Sitting down for a martini with a literary agent…

April 21, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Okay, so this month I’ve invited writers to send in the question they’d love to ask a literary agent, if only they could sit down over, say, a martini. Pretend the two of you are face to face. Relax. Take a deep breath. What would you ask? Here are several of the questions people sent…

When a contract with a publisher expires, I assume the rights to the book revert back to the author. Does the author then have to get a new cover, ISBN number, etc, to put the book out as an e-book or POD? And is that something usually covered in a contract?

Great question. First, with most publishing contracts these days, the rights do NOT automatically revert to the author when the book goes out of print. Instead, the book stays with that publisher as an e-book, and they’ll want to keep it as long as it’s selling some copies and making money. Even when it’s not, you’ll have to write and request your rights back. So let’s say the publisher does indeed revert rights — all that gets reverted to you is your text. You’ll need to create a new cover (unless it’s the rare instance where you own the cover art or can buy it from the publisher), get a new ISBN (since this is a new edition of the book), probably re-edit the book (to make it clean and up to date), then load it to Amazon, Smashwords, etc. And no, your current publishing contract won’t say much of anything about this process, other than to offer some confusing, multi-step process to try and get your rights back.

Is there any chance of getting an agent when you DON’T have a platform? And if I’m just starting, how long do you feel it will take for me to build a platform?

Sure there is. It’s just easier when you have a platform — and the bigger the platform, the easier it is. When I pitch a nonfiction book, the FIRST question the publisher will ask me is, “What’s the author’s platform?” We used to rarely hear that question with novelists, but now it’s routinely part of the conversation. But can you be successful without a platform? Yes. A fabulous idea expressed via great writing can still get noticed by publishers. So can celebrity or expertise. As for building a platform, that’s unique for each author, but it’s not uncommon for an author to be told by a publisher who is interested in a manuscript, “This is a great idea — now spend the next year building your platform.”

You noted a few weeks back that Amazon had purchased the largest of the audio book companies, and immediately cut their royalty rates. That spooked me. Although I’m with a small press and am paid a great royalty, I’m paid after Amazon takes their 30%, and the publisher takes half of the revenue. How long do you think before Amazon increases their cut of the ebook market?

No idea. Amazon currently owns a large part of the ebook market, but if they corner that market, you can bet the percentage they keep will go up, and authors will be making less. THAT’S why I’m always rooting for Barnes & Noble.com and the iBookstore to remain in business. Traditionally, monopolies are terrible for consumers, and therefore for those who produce the material consumers want. I love Amazon, but an Amazon monopoly wouldn’t be good for authors.

You’ve made a point of saying you represent both Christian books and non-religious books. Are there a lot of Christian books? Is religious publishing a big part of the overall publishing picture?

Christian publishing is a huge part of the overall book market — and it’s going up. Just last week Publishers Lunch reported that the religious book market was $572-million dollars last year, which was up $10.5-million from the previous year. (Overall publishing was up 1% in 2013.) Christian publishing has its own stores, its own e-tail operations, its own dedicated space in most bookstores, and it is supported by a lot of churches. The fact is, people of faith read books — both fiction and nonfiction. It’s a big part of the American market, and it’s not going away.

What does an author do when she gets a really ugly Amazon review?

If you ask the folks at Amazon, they’ll tell you there are three things to do: leave a specific response to the review, send a note to the reviewer (and maybe ask him or her to remove it), or simply ignore it and let it go. This has been much in the news lately, with some people offering really ugly or negative reviews, apparently for the sake of getting noticed. (Almost any author who writes Christian fiction can tell you stories of people coming on to leave anti-religious rants. It gets old.) Apparently when you cannot be seen it’s much easier to be jerk. Still, the best thing is probably to ignore them and focus on the positive reviews. By the way, it was reported last week that bestselling author Anne Rice had sent Amazon a petition, asking them to block anonymous reviews, since she feels they are filled with “bullying and harassment.” Publishers Marketplace reported that she was complaining of “gangster bullies,” and noted that Amazon’s own guidelines proscribe insults, bad language, and harassing notes in reviews. Glad to see a notable author like that take a stand — I’ve seen the most vile crud posted on Amazon, and they’ve tended to let that stuff slide.

How do you feel about an author hiring her own publicist? I’m very outgoing, don’t mind at all asking people to buy my book, and I struggle with the thought of paying someone else a couple thousand dollars to encourage readers to take a look at me.

Then hiring an outside publicist may not be for you. But many writers aren’t as extroverted, or they simply don’t know where to go or what to do, or they don’t have the contacts, or (more than likely) they simply don’t have the time, since they want to be writing. So I tend to think freelance publicists are an option many authors need to look into. But some cautions: Check them out — there are a bunch of lousy publicists who continue to get work because they are cheap… you get what you pay for. Get a contract, and have them spell out exactly what they’re going to do and how much it’s going to cost. Get comparative bids, just to find out what another company will charge to do the same thing. Ask a lot of questions – I find too many authors hired a freelancer without asking everything they wanted to know. And don’t expect miracles… not everything in marketing works. In my view, you think about it the way you would baseball, and hope you hit about .300 (for my readers overseas, that means “hope about 30% of the marketing you do is effective at selling books).

