Chip MacGregor

November 19, 2012

Career Planning in the Wild, Wild West



While on an agent’s panel at ACFW in September, I sat next to Lee Hough, one of the smartest and hardest working agents in the business. While we all fielded the typical questions we get as panelists, someone asked a question about the current state of affairs in publishing, and how agents are faring.

 I tend to take a positive, entrepreneurial, and philosophical approach when answering questions about the challenges of publishing.

Lee, however, hit the mark when he said “It’s like the wild, wild west out there right now.” His summation about the new landscape of publishing has really stuck with me. In fact, it’s a new constant on the landscape of my daily work life these days — right alongside MacGregor Literary’s long-standing company philosophy that “good is always better than fast.”

As positive as I try to remain, I’ll admit, it’s felt exceptionally difficult to place books and find homes for authors these past few months. Even with the successes I’ve enjoyed this year in spite of it all, it feels like I’m on more uneven ground than ever. And I know agents aren’t the only ones who feel this way.

Marketers are constantly scrambling to orient themselves to what it takes to get readers to buy in a noisy online environment. Sales teams are faced with succeeding in spite of the literal crumbling of their brick & mortar customer base. Publicists are being asked to do more with less. Editors are overworked. Authors are no longer just invited by publishers to help market their books, but are expected to do so. In fact more and more, the strength of an author’s proposal is weighed as much for the type and number of readers they bring to the table as it is for the quality of their writing. Maybe more.

Top that off with the consideration that authors are not only competing with other authors for shelf space, but with the reality that booklovers are so easily lured away from the rewards of leisure reading by endorphin fixes that pummeling pigs with birds, or outrunning evil demon monkeys can deliver far more instantly.

If I think about it too hard, it can start to feel fruitless to spend time and energy building a serious novelist’s career in a time when e-books have flooded the market and caused so much confusion over what is good and what resembles cow dung. But, I have faith in my ability to help sort out the good from the bad for publishers and authors, and I figure that’s worth something. A lot, actually.

Still, I’m sure I’m not the only agent who feels like it’s us in the hot seat these days. We’re constantly having to urge our authors who want to go the traditional publishing route to be patient and wait for the right timing. It’s not always easy to encourage authors to continue to wait for decisions from acquisition boards – decisions that seem to be taking so much longer than ever – when the seemingly instant brass ring of self-publishing is flashing in the corner of our collective eye.

E-publishers have an edge, of course, when it comes to delivering content at rapid speed. But I believe it’s the new frontier for them as well. In the end – finding readers and making the grade still comes down to effective marketing, word of mouth, and content.

The good news on this front is that where we’ve tended to take an either/or approach, I do think the two are starting to merge. I’m excited to be talking with publishers about how authors can do both successfully. We’re talking more and more about how market savvy, and marketing savvy, authors can help publishers lead the way.

While I continue to take the long view and keep my eye on the horizon, as we always try to do here at MacGregor Literary, I’ll admit, Lee’s perspective gave me a huge pick-me-up when I needed it, and actually has me riding a little higher in the saddle these days.

Go ahead. Call me an optimist. (Or, I suppose you could call me a cowgirl. Wouldn’t hurt my feelings — I’ve got a hand tooled leather belt with my name on it, a silver buckle, pointy black boots, and everything.)

I’m excited about authors who are in this for the long haul and are willing to ride on rough ground. This new territory – Lee’s “wild, wild west” is most definitely not for the faint of heart – and, honestly, that suits me just fine.

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  • Gretchen O'Donnell says:

    This is good to hear – even if a wee bit depressing! I think that, as a writer who is about to jump into the world of trying to get published, I need to know the reality of the situation…and to pray accordingly!

  • Candice Prentice says:

    Add a hand tooled leather saddle and a great quarter horse to the cowgirl getup, and we’ll be ready to herd books through the wild plains and deliver them to just the right places.

  • I entered into this writing arena five years ago, when you HAD to have a blog (I still like mine!). So much has changed since then, but one thing I’ve noticed is that the CBA seems inundated with authors who have fewer choices as far as publishers (as pubs are merging, bookstores are closing, etc). I often wonder why God made me wait till this point in my life to step into this. But it’s pretty much forced me to figure out better ways to wait. I’m still not THERE yet…I still hate waiting for acceptance/rejection. But I’ve gotten tougher. And I’ve figured out ways to cope (start writing another book!). So yes, my crit partners and I have determined we’re “long-haulers” in this process. We’ll stick with it till we get published, however long that takes.

