Archive for the ‘CBA’ Category

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 | 4 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…

Sitting down for a martini with a literary agent…

April 21st, 2014 | Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 12 Comments

Okay, so this month I’ve invited writers to send in the question they’d love to ask a literary agent, if only they could sit down over, say, a martini. Pretend the two of you are face to face. Relax. Take a deep breath. What would you ask? Here are several of the questions people sent…

When a contract with a publisher expires, I assume the rights to the book revert back to the author. Does the author then have to get a new cover, ISBN number, etc, to put the book out as an e-book or POD? And is that something usually covered in a contract?

Great question. First, with most publishing contracts these days, the rights do NOT automatically revert to the author when the book goes out of print. Instead, the book stays with that publisher as an e-book, and they’ll want to keep it as long as it’s selling some copies and making money. Even when it’s not, you’ll have to write and request your rights back. So let’s say the publisher does indeed revert rights — all that gets reverted to you is your text. You’ll need to create a new cover (unless it’s the rare instance where you own the cover art or can buy it from the publisher), get a new ISBN (since this is a new edition of the book), probably re-edit the book (to make it clean and up to date), then load it to Amazon, Smashwords, etc. And no, your current publishing contract won’t say much of anything about this process, other than to offer some confusing, multi-step process to try and get your rights back.

Is there any chance of getting an agent when you DON’T have a platform? And if I’m just starting, how long do you feel it will take for me to build a platform?

Sure there is. It’s just easier when you have a platform — and the bigger the platform, the easier it is. When I pitch a nonfiction book, the FIRST question the publisher will ask me is, “What’s the author’s platform?” We used to rarely hear that question with novelists, but now it’s routinely part of the conversation. But can you be successful without a platform? Yes. A fabulous idea expressed via great writing can still get noticed by publishers. So can celebrity or expertise. As for building a platform, that’s unique for each author, but it’s not uncommon for an author to be told by a publisher who is interested in a manuscript, “This is a great idea — now spend the next year building your platform.”

You noted a few weeks back that Amazon had purchased the largest of the audio book companies, and immediately cut their royalty rates. That spooked me. Although I’m with a small press and am paid a great royalty, I’m paid after Amazon takes their 30%, and the publisher takes half of the revenue. How long do you think before Amazon increases their cut of the ebook market?

No idea. Amazon currently owns a large part of the ebook market, but if they corner that market, you can bet the percentage they keep will go up, and authors will be making less. THAT’S why I’m always rooting for Barnes & Noble.com and the iBookstore to remain in business. Traditionally, monopolies are terrible for consumers, and therefore for those who produce the material consumers want. I love Amazon, but an Amazon monopoly wouldn’t be good for authors.

You’ve made a point of saying you represent both Christian books and non-religious books. Are there a lot of Christian books? Is religious publishing a big part of the overall publishing picture?

Christian publishing is a huge part of the overall book market — and it’s going up. Just last week Publishers Lunch reported that the religious book market was $572-million dollars last year, which was up $10.5-million from the previous year. (Overall publishing was up 1% in 2013.) Christian publishing has its own stores, its own e-tail operations, its own dedicated space in most bookstores, and it is supported by a lot of churches. The fact is, people of faith read books — both fiction and nonfiction. It’s a big part of the American market, and it’s not going away.

What does an author do when she gets a really ugly Amazon review?

If you ask the folks at Amazon, they’ll tell you there are three things to do: leave a specific response to the review, send a note to the reviewer (and maybe ask him or her to remove it), or simply ignore it and let it go. This has been much in the news lately, with some people offering really ugly or negative reviews, apparently for the sake of getting noticed. (Almost any author who writes Christian fiction can tell you stories of people coming on to leave anti-religious rants. It gets old.) Apparently when you cannot be seen it’s much easier to be jerk. Still, the best thing is probably to ignore them and focus on the positive reviews. By the way, it was reported last week that bestselling author Anne Rice had sent Amazon a petition, asking them to block anonymous reviews, since she feels they are filled with “bullying and harassment.” Publishers Marketplace reported that she was complaining of “gangster bullies,” and noted that Amazon’s own guidelines proscribe insults, bad language, and harassing notes in reviews. Glad to see a notable author like that take a stand — I’ve seen the most vile crud posted on Amazon, and they’ve tended to let that stuff slide.

How do you feel about an author hiring her own publicist? I’m very outgoing, don’t mind at all asking people to buy my book, and I struggle with the thought of paying someone else a couple thousand dollars to encourage readers to take a look at me.

Then hiring an outside publicist may not be for you. But many writers aren’t as extroverted, or they simply don’t know where to go or what to do, or they don’t have the contacts, or (more than likely) they simply don’t have the time, since they want to be writing. So I tend to think freelance publicists are an option many authors need to look into. But some cautions: Check them out — there are a bunch of lousy publicists who continue to get work because they are cheap… you get what you pay for. Get a contract, and have them spell out exactly what they’re going to do and how much it’s going to cost. Get comparative bids, just to find out what another company will charge to do the same thing. Ask a lot of questions – I find too many authors hired a freelancer without asking everything they wanted to know. And don’t expect miracles… not everything in marketing works. In my view, you think about it the way you would baseball, and hope you hit about .300 (for my readers overseas, that means “hope about 30% of the marketing you do is effective at selling books).

I’m a junior and an English major at a college in the Midwest, hoping to land a career as an editor in New York. I work at the school paper, What advice would you have for me?

