t do — cookbooks, poetry, children’s books, etc. If you’re going to get an agent, find someone who specializes in children’s book, talk about the breadth of your work, and let them know what genres you write in. That said, you’ll find there are few of us who work with both religious and secular publishing houses. There are a few — all of us at MacLit, Greg Johnson at Wordserve, Natasha Kern with fiction, Deidre Knight’s group, Carol Mann… but the list is relatively small.

Why are agents/editors so completely unwilling to take any risk to appeal to new markets?

Huh? I don’t find that to be true. I tend to represent in certain areas (see the previous question), but I still am open to new genres and ideas. Publishers find success in some areas and tend to stay within those lines, but I frequently have discussions with editors about new markets and new ideas. Perhaps the idea you’re proposing is too far outside the box?

What would you like to ask an agent? Send it along…