Chip MacGregor

October 20, 2016

Ask the Agent: Boxed Sets, Memoirs, and Querying Questions


We’ve been spending the month of October doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent…

I had an agent at a conference request my full manuscript. That was five months ago, and he hasn’t read it yet. I’ve made some revisions to my original manuscript… do I send the “new and improved” version to the agent, or is that a red flag that my original submission may not have been strong enough? 

Sometimes it takes awhile for an agent to read and respond to queries — even requested ones. The focus for an agent is usually on serving the clients he or she already has, rather than on finding new people, and events (such as the busy fall book season) can slow things down even more. Still, five months is a long time, in my book. I think you’re fine sending an email that says, “You’d asked to see this one several months ago. I know you’re busy, but I’ve been spending my time rewriting and improving my manuscript, so I think it’s much stronger now. Would you prefer to replace the existing version you have with my new, improved version?”  Some agents will probably hate this, but to me that seems a fair question to ask.

USA Today bestselling boxed sets are the “hot new thing” in the indie world. Do publishers care?

From my experience, every publisher likes to see that an author has hit the USA Today or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal bestseller lists, and if you’re in a boxed set that hit the list, you can legitimately call yourself a “USA Today bestselling author.” So that’s great! Do publishers care when it’s a boxed set of twelve titles selling for 99 cents? Um… not very much. As I said, they’re always glad to see a proposal from a best-selling author, so use that when talking with them. But don’t expect that’s going to get you very far. Your manuscript is going to have to show them that you can write well enough to hit the bestseller list on your own.

I’ve written a story that is too short for a novel, but too long for a short story. I believe it lends itself to becoming a screenplay. What’s your advice in that arena?

If your manuscript is too short to be a novel but too long to be a short story, it’s a novella. There are some avenues for getting a novella published, particularly in some genre collections (romance, mystery, etc), and you might find opportunities with indie and ebook publishers. But a screenplay is a screenplay… a different beast than a novella. You asked my advice, and it’s this: If you want to create a screenplay, take a class, read up on it, and learn the unique elements of screenplay writing. 

When writing a memoir with hopes of capturing the interest of a mainstream publisher, is there a recommended length?

A fair question, and if you ask five agents, you might get five different answers. But here’s mine: No, there is not a recommended length. The length will depend on the story arc, and how long it takes you to tell your story. Now, having said that, I think it’s fair to say that we don’t see many memoirs shorter than 50,000 words, and aside from political/historical memoirs we don’t see many longer than 75,000 words. So that gives you some guidelines. (And now, of course, we can all expect to see a memoir hit the NYT bestseller list that goes 120,000 words…)

I’ve just finished a memoir that has two angles: my former Amish story, and my story about healing a complicated mother/daughter relationship. I hope to receive guidance from an agent about which angle is better to pursue. In a query to an agent, should I choose one angle, or convey my dilemma and ask the advice of which way to go? 

Um… I have to admit, I find this question confusing. You start by saying “I’ve just FINISHED a memoir…” So I’m guessing the manuscript is complete. Then you say you’re trying to figure out which story to tell. But it sounds like you’ve already told both of the stories. Certainly writing an “I grew up Amish” story isn’t inconsistent with telling a “mother/daughter reconciliation” story. Both are workable, both are salable, and the two might very well work in tandem to create a great story. (Think of Wild, which is both a “travel through nature to find myself” and a “find peace with my mother’s death” memoir.) Some stories are simply complex. If you’re feeling as though you must axe one or the other story, then my guess (and it’s just a guess, since I haven’t seen your work) would be that you’re still trying to find your focus. I’d keep writing, maybe talk with a good editor to get some help. Does that help?

I spent three years writing a leadership book, had it professionally edited, and queried about 30 agents. So far I’ve had a lot of form letter rejections, some quick notes saying my platform isn’t big enough, and one agent who said she liked it, would be in touch, but I haven’t heard anything since. How long do I continue querying before I shift gears?

There’s no real answer to that question that you’ll find satisfying, I’m afraid. I don’t know your story at all, so let me take a stab at this… On the one hand, there is good news here: You’ve begun the process, created a proposal, and you’ve figured out who it’s not a fit for. As to why people are rejecting it, I have no idea. It could be that the material isn’t all that great. (Please don’t be offended at that. I’ve done a lot of business books, and one of the problems is that too many speakers basically offer motivational talks, which rarely work as books.) It could be that the writing, even after professional editing, doesn’t sparkle. It could be that your platform just isn’t big enough for the publishers who would pick up this kind of book. It could be that you’re querying the wrong agents — you want to be talking with agents who have a track record of selling the type of book you’ve written. It could be that you need to focus on the publisher, to figure out where your manuscript might fit. It could be that the book you’ve created would do best as an indie published title. Or it could be you need to keep at it until you find the right agent to partner with. (Yeah… those are a lot of if’s.) My advice is to take a step back, and maybe talk with a couple experienced people to see if you’re missing something.

We’re continuing our Ask an Agent focus throughout the month of October. If you have a question you’d like to ask a literary agent, drop it into the comments below, and I’ll get to it very soon! 

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  • Carol Doane says:

    I followed your advice, wrote an email almost verbatim, “…I’ve been spending my time rewriting and improving my manuscript…” Two hours later I had a request for the new draft.

    I try not to get too excited about these things, but I’m enjoying my ‘MacGregor Inspired Moment.’ Thank you.

  • Jennifer Covello says:

    I’ve just completed my 57K word memoir (genre: spirituality/religion) and am getting mixed direction on whether to submit directly to publishers who say they are open to new submissions and finding an agent. My gut says an agent would be best as they know the world of publishing however I’ve been told to be wary of them as well. What’s a new author to do?

  • Great series! 🙂 I have a question… If a book has been successfully self-published or published with a smaller publisher and I get my rights back is it then worth pursuing a bigger publisher with that book?

  • Thanks, Chip, for the thoughtful answers. The question concerning which angle to use had to do with the marketing angle. The book is finished, and it is indeed a memoir about a complicated mother/daughter relationship, but it happens within an Amish community and continues after I leave my family and community to start a whole new life. You had it almost right… I am finding peace with my mother’s LIFE, eleven years after her death.

    In the telling of this mother-daughter saga, there is also the story of me leaving home and Mem’s reaction to that. So it could be marketed as a former Amish memoir that grapples with a mother-daughter relationship. Or it could be marketed as a mother-daughter relationship story that’s set inside and outside an Amish community.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this.

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