This week marks the tenth anniversary since I started MacGregor Literary. I’d been working as a publisher with the old Time-Warner Book Group, got the axe not long after the sale to Hachette, and realized I was being given a chance, in my forties, to remake my life.
The fact is, I’m a lifer in publishing. I got my first job in the industry working at Clearing Magazine back in the 70’s as a part-time copy editor (and, um, the fact is, I didn’t really know what a “copy editor” was when I applied). But I stayed at the Mag (a monthly for junior high science teachers, now part of Ranger Rick and the World Wildlife Federation), became a staff writer and eventually the managing editor. I kept my hand in writing and publishing forever — managed the newspaper at my graduate school, wrote hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers, coordinated the print resources for a couple organizations. No matter what job I had (I taught at a college, worked on staff at a church, hosted a syndicated radio show, did some consulting, even spent a year starting a speech team at a high school), I was always writing.
My big break came when I was out of work, waiting for my first book to come out, and wondering when I was going to have to grow up and get a real job. I was in my thirties, had three kids, and was trying to find a way into the system that was traditional book publishing. Out of the blue, a guy by the name of Steve Halliday approached me. We’d gone to the same church, and Steve was building a reputation as an excellent ghostwriter who was connected with important people in publishing. I’m not sure who told him to talk with me, but he gave me an extra project he had that needed some help. I did some writing and editing, and Steve seemed to think it was okay. Then he introduced me to an organization in Atlanta that needed some other writing projects completed — Walk Thru the Bible had a publishing arm in those days that worked with pastors who wanted to create study guides. It was my introduction to the world of Christian publishing, and I would end up doing 40 books for them over the next several years. The pastor would send me his sermon series on cassette tape, I’d turn each sermon into a chapter, create an introduction and conclusion, and — voila! A book!
Steve also introduced me to John Van Deist, a guy who had been a publisher in the past, and who was just then starting up a new venture — Vision House Publishing. I became their de facto editorial department, and we discovered some great projects, including Alice Gray’s bestselling Stories for the Heart and Philip Gulley’s Front Porch Tales. (A true story: I took that manuscript home to read on a Friday, and was told the famous newscaster Paul Harvey had recommended we review it. I read it the next day, and called John at 10 PM that night to say, “It’s midnight at the author’s home in Indiana — call him, get him out of bed, and convince him to sign… this book is going to put us on the map.” I was right. Philip is still writing great stories.) That company eventually got bought out by Multnomah, and later became part of the Random House universe.
My work got noticed, and I started getting calls from speakers who needed help with their books. I worked with Chuck Swindoll, David Jeremiah, Chuck Colson, Jack Hayford, Bruce Wilkinson, and a bunch of other famous speakers. Some of them, such as Bruce Waltke, had me co-author their book. One of them, Howie Hendricks, a longtime professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, had a series of talks on the prophet Elijah, and asked me to fill out the rest of the book with my own stories on the prophet Elisha… then the publisher produced the book without my name anywhere on it. (They’d even tweaked the stories inside, so that a cute story about going for a drive with my son morphed into Howie going for a drive with his son. Ugh.) But all along, I kept my head down, worked hard, got better as a writer, took the jobs offered to me, and met great people.
Eventually I was at Book Expo and met Carolyn McCready, a VP of Editorial who was looking for an acquisitions editor. I worked for her at Harvest House for a few years, then got invited to lunch by an agent, Greg Johnson, who invited me to come join him at Alive Communications, a literary agency in Colorado. I always told Greg it took me about two seconds to say yes — working with authors was what I’d enjoyed most. Back when I had been in my doctoral program at the University of Oregon, I had a graduate teaching fellowship and worked in the office of Career Planning, focused on assisting all of those students graduating with advanced degrees in the arts, but who had no place to turn. (When you’re getting an MFA in violin, or a master’s in poetry, or a degree in dance… how do you shape a career plan?) The resources we created back then are still in use today, and in fact I still ask the authors I work with to use a career mapping tool I first designed in the 1980’s. So I took my materials and became an agent with Alive, learned the ins and outs of agenting, and worked for years with a great team under the leadership of Rick Christian. I represented hundreds of titles in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and it was my success there that allowed me to eventually start my own company.
Still, this story wouldn’t be complete without my mentioning the writing organization ACFW. Ten years ago, just as I was leaving Time-Warner, I had been asked to speak at their annual writing conference. I had to call them, explain that I was no longer at Time-Warner, and offered to let them replace me with someone else. (I didn’t want everyone to show up and be disappointed by having to listen to “the guy that used to be a publisher but now is out of work.”) They were very gracious, said that I still had a good reputation in the industry, and bestselling author Rachel Hauck (whom I now represent) told me that they’d be happy to have me remain as a speaker. So I went, did my talk, and was able to announce in front of 500 people that I’d just returned to agenting and was starting my own literary agency. That conference led to my signing a number of great authors, and pretty much put me on the map. Nowadays when people ask me why I’ve represented so much Christian fiction, I point to that conference — it’s who I was with when I started. (The funny thing? I’d never done much fiction before.)
Okay, sorry to fill the page with my history, but I sometimes have people ask how I became an agent, and I always tell them, “I’m a book guy.” I’ve always been a book guy — and I’m coming up on 40 years since I started that first job working at a magazine. The lessons I learned have stayed with me: work hard at the craft; keep improving as a writer and don’t settle for sameness; look for opportunities; choose to spend time with talented people; let others take the credit; share what you know; help others along the way… Those are the things that have helped us be successful. And, um, we have been very successful. Over the past eight years, the company has reported 648 book deals — which puts our agency in the top ten literary agencies in the country, in terms of numbers of books sold. We’ve had authors on every major bestseller list in the US, I’ve lost track of how many award-winners we represent, and this whole thing has been one fun ride. Most of all, we’ve had a chance to work with good people, and do good books.
When I started the company, I tried to set up the vision right away: Books that make a difference. We’ve attempted to do that — to represent good writers, who craft great books, and many of those books make a difference in the lives of readers. I’m proud to have been doing this for ten years, and I’m looking forward to doing this for ten more. My thanks to Steve Halliday, John Van Deist, Carolyn McCready, Greg Johnson, Rick Christian, ACFW, longtime assistant Marie Prys, my old boss Rolf Zettersten, fellow agents Amanda Luedeke, Sandra Bishop, Erin Buterbaugh, Holly Lorincz, Brian Tibbetts, and all the authors who I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. Ten years of success is a great track record for any business, and I realize I wouldn’t be here if it had not been for all of you. Thanks!