If I could sit down with a literary agent and ask ANYTHING…

April 16, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

This month I’m trying to get to all the questions people say they’d like to ask an agent, if they could just sit down with him or her for a few minutes and talk privately. Here are questions that people have asked recently…

Are the low costs of e-books costing authors money?

Sure. I mean, if a retailer sells a book for $20, the royalty is higher than if he sells it for $10. The average e-book is way down — many below $5, and often you’ll see specials where the books are 99 cents. That doesn’t leave much for an author. The argument is made that people want a deal, and the low prices build readership by finding readers who will spend a dollar or two without even thinking about it. And I think that’s true, to a point… but at some point, we have educated readers that they only need to spend a buck or two on a book, and that means the only people really making money are the bestselling authors.

I’m thinking of setting up my own publishing company. Do I need to trademark or copyright the company? Is there a contract template for doing that?

If you’re just doing it to keep the words “Amazon Publishing” off your title page, then create a business name, do a search to make sure the name & domain are available and not a copyright infringement, and start a bank account in the name of the company. In some states you’ll have to register the company name, so check your local laws, or talk with an attorney if you have greater legal questions. (For the record, I’m not an attorney, nor am I giving you legal advice.) You can find people willing to sell you all sorts of business-planning materials, but most authors who start their own companies simply start them online with a domain name and a bank account.

Can you recommend an affordable entertainment lawyer (i.e., “one who doesn’t charge $400 per hour”) but is still credible? Or can you recommend someone to look over movie/TV rights contracts?

I won’t recommend anyone by name on the blog, but there are plenty of good attorneys who specialize in entertainment law and intellectual property rights. You’ll want someone in your state, so do some research online. The AAR keeps a list of people by state, by the way. I would say the one thing to look for is experience — make sure you’re talking with an attorney who has done movie contracts in the past, since entertainment law is tricky and the average guy doing wills and rental property agreements won’t know what he is doing. That said, many literary agents have experience with this, and can help you with basic questions, and there are some “contract evaluation” companies that will review your paperwork for a flat fee.

How does a literary agent plan to make money with indie-published authors? I mean, if a writer is doing her own books on Amazon, and an agent is helping with things like planning and marketing and career strategies, how does the agent get paid?

There are several ways. First, the author might do a deal with a traditional publisher, so the agent makes a standard commission. Second, the agent might help with things like Amazon deals, Smashword deals, movie rights, foreign rights, and other subsidiary rights, earning a commission on those. Third, the agent might arrange for services that are paid (though you have to be careful not to run afoul of AAR guidelines with that). Fourth (and something we’re doing here at MacGregor Literary), the agent may help authors set up a writing community, where authors in a genre band together to do books in a genre. The books look and feel like a line from a publishing house, but they are owned and operated by the authors as a sort of co-op. The agents role is to manage it. We are doing this with a western line (www.DustyTrailBooks.com) and a romance line (www.ForgetMeNotRomances.com) and a cozy mystery line (www.SpyglassLaneMysteries.com).

What do you project as the future possibilities with audio books?

Audio books are exploding. Amazon bought Brilliance Audio just to make sure they had the capability of cornering the market on audio. More are being created and sold every year, and in a mobile society people are discovering the joy of hearing a well-read tale. The future is bright — but I think we’ll all begin to see audio books as something completely different than print or e-books, just as movies are different from books. Audio offers its own experience, and I think needs to begin to be viewed as a completely separate category of entertainment.

A couple years ago, you were touting the Google Book Settlement as the wave of the future, then it was challenged, and eventually the whole mess sort of disappeared. Can you tell me where that situation (of having Google control hundreds of thousands of out-of-print books) is now?

Sure — Google won. Hands down. It was a huge rights-grab by the company, they hired a plethora of lawyers, and they won in court (proving once again that the Obama administration is no friend of authors — they seem willing to take the side of every freaking corporate entity that comes along). Google now plans to make all those titles available, often for free, and everyone is hoping they’re going to treat authors fairly by not giving away the words others created. (Um… that’s a fool’s desire. Google is in this to make money and seize content so as to have control, and the hell with artists getting a fair shake.) The Authors Guild has proposed that Congress create a collective licensing organization — they have said, “something like ASCAP or BMI to deal with mass digitization and orphan books. Such an organization could pave the way for a true national digital library, but it would be limited in scope, just as ASCAP is.” In their letter to members, they noted that their key requests are the (1) authors get paid, (2) authors can say “no” and opt out if they want to, (3) this would be strictly for out-of-print books, and (4) there would be some sort of mediatory agency to handle disputes. My guess? The Obama administration will laugh and disseminate a photo of the Attorney General having drinks with the CEO’s of Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, and any other company who can buy their way into the White House. (Um… yeah. I tend to think our current government is not exactly looking after the little guy any more.)

It’s been a while since you shared anything crazy, Chip. What’s the worst query you’ve received recently?

“Dear Literary Agent – Prior to earth, our immortal Santa lived among the Tarwoos on the planet Tsixodi where male Tarwoos were called Manwoos and female Tarwoos were called Woos…” I kid you not. I also had a query about a fantasy novel where people get “a magical disease” which causes body parts to break off, fly around, and start talking — and the young lady in the story discovers “adventure and science” when “a detached talking penis…” Well, you get the idea. And, to top off this fun-filled trilogy, we received a proposal for what I can only guess is a crappy porn novel about two high schoolers that features “342 pages filled with numerous bazaar sexual escapades.” That’s right — “bazaar.” I assume that means the couple is having sex in an open-air market, but I didn’t bother to check it closely. I don’t think I’m old enough for bazaar sex.

This month we’re encouraging writers to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask a literary agent. So what’s your question?

Posted in Agents, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Self-Publishing, Trends

  • YA Author

    Oh my…. *Chortle* I can’t decide if I want to learn fascinating facts from a detached penis or not. You may have overlooked that one too quickly, Chip.

    • chipmacgregor

      Trust me, YA, you do NOT.

  • Patricia Zell

    I just had an epiphany due to the last question and answer. Being a literary agent is a lot like being a high school English teacher. I’m laughing.

    • chipmacgregor

      I defer to my assistant, Holly, who spent fifteen years as a high school English teacher. She’d doubtless agree with you, Patricia.

  • Debra Owsley

    What was the most creative or memorable pitch, someone has made to you?

    • chipmacgregor

      Let me respond in my next blog, Debra.

  • http://rmabry.com Richard Mabry

    Chip, great series and, as always, your tendency to speak your mind freely is appreciated. I’ve seen you at a number of conferences, and I know that meeting with potential clients must be wearing while socializing with people you know is usually a relaxing time. What is the most fun you’ve had at a writing conference? What is the worst experience you’ve had there. Happy Easter.

    • chipmacgregor

      Sure — responding in the next post, Richard.

  • Gideon

    I have admired C.S. Lewis from the time I was a child and first experienced Narnia to this very day as I am able to read about the different aspects of human nature. If he was heralded as one of the greatest Christian authors of all time, why is it that modern day Christian agents and publishers seem to shy away from fantasy in Christian literature? If the symbolism was able to bless so many non-Christians once, shouldn’t we at least attempt to try again?

    • chipmacgregor

      Okay, I’ll respond to this one in the next blog post as well, Gideon.