Chip MacGregor

December 18, 2012

An agent won't talk to me unless I have a deal?


An author wrote me to say, “Many publishing houses will not accept manuscripts from un-agented authors, but many good agents will not accept manuscripts from unpublished authors. How then do I solicit an agent?”

This is the common conundrum faced by beginning writers. You can’t get a publishing deal unless you have an agent, but you can’t get an agent unless you have had a publishing deal. My response? You’re screwed. But that’s the writer’s life.

The best way to find an agent is still to approach the problem professionally. First, write a great manuscript. Next, do some research. Find out who represents the sort of thing you write. Try to figure out a way to meet and talk, if at all possible. Go to a conference or two and try to meet the agents you’ve discovered. See if you have a mutual friend who can arrange an introduction. Write to them and ask them to take a look at your work. Be persistent, but not a pest. And be professional. Every agent I know is interested in seeing a great manuscript, even from a new writer. It’s true that it’s harder for a newbie to get started, but that’s true in any field — it’s hard for a new musician to get bookings, or a new painter to get into galleries, or a new life insurance salesman to land clients.

So one word about new authors: Make sure you’re really good. You see, the majority of stuff I see from newer authors isn’t turned down because the writer is new; it’s turned down because the writing isn’t all that great. I see proposals all the time that are about 60% done, and they’re asking me to consider it before it’s ready. Don’t assume you’re a genius just because your mom (or spouse, or best friend, or priest) told you so. Get some professional opinions, listen to others, and become a better writer. All those people who are famous writers now probably weren’t very good when they first started. They all needed to practice, to get training, and to learn from more experienced types before they could succeed. So learn the craft, create a really good manuscript, and your chances of landing an agent improve tremendously.

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  • Becky Doughty says:

    This is one of those posts to which I totally relate. I struggle trying to juggle writing a good story, building a great platform, hunting down and making the right connections in the industry – and being persistent without being a pest, professionally speaking – all the while, keeping my sanity and humor intact, my attitude positive, and my family a priority. So when the agents I want seem inaccessible, it’s easy to get discouraged.

    But I’ve discovered that if a writer DOES those things you listed, the doors DO open, albeit ever so slowly. Many agents ARE open to new authors if the authors are willing to contribute their part to the relationship, such as well-crafted stories, teachable spirits, and flexible fingers. AND, when we have to fight for something, the value of it often escalates correspondingly, doesn’t it?

    I don’t like the long, hard, and often frustrating road I’m traveling towards publication, but the longer I’m on it, the more good I’m finding along the way.


    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’m glad you came onto the blog and said something, Becky. Creating good art is hard — always has been, I think. But you’re right… if you stick with it, and improve, doors will open. Thanks for this.

  • Ed Hird says:

    see proposals all the time that are about 60% done, and they’re asking me to
    consider it before it’s ready. Don’t assume you’re a genius just because your
    mom (or spouse, or best friend, or priest) told you so.”

    This is painfully accurate, Chip. Excellent editing is often the missing ingredient. We become so attached to what we write, that we cripple its potential by skipping this vital step. Ruthless humility and teachability are indispensable for going from good to great. Like Abraham, we must be willing to put our literary Isaacs on the editing altar.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent thought, Ed. We do (myself included) become attached to our own words. But it’s in listening to experienced advice that we get better. Thanks for this. Merry Christmas!

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