Must a novel be completed before an agent will look at it?

February 27, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Someone wrote to ask, “Must a novel always be 100% finished before an agent will want to take a look at it? Or if you spotted great voice in an unfinished work, would you take a look and offer encouragement?”

If I absolutely love the voice, I might sign an author based on the quality of the writing. That happens on occasion. More often, I will look at a project and offer encouragement to the writer if I like his or her writing voice and think it has potential, but still think it needs to be completed. Right now the market is more or less demanding a novel be completed if a publisher is going to take a risk on a new or newer author. So yes, an agent might very well say he likes your work, but put off a decision to sign you until you complete your novel.

Another asked, “How much of a difference does it make to an agent to hear I’ve been referred by one of their current clients? And how does that compare to a face-to-face with an agent at a conference?”

It always makes a difference to me when one of the authors I already represents sends a talented writer my way. I figure the writers I represent are already my friends — we understand one another, so they’re probably going to send people my way who would likely be a fit. So consider that a good start. That said, it still usually takes a face-to-face for me to really get to know someone. A conference meeting is often too short (sometimes ten minutes), but it’s a start. In both cases, it will need to be followed up by great writing and a long talk or two, where we both get a feel for whether or not we’re a fit for one another.

One writer asked, “How are royalties paid? Why is it the contract says you get 10%, but the author never sees that much?”

The standard hardcover contract pays the author 10% of whatever a book sells for on the first 5000 copies, then it rises to 12.5% on the next 5000 copies, then 15% thereafter. (But I should note the standard CBA contract will pay the author somewhere in the 12-to-18% of net — that is, it pays not on the retail price of the book, but on the amount of money received by the publisher.) The publisher keeps tabs on how many copies are sold, and quarterly or semi-annually pays that amount to the author. For subsidiary projects (that is, the words sold in another format, such as an audio book or an e-book), there will be a separate royalty amount. Sometimes a large company (read: “Wal-Mart”) will purchase a big quantity of books, but to do so they’ll insist on a huge discount. In a case like that, the author will be paid a discounted royalty. That’s why it can be hard to track a book’s exact earnings. I recently had an author on the bestsellers list receive a very disappointing check — the bulk of the sales were done through big box stores like Sam’s Club and Costco, so while the number of books sold was high, the discounts made the royalties lower than expected. Does that adequately answer your question? I can say more about royalties and payouts if you have more questions.

Another writer sent me this: “I sent something out to an agent prematurely. The agent rejected my project, but was nice enough to make suggestions for improving it. Now that I’ve taken her advice to heart, would it be reasonable to re-send to her? How unusual is it for an agent to reconsider an author they’ve already rejected?”

While it’s fairly rare for an agent to want to see a project he or she has already rejected, the situation you’re describing is a type of exception you’ll occasionally find. I wouldn’t make a habit of re-sending rejected proposals, for fear of establishing a bad reputation with agents. But if an agent has offered helpful advice, and you’ve really taken those words and improved your work, it wouldn’t be considered impolite to at least go back and ask if that agent would like to see the better, polished version. But be careful… Make sure it’s REALLY better. Nobody is going to look at it a third time.

This came from an experienced magazine writer: “I’ve quered a few agents who said they liked my writing, but there was no market for memoirs. Is there no market for memoir? Should I try to pitch the book as something else?”

Well, if the agents you’re approaching are saying there’s no market for memoir, then, for them at least, there’s no market for memoir. So you either have to look for other agents (who perhaps have a different perspective), or alter your book. My guess is you’ve written something that YOU see as memoir, but agents see as just a personal story — something that doesn’t have the broad appeal it needs, but is simply a cool story about something that happened to you. That’s the sort of thing I see ALL THE TIME, and there’s no market for it. That type of story fits best as a magazine or e-zine piece. If you want to reshape it into another book, you may want to think about the lessons you’ve learned — how can you turn your story into a self-help book, where you focus on the principles for living more effectively, and use your personal story as backstory to buttress your points. That might hold more appeal. OR you could leave it alone and do it as a magazine article, which will garner you more readers anyway.

And this came from a newer writer: “I’m a finalist in a writing contest. I’m also talking with an agent. If I win and get published, would if be customary for my agent to take 15% of the book?”

I love a question that’s off the beaten path. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard this before, so let me try my hand at it… If you came to me, and already had a publishing deal in hand, I would probably not take 15% of the deal. Since I didn’t help you shape the piece, or help you improve it, or shop it to publishers, it wouldn’t feel right to me to do so. I would probably offer to negotiate the contract for you, and hope to improve it, and perhaps suggest taking half my usual commission. (And, if you think I’m simply posing, I invite you to talk with some of the publishers. I’ve done exactly this in the past, so this isn’t some sort of empty windmill-chasing.) That said, other agents may disagree with me entirely. A good agent is going to help you shape your career, not just land one book deal, so they may feel entirely comfortable participating fully in the deal via a 15% commission. Depends on the individual. Don’t let it be a surprise — ask this question up front, in a non-combative way. No sense letting this create a headache for you later.  

