Ask the Agent: What have you always wanted to ask an agent?
This month we’ve been doing our “Ask the Agent” series — your chance to ask a literary agent anything you want. I’ve received a bunch of short questions (or questions that don’t require a long answer), so I wanted to take today’s blog and try to jump on several of them…
Do you see a resurgence in literary fiction?
I do. What a lot of people don’t realize is that fiction is always the thing that has paid the bills at big publishing houses, and literary fiction (in one form or another) has often been the genre that created the biggest impact on the culture. Literary fiction, like all genres, will wax and wane a bit. But we’re seeing huge successes in today’s market with literary fiction.
Are you more or less likely to take on an author who has self-published?
Neither. It depends on the author. If an author has proven that she can sell her indie-published book, then publishers will take note of that, thus making the selling of her rights easier. But if I love a manuscript, even if the indie version of that title that isn’t selling, we may just encourage her to take it down and let us sell the book. The fact of the author self-publishing doesn’t make me more or less inclined to work with her.
What does an author do if she has great word-of-mouth network, but still is struggling to build a social media platform?
My advice would be to preach patience. A strong social media platform can be developed, but it takes time. Perhaps too many authors are impatient and want big success right now. The fact is, if you’ve got a great word-of-mouth network, that should pretty easily translate into a strong social media platform, given some time and effort.
Are agents taking on more culturally diverse projects?
I think everyone is publishing is trying to. We’ve all been shocked at the low percentage of people of color in publishing circles — that clearly has to impact the number and types of diverse titles a house will do. Some of us (Amanda and I included) have made an effort to work with a diverse range of authors, and to try to pursue more culturally diverse projects.
If you are published with a smaller house, are you relegated to small houses forever?
Not at all. In fact, my experience is that many authors at large publishing houses began at smaller publishing houses.
What advice would you give a writer who has published books with a smaller press (and had some success), but wants to find a home for her next book with a bigger publisher?
My advice would be to (1) write a fabulous book, (2) use your proposal to target some publishers who successfully publish that type of project, and (3) work with an agent who is landing books with the type of publisher you want to work with.
If you met an agent at a conference and she asked to see your proposal, then you sent it to her, and you sent a polite update request after eight weeks or so… if you’ve still heard nothing, do you assume they have passed?
That depends on the agent and the timing. If the agent has said, “This may take me three or four months,” then be patient. They may just need a bit more time. But if the agent has said, “We usually respond in two or three weeks,” then letting a couple months go by might very well be their way of saying, “no thanks.”
Why would an agent fail to notify a writer he is turning down a project, when doing so takes only a few seconds?
Um…wait. That question suggests you, as a writer, are owed a response by an agent for the simple reason that you sent something to them. I don’t think that’s a fair assumption. If we met somewhere and talked about your idea, maybe I owe you a response… though I’m not sure I need to read and respond to everything handed to me. And hey, if you sent me something out of the blue, remember that I didn’t ask you to send it. I mean, we don’t have a relationship where we’re regularly doing things for each other, so I don’t think I can be criticized for failing to respond to projects I didn’t ask for. Think of it this way: If I ran a bakery, I might occasionally bring you into the back room, show you how things work, and give you a tour of the bakery. I’d answer your questions. If you were obviously knowledgable about my industry, I’d be happy to talk about the business. And who knows — I might even invite you to work with me in some capacity. But my full-time job is running a bakery, not giving bakery tours, or listening to all the crazy recipe ideas people have (“Have you considered salmon-flavored muffins?”). So at some point I just say, “Enough. I’ve got a business to run. I don’t owe every person who wants to know about bakeries an interview.” That’s how I feel about cold proposals — I may look, but I don’t owe the writer something just because he or she asked me.
I’ve read your advice about becoming a proven author, and have won a short story contest, got published in my college literary journal, published some poems, did an editorial internship, and completed my Honors thesis in college… Is that enough to be considered “proven” for finding an agent?
It might be, depending on the type of book you’re doing. The real proof will be in your writing. If you’re a novelist, and write something really strong that has a broad appeal to readers, you’ll no doubt get consideration from agents. If you’re a nonfiction writer, and you speak to a question people are asking, offering solid solutions through good writing, then you’ll at least get considered (though, to be completely honest, they’ll undoubtedly want to know how your platform is going to help them sell your nonfiction book).
We’re thinking of starting a small publishing business, but we are new to the process. What are the foundational principles you’d have for creating this type of company?
That’s a very broad question, and there are a bunch of business things we could discuss (make sure you’re adequately capitalized, make sure you know the industry, make sure you focus on things that generate income, etc). But since you asked about the foundational principles, I would say you need to pick the things that best reflect you and your values. When I started Mac Lit, I listed five foundational principles I always wanted my company to keep front and center: (1) We’re about assisting authors with big ideas, great writing, and strong platforms; (2) we want to help authors think strategically about their careers and books; (3) we value long-term friendships; (4) we want to be in step with the ever-evolving world of publishing; and (5) we want to see books produced that actually change lives. Ten years later, those are still the principles I believe in — and I think they reflect who we are as a company.
When will MacGregor Literary be accepting submissions?
As in accepting submissions cold? Over-the-transom stuff from people I have no connection with? Um… I don’t know. A long time. Maybe never. I still have plenty of things crossing my desk that are interesting. But take heart — if you want to get an agent to look at your work, you need to think strategically about getting in front of them, perhaps at a conference or through a personal connection. I think the bulk of authors I currently represent were introduced to me by someone else I represent, so relationships matter.
What questions have you always wanted to ask an agent?