Sitting down to breakfast with an agent…

April 2, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

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…

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

  • April

    Thanks for your candid reply about the American-living-overseas question. Should I make it clear that I’m “an enthusiastic participant” in my queries to agents, too? To be specific, I’m wondering if I need to point out in my query letters that I don’t live in the US—and that I intend to put in extra effort for marketing to compensate for the distance. Or can both parts wait until later in the process?

    • chipmacgregor

      I don’t know that you have to point it out in a query letter, April, but it will need to come up at some point later in the discussion, I would think.

      • April

        Good to know. Thank you!