Chip MacGregor

October 13, 2016

Ask the Agent: Credentials, Genres, and Weird Agent Advice


We’re spending the month of October on “Ask the Agent,” where writers can send in any questions they have of a literary agent. Today’s questions…

I am a fiction author, published under my own name. I also want to publish a few nonfiction works with my name and credential since it makes sense for credibility. Is that doable? Will I be able to use the same author page on Amazon?

Of course that’s doable. There are plenty of writers who publish both fiction and nonfiction. And you can certainly do both on your Amazon author page… but you may not want to. Understand that fiction and nonfiction have completely separate audiences, so you can’t expect your fiction readers to be interested in your nonfiction writing. That’s why some writers use two separate personas and separate websites for their fiction and nonfiction work — different readership, different expectations, different approach. (I should also add that, in my experience, it’s tough to do both kinds of writing well. Nonfiction is all about telling; fiction is all about showing. Few writers really master both, in my view.)

If a published novelist wants to try writing in a new genre, do they need to submit with a completed manuscript? I am a traditionally published middle-grade author, now working on an adult biblical fiction project. My current agent does not represent religious titles, so I will need to query agents that represent Christian fiction. Should I wait to do this until I’ve completed the novel? Or am I able to query with a synopsis and sample chapters? Would an interested agent want a completed novel before going out on submission or would they consider submitting a proposal?

In today’s market, a writer jumping from children’s fiction to adult fiction will probably have to have a completed novel to get contracted. That’s not a sure thing (if you’ve had great success as a children’s book writer, your publisher may be interested in giving you a shot at an adult novel), but it’s certainly the norm. As for querying agents, you could try with a query letter and sample chapter… but your odds will be much better if you have a completed manuscript. One of the things I’ve noticed over the past few years is the movement away from submitting sample chapters of novels, and toward agents and editors insisting the manuscript is complete.

I received an offer of representation from an agent someone recommended to me, and I’ve heard you say that, as authors, we should ask questions of agents. So when I asked the agent where he saw my book fitting, and told him that an editor at a certain house had given me notes for revising my manuscript, he said to me, “I only advise clients.” Then the offer of representation was withdrawn (the agent said he preferred to do work with clients before they get involved with an editor). Is this odd? Is this how most agents would treat my question? Am I really hurting myself by working with an editor? 

Um… really? He withdrew his offer of representation because you had been working with an editor to polish your manuscript? Yes, that would be odd. In fact, that would seem completely wacky to most agents. An author is rarely hurting herself when she works with an editor (only if the editor is encouraging mistakes or strange stuff, which I’ve seen occasionally). Most of us want to see the manuscript as polished as you can make it. So yes, this sounds completely weird.

Another note on this: You basically are claiming that the agent said he didn’t want to answer questions about where your manuscript might fit, so… he wouldn’t talk with you about where he was going to send it? If he’s really your agent, that’s also odd. Of course, the oddest part of this is that he sounds like he offered you representation before he’d even talked with you. That’s a sure sign of a crappy agent. I’m sorry this happened to you, but from the sound of it, you’re better off not signing with that guy.

You mentioned there are plusses and minuses for both indie publishing and traditional publishing. Would you say more about what the benefits and risks might be for each? 

Sure. The benefits of indie publishing include the fact that the author is in control of the process — he or she gets to pick the cover, be in charge of the marketing decisions, and publish whatever they want. The  author retains all rights, gets to keep most of the money earned, and is the decision-maker on everything that happens with the manuscript. The downside of indie publishing? Well, again, the author is in control of the process. Some authors hate that, are lousy at picking covers, don’t know how to find a good editor, and aren’t sure how to market a book. If you hire all that out, it costs money, and you don’t know if you’ll make that back in sales or not. And while an author retains all his or her rights, actually monetizing sub-rights can be much harder on your own (do you know how to sell foreign rights, get into bookstores, or get a movie deal?).

The benefits of traditional publishing include having a team of professionals handle things like covers and editing and selling, and they’ll usually have people to handle things like foreign rights. If it’s an established house they’ll also pay you an advance, so you’ll see money up front. But they will be slower, will pay a lower royalty, and may not offer all that much help on the marketing front.

One isn’t good and the other evil. Both are viable. One may not work for you. It’s one of the reasons I encourage authors to at least consider becoming a hybrid author and doing both — you don’t HAVE to, mind you, but it’s worth checking into. Still, publishing is a crap shoot. You do your best, but luck plays a big part. I’ve seen great books with great marketing go nowhere, and I’ve seen lousy books with bad marketing plans break out. It’s a funny business.

What question have YOU always wanted to ask a literary agent? Drop it in the comments section below, and Chip will get to it this month! 

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  • I do think anyone pondering indie publishing needs to do their research and make sure their debut publishing effort is something that both looks and reads like a traditionally published book, because that’s the first impression your readers are going to have of you. That means a lot of work, yes, but there are ways to swap services in the indie world. I know several Christian indies who’ve made QIP (Qualified Indie Publisher on ACFW–means they earned 4K on one title in 12 mos) with ONLY their debut novels, so indie success is largely based on putting out superior products that can play with the “big boys,” so to speak.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      There are several different groups doing a swap of services, Heather — some are better than others. I’ve found the editing in some of the groups I’ve looked at to be lacking… authors are basically offered a reading done by a fellow author, rather than a thorough edit. But again, I’ll be the first to admit that’s not original or verifiable research, that’s just my experience. (No doubt you can come back with a story of having a wonderful job done.) I’ve done this a long time, and tend to prefer working with professionals when it comes to editing, covers, and marketing. I like the concept of service swaps, but I must admit I think some of the promises people make are overblown. My two cents.

    • Ah, yes–I meant more personalized swapping, such as finding someone skilled at cover art, edits, etc.–not a group. And that’s generally for the debut novel. Most indies I know who treat indie pub as a career get to the point where they can afford to hire out cover art, edits, formatting, etc.

  • Chip, you’ve given one of the most balanced, cogent presentations of the pros and cons of indie publishing vs. traditional publishing. Thanks for putting that information out there.

  • A co-author and I submitted an unagented proposal to a small publishing house, and it appears as if an offer is forthcoming. Would you recommend hiring an agent to negotiate the contract? If so, what’s a reasonable commission rate considering the offer’s already on the table (assuming the offer comes)? Should the co-author and I have different representation or the same?

  • Traci Hilton says:

    Thanks for sharing such a well rounded opinion on hybrid publishing! I can’t count the number of times I’ve had publishers say, “but why would you want to? You don’t need us.” (Okay, I can, it was three times.) It’s funny to me how I’ve had to explain that even though I might enjoy making my indie money I am willing to share the riches with a publisher who is sharing the work! Especially regarding editing. 🙂

    So I have a hypothetical question, from, you know, a hypothetical author. She asks: “I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut. Can you be too opinionated online and ruin your chances of getting a contract?”

    Also, side note: dictation is going well–I can sure put words on the page fast that way. But the editing of those words…PHEW! That’s another story all together.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Nice tiara, Traci. (Or… Princess Traci, apparently.) Thanks for the question, which I responded to in the next blog.

    • Traci Hilton says:

      I prefer queen, but it’s an easy mistake since I’m just so young. 😛

      Thanks for the answer! I appreciate it.

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