Chip MacGregor

February 16, 2015

Ask the Agent: What's the biggest news in publishing?


I’m trying to catch up on all the questions people have sent me, so let me see if I can tackle several of them having to do with current affairs…

First, a  couple of people have asked what I think the biggest story is in publishing right now. 

To me, that’s easy… Harper Lee, who wrote one of the most iconic books in American publishing history, is releasing a second book. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and thought Lee’s personal story (assisting Truman Capote with In Cold Blood, winning a Pulitzer for her only book, withdrawing from the public eye, starting and stopping but never finishing anything else) was fascinating for any writer. But her second book, Go Set a Watchman, was actually written before she started on Mockingbird — and Lee agreed to let a publisher produce her earlier work. Watching this play out is fascinating to anyone interested in a writing career. There’s still hope for that bad first novel you wrote years ago!

Second, someone sent in a simple question: “What’s the biggest problem facing publishers today?” 

I suppose it would be easy to point to profit margins, or discoverability, or the issues facing illegal sales and copying, but I don’t think any of those are really the biggest problem. To me, the biggest problem publishers face was made clear in the Publisher’s Weekly salary survey. Less than 1% of those working for publishers are African-American. Hispanics make up about 3%. Asian-Americans make up another 3%. Various others combine for roughly 4%. And that means 89% of everyone working for a US publisher is white. Eighty-nine percent. Yikes. That’s shameful — and perhaps the first place to look when wondering why we’re not building more African-American readers. You want to diversify your readership? Hire some minorities, fer cryin’ out loud.

Third, I had several people ask me, “What’s the biggest news in CBA publishing recently?”

And, of course, it’s that Family Christian Stores, the largest purveyor of Christian books in this country, has filed for bankruptcy. This is a company that was purchased by a small group of people in Atlanta a year ago, and “donated” to a ministry. (There’s more to that story. Being part of a ministry allows them to be tied to a non-profit group. Think “tax deductions.”) Then they shuffled the senior staff around, hiring a brand new senior exec just a week ago. Then they announce they basically owe money everywhere (reports said they owed 7.5 million to HarperCollins Christian Publishing, and almost 2 million to Tyndale), and that they’re going to re-organize. And who is going to take over? Another part of the ministry! Color me excitement. This looks like a mess, being glossed over with the veneer of “you can trust us — we’re all Christians here.” They owe big chunks of money to some smaller houses, by the way. Imagine the damage that can be done to a smaller house when one of your biggest accounts claims they can’t pay the $100,000 they owe you. This affects authors, so if you’re a CBA author, you need to pay attention.

As big news, this just beats out (1) the fact that Tyndale had to recall a bestselling book about a boy going to heaven because, um, it turns out the guy who wrote the book was a liar who made the whole thing up. (Maybe the author’s name, “Malarkey,” should have tipped them off?) For the record, I think Tyndale acted with integrity here. And (2) the fact that presidential hopeful Ben Carson has admitted plagiarizing his bestselling book (as usual, he claimed it was the editor’s fault). I’m surprised this tidbit of news hasn’t gotten more airplay. And (3) everybody finally wised up and yanked their Mark Driscoll books off store shelves in the past month, seeing as how they finally had to admit that he was a plagiarizing, scheming, bullying, misogynistic, horse’s ass. I guess the fact that there was a mountain of evidence to that for years didn’t mean much. Happy trails, Mark. Don’t let the screen door hit you on the rump on your way out the back door.

On a happier note for all you CBA writers? Religious books were up 4% last year. So look on the bright side of all this — people still care about truth. Something to smile about, as you ponder that next great book.

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  • Guest says:

    Bold honesty is a rare trait these days. Your thoughts are appreciated.

  • Joshua Zarzana says:

    Bold honesty is a rare trait these days. Your thoughts are appreciated.

  • Vanessa Davis Griggs says:

    I used to think you were awesome years ago when I would see your name. Now I think you’re REALLY awesome having read this! –Vanessa Davis Griggs

  • Daisy Rain Martin says:

    Ah, don’t sugarcoat it…

  • :Donna Marie says:

    Wow, it’s been ages since I’ve visited here ’cause the link hadn’t worked for me! I would see the header and it would say what I was looking for was no longer here, so I thought you closed up shop. Recently I went about it another way and found you’re still here, Chip! 🙂

    It is impressive about Harper Lee, for sure, then the other two questions/answers are more controversial. I’ve never looked into the stats behind the stats, but I still think the disparity in diversity in publishing isn’t due to some sort of racial problems. What I think is that perhaps most of the people taking the literary route, ending up in publishing, happen to be more of white background. The other groups (Afr.Amer., Hispanic, Asian, etc.) may tend to choose other vocations, including the writing, by the way. I know, from experience, that at every conference or writing event I’ve attended, nearly all the attendees are white with a small amount having what is obviously non-white background. That’s where I think the disparity is.

    And from what I understand, Barnes & Noble, etc. drive the type books that sell, so perhaps the vast majority of people who purchase (rather than borrow, etc.) books aren’t drawn to books that are multicultural? I’m only guessing here, btw. Also, I recently found out that the school/library market’s budget changed dramatically over the years, at least in reference to kidlit. About 80% of their budget used to be for books. It is now about 20% (according to an author who’s been in the biz for 4+ decades) for books and the rest is all about computers, etc. Because schools/libraries are naturally much more diverse, that is where the biggest call is for it, I’m thinking. Anyway, I just think that everyone keeps pointing the finger at publishers, accusing them of discrimination, perhaps, when I don’t think that’s actually the case or driving force behind the imbalance—or seeming imbalance.