I’m a junior and an English major at a college in the Midwest, hoping to land a career as an editor in New York. I work at the school paper, What advice would you have for me?

First, I’d look for some real training in editing, whether that’s at your own college, a class from another local college, a summer program, or even an online class. (Check with Writers Digest to see who offers these.) Second, I’d look for some real-world training. You’re getting that with your student newspaper, so maybe ask if the university has any other publications, or there are business or organizations close by that could use some volunteer editorial help with their publications or websites. Third, I’d check to see if there were people in the area who do freelance editing, or remote editing, and talk with them. If there are any writing or editing conferences you can attend, by all means try to make it and rub shoulders with people. Make friends with editors and see what you can glean from them. Fourth, I’d check into the NYU Summer Publishing Institute in New York (they also offer them in Denver and… somewhere else). A GREAT opportunity to find out the real world of editing, and to meet people in the industry. Fifth, you could apply for one of the internships that every publishing house makes available in the summers.

Those are the questions I received late last week. Just one more week of this, answering whatever anyone sends. So tell me… If YOU could sit down with a literary agent over a martini, what questions would you ask? Send them to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com.

Posted in Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing

12 Comments to “Sitting down for a martini with a literary agent…”

  1. Chip, great discussions. Since you’ve switched the title from “lattes” with an agent to “martinis,” I sense that either you’re getting tired of this or it was later in the day than usual when you wrote this one. Either way, thanks for sharing.

  2. Ellen Gee:

    Yes Chip, the latte was nice and I’m not a fan of Beer so may I suggest a fine cabernet next?

    • chipmacgregor:

      That would be great, Ellen. Or a nice pinot noir.

      • Ellen Gee:

        Pinot’s are some of my favorites. I have a 2012 Kosta Browne that will be perfect in about a year or two. Maybe I’ll be a best selling author by then and we can share it.

  3. Robert Girard:

    The martini beats the latte and the beer and if I had the chance to join it would be to ask this question. How does a Christian author get noticed when his book doesn’t come across as Christian? In this Christian book, evil appears to win the day until the end when you find you’ve been tricked into reading a conversion story and now the ‘monkey’s on your back!’

    • chipmacgregor:

      ??? Not sure I understand your question, Robert. But a Christian author gets noticed the same way any author gets noticed — they work at it, create a great book, and build a platform. (Is that what you’re asking?)

      • Not necessarily. I have done, or am working on those things, but, the book deals with idolatry in contemporary society, Freemasons, an evil side of the Catholic Church and other occult activities. The MC’s are Christians, but not conventional and the website looks more occult than Christian, for a reason. I am writing for those who have been ‘given over to a reprobate mind’, the goats, if you will, not the sheep and I am being turned down by both Christian and secular agents. I used to do a cable television show along the same lines and was treated the same way because no one could figure out which side of the fence I was on. And then, of course, maybe I’m just not a good writer! Should you care to look, here is the site: http://www.beyondthe33rddegree.com/

  4. Iola Goulton:

    Anne Rice might be a “notable author”, but she’s one who has set a bad example when it comes to responding to reviews. She’s also missed the point on “anonymous reviewers” – she herself has acknowledged that some of the “bad” reviews come from reviewers using their real names (and many of her five-star reviews are from “anonymous” reviewers).

    I have over 450 “anonymous ” reviews on Amazon, and 400+ of those are Christian fiction. They are “anonymous” because Amazon allows me to use my given name (Iola), the name I blog under, rather than the name on my credit card (my initials).

    I’m about to review Critical Condition by Richard L Mabry as part of a Litfuse blog tour. Does he care that my reviewer name is “Iola”, not the name on my credit card? Does LItfuse? I don’t think so. Litfuse have organised a blog tour of (I think) 80 blogs, few of which are using “Real Names” as defined by Anne Rice.

    If I were forced to have an Amazon “Real Name” badge, I would stop reviewing at Amazon. Simple as that. It’s about privacy and personal security, for my children as much as for myself. Amazon knows my real name and home address. No one else needs to.

    On reviews: the best advice is don’t respond. Trust your readers to be intelligent enough to ignore a vitriolic or off-topic review.

    • chipmacgregor:

      I can’t say I really disagree with you, Iola. That’s why I suggested the best course of action is to ignore a bad review. But I do see the problem with so many anonymous reviews — it has allowed some cranks the ability to spew vile things, and, um, has allowed some authors to post the most sparkly and wonderful things about their own book. :o)

      • Iola Goulton:

        “Sparkly”. I like it. Those fake “friends and family” reviews are actually what annoy readers and reviewers the most, because they can be hard to spot.

  5. Laura Jackson:

    Thanks for answering my question–very helpful information. :)

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