If you could have lunch with an agent…
April 8, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor
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.