Questions and Corrections

April 11, 2007 | Written by admin

I’ve had several people tell me that I was making a major internet mistake by not responding to the "comments" section of my blog. Sorry. I figured it was just my job to let people say what they like, but apparently I’m also supposed to interact with your comments. From now on I’ll do more of that. In fact, today I’ll respond to a couple questions that were posed on this blog.

Pam wrote to say, "Chip, you agreed it’s pretty much impossible to get picked up in CBA without an agent. Is that the same for children’s/YA authors?"

Nope. I’d say that children’s and YA authors are possible exceptions. It’s  possible to get in the door and have a discusion with a CBA children’s editor even if you don’t have an agent. So if you can figure out how to get in that door, and you know who to talk to once you’re there, and how to create a great proposal, then, no, you may not need an agent. (And I should note that I had several folks send me a link for an editor’s blog that states clearly, "You don’t need an agent to get published." I think he’s fooling himself, since even his own house has a rule about that, but he makes his case by pointing out exceptions to that rule. So, for those who haven’t figured this out in life yet…there are exceptions to almost every rule.)

Elizabeth posted a comment and said, "I tried to submit a proposal to two agents at the Write to Publish Conference in 2005. Both agreed to let me send them my proposal… Is there an etiquette issue or a length of time problem with still sending them my proposal?"

Well, let’s see…the 2007 Write to Publish Conference is coming up in just a couple months, so it will have been two years since you spoke to those agents. That’s too long to reasonably expect someone to remember your proposal, Elizabeth. My advice would be to either send them each an email query, reminding them that they asked to see your work, or skip the whole thing and just go see them again in a couple months and start fresh, since they may very well ask the question, "It took you two years to send this to me?"

Polly wrote and noted, "I read on a blog that agents and publishers are more likely to accept submissions if an author has paid to have his or her work edited before submitting. After attempting to polish my novels over and over without success, I find that fascinating. I’m almost tempted to put my hard-earned dollars toward this idea, but I don’t know if it would really help me get my foot in the door."

My response: You should do everything you can to make your submission the very best it can be. Write and re-write. Get advice from experienced authors. If you find critique groups helpful, join one and seek their input. If there is a good editor you trust, and you think you might learn something from his or her comments on your manuscript, by all means consider hiring that editor to help you with your work. My experience is that we all have myopia when it comes to our own work, and a good editor can often find the issues that we’ve overlooked or been unwilling to change. It’s not necessary, of course — not every writer needs to race out and hire an editor. But if you’re stuck, it can be a great method for getting unstuck.

Someone wrote to me and asked my opinon of self-publishing: "Do you think it looks like an ego problem?"

It depends on the project. I need to do a post on self-pubbing sometime, since there are a host of issues involved with that. The problem is that some self-published manuscripts are really awful — they were turned down by regular royalty-paying publishers for a reason. So self-publishing a bad manuscript in order to prove a point, or to impress an agent, or so that you can tell your mom "I got my book published" is a horrible idea. Yes, it looks like a case of small-talent/big-ego. However, if you’ve got a good book that simply appeals to a niche market, and you’ve got a method for actually selling the books once you’ve got them stored in your garage, then there’s certainly nothing wrong with self-pubbing. I’ve self-published some books and done well with them — but they were for a specific audience (card magicians), the book was professionally written and edited, and most importantly I knew how to sell them. Without that, you’ve just got a lot of dead trees.

One poor unfortunate (who says she likes my blog but wants to remain nameless — probably for that very reason) wrote and asked, "What’s the protocol for sending out queries or proposals to agents — can I only send to one at a time? And if you get multiple agents asking to look at your proposal, what steps do you take to ensure that you do the right thing?"

Hmmm…sounds like this must be from someone who had a great experience at a writer’s conference! Okay, there’s some debate about this from agents, but I’ll give you my take on it: I think it’s fine to send out queries to more than one agent. (Whereas I’d only send out a proposal if the agent asked for it.) Sure, if your idea is any good, then every agent would prefer to be the only one looking at your idea. But I see no problem with asking more than one agent to look at your work. An agent is going to take your finished proposal and show it to several publishers — why should the agents be treated any differently? And if you’re at, say, a big writer’s conference, you show an idea around, and you get several agents asking you to send it to them, my advice would be to spend time talking with those agents. Get to know them a bit before sending them something. You don’t want just any agent representing you. This is a business relationship — you want someone you like, someone you percieve as competent, someone you wouldn’t mind working with over the long haul. So if you met an agent that seemed oily, or there was some guy there who made you uncomfortable, don’t send it. Even if he asked. On the other hand, if there were three agents who you liked, and they all wanted to see it, I don’t see anything wrong with talking to all three of them. You’re comparison shopping. No harm in that.

That does bring up an odd situation I’ve seen played out several times… Why is it that an agent can turn down proposals from writers all week, but if you turn the agent down, they get whiny? I don’t know. I’ve had similar things with publishers — they’ve turned down several proposals I’ve sent them, and never had a second thought about saying "no" to me, but then act pissy when they finally make an offer on something and lose it to a better offer from another house. Maybe that’s just human nature.

Speaking of writing conferences, Dean wrote to ask me, "What does it mean if an editor says to me, ‘Sure, send me your proposal’ at a writer’s conference?"

Um…that’s a difficult question to answer. The Happy Chip would respond by saying, "What great news! It means the editor liked your work enough to take a more in-depth look at it. Go buy yourself a Guinness to celebrate, make a clean copy, and send it off. "  The Dour Chip would say, "Editors do that all the time at writer’s conferences because they get fatigued telling people ‘no’ all the time, or they want to be liked by everyone, or they’re just big weenies. Go ahead and sent it, but don’t hold your breath — the vast majority of stuff that comes in from writer’s conferences sits around for two or three months, then gets rejected anyway." The truth? Both, most likely. It’s great that you’re getting looked at, so celebrate. But don’t be putting money down on that new Maserati just yet.

I was at a writer’s conference a year or so ago, and had several authors come up to me to say, "The editor at XYZ Publishing said she loves my work and wants me to send it, AND thinks you should look at it for representation!" After hearing that same sentence repeatedly, I finally went to the editor and asked her what she was saying to authors. Her response: "I simply told them the idea had promise, and we’d look at the idea if it came from an agent like Chip MacGregor." Okay…maybe she sounded a bit more enthusiastic when she actually used the words with authors, but I figured out the basic pattern: Editor sounds vaguely positive, author hears the words and turns it into something definitely positive, it gets reported to me and morphs again into something extremely positive. Yikes…made for some awkward moments when I had to explain to people that, even though they considered themselves on the cusp of the next big publishing deal, I was going to decline the opportunity.

Hey, writer’s conferences are great. But there’s a fatigue that sets in with the faculty, making them more susceptible to saying "okay send it" when they really ought to be saying, "I think your idea has some merit, but we’re probably not going to publish it." The problem is that people have paid a lot of money and want some positives — and it’s hard to give positives when you’re basically saying "no thanks." That’s a struggle I have at conferences — I want to help writers, but "helping" probably does not equate "representation." Maybe if we all reviewed our expectations a bit, that would help resolve the problem. Because, realistically, most authors are not going to go to a writer’s conference and sign with a publisher or agency. Instead, they’re going to go and make friends, hear a ton of great information, and enjoy getting away from the real world and into the book world for a short season.

Keep those cards and letters coming!

Posted in Agents, Conferences

  • Rude Blogger

    I don’t know, I almost never respond to comments on my blog posts. No one has ever criticized me for that. I would respond only if a particular comment warrants it.