Chip MacGregor

October 18, 2016

Ask the Agent: Were you really hit by a tornado?


So… it’s been a bit of a weird weekend. On Friday, the little town I live in on the Pacific Coast was hit by a tornado. It came in off the ocean, tore right through our small downtown, damaged trees and homes, and demolished several buildings. My old office, where MacGregor Literary resided up until a few months ago, was hit. Holly Lorincz, who now runs her editorial company from that office, was in the building, had her windows blown in, 130 mph winds roar through her space, and is alive though very shaken. (She was with her ten year old son, and the two of them were nearly blown away.) My good buddy, the crime writer Steve Jackson, was on the second floor of a building that was badly damaged, and survived by diving under his bed. They’re lucky they didn’t wake up in Oz. And the really odd thing is that we simply don’t GET tornadoes here. It’s not usually warm enough, so there haven’t been a dozen tornadoes in Oregon in my lifetime that have done any real damage. Then this happens. So, as you can see, there’s been a lot activity here, and it’s partly why I’m a bit late with this blog. Since we’re doing “Ask the Agent” all this month, I’ll invite you to send in your questions in the “comments” section below…

I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut on places like Facebook and Twitter. Can you be too opinionated online and ruin your chances of getting a contract?

Sure you can. I’ve had to remind young people that posting weird stuff on Facebook is going to be seen by future employers, and I’d say to authors that posting over-the-top stuff online can bother people. (I speak from experience. I’m generally a conservative, but I think Donald Trump is a pending disaster, and my talking about it online has damaged some friendships. I’ve had authors fire me because I said I think there are limitations to our Second Amendment rights, and because I’ve made jokes that people didn’t like. I understand firsthand how to tick people off, even when you don’t mean to.) So yes, you can be too opinionated. Publishing is a small world. Um… having said that, most of us in publishing LIKE opinionated people. It’s what makes for interesting books. 

I submitted a proposal to a small house and it appears an offer if forthcoming. Would you recommend hiring an agent to negotiate the contract? If so, what’s a reasonable commission considering the offer is already on the table?

I’ve had this question several times over the years, and I always say that I think it depends on the situation. On the one hand, if you already have a contract offer, you might be able to use a contract review service and pay a flat fee to have someone do a decent review. You can talk to an attorney to get a review, but put a firm price tag on it — the goal of far too many attorneys in this situation is to keep the clock running, and you don’t want to spend more than you’re making in advances (which I’ve seen happen). If you need help beyond the current contract (you’re looking for help with subsidiary rights, or you’re hoping for career guidance), you can talk to an agent, but make sure he or she is going to charge a reasonable commission. I know some agents insist on earning a full 15% commission on these types of deals — something I believe is highway robbery. I mean, the agent didn’t help conceive the idea, or help shape it, or help with the writing, or shop it to publishers, or find you the offer… so I’m not sure why he or she would expect to earn a full commission. 

I just saw “Girl on the Train,” and earlier this year watched “Gone Girl.” Both of those movies were based on books that are considered “Psychological Suspense.” Can you explain what psychological suspense is? 

Psychological suspense has become a popular term for thriller novels that are basically told from the point of view of the central character, and explores the feelings/struggles/issues/beliefs that individual is facing while under some sort of duress. Some people refer to these books as why-done-its, as opposed to who-done-its. So psychological suspense differs from mysteries in that the focus is usually not so much on the mystery itself, as on the central character’s frame of mind. It differs from crime fiction in that, instead of just trying to solve a crime, the central character is often trying to figure out not just WHAT happened, but WHY it happened. There are a ton of these books being released right now, most of them with a woman as a confused, sometimes unreliable, central character. Um… keep in mind that definitions in fiction genres are notoriously fluid, so this is my own definition, and others may tweak it or describe psychological suspense a bit differently.

Several editors at a publishing conference said they were interested in “commercial fiction.” What does that mean? 

This is another one of those “I know it when I see it” definitions we find so often in publishing. Commercial fiction always has a big story (so it’s not a meandering or thoughtful story), with interesting/likable characters and a clear plot I want to follow, generally told in a straightforward manner, but not necessarily fitting easily into one of the recognized categories (romance, sci-fi, thriller, western, etc). Unlike literary fiction, which is basically created as art to help us better understand ourselves and our world, commercial fiction is written as entertainment, to help us have a diversion from ourselves and our world. I always argue it’s not about the quality of the craft, since some commercial fiction is incredibly well done, but it’s about the goals of the book. If it’s basically a plot-driven story meant to entertain us, it’s probably commercial fiction. By the way, if you google this question, you’ll find some great answers from writers and editors on this topic. (I’ve spent hours reading how others want to delineate commercial fiction from literary fiction.)

In your view, what is the role of the literary agent in today’s world?

My role is to help the authors I represent succeed. That means the things I do will depend on the unique situation of each author. I have a lot of broad experience, and my role is to bring the necessary skills into play in order to help the author (and the book) succeed.

