Chip MacGregor

March 4, 2015

Ask the Agent: How do you feel about free fiction? (and other topics)


A writing friend sent this: “I need your help. A publicist sent me an email and asked me to review a client’s book.  I agreed. Unfortunately, the book is horrible. The publicist has emailed to inquire as to when I would be posting my book review. As a writer, I hate to totally slam a book. What do you suggest?


This has happened to lot of us. My advice: Send a nice note to the publicist, saying, “You know, I read this, and it didn’t really appeal to me. I don’t want to say anything negative, so could I beg off, and you could ask me to review another book sometime?”


And this came in to the website: “I am writing a book which will be illustrated. What is the industry standard for sharing royalties between authors and illustrators?”


A book that has a few illustrations spread throughout usually doesn’t share royalties with the artist – the illustrations are usually licensed and paid for with a one-time payment. A book that has illustrations throughout (for example, a children’s picture book) will either have the artwork purchased outright, OR they will split the royalties in some way. I’ve seen all sorts of splits, by the way, but the standard is 50/50. Be aware, most children’s publishers don’t purchase the art you’re recommending. They’ll contract the text with you, then find their own illustrator whom they know and trust.


Someone asked this on the blog: “How do you feel about free fiction?”


I think it can work as a marketing strategy. Authors can give away a book to a particular audience, and hope to build readers. (YA author Jenny B Jones talked about that strategy on this blog a couple months ago.) But I also think its effectiveness is diminishing due to the vast amounts of free crap available online. Let’s face it – when you’re given something for free, you tend not to value it very much. So I think an author has to be careful of giving away something and sending the message, “My work isn’t very valuable.” Used carefully, as a means of hooking in new readers, it can still work, particularly for nonfiction authors. Now… all that said, here’s a thought you may or may not appreciate: The vast majority of the free novels available on Amazon are awful. Not all, mind you, but many of them. My two cents.


And someone sent this as a follow-up to my earlier answer: “I would find it helpful if you could say more about ‘voice’. What does that look like? How does one develop and improve voice?”  


Voice is your personality on the page. Take any two writers you like and compare them – each is unique. Both are good, but the way they sound on the page is different from one another. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, just look at my posts and Amanda’s posts. They both are, in my humble opinion, pretty good. They both offer good content. But I have a strong personality that can come across as hard, even snarky at times. Still, my personality comes across in my writing. So does Amanda, whose “Thursdays with Amanda” marketing posts have proven very popular with writers. She sounds like much more of a teacher, has a much cooler personality, but is still helpful and very straightforward. We both have a sense of humor, but hers is nicer. And I can tell you those posts sound exactly like Amanda. (Sorry if you think I’m glorifying us – just trying to offer an example.) Nobody would read a post of Amanda’s and think, “Chip must have written that.” We sound different, and we’ve both written enough that we know what our writing voices are. My personality comes out on the page. In my view, that’s what “voice” looks like. The best way to find that? Write a lot, study the craft, listen to what experienced writers and teachers have to say, read it all out loud, and you’ll eventually what sounds like you. That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have success (you could practice singing and playing piano for years and still never sound like Diana Krall), but at least you’ll know what your own voice is.


This interesting story & question arrived in my in-box a while back: “I had to stop reading the official website of a big writing group I belong to. Recently someone asked if a novel from a newbie had to be completed to be taken seriously by a publisher. A couple authors who know nothing wrote in to say, “No, you can still get it published with a synopsis and sample chapter.’ So an AGENT wrote in to say, ‘Actually, it really does need to be completed to be taken seriously by a publisher these days.’ So then some author, someone who should know better, wrote in to say the agent was wrong. She noted that ‘at her house,’ they’d consider anyone. Well… baloney! And how would an author who is doing all her books at one house have any idea what is going on in the larger industry? Why would she assume she knows more than an agent who is dealing with other publishing houses all the time? Doesn’t that sort of stupid stuff make you roll your eyes?”


