Chip MacGregor

April 5, 2016

Ask the Agent: The Role of Agents


This month I’m trying to tackle any question a writer has always wanted to ask a literary agent. This came in the other day: “I’d love to hear you talk about how you feel the role of the agent will change as more authors move toward hybrid and indie publishing. I know you encourage authors to go the indie route if traditional slots aren’t open to them, but are publishers just as open to the idea of their authors doings some indie publishing?”

As an agent, my job is to help the careers of the authors I represent. That means to some I’m going to be an editor, to others a career coach, to others a marketing consultant. The core of my job probably happens in handling rights and setting up deals — presenting projects to publishers, negotiating deals, trying to land projects overseas and in other languages, selling dramatic and other rights.

But the role of the agent has changed considerably over the past ten years — from being the conduit between authors and publishers to being the person who should help an author map out a career. To me, that’s the biggest shift in my job. So while the role has always meant “finding and encouraging talent,” a large part of the agent’s job today is making sure the authors I represent know about ALL of their opportunities, not just working with legacy publishers. A good agent should help you do that, and should not be afraid of indie publishing.

So I’d say I don’t simply encourage authors to go indie “if traditional slots aren’t open to them.” The fact is, I think most of the authors I represent need to explore having at least some of their projects be independently published. That’s how they’ll best build a career and make money in today’s publishing economy. It will help them build a readership and generate income. Look, advances are down and filling a slot at a publishing house is harder than ever, so indie publishing should be an option for most writers who want to make a living at publishing. It won’t be a fit for everyone — running a successful indie publishing operation means the author is basically setting up a business, and some authors don’t WANT to set up a business. Some aren’t really in it for the money. Others just don’t feel that being a “publishing, marketing, and selling specialist” is what they want to do. But for many writers, indie publishing is an important (maybe even an essential) part of their career plan.

At the end of your question, you asked if publishers are just as open to the concept of authors doing some indie projects and some traditionally published projects. In a word, no — most legacy publishers aren’t very friendly to the idea. Some smaller houses are fine with it, many publishing houses tolerate it, and most of the larger houses hate it. (I’ve even had some publishers tell me they can’t work with authors who are also indie publishing. They think indie authors are too hard to deal with, and they’re afraid the author’s traditionally-published book won’t get enough attention.) I love most of the publishing houses I deal with, but I think they’re short-sighted about this issue. Working with an author who is out promoting and selling his or her own books is exactly what they should want.

Recognizing that we now have two publishing worlds (a traditional world and an indie world), realizing that just makes the publishing economy bigger, and being willing to embrace some of those changes is going to have to happen. And, being the eternal optimist, I think it will happen. I think there are some significant changes coming due to the influence of indie publishing, and many of those are good changes (higher royalty rates, more frequent payments, an acceptance of publishing-on-demand strategies, etc). As an agent, and as a guy who has spent his entire adult life in the book industry, I continue to believe in the future of publishing.

Does that help? I’ll have more to say about agents in the coming days. So… what’s your question? What have you always wanted to ask a literary agent? 


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  • J.D. Demers says:

    Hello Chip. I have been considering going with an agent more and more. Since I’m an indie Author, this has been an issue on multiple fronts.

    One: I don’t think I want to go with a traditional publisher (at least, not as long as they have the contracts drawn out the way they are). And since it seems most Agents want their authors to go that route, it leaves me a little confused on where to look for an agent that supports indies. I will not lie, most of my reasoning is royalties. I am doing well, but that could drastically change once a Publishing Contract gets a hold of my royalties.

    Two: What does an Agent who supports indie authors do? I have spoken with a few indie authors that have had or currently have agents. Their tales are across the board from being a waste of money to “I wouldn’t be here today if not for him/her”.

    Just a couple of questions. Hope you can shed some light for me.

    J.D. Demers

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Hello JD – I’m not sure what point you’re making in “one.” If you don’t see the value in having an agent, then I don’t think you should pursue an agent. (I’m not being rude, by the way, just stating a fact as I see it. If I don’t see the value in having someone do my taxes, then why bother interviewing tax specialists?) But as for what an agent does, you’ll find it’s different for each author/agent relationship. Some need help with contracts. Some need a go-between with a publisher. Some need career guidance. Some need a specialist to sell dramatic rights. Some need help landing foreign deals. Some need marketing assistance. The place to start is probably to do an assessment of who you are and what you need. Does that help?

