Chip MacGregor

October 3, 2016

Ask the Agent: Publishers, Proposals, and Agents


We’re going to take the month of October to focus on “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to talk to a literary agent about. I’ll tackle a bunch of the questions that have come in so far, and you can feel free to add more questions in the comments section below. Let’s get started…

When you send a proposal to a few publishers, how long do you wait until you send to somebody else? Do you wait for an answer before sending to others? Is there a grace period?

I get this question frequently, and while I can’t give you any definitive answers, I can offer some guidelines… If you send a proposal to an agent, most will tell you they try and get back in touch with a response within a couple of months, so depending on the time of year, let’s say it will be six to twelve weeks. Of course, all of us go on vacation or simply get into a busy season, and sometimes projects back up — but remember that “looking at proposals from authors we do not represent” is almost always going to fall behind “working on a project from an author I already represent.” Still, that’s a reasonable time frame. As far as waiting before you send to someone else, I can honestly say that I don’t care if another agent is looking at your work. I mean, I’m not the agent for everyone, so if you want to talk to another agent and let them review your work, that’s fine with me, though I realize not every agent will take that approach. That said, I do think if you haven’t heard from an agent in a couple months, it’s fine to check back and ask if they’ve had a chance to review it. And, let’s face it… if an agent has had your proposal for six months and not responded, logic tells you they aren’t that interested, whether or not they’ve responded.

Let me shift the proposal over to publishers for a moment: If you’ve sent your proposal to a publisher, you’re very likely not going to get a response unless they are interested. Many publishers won’t even review unagented proposals, so you may need help getting in the door. But if meet an editor at a writing conference and they ask you to send them a copy of your proposal, by all means do so right away — don’t wait a few months and hope they still remember you and your project. But the same timeline holds true — they’ll probably read and review in a few months. If they haven’t responded after six months, they clearly don’t want it whether they’ve said so or not. Again, I don’t see the value in sending to only one publisher, so I think you’d need a reason to do an exclusive submission (besides, I don’t see how they’d know you had sent it to anyone else unless you tell them). Does that help?

And what’s the timeline difference between waiting to hear back on a proposal and waiting to hear back on a requested manuscript?

I would say that a requested manuscript should normally go to the top of the stack and get reviewed first, so the time frame might be cut to a couple of weeks. BUT… something that any experienced agent or editor will tell you is that the notion of what is “requested” is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. I’m not trying to be snarky here, but I’ve sometimes had an author press me several times at a conference about reading their work, so I’ll finally say, “yeah, yeah, okay — send me something.” Similarly I know of some editors who, if approached late in the day, are simply tired of saying “no” all day, and they’ll say “yes” to someone just to feel kind. That doesn’t exactly mean the author has an enthusiastic request for a manuscript. I’ve sometimes had writers tell me, “The editor at Simon & Schuster loved this idea and insisted I send it to her!” only to find when I checked with the editor she had said, “um, well, it doesn’t really fit my list, and I don’t think we’d contract this story, but if you insist, you can send it my way, I guess.”

I’m a creative who writes not only adult non-fiction, but also mid-grade fiction. How do I search for an agent who will represent the breadth of my diversified writing?

That’s an excellent question. I think every author hopes to find one agent who will represent all their work, but that’s not always realistic. For example, I represent adult books, and it’s rare for me to represent a children’s book. I do it occasionally, but children’s publishing exists as its own world — they all know each other, they work together, and they don’t generally have all that much overlap with adult fiction and nonfiction. I need a reason to take on a children’s project. Some agents only represent romance novels, or textbooks, or adult nonfiction. So sometimes an author might find themselves working with more than one agent… even though most agents will tell you it can be hard to co-exist. (I’ll admit I have sometimes been frustrated when an author tells me one agent is saying the opposite of what I’m saying.) An author is going to an agent for career advice, not just access to publishers, so at some point you’re probably going to need one person you trust to offer wisdom and direction.

What is the most creative way you have received a book idea/proposal? And did it work?

The fact is, I don’t think the creativity of the proposal is nearly as important as the content. I’ve had incredibly creative proposals sent my way (including once receiving a hot romance wrapped in a thong), but my decision to represent a project still comes down to the salability of the idea, the quality of the writing, the platform of the author, and my own comfort level with the writer. Every editor will tell you that the decision to pursue a project is basically a Venn diagram of idea/writing/platform, so even the BEST creative presentation won’t make up for weak writing. While sending a pound of Starbucks or a box of Godiva chocolates is nice, the reader still has to fall in love with your writing and feel it could be successful in the market to make it stand out.

I’d love to know your agents’ specialties. Does anyone enjoy handling western historical fiction?

I’m a generalist — I represent a broad range of adult non-fiction, a limited list of adult fiction (thrillers, romance, some literary titles, and Christian/inspirational fiction), and the occasional special project. Amanda Luedeke also represents a broad list of adult nonfiction and a limited list of adult fiction. Brian Tibbetts represents fiction for the general market, and has done some spec fiction and some suspense. None of us specialize in historical, though we’ve all done some on occasion. It would need to be special.

I’ll stop there… but I’ll be back in a couple days. If you’ve got a question you’ve always wanted to ask an agent, drop it into the comments section and we’ll talk about it soon! 

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  • AMArellano says:

    Can you offer any advice on estate planning, particularly naming a literary executor or trustee? Should we work with an intellectual property lawyer to draw up a will?

  • Thanks for the insights, Chip. It’s appreciated.

  • Bryan Higby says:

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

  • Traci Hilton says:

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

  • Lisa Phillips says:

    I’ve heard of some established agents that are also published in the genre they represent. Isn’t it considered a conflict of interest, considering the agent and the author they represent could potentially be competing for the same slot with a publishing house? How would I know my agent isn’t going to push THEIR story with a publisher instead of their client’s?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Love the question, meant to respond to it today, and… forgot. Oops. Sorry! Will do so next week, Lisa.

  • michelle says:

    What is a reasonable expectation for an author to have with his/her agent when it comes to checking in regarding any updates the agent might have about a project that is currently in the hands of publishers? (ex. is it reasonable to expect an agent can send a quick email once a month to the author letting he/she know which publishers have said no and which still have not responded?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good question, Michelle, and I responded to it in the next post. Thanks for participating in the conversation.

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