I’ve heard you say on your blog several times that publishing has changed considerably. In today’s publishing world, what would you say are the one or two essential things an author needs in order to be successful?

I would say every author has to have (1) a very unique story to tell. Whether they’re weaving a fictional story, creating a nonfiction teaching book, crafting a memoir, offering wisdom on something in history or culture, the author has to have an interesting, unique take that other people will want to read. And (2) every author has to have a platform. We have to be able to stand in front of the publisher and say, “The author is bringing in THIS GROUP of readers to the table.” Often you hear people talk about the change in contemporary publishing as something negative — that an author has to struggle to create a platform. I prefer we talk about the incredibly diverse opportunities every author has these days to build a platform.

I’m traditionally published, but thinking hard about pursuing some independently published titles. I realize you’re an agent focused primarily on traditional publishing, but what would you say are some of the questions an author has to answer in order to indie publish successfully? (Note from Chip: I have reworded your lengthy question in this way. Let me know if you think I got to the heart of it.)

The questions you would have to answer include who can edit this and make sure it’s well done? Who can create a cover for it? Who can help me format it, and what format should it be in? Where am I going to distribute and sell this book? How much am I going to charge? What marketing do I need to do? How do I stay involved with the book so that it continues to sell? Answering those questions will help you get started.

Got a question you’d like to ask an agent? Write it in the comments section below, and I’ll get to it this month!


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  • Kiki Hamilton says:

    Hi Chip! So glad everyone is okay after that crazy tornado! Your little town is like a second home to me, so it was heart-wrenching to see those familiar buildings devastated. But thankfully, no one was hurt so I’m sure things will be rebuilt better than ever! And opinions make the world go round! The more, the better! 🙂 Thanks for always having interesting and relevant topics on your blog.

  • Traci Hilton says:

    I’m glad you survived the tornado. The pictures and stories of the damage are really something. Will be praying for Manzanita.

    Thanks for this blog series! It’s a nice opportunity to ask the random questions that pop into my head from day to day.

    Speaking of, I have another one.

    USA Today Best Selling Box sets are the Hot New Thing in the indie world. Do publishers care? I ask because a) I haven’t had one so I want the answer to be no, and b) As cool as it is (and if it was me I’d tattoo it on my forehead) it seems like a publisher wouldn’t be all that impressed as the it usually means you were one of 10 or 12 books in a set that sold for 99 cents, so not all that different from giving away tons of books for free.

  • I would like to add to the other voices here to express my appreciation for this “column” to ask an agent. I find your advice so insightful.

    Wow, what a tornado story! I have gone through several in Ohio, but it has to be even scarier when you live in an area that doesn’t normally get them.

    I have two questions. The first is a general question, while the second is specific to my current book project.

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

    2. I have just finished a memoir that has two publishing angles: a former Amish memoir, and a memoir about healing a complicated mother-daughter relationship years after my mother left this earth. I hope to receive guidance from an agent about which angle is the better one to pursue, but in a query to an agent, should I choose one, or convey my dilemma and ask the advice from the agent which one to pursue? This decision has obvious implications about which books I use when I write my market analysis for my book proposal.

    Thank you again for your insightful advice to authors.

  • Debra L. Butterfield says:

    I grew up in Tornado Alley and have had a few harrowing experiences with tornadoes. Not fun. I really enjoy your “Ask the Agent” posts. It helps me gain a better understanding of the big picture of publishing rather than the small part I live in as an editor.

  • kimberlyontour says:

    Your blog has been so helpful, thank you. I’ve got a question: I’ve just spent almost 3 years writing a non-fiction leadership book. I’ve had the book professionally edited and have written my book proposal. I’ve queried about 30 agents, received one “Yes! Exactly what I’m looking for!” but the rest of the responses have been either rejection form letters, quick notes saying my platform isn’t big enough (it isn’t horrible – I have 13k Twitter followers, a TEDx talk, blog regularly – but I am certainly not famous), or silence (my queries went out early September). I followed up with the enthusiastic agent and was told that she hoped to get back to me early October, but I haven’t heard anything. I’ve started exploring hybrid publishers but I’d really prefer to go the traditional route if possible (not for the advance but for the credibility). I’m not sure how long to continue querying before I shift gears. What would you recommend in my situation?

  • Rayanne Sinclair says:

    I trust Holly & son are doing okay. Tough weather for those of you south of me – while we seemed to have dodged a bullet up here near Seattle.
    My question to you is this: I’ve written a story that is too short for novel, but too long for short story. I believe it lends itself to becoming a screenplay/manuscript. What’s your knowledge and/or advice in that arena?

  • Angela K Couch says:

    Glad you and yours are all safe! And thanks for the info. 🙂

  • Theresa Lode says:

    So much great information and encouragement here, Chip. I learned a little something about psychological thrillers. And btw – I have enjoyed your political comments and have found them to be intelligent and thoughtful. I appreciate your authenticity. And I’m glad you and your friends are safe!

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