Chip MacGregor

June 13, 2016

Ask the Agent: What do I need to know about literary agents?


Someone wrote to ask, “With all the changes in publishing these days, what do I really need to know about agents?” Let me offer ten thoughts…

1. Do your homework before selecting an agent. DON’T sign up with somebody just because they say they’re an agent and they want to represent you. I know that’s a temptation, but this is a professional relationship. Would you go to a guy’s office for your health problems just because he claims to be a doctor? Ask around. Check him out. This is the biggest mistake people make with agents, in my view. This past year at ACFW you could toss a rock in the air and when it came down it would most likely hit somebody claiming to be an “agent.” Um… these guys are going to be taking your ideas and helping you sign legal agreements regarding them. Don’t take that lightly.

2. Be wary of any agent who charges a fee or advertises what the charge is to work with them. That’s a total violation of the guidelines for the Association of Author Representatives (and, in fact, those agents wouldn’t be allowed as members of AAR). There are a couple fairly successful agents I know who do that. It’s unethical, and authors should stay away, if they want to keep from being scammed. On the other hand, I was VERY glad to have someone write and tell me that “Steve Laube is my agent and he’s good.” Don’t we all get tired of people sort of beating around the bush, telling us one person is bad and another is good, but never mentioning names? The fact is, Steve IS good. Amanda Luedeke, who works with me at MacGregor Literary, is good. Greg Daniel, Greg Johnson, Chris Ferebee… there are plenty of good agents. My guess is that none of these individuals are for everyone; and neither am I, of course. But there are professionals who have proven themselves by doing good work for authors. There are plenty of good agents, Just beware of working with “Bozo and Associates.”

3. Check out more than one source. As an agent, I can be perfect for one person and perfectly awful for somebody else. Besides, you’re more apt to get the facts by asking around. For example, there is one well-known author I know who has it in for a particular agent. I’ve heard her say some really bad (and in my opinion, overblown) things about that individual. Okay… she didn’t sell your manuscript. It happens! Get over it and move on to something else.

4. A couple people wrote to me to say, in essence, “I don’t have an agent because I like doing my own deals,” or words to that effect. Good for you. As an agent, I have to wonder if you know how to negotiate and therefore got the BEST deal, or if you really protected yourselves. Or if you really want to spend your time learning how to do that. Not everybody needs an agent, but if you don’t know the market, or don’t know about contracts, you might want to think carefully before throwing out the idea. You can bet the publisher has attorneys and accountants who know what they’re doing.

5. I was once listening to writer Cec Murphey, who has been in the business since the Cooledge Administration, and he said in a blog post, “Writers can still sell books without agents, especially to the smaller houses. What’s wrong with starting with smaller houses?” My answer? Nothing. All of us start small and move to bigger things. That’s how a career (any career) is built.

6. One author asked, “Are there times when an agent might hinder a publishing opportunity?” Well…when the agent is a jerk. When he doesn’t know the market (which happens a lot…try using a big-name entertainment lawyer working with a small religious publishing house sometime). When he sees negotiation as a “win/lose” proposition. An agent should take the approach that publishing is a partnership between author, publisher, and agent. If he or she tries to squeeze the publisher to the point where the publisher is losing money, that is no longer a partnership. Yes, my authors expect me to protect their interests, but I have no interest in pushing publishers into losing money…that just hurts the market for other projects down the road. On the other side, I’ve seen publishers lowball authors way too many times. A good agent will recognize when that’s happening and take steps to protect you.

7. One writer wrote and asked, “How has having an agent affected the relationships you’ve built over the years with editors?” My perspective is that acquisition editors are my friends. Ask around and you’ll probably find that most publishers will tell you their relationship with our authors is better than if we weren’t in the picture. (Really.)

8. One person wrote to contend that “you should be given copies of your rejection letters,” and complained because her agent hadn’t shows all the rejections to her. Um… I have to respectfully disagree. It used to be true, when things were done via snail mail and there were far fewer projects. Now almost everything is done via email and we rarely get a detailed response. Most rejections these days are nothing more than, “We’re declining Bob Smith’s novel.”  There’s not much info to share. However, whenever I get a detailed response, or thoughts on improving the manuscript, I forward it to the author… AND I send a thank you note to the editor.

I also have to disagree with the folks who contend that “the agent will take over the marketing of my book.” Hey, an agent should be able to assist with the planning, but as an author, YOU are most responsible for marketing your book. Do not leave that up to the publisher, the agent, the sales staff, your mom, or anyone else. Nobody knows it better than you, nobody has more investment in it than you, and nobody is more committed to its success than you.

9. Again, the biggest complaint most agented authors have about their agent is “lack of contact.” That’s why you want somebody who you like (love covering a multitude of sins, and all that). But to the person who wrote to say they hadn’t heard from their agent in six months… That’s terrible, to my way of thinking. This is supposed to be a relationship. I guess every author is different. Some want to hear from their agent every week. Others are happy connecting twice a year. But talk about your expectations with your agent — make sure you both can live with them. But remember that most agents are working with lots of authors, so be willing to understand his/her business and adjust your thinking.

10. And let me finish with a thought… learn to be polite. I never mind an author saying to me, “Hi Chip — I hadn’t heard in a while, and I was just wondering if you had an update for me. Have we heard from anyone?” On the other hand, I have a different reaction when somebody writes and says: “WHAT’S HAPPENING?! HOW COME YOU DON’T CALL AND SAY YOU LOVE ME? FOR GOSH SAKES, I NEED A LOT MORE INFORMATION THAN YOU’RE GIVING! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?” (Of course, my mom used to say that to me, but I prefer not to have the authors I represent talk that way to me.)

I hope this helps…

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