If you could sit and have a beer with a literary agent…

April 18, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

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.

Posted in Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Trends

2 Comments to “If you could sit and have a beer with a literary agent…”

  1. Susan Donetti:

    Chip, I must say that while I always enjoy your blog this has been even more fun and enlightening than usual. And as a fantasy writer with Christian themes who works full time I’m very happy to wait for the younger generation to grow older and for that tide to come in. After I retire and have time to do the required marketing. :)

Leave a Reply