Chip MacGregor

March 9, 2015

Ask the Agent: Are things getting better? (and other questions)


This question was sent to my personal email: “Do you think there is any rush for an established writer to get his/her next book published in the current climate? That is, are things likely to get better or worse in the next few months?”


My crystal ball is in the repair shop, so I don’t know what the next few months will bring. If I guessed, I’d probably get it wrong. But no, I don’t think there’s any rush to get your next book published. Every writer who has worked with me has heard me say something numerous times: Good is better than fast. I’d rather an author took the time to make something really good than to rush it out quickly.


And this came in as well: “I was wondering what your advice would be to an unpublished writer interested in writing a 3-book series. I understand those are much harder to sell, and publishers prefer if each book ties up the story enough that they can be read individually/out-of-order.”


What’s easier to sell – a car, or a fleet of cars? When you’re starting out, it’s much easier to sell ONE book. That doesn’t mean it can’t be the first part of a series (and you may very well want to mention that when you create your proposal, pointing out the sequel possibilities so that the publisher knows what would come next if they were to contract the book). But keep in mind when creating a series that most publishers want each book to stand on its own. So the first book in your proposed series needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your second book needs to be the sort of project that readers can pick up, get into the story, and appreciate without feeling as though they’re stepping into the middle of something they don’t understand, or that doesn’t really offer a satisfying ending. It’s not impossible to start your career with a series, but the bar is set higher – the publisher is going to look for outstanding writing and a very salable story.


This question was a bit out of the ordinary: “Would you please tell me how to set up a proper proposal for a gift book?”


A gift book proposal will have many of the same elements that any other nonfiction book proposal will include: title, overview of the book, a description of the takeaway, notes on the audience, author bio, an outline or table of contents, comparable titles, and some sample text. If there is artwork or some sort of high design element, you may include some thoughts on the look of the finished project, but I wouldn’t get married to any particular concept – most gift book publishers have art directors that understand the look their audience is going for. The key questions with most gift books are “what is the gift-giving occasion?” and “who is going to purchase this book?” Gift book publishers are looking for book ideas that have clear answers to those questions. A high school or college graduation is a clear gift-giving occasion. So is a wedding or the birth of a baby. “People who might need some encouragement” is not a clear gift-giving occasion, and will need to have something special for it to merit consideration.


Someone came onto the website and said this: “I see that you are not taking manuscripts from unpublished authors, which I can respect. But can you suggest a place that an unpublished author can submit work or search for an agent?”


We stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts several years ago, when it became clear that we needed a part-time editor to do nothing but respond to the hundreds of proposals being sent our way. That isn’t cost-effective – particularly when you consider very few of the over-the-transom proposals were projects we wound up representing. So most of the people I represent were recommended by someone I’m already working with. These days, the best place to connect with an agent is probably at a writing conference or an industry event. If you write romance, for example, there are dozens of agents at the RWA national conference in July each year. Do some research, figure out who might be a good fit for your work, and set up a time to meet with them.


A good friend sent me this (and gave me permission to use it on the blog): “I’d love to have a bestseller, but the reality is I’d settle for a decent living… is that still within reach?”


Sure it is. But writing is art, and it’s never been easy to make a living at art. (How many people who can dance well make a living at dance? How many people who can sing well or play the piano make a living at music?) Publishing, like every other art form, is dominated by a few who do extremely well. You can count the number of million-selling novelists over the past few years on two hands, but I think there are more writers than ever who are actually making a living with their words. Most of them are hybrid – that is, they do some traditional publishing as well as selling a bunch of copies of their self-pubbed titles – and many are doing short form writing such as essays and articles, as well as writing books. It’s hard, and if you’re one of the people who read this blog writing fiction for CBA, it’s become exceptionally hard due to the decline of the inspirational fiction market. But that’s tidal. The tide has gone out… it will come back in, given time.

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  • Beth says:

    I have a question which, so far, no one has been able to answer.
    My granddaughter published a novel using a subsidy publisher, back in 2008. They’ve since ignored her, so she’s looking for a mainstream publisher. She’s edited the novel, removing vast chunks of it and changing the relationship between four major characters. What she’d like to know is, can she legally change the character names, place names, title and pen name and send it to a main stream publisher? She owns all copyrights.

    • Lisa Phillips says:

      Hi. I’ll try to answer – but a calling a contract lawyer might be good.
      It depends on the wording of the contract she has with the subsidy publisher, so read that carefully. It should tell you what their rights are to her book.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Lisa raises a good point about checking the contract… but this one ought to be easy, Beth. Have her check the license, not the copyright. If she owns the rights to her book (that is, if she hasn’t licensed them to her vanity press), then she can take the book down, change the character and place names, and do whatever she wants with it. She can turn it into a vampire dystopian musical in French, if she wants. But if she has indeed signed her rights over to the publisher, she’ll need to get out of that contract by asking for a reversion.

  • Always appreciate the Q&A. Re: making a living at writing: I love the book industry so much. It’s been my dream since high school to spend my life shaping books. I used to stress trying to figure out how I could make that work for me. My light bulb came on when I realized writing for a living not only wasn’t financially realistic for a single mom, but the pressure to support a family on my writing would creatively crush me.

    Three years ago I found my own perfect hybrid: writing supported by editing (working part-time for one house and freelancing for two others as much as needed). I’m in the world I love and making a living. Plus, when I pull the extra-late nights and occasional weekend marathons to make big strides in writing, my creativity feels like one of my son’s toy cars that you pull back and let fly.

    And I know that isn’t really what your post was about, but maybe someone else is looking for a way to combine work in publishing. For me editing, proofreading, and writing is the prefect fit for now.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Hey, thanks for your response, Natalie. Always happy to hear from someone in the industry who has found their happy place. Appreciated this.

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