    • J.D. Demers says:

      Thanks for your response, Chip. As far as my first question, I think it may have come off wrong. I wasn’t asking “what use is an agent?”, but rather, what exactly does an agent do for indie authors. I am new to the industry, and though I have done very well with only two novels, I still feel lost when I think of growing my brand. You answered my question in the long run, though. My biggest draw back with my inexperience is knowing what the next steps are. A friend and fellow author recently signed with an agent and has had a great experience, even though he has chosen to stay indie rather than sign with a publisher. That is the direction I wish to go. Unfortunately, when I research agents it seems most, if not all, wish to get authors signed. Finding agents that want to deal directly with indie authors who do not wish to go the traditional publishing route seems difficult. Do you know of agencies and/or agents that prefer to do business with indie authors?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Okay, JD — I think each situation will be unique, but generally speaking a good agent should help an indie author with foreign rights, dramatic rights, subsidiary rights, business planning, career planning, possibly marketing, industry connections, editorial help… What he or she does will depend on the author’s needs. Does that help? (And let me say again, I’m not an agent evangelist. I’m not convinced that every author needs an agent, so I try not to sound too forceful about that. Some authors can set up a publishing business and run it with no outside consulting — others find it helpful.) -chip

  • I am one of those writers who prefers traditional publishing. I love the collaboration of someone paying close attention to the words and concepts during the editing process, the rolling out of the book and cover design, and yes, even the waiting for the book to be launched. I also love going on tour to talk with my audiences directly to help sales. I just don’t feel that I could do all these steps as well as the people who have made publishing (or aspects of it) their profession.

    What advice would you give for a writer who has published books with a smaller press (with relative success) and wants to find a home for subsequent books with a bigger publisher? It seems this is a difficult step. It’s as if once you have published with a smaller publisher, you are relegated to smaller publishers (or self-publishing) forever.

  • Danika Cooley says:

    I appreciate you addressing how publishers view Indie publishing, Chip. Thanks for doing such a great job of educating us.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Nice to see your name pop up here, Danika. And for those who don’t know, that would be Danika Cooley, who has sold a TON of her curriculum to parents of homeschoolers!

  • Lisa Godfrees says:

    In the few short years I’ve been writing, there’s already been a shift from looking down on indie publishing to acceptance. I agree that it seems like an indie author who is doing a good job selling books should be who a large publisher would want. (Proven track record). However, after having been the creative managers of their own projects, I can also see how they would be hard to deal with when it comes to cover design, formatting, and other things. 😉

    Thanks for this series of posts. I always enjoy your take on things.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think an author who is doing well at indie publishing may very well get the attention of a legacy publisher… but, of course, at that point the author has to ask himself or herself what the benefit is that a traditional publishing arrangement will bring. It may indeed be significant, but the author will have to be convinced.

    • Lisa Godfrees says:

      As an agent, are you more or less likely to take on a client that has indie published? Do you consider their queries for representation on face value, or weigh in on the success of their self-published books? (I assume the answer is both.)

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Interesting that some legacy publishers are still fighting the indie revolution. I hear more and more legacy published authors looking into indie publishing, if they haven’t already jumped in. Seems to me, like you say, publishers should want authors who are also learning to sell and market their own books.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Sure. They should, Robin. But I think some publishers feel as though the indie author who is doing well is going to be hard to work with, and the indie author who is doing poorly isn’t going to produce. Is that short-sighted? No doubt. But it’s how I’m seeing things play out.

  • Chip, glad you’re not above tackling this current situation. I know a number of my colleagues who are indie-publishing because none of the traditional houses want to publish them–either because they’re new and don’t have a following, or because even though they have fans their past books have made them mid-list. I’ll be interested to see where this goes, and will watch for your further thoughts.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Richard. And you bring up some interesting points. It’s possible publishers stay away from an author because he (or she) has self-pubbed and not sold any copies. The publisher then asks, “Well, if this person can’t sell any copies by himself, what are the odds he can help us sell copies?”

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