Yes. I think one of the strengths of writing loops is that they introduce an author to the larger world, and provides an opportunity to hear from a bunch of other writers. But one of the weaknesses is that it makes everyone into an expert, so you’ve got inexperienced people offering advice as though they knew what they were doing. In today’s market, I don’t know of any house that is seriously considering debut authors based on a synopsis and sample chapters. The novel has to be complete for them to even read it… no matter what that author posed on the site.


Recently I was on a site where someone asked if self-publishing a first novel was a good way to start a career. Several people wrote in to say it’s a wonderful idea, that they had done it, etc. I wrote in and said, in essence, “Baloney.” My point was to say that it can work fine, if you have small expectations and a great marketing plan to sell copies. But then I did something that ticked off a big group of writers – I asked those who were self-publishing their first novel how many copies they had sold. Well… THAT caused a hue and cry. I was being the mean agent, who would dare to question these fabulous novelists. But you see, the truth is that for every novelist who is actually selling enough copies to matter, there are a couple hundred who are moving a handful (and therefore basically only posting their books on Amazon so that they can impress their friends at the next class reunion by saying, “Hey – I published a novel!”). I thought the idea of these loops was to learn, not listen to inexperience.

Got a question? Send it in and we’ll get to it in March! 

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  • Pat W says:

    I read that most self-published books sell fourteen copies–don’t remember where. That includes family. But we can’t go into it with the attitude that we will sell fourteen copies. We have to give it all we have and hope to sell fifteen.

    Pat W. Kirk

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I recently read a novel that the author re-released after getting the rights back from her publisher. She made it free, hoping we would check it out and then buy the rest of the series.

    Although I mostly enjoyed the novel, to me it was worth only what I paid for it. I liked it well enough that I would have read her other books for free, but I didn’t like it well enough to buy them.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Exactly. EXACTLY. Thanks, Peter. Again, I think free fiction can sometimes be used effectively as part of an overall strategy, and I particularly think there’s a place for it with short-form writing. But I think we’ve passed the place where just giving something away for free offers much meaning to readers.

    • Traci Hilton says:

      I’m afraid this is right. I’ve successfully used free-first-in-series for the last two years. (Free downloads over half a million, income from paid titles over that time…more than my husband.) But it’s not working as well these days, in part because the titles have been free for so long, and in part because there are so many ways to get free books now. And in part because I only published two books last year.

      The Next Big Thing for marketing is always on the horizon, and woe to the writer who is married to the thing that was working yesterday!

    • Peter DeHaan says:

      Well said, Traci. That is one reason why I read Chip’s blog: to learn what is happening in the industry (including marketing) before something is a trend or while it is a trend, instead of hearing about it from another source once it is no longer valid.

    • Traci Hilton says:

      Pretty wise to get your info from a real expert. 😀

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Traci is speaking of Amanda, in case anyone is paying attention.

    • Traci Hilton says:

      She is pretty clever.

  • Traci Hilton says:

    I’m dying to know what “enough copies to matter” means, too. 🙂 is it 1,000? 10,000? 100,000? And in what length of time?

    I am about as happy as it gets with my own publishing path, but so, so, so many writers ask me this question. I don’t want people who are good writers but bad business people to follow me into the indie world, but I know so little about the trad path. In fact, I only know what it took to get Amazon to offer me a trad deal (1500 copies in one week caught their eye. The offer came at the end of that week.)

    What should I be telling indie-curious writers? What do most publishers look for? I like to be able to answer writers from a place of knowledge, and I hate to not know the answer!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      1500 in a week if fabulous, Traci. Congrats. Have a look at my response to RC’s comment above. I’m making huge generalizations, of course, but roughly speaking, those are the annual numbers a publisher is looking for. If you can move 3000 or 4000 copies in a month, your publisher will LOVE you!

    • Traci Hilton says:

      With the right advertising, anyone can do anything once. 😉 I will go read your other answer, and use it accordingly. I get to talk all about this on Monday night at our local ACFW, and I know using indie publishing to attract a publisher/agent will come up in the Q&A time. 😀

  • Cameron Bane says:

    Chip, for what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re a “mean agent;” you’re a damned fine and competent one … and the fact you’re MY agent is a bonus.