First, I’d look for some real training in editing, whether that’s at your own college, a class from another local college, a summer program, or even an online class. (Check with Writers Digest to see who offers these.) Second, I’d look for some real-world training. You’re getting that with your student newspaper, so maybe ask if the university has any other publications, or there are business or organizations close by that could use some volunteer editorial help with their publications or websites. Third, I’d check to see if there were people in the area who do freelance editing, or remote editing, and talk with them. If there are any writing or editing conferences you can attend, by all means try to make it and rub shoulders with people. Make friends with editors and see what you can glean from them. Fourth, I’d check into the NYU Summer Publishing Institute in New York (they also offer them in Denver and… somewhere else). A GREAT opportunity to find out the real world of editing, and to meet people in the industry. Fifth, you could apply for one of the internships that every publishing house makes available in the summers.

Those are the questions I received late last week. Just one more week of this, answering whatever anyone sends. So tell me… If YOU could sit down with a literary agent over a martini, what questions would you ask? Send them to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com.

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.

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.

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…

Questions you’d ask an agent…

April 1st, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Film, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 7 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engineered Bestsellers, Rock Star Pastors, and Rosie Ruiz

March 21st, 2014 | Books, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 5 Comments

by Ghostwriter [While this says it's written by Chip MacGregor, it is not. It's written by a professional collaborative writer who is a friend -- Chip just posted it.]

Hi. I’m Ghostwriter and I’m the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

The news that Mars Hill Church paid ResultSource about $200,000 to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list shocked a lot of people. For me, that news solved a mystery.

As I already mentioned, I am a collaborative author and occasionally a ghostwriter. Although I am a published author in my own right, I learned long ago that I could earn a much better living helping other people write their books. It’s a good life, and I enjoy my work. Nevertheless, I still hope that someday I’ll see one of my books on a bestseller list—any bestseller list.

This explains my obsession with Amazon rankings and sales figures.

I know, I know…

You have to take Amazon numbers with several hundred grains of salt. I get that. But I still enjoy checking my author page and seeing how many copies of my books have sold in the previous week. Generally, the numbers are unremarkable. Sometimes they are depressing. But a while back those numbers astonished and mystified me.

I’d collaborated on a book with a megachurch pastor and, although it was a contract job for which I received a flat fee and no royalties, I asked for and received cover credit. Because my name was on the cover, I was able to list the book on my Amazon author page and track its sales statistics. Even though I wasn’t going to receive royalties for the book, I was still curious to see how well it was selling.

So I set the book up and waited for the launch date. The first week’s sales stats took my breath away. The book went from zero to 10,000 sales virtually overnight. I must confess that at this point I was kicking myself for not asking for a percentage of the royalties. I figured we had a runaway bestseller on our hands.

Since Amazon posts BookScan sales figures weekly, I spent a week eagerly looking forward to the next report. But when the stats were posted, not only was I disappointed, I was puzzled. In one week, the book’s sales crashed from 10,000 to about 200. The next week it dropped off even further—to about 50.

You read that correctly.

Fifty.

If you do the math, that amounts to about a 99.95% drop off in three weeks.

At first, I thought the church had purchased a bunch of books, maybe to sell in bookstores on their various campuses. But I checked the geographical sales figures, and they were literally all over the map. Ten copies here. Twenty-five copies there. Sixty in another place. Almost every state in the U.S. was represented. I was flummoxed — until I heard about Mars Hill Church’s arrangement with a marketing firm known as ResultSource. Then all the puzzle pieces fell into place.

The pastor I collaborated with had mentioned that he had a “consultant” who helped his previous book get on a major (not the NYT) bestseller list, and that he planned to use them again. In my naïveté, I assumed the consultant was a publicist who helped market the book. Now I believe it was either ResultSource or a similar company.

Like it or not, I am now the collaborative author of an engineered bestseller.

How does that make me feel? It makes me feel an uncomfortable kinship with an infamous long-distance runner named Rosie Ruiz.

Ms. Ruiz won the 1980 Boston Marathon in the women’s category with the fastest time in the history of the race. However, her celebration was short lived when it became clear that she did not run the entire race. She wanted the glory of winning the Boston Marathon, but she wasn’t willing to put in the hard work required to do it legitimately. Even if she had put in the work, she might not have been good enough to win. Rosie wasn’t willing to take that risk. She wanted glory and fame. She wanted a guaranteed win. So she took a shortcut — she cheated.

That’s what’s happening when megachurch pastors, conference speakers, and big organizations hire companies like ResultSource to “help” their books attain bestseller status. Like Rosie Ruiz, they want the glory. They want a guaranteed win. So they take a shortcut. They cheat.

Is this done all the time in the publishing industry? Chip MacGregor says no, and I agree with him. This is not a publishing industry problem. I believe engineered bestsellers are symptomatic of an evangelical Christian culture that worships success and elevates megachurch pastors to rock star status.

Boston Marathon officials disqualified Rosie Ruiz and stripped her of her title. Unfortunately, no one is going to strip these pastors and Christian leaders of their phony “bestselling author” status. However, one can hope that the embarrassment caused by the Mark Driscoll fiasco will make them think twice before paying for another engineered bestseller.

And maybe, just maybe, they will remove the phrase, “bestselling author,” from their bios and websites until they attain that status legitimately — through people actually buying, reading, and sharing their books.