Having a Nite-cap with a Literary Agent

April 28, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Agents, Career, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing

  • rachelhauck

    Thanks for the shout out. ;)

    And yea, good post. As always.

    • chipmacgregor

      You bet, Ms Hauck. Very proud to represent you.

  • TheColorfulOnes

    Okay, so you already weighed in on the pen name issue in a prior post. However, what happens when your name is already taken (i.e. if your birth name is Stephen King)? Mine isn’t that dramatic, but my legal name is already taken by an author (in the CBA space at that!) – so I wonder if I am better to go with some combo of my given first/middle name and/or initials, or something totally unrelated to my given name? Or does it really matter?

    • chipmacgregor

      A good question, since my REAL name is “Kareem Abdul Jabbar.” Turns out that was already taken. Sometimes that happens (we represent well-known romance writer Gail Gaymer Martin, who uses her middle name because simply “Gail Martin” was already taken by another romance writer). Often writers will use a middle name, or initial, or a maiden name, or… something else.

  • Becky Doughty

    And another episode of “What Does an Agent Drink–er, Think” – Thanks
    for your insight, Chip. Both on the drinks and on the industry. It’s
    been an enlightening month with these posts – your responses, as well as
    seeing what kind of struggles others are having along the writing
    journey.

    • chipmacgregor

      I drink a variety of good things, Becky. Feel free to send me a nice bottle of wine. :o)