Chip MacGregor

October 6, 2016

Ask the Agent: Platforms, Pen-names, and Dreams


We’re taking the month of October to do “Ask the Agent.” So what’s the question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent? Here are some that have come in recently…

Recognizing I have started to build my platform much later than I should have, do I give up on sending my manuscript to an agent until a platform is built (years later…) or is there a situation where sending out a proposal is valid? Should I be working towards self-publishing instead?

You’re asking several questions here… First, building a platform is important to nearly every author, so it probably has to be done. Second, building a platform takes time, no matter where you’re starting. Third, don’t spend too much time worrying that you got a late start — instead, start where you are. Fourth, there are some tricks for increasing your platform that might be helpful (including borrowing the platforms of those who have gone before you), so spend some time looking at strategies. Fifth, there are certainly times when your book can land in spite of your platform, though I’ll admit those opportunities seem to be harder than they used to be. An experienced agent or manager might be able to help you with those choices. Sixth, you’re going to evaluate each project and its fit in the market — so if there’s an audience for your book, and it’s the type of project an agent represents, it might indeed be worth sending. And seventh, self-publishing could be an option that works best for you, so don’t view it as some sort of failure. Indie publishing is simply an alternative to traditional publishing, not a compromise.

If you find a manuscript has potential do you give notes to improve the salability of the manuscript?

Love this question. And my answer is “it depends on the situation.” If an author I don’t know sends me a proposal, I generally won’t offer much advice in a rejection because I don’t feel a compulsion to invest time and energy in free editorial advice just because someone wrote to me. Even if someone I spoke to at a conference contacts me, I may or may not — I don’t think there’s any sort of pact that says I owe everyone an editorial response. If a writer wants editing, he or she should hire an editor, or join a critique group, or look for a writing mentor. But sometimes a book idea will really connect with me, and I want to help the author move forward, or the author is someone I have a connection with, or maybe I feel the writer is close to having the proposal ready, and they just need a few tips to push it over the top. In those cases I will frequently make suggestions for how to improve the book. I often get very polite questions from nice authors I’ve rejected — it usually comes in an email and says something like, “Can you offer me any wisdom on how to make this better?” I think that’s a fair question, but I don’t always have the time, and sometimes I really don’t feel it’s my responsibility, or I just don’t know what needs to be different (or a million different things — maybe it was so awful I wouldn’t know where to start, or it was sent so long ago I don’t even remember it). So no, this isn’t an expectation you should have approaching an agent… and if you get some wisdom on your proposal, appreciate that the agent took the time to engage with you.

I’m an established author and I want to switch genres. Should I use a pen name? Can I use a pen name?

It’s possible, but the fact is, pen names are simply harder to make work in our contemporary culture. It used to be easy to slap a pseudonym on a manuscript, maybe even use a fake author photo and bio, and keep multiple identities going. But in our day, when everyone can do deep research online, it’s become really tough to maintain a pseudonym. Will you have a fake bio? A fake author photo? Hey, not even J.K. Rowling was able to keep this up. I understand the desire to use a different name when changing genres, but I don’t know that you’ll want to keep it a secret permanently. An alternative? Use a pen name, but don’t try to hide it. Nora Roberts is open about writing as J.D. Robb. Davis Bunn doesn’t try to keep it a secret that he also writes as Thomas Locke. In most cases, I’m not sure you hurt yourself at all in our contemporary publishing market by stating you write under a couple different names.

What is your dream book? Your dream client? 

I love a great true story, so a well-written memoir from an author with a big platform is probably my dream book. As for a dream client… A writer with a great, unique voice, a strong platform, who works hard and is low maintenance, who listens to advice, who is both collaborative and appreciative — that’s probably my dream author.

Do you chase your own dream even though no one else is doing it, or chase a trend even though it may be played out before you are done?

That one is easy: chase your dream. I’m very serious about that bit of advice. I think every novelist is given certain stories, and you need to write the stories you’ve been given; not try to find some story you think will be part of the hot new trend. Further, I think every nonfiction writer has interests and inclinations to certain topics — write on those that you find important, or that you’re an expert in, that you’ve experienced, or that you somehow feel called to talk about. That’s always going to have more power than writing a book about something you heard might be a hot topic in tomorrow’s market.

Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent? Stop into the comments section below and let me hear it!



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  • rachelhauck says:

    I think even Nora Roberts has dropped J.D. Robb. She writes all titles under her name now. #pennameconversation.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Is that right? I’d not heard that, Rachel. (And for those who don’t know, “Rachel Hauck” is a pen name used by novelist E.L. James… I think… possibly James Patterson… or it could Susan May Warren.)

    • rachelhauck says:

      Hahaha! But I’ll take those two pay checks.

      I’m not 100% on the Nora thing. But seems I saw a title indicating a suspense from her.

  • Karen Nolan Bell says:

    I have a question that is a variation on the pen name option. I am recently divorced and I really would prefer to use my maiden name on my books (still to be published). Should I use my maiden name for all communication? Change my name on my blog, Facebook, twitter, email, etc.? And should I do that immediately?

  • Theresa Lode says:

    I always appreciate your wisdom and knowledge – all wrapped up in a beautifully written post. You rock, Chip. Thank you.

  • DavidT says:

    Thanks Chip! I truly appreciate your time in answering my question (#1). Regarding points 1-4, I have begun and will continue to build my platform – thanks for the information. Your points 5-6 go to the heart of my question. I’m not sure how to find an experienced agent that represents my project/type (nonfiction Biblical/Christian teachings), but it seems that should be my next step. Thanks for point 7 – I have thought of Indie publishing as a compromise (I guess that came across in the question!), so it’s good to know that it is a valid option. Wonderfully helpful response!

  • Traci Hilton says:

    Great answers! Thanks so much for this feature.

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