    • sandra says:

      I know that “Why now?” question well, Heather. Several years ago I switched my freelance focus and found a great group of clients — right as the print publication market was starting to shrivel up and move to the web. Not long after, I was invited to join Chip as an agent — just before the market crashed and advances shrunk dramatically. Add the realities that I HATE making people wait on me, and I have major rejection issues, and you’d wonder, wouldn’t you, why I’m successful at this at all? Getting tough, sticking with it, and celebrating the victories along the way — all are helpful strategies for enjoying this crazy ever changing business.

  • Cindy Valenti Scinto says:

    This post is so confirming. I tend to refer to myself as a pee-wee in the publishing world. It’s not an inferiority complex–just me being a New Yorker and knowing my place. I grew up in an Italian home with 12 siblings.

    But the publishing world has to be described as you have here so newer writers can understand what to expect. Thirty years ago, anyone could send in a proposal in almost any condition and have someone look at it.

    Today, as with all businesses, the competition may be fierce, but the cusp of all decisions rides on marketing and financial projection. Heck, even doctor’s and medical facilities have to factor in money. I’ve gone through two transplants and wiped out a large chuck of money to do so, but I’m alive.

    In my small opinion, I’m sad at the quality of writing being independently published. Small houses, custom publishing, self publishing, easy options to get something out in the market stream, and skilled marketing due to social networking can make any book seem worthy. You can even employ people through online freelance work sites to post fake reviews of a book. I was offered a job through the online work site I use to post five star reviews on ten books I have never read. Wow, for $2.00 a shot. Tons of people are doing this, especially ones living in third world countries. They don’t even have to speak English. They obtain an Amazon account, buy a few small items, then take all the reviews, check off five stars, and paste the pre-written text.

    I’m reading quite a few fiction pieces this week as I prepare a proposal for my first fiction book. I have worked so hard and now the most difficult part is upon me–comparative books.

    Bravely I say … I’m forcing myself to read and finish most of them. And many of them, in my opinion, are not good at all. Grammar may be right–but the story is like a sleeping cow on a warm, summer day. Or the story has promise, but the format is so hard to follow, I have to keep going back as if I have ADD. Flow and content confuses me by chapter two and back story is placed where back story doesn’t fit.

    I never was one to beat the truth. I tried watching The Voice this season, and last night had to stop only after listening to the one guy from Scotland, Terry McDermott. The judges comments for everyone were so, what can I say, mushy, Even Simon seems mellowed out on X-Factor.

    I’m not a saint or an Edgar Allen Poe, but I want the correction and want to excel while being still.

    I eat, live, and breath grammar and form, but I step away and adore the outside world, love to meet people everywhere I go from a conference to a gas station, and detach myself from electronics whenever I can. The best thing I learned at my first writer’s conference in Colorado Springs at The Navigators was from Monty Unger–always give the person you’re with the better seat, put others ahead, open the door for people, let them cut you in line. Servitude? Kind of, but more then that, a chance to strike up a conversation or observe people and learn.

    I am always taken back by the opposition I receive when I work with people and they disagree with grammar or proposal format. This like font choices, paper, dashes, hyphens, commas, margins … they can’t believe that editors want it to follow the rules.

    One writer in a group I led stated, “Writing is like my canvas when I paint or my violin when I play–it has to be creative.” Creative? True. Free for all–not.

    Wow, did I rant on. But you struck me with this post. My first writer’s conference in 1993 was the most impacting experience I had with writing. College Journalism classes never came close. And actually, none of the presenters, most who still teach and mentor today, ever promised an easy road.

    I sent my first book proposal in when I was ten years old. When I opened that envelope a few weeks later, and read the polite rejection, I determined to never stop trying. “After all, it took Robert Frost 20 years to get published.”

    It took me 20 years to get my first newspaper article published. And here I am at 52, still working away on my publication dream. And although we all have a time limit on our lives, my situation makes me a ticker with only a few strokes left. But I’ll never stop trying.

