Chip MacGregor

July 16, 2010

A Dirty Dozen Notes on Agents


We had several interesting comments sent to us on that last post. Let me offer a dozen comments…

1. One author's suggestion to "do your homework" before selecting an agent is key. 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 CBA 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 relatively successful agencies in CBA 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. So is Lee Hough and Janet Grant and Wendy Lawton and Rachelle Gardner and Natasha Kern and Greg Daniel and Karen Solem and Greg Johnson and Andrea Heinecke and Robert Wolgemuth and Sandra Bishop (the last works with me at MacGregor Literary). My guess is that none of these individuals are for everyone; and neither am I, of course. But they're all professionals who have proven themselves by doing good work for authors. 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 that way. For example, there is one person 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.

5. On two or three occasions I've had the chance to see a contract evaluation done by Sally Stuart (who lives in the Northwest and does the "Christian Writer's Market Guide" every year). She does great work. If you don't have an agent, at least consider working with Sally or an experienced contract person like Susan Osborne. Some company's contracts read like they were created by lawyers from Mars, so be careful signing a document you don't understand.

6. Cec Murphey, who has been in the business since the Cooledge Administration and became famous after writing dozens of books, knows what he's talking about when he says in a blog post, "Writers can still sell books without agents, especially to the smaller houses. What's wrong with starting with smaller houses?" Nothing. All of us start small and move to bigger things. That's how a career (any career) is built. 

7. One author asked, "Are there times when an agent might hinder a publishing opportunity?" Sure…when the guy is a jerk. When he doesn't know the market (which happens a lot…try using an ABA entertainment lawyer working with a smaller CBA 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 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. (But, 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.)

8. One writer wrote and asked, "How has having an agent affected the relationships you've built over the years with editors – or has it?" 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.)

9. 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 'Home.'" 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.

10. I also have to disagree with the folks who contended 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.

11. 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… for goodness' sake! That's terrible, to my way of thinking. I guess every author is different. Some want to hear from their agent every week. Others are happy connecting twice a year. 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.

12. 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 clarify…

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