    • Joseph Max Lewis says:

      Hey Donna Marie, Watch it, that’s a Sacred Cow you’re goring! Seriously, most folks I’ve met in the publishing and agenting biz, including Chip, are bending over backwards to sign minority authors, but that doesn’t mean Chip doesn’t make an important point. Reading, as the old saw goes, is fundamental. You can graduate from high school with no other skill than reading – as I did (plus typing) – and do anything, because if you can read, you can teach yourself anything. Young kids, especially minority kids and, lets be politically incorrect here, BOYS, are not learning to read the way they should. The easiest way to cure that is to tell stories that appeal to them and often that story is best told by someone of their own race or gender. Where I differ with Chip, maybe, is that the wonderful thing about the protagonists in books is, unless there’s a detailed physical description, they can be of any race. It’s like music and why I hated MTV when it started, the musicians had what the song was about ALL WRONG in their videos.

      Finally, Chip’s observation about how Tyndale handled the Heaven is ???? (thanks you jerk!) stuff doesn’t surprise me at all because Karen Watson, associate publisher for Tyndale is one of the most class acts in the biz. I met her the same time I met Chip and if you’ve never read her stuff about . . . drum roll please, literary fiction, do yourself a favor and check it out.


    • :Donna Marie says:

      Hey, Joseph! (or do you prefer Max?) What a great response to that 🙂 I’m glad agents like Chip are trying to sign minority authors—if their work is good, of course! 🙂 That should go for any race/culture—it should be about the work itself. Still, I’d be curious how an agent, without a photo of an author or having met one, can you be sure, just by a name (unless it’s obvious, but even then), what actual race is. To me, it’s not an easy “fix,” but awareness is key to helping tip the situation in a good direction.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well, there is certainly an imbalance if only 1% of the people working at publishing houses are African-American, Donna. We can argue about the reasons, but it’s clear publishers could work harder to hire and train minority employees. With the bulk of traditional publishers in New York, I’d argue publishers are simply not trying very hard. And yes, writer conferences tend to be overwhelmingly white — but I wonder if that’s driven by the books and people involved in publishing. In other words, is it a vicious circle? I think we’d all benefit from a more racially diverse publishing environment… and I say that as a middle-class, white, Scottish American.

    • :Donna Marie says:

      I agree, Chip, that we would all benefit 🙂 As to the reasons why, I think we can only speculate.

    • Bonnie S. Calhoun says:

      I had a comment all ready and fortunately Disquis ate it when it signed me in…but you are correct Chip. Simon & Schuster do well with their multiple AA lines and so does Harelquin. And AA conferences are reader-centric rather than writer centric. The circuit is rather large.

    • Vanessa Davis Griggs says:

      There was a time when there were more African-Americans being hired at publishing houses. I was an author published by Kensington/Dafina (12 novels classified as Christian fiction). Now, things have completely reversed. As one who writes, Christian fiction, it’s even harder to get our work out there. I so appreciate you for writing this today. It gives me hopes things will get better. I write this as a middle-class, black, American. 🙂

    • Patricia Zell says:

      The same complaint is being heard in the film industry, too–the bias there also extends to women. I don’t know the cause, but I’m thinking it might have to do with who controls the money. Anyway, the one thing I really like about the small city (Ohio) I live in is the diversity that is here. This diversity is not just racial, but extends to gender identities, ethnicities, etc. I’m hoping I’ll be able to influence people into recognizing that underneath the surface, we’re all alike and we’re all loved by God.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Wow, crazy times. I am super excited about the “To Kill A Mockingbird” prequel/sequel coming up. A wonderful story that gives me hope.

  • Jamie Chavez says:

    And this is why I love this blog.

  • Peggotty says:

    I’m looking forward to “Watchman,” and trust it’s better than the majority of first novels. I read that Lee was happy with the effort. If she’s satisfied, I’m ready to partake. Give me my knife and fork.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I admit I have not purchased it yet, Peggotty, but I will. I think it’s fascinating that an iconic, bestselling author was convinced to release her earlier work.

    • Peggotty says:

      At this stage of her life, it can’t help but raise questions. I just hope she was physically and mentally stable enough to make that call. Absolutely fascinating, yes.

  • Chip, you’ve absolutely got to stop sugar-coating your words (“plagiarizing, scheming, bullying, misogynistic, horse’s ass”).
    I agree that the Harper Lee story is interesting, and like an artichoke, every time we peel back a layer we find something more. Has anyone wondered, if this was written before Mockingbird, whether this may be like first novels many of us write–not as good as the second one? Just sayin’.
    Thanks for your comments.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, I thought long and hard over that one, Richard. I realize there’s potential to offend people. But… well, it’s true. So I can live with some people not appreciating it. If they’re upset… um… I’ll cry all night.

  • Laughed out loud several times here. We can always depend on you to tell it like it is. Appreciate you mentioning what you did–it does seem some of it is being largely ignored (after all, there is 50 Shades to talk about :P). Thanks!

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