    Good job, Sandra. You got this stubborn New Yorker off to a good start today. I’m gonna get to work! 8^)

    Grateful for people like you who share these posts,

    Cindy Scinto 8^)

    (I’m clicking POST without editing. Got to get to work!)

    • Sandra says:

      Thanks, Cindy. Your energy + your pursuit of excellence will inevitably = dream fulfilled. Keep at it, and don’t be afraid to reach for quality. I too, know folks who who claim their work, their “art” shouldn’t be touched because it’s creative and inspired. They are often the same folks who don’t want to learn, roll up their sleeves, and do the real work. They typically want to be authors, but not writers.

    • Cindy Valenti Scinto says:

      Tanx. You be awesome. 8^)

  • Becky Doughty says:

    Sandra, this post is very encouraging to me. I didn’t start down this road expecting it to be paved and manicured, nor did I expect it to be quite this long and winding, but I did expect to be on it for the long haul, no matter what the terrain. I’ve no interest in being a one-hit-wonder, and I’ve no interest in putting out a quantity of mediocre work. Good is always better than fast, ESPECIALLY in the Wild, Wild West.

  • I looked at my own pair of pointy, black leather, butt kicking cowboy boots yesterday and thought of this post.

    The horizon never ends, but we must pursue it as if we can get there and plant our flag. Otherwise, we should just sit down and read other people’s stuff and be haunted by the dreams we left to die by the wayside.

    • sandra says:

      “the horizon never ends” … reminds me of Nike’s former motto “there is no finish line.” Both are true and apply to publishing and writing equally.

  • Kathryn Elliott says:

    I thought evil demon monkeys only worked in newspaper??

    Optimism is the only way to approach this insane career. Keep
    those pointy black boots on – and kick some of the negativity out to pasture!

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I love your optimism. It’s easy to feel gloomy about the state of publishing (and the state of America). But God is still on the throne, so why worry?

    I agree that it is hard to wait for a publishing contract. On the other hand, the waiting can be a gift. I look back on my first book, penned almost four years ago now, and blush at its lack of quality. Had I gotten that book published, I would be embarrassed about it today. But I continued to learn and improve my craft, and now my writing is better. The waiting was a gift. Now I have my first published book, and I hope to have another contract soon. But if I have to wait again, I pray God will help me to use the time to further improve my writing skills–and my ability to trust in His perfect timing.

    • sandra says:

      Congratulations, Robin. Hard as it was to wait, I’m sure you’re glad you didn’t your starter book.

  • Sandra says:

    Yes, Chris. Playing it safe does limit things for publishers. But, I don’t see that as a problem on all sides. I think what may happen eventually is that we’ll see some publishers splitting off into various types of specialties — not just imprints, but actual publishing types for specific readers. The branding of publishers will become more and more important as they seek to reach specific types of readers.

  • chrisplumb says:

    I think an analogy that works is the Ford Taurus. The publishing industry, like Ford, had a reliable good selling model that people initially liked. But other manufacturers started biting off pieces of their sales, and instead of innovating and making cutting edge changes and making quality the most important factor, they went to cost cutting and playing it safe (by hardly changing anything about their design). As sales slowly dipped, and then much more rapidly, it became apparent that drastic changes were necessary, but their “brand” had already been tarnished by better designs and better quality elsewhere. Fortunately, for publishers, they still have quality on their side, but need to stop playing safe and giving us the same old “safe” books, and catch on that people want relevant and interesting books by new, stylistic writers. Which means, taking chances, which is dangerous.

  • It’s a crazy business but persistence and hard work pay off. If you’ve got something to say to readers, why would you give up?

  • Ramona Richards says:

    Lee’s right; brilliant summary that. And I think the fast-paced changes makes the long-term waiting authors have to do even harder, especially for those new to the business. But instant gratification can be dangerous. I’ve learned to also equate building a publishing career with flying – long periods of tedium punctuated by moments of exhiliration…or terror.

    • Jennifer M Zeiger says:

      Great way to look at building a publishing career=) In some ways it’s encouraging because having to wait for a reply does not always mean bad news.

    • Sandra says:

      Ramona and Jennifer, as I often tell my authors, waiting is often harder than writing. Fortunately not both are completely out of our control.

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