And finally, someone sent this: “I know you’re taking a bunch of questions with short answers, but you haven’t been picking on anybody lately. I know you’re trying to be nice, but… well, what is currently driving you crazy? We’d all like to know.”

I received a proposal today that was addressed to 17 agents. All of our names and emails were in the “to” line. I’ve received at least a dozen of those recently. I’m blaming it on the rampant use of hallucinogenic drugs in this country. I mean, come on… The author is cc’ing his proposal to a bunch of us, then expecting us to take it seriously? Like I’m going to fight other agents to grab this one crappy proposal? All of us had the same response: hit “delete.” That’s the current thing that’s driving my crazy.

Wait… it gets worse. So I read a similar proposal, from someone I’ve heard of but who made the same mistake. I sent the author a note, explaining that cc’ing a proposal to a bunch of agents at once makes it look like Amateur Hour, and that he should study the industry, figure out how to create and pitch a proposal, then approach an agent he feels might be a fit. (Isn’t that how you’d approach any other line of work? Do a bit of research on it, to make sure you didn’t look like a moron?) In other words, I took time out of my day to try and help this guy. And what was his response? To send me a nasty note, complaining about the fact that i was scolding him for not doing it right.

That gets him put into my Black File, of course. What is it about the fact that some people simply can’t admit they don’t know everything? Just assume you’ve screwed up, learn from your mistake, and do it better next time. Don’t get defensive. I’ve pretty much stopped going to a couple popular online writing groups for that reason. I had originally been involved because I thought the participants were there to learn, and after a few decades in this business, I figure I’ve got something to share. But it began to feel like pearls before swine after a while. People want to share their ignorance, then HATE to get corrected when they say something stupid. So I’m just not even reading those any more — I figure if writers want to read the advice of the uninformed, it’s not my job to set them straight. Does that answer your question?

Hey, we’re trying to tackle a bunch of topics this month — what have you always wanted to ask a literary agent?

Posted in Agents, Current Affairs, Proposals, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing, Trends

7 Comments to “Must a novel be completed before an agent will look at it?”

  1. Richard Mabry:

    Chip, In re your last comment, you and I may be thinking of the same writer’s loop. Something that acts as a burr under my saddle blanket on a regular basis is someone posing a question on such a writer’s loop like “Does anybody know…?” followed by a query that requires professional expertise. I don’t ask my fellow writers to do my taxes or take out my appendix, so why should I ask them for advice I should be getting from an accountant or medical professional?
    Sorry about the rant. It must be contagious. But I feel so much better.
    As always, thanks for good (and authoritative) answers about publishing and agents.

    • chipmacgregor:

      Thanks, Richard. And yes, that’s always funny to see — “I have a complex question about tax write-offs for non-profit status writers with multiple dependents living in enterprise zones — can anyone here help me?”

  2. There is a possibility in memoir, but you have to either be an established author, or have a killer book. I’m relatively unknown, but was picked up by Zondervan to write Thin Places. So it’s not a never, but it is hard.

    • chipmacgregor:

      For those not in the know, Thin Places was a shattering book — one that I was glad I read, even though it was hard to read because of some difficult things that occurred in the author’s life. It stayed with me a long time, and is a good example of a memoir that sells based on the quality of the craft. (And, if I can offer a commercial, I encourage every mature adult to buy it and read it.) Thanks for joining in the conversation, Mary. It’s nice to hear from you.

  3. I used to be amused by the trollers in some community who would ask a question…and then argue with the poor soul who thought the person asking actually wanted help. I’d salivate just a wee bit, waiting for the Jerry Springer show to start.
    I’m so over it.
    I must be turning into my mom, who always used to say, “I must not have a sense of humor.” (For the record, she had a marvelous sense of humor.) It’s appalling and disgusting.

    • chipmacgregor:

      You’re referencing what I said at the end about not participating in online writing discussion groups? Yes. It got tiring, Theresa. I figure on this blog, I don’t mind if people disagree or want to argue, but they’re asking my opinion, so I figure I’m free to give it. :o)

  4. John Robinson:

    I kind of like the idea of a Black File, Chip: a place to consign the terminally clueless.

    You see, one of my pet peeves is the driver who’s trying to pull out on to a busy road while neglecting to activate their turn signal. It’s as if they’re saying to the cars whizzing by, “Not only do I want you to stop and let me out, I want you to divine which way I’m going.”

    Fine. From now on, every time I go past one of these silly jackanapes I’ll simply award him a cheery wave and a “to the Black File with you, driving-school dropout!”

    Oh, yeah, what would I want to ask you? Simple. Ginger or Mary Ann? (I always kind of favored Lovie Howell, for what it’s worth; does that make me warped and awful?).

    All joking aside, I’m thankful you’re my agent, Chip; it makes negotiating these rocky publishing shoals much easier with a champion. And a friend.

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