Chip MacGregor

August 23, 2010

A Mixed Bag


A mixed bag of questions today. Donna sent this to me recently: "Nonfiction seems to be struggling in bookstores, but fiction has been on a growth track. I heard you say one time that this disparity is due to the growth of the internet. Can you explain that to me?"

Okay, let's call this The MacGregor Theory of Non-Fiction Struggles. First, the core of nonfiction is what we call "problem/solution" writing (or sometimes question/answer writing). A person comes into a bookstore with a problem ("I need to lower my cholesterol" or "I don't get along with my teenage daughter"), and wants a book that offers a solution to the problem ("Lower Your Cholesterol in 30 Days" or "How to Talk so your Daughter will LIsten"). They walk in with a problem, and they look for a book that offers a solution. Or they walk in with a question, and they look for a book that offers an answer. That's the focus of most nonfiction. (There ARE alternatives: history books tend to educate instead of answer, craft books offer an idea without necessarily being a "solution"). Fiction, on the other hand, is usually written to entertain, occasionally to inspire or educate. And during the current economic times, people are turning to fiction because it is basically a cheap, satisfying, and long-lasting entertainment option. (There's plenty of evidence to suggest fiction reading goes up as the economy goes down.) Anyway, with the advent of the web, people aren't buying as many nonfiction books because they tend to look to the web for a solution. (Think about it… the last time you needed to know how to make Yorkshire Pudding, did you dig through a cookbook or look it up online?) I'm not declaring the death of all non-fiction — I'm just explaining why it's struggling, while fiction is growing. 

Andrew wrote and said, "I couldn't help but read that letter you received the other day. Do you really get such letters? And… well, I really want to see another!"

I understand. It's sort of like watching a train wreck. That letter was genuine, though I excised some of the more venal stuff. And I got a lot of comments about it — including a couple people questioning if it's fair for me to post it. My feeling: the author wrote to me, unsolicited. I didn't reveal the author's name or book title, so you have no way of knowing who it is. I don't believe there's any violation of privacy. But hey, I included it to be funny, and I found it funny. Humor is a personal thing. But yes, I get real letters like that. (And, to be fair, I get a lot more "attaboy" letters, so it's not like this is a depressing job.) 

I once received a letter from an author who said her novel began during the Viet Nam war, but flashed back to the dawn of time, before flashing forward to the future, then back to medieval times, then forward to the present day. (I had whiplash just reading the synopsis.) And recently I had a proposal that listed the genre as "Tragedy, romance, action, sci-fi, adventure, and speculative historical romance." I figure that pretty well covers it. 

Terry asked, “Do most successful authors have experience with speakers agents? Maybe a speakers' bureau, or an individual who can make contacts, take a percentage, and build the speaking aspect like that? I was thinking of getting a speaking agent to manage both my speaking and my writing careers.”

Some authors have a speaking agent — someone who books speaking gigs for them, negotiates the contract, and handles the details. Most do not. Some have their manager or personal assistant do that job, and in my view they're probably just as well served. As a literary agent, I've found that most speakers bureaus are reactive – in other words, "If the phone rings, we answer it." But I'm at a loss to share the name of a single speaker's agent in CBA who is proactive – that is, someone who going to go out and find you venues. There may be one or two out there, but I don’t know them. (And don’t take this as a slam – it’s really not meant that way. They may exist. I’m just saying I don’t KNOW of any.)

Compare my business to most speaker's agents. I know who I'm going to sell to (publishers and acquisition editors who work for publishers). I know who is going to be interested in your book. I know how to help you shape your book and make it better. I know how to give you career advice. In fact, I know my authors overall — who they are, what they do, how to pitch them to publishers. Now contrast that to most speaker's agents. They are going to sell to…who? Sales conferences? Political gatherings? Churches? Conferences that need to be filled? If you are working with a speakers' bureau, do they know who you are? Do they know who your audience is? Are they trying to fit you to an audience? In my experience, most speaking agents don't really know who they're going to sell you to, aside from the occasional niche (e.g., the guy who regularly places speakers at pro-life banquets). Again, if the phone rings, they'll answer it. But I've found th
at most 

don't know how to get the phone to ring more often. Besides, If your speaking agent has not spent much time thinking about who you can speak to or who will be interested, the service can be a bit limited. I know very few speaker's agents who do any sort of editing/shaping/evaluating of your talks — so you're usually on your own when it comes to figuring out how to improve. I doubt you get much career advice from your speaking agent. So, from my perspective, most speaker's agents aren't selling YOU — they're selling the fact that they have a list of potential speakers. That's why a person looking for a speaker for their banquet is basically invited to "Pick one — they're all good!"

You may not agree with me — your speaking agent may be great. Or you may be working with a business manager who handles all this stuff (the contracts, the negotiations, the travel details, etc). If so, good for you… but I've been in the business a long time and I keep seeing guys who call themselves "speaking agents" and don’t deliver much. AND they take 20% of your fee rather than the 15% of a literary agent. If they get you a booking somewhere, it's found money, of course, so that's nice. Still, my experience has been that most authors and speakers will be farther down the path if they learn how to market themselves effectively, work hard at finding venues, and figure out how to negotiate for themselves. So, back to the question that was asked… No, most authors do not have a speaking agent in the same way they have a literary agent. But some work with a speakers bureau that does a good job of handling some of the details of each engagement. Hope that helps.

By the way, Tina Ann Forkner, a fine novelist with Waterbrook, sent me a great blog post from a Jewish woman who decided to read a Christian novel. If you're into Christian fiction at all, you'll appreciate what she has to say: 

And Keri Kent, a non-fiction write I represent, shared this nice bit of writing on our craft:

Hope you enjoy those posts. 

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