    Well, that and you seem to have an almost otherworldly ability to separate practical wisdom uttered by experts (like you) from the utter boolchit coming from wannabes. *G*

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You know, maybe the fact that I’ve been doing this a long time has made me less patient with this, John. I’m a huge fan of indie publishing, but one of the downsides is that it has turned a bunch of nincompoops into “experts.” But thanks for your kind words.

  • Anna Read says:

    Wow, that’s all so helpful to know! Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Chip!

  • Thanks for approaching the elephants in the room! Where’s the “I agree” button?

  • Chip, bravo for saying what I’ve thought for so long: “…inexperienced people offering advice as though they knew what they were doing.” And just as I don’t ask my physician for advice on the sound my car makes, I don’t put out a question on a writer’s loop that begins, “Does anyone know…?” Thanks for the post.

  • RC Atchisson says:

    Chip, could you explain what you mean by “enough copies to matter”? That seems to be the kind of term that sets off the indie authors I have met. I agree that many self-published authors (including those embracing the “free” approach) have delusions of grandeur, but that does not mean that their work is not quality. To be sure, the tools available to self-published have certainly allowed some material, both good and bad, to see a light of day they might otherwise never have. For any writer it seems the trick is appealing to the reader in the same ways both studio films and independent filmmakers appeal to viewers. Some large house publications will be hailed as “Citizen Kane”, some “Dude Where’s My Car?”. By the same token, some indie works released via KDP are destined to become a “Clerks” and others “Plan Nine from Outer Space”. However good or however poor the marketing, the work will eventually have to sink or swim on it own merit. I know at times some members of the traditional publishing paradigm can come across as somewhat harsh and dismissive, but that does not make them wrong. Their tastes are discerning, and their practical experience yields both credibility with and low expectations of certain segments of the writing community writ large. As with most things, I believe that every case is best considered individually and the truth is somewhere in between. But of course I think that way, I’m one of those wading into a pool that will reveal me to be either Kevin Smith or Ed Wood…or more likely one of the myriad hopefuls on the spectrum in between.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Hello RC – Thanks for writing. (And a nice writing style, by the way.) I completely agree with your point that there are good & bad titles with traditional publishing as well as with indie publishing. The size of the platform does NOT determine the quality of the work. My point here was to agree with a guy who was venting his frustration over a loop where inexperienced voices squeeze out experienced voices.

      But I’m not begging the question. When I say there are plenty of indie published authors not moving “enough copies to matter,” I’m really saying that there are a bunch of writers who seem to claim they are doing great because they’re selling ANYTHING. And for those of us trying to make a living, that’s baloney. A writer wants to sell enough copies that he or she is actually making some money. In terms of what actually matters, certainly anybody who is selling fewer than a thousand copies in a year isn’t really making much money or reaching many readers. But I routinely see people who have sold a couple hundred copies of their novel talk like they’ve arrived.

      Think of it this way… publishing houses work on an economy of scale. A large house is only going to contract a book if they know it can sell 20,000 copies, maybe more. A medium sized house wants to sell in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 15,000, but may settle for 9000. A small house wants to sell 5000. One of the new micro houses probably has a goal of 3000 or 4000 copies sold. Even the newbie, e-only publishers with no budget are shooting for 1500 copies or more. So when I see an author talking big about their ebook success, and I know they haven’t sold more than a couple hundred copies, it’s hard for me to take them seriously. That doesn’t make them a bad writer, and certainly not a bad person, but it also doesn’t make them some sort of publishing expert. Does that help?

    • RC Atchisson says:

      Oh, absolutely. It is nice to get some legitimate metrics for success at the various levels. I am a newbie of the highest order and, as such, have been subjected to the advice of “professionals” of varying degrees of both success and experience. I appreciate a learned perspective with actual numbers and straight talk. Thanks for that!

    • Traci Hilton says:

      Can I just say that my biggest pet peeve is indies whose second title is a How to Succeed at Indie Publishing book?! I still haven’t written one because in the back of my mind it is the #1 thing I can do to make myself look like an amateur.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Coming right on the heels of “How to Succeed at the Stock Market” and “How to Succeed at Roulette.”

    • Traci says:

      You know what else I don’t like? How no one ever buys my sequel to “How to Succeed at Russian Roulette.”

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