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Category : Agents
My friend and fellow agent Mary Sue Seymour passed away yesterday, after a long and courageous fight with cancer. I just wanted to mention it because Mary Sue was one of the nice people in this business, with a friendly and gentle spirit — something that maybe doesn’t describe a lot of us in the industry. She was friendly to me, even when I was being viewed as a less-than-likable person by some folks. There’s a story that I’ve long wanted to share…
A few years ago, I used to do a regular post on some of the awful proposals that were sent my way. It was done in the vein of SlushPile Hell, or the late, lamented Miss Snark, with a view toward poking fun, talking about the dopey side of this business, but maybe with a bit of educational content for writers. Still, it was basically a way for me to share funny stuff that I saw and rarely got to talk with anyone about. (I still remember sharing the worst opening line I’ve ever seen in a novel: “Ring! Ring!,” said the telephone. I believe the response I offered on the blog was Barf! Barf!, said the agent.)
Some people got it in the spirit with which it was intended. Others didn’t. I work in both the general market as well as the religious market, and let’s just say some people on the religious side weren’t terribly enthusiastic about my poking fun at their bad proposals. I’ve long felt too many Christians have become humor impaired; trading in their ability to laugh for a serious countenance because, you know, the-world-is-lost-and-people-are-going-to-hell-so-how-can-you-laugh-in-the-face-of-such-despair?!! I thought it was the dumbest argument I’d ever heard, since laughter is one of our most uniquely human traits. Not everyone agreed with me.
I got a bunch of cranky emails. At least one group of writers started coming onto my page regularly, just to complain
People are always curious to know how I became an agent. Did I intern with the agency? Did I apply and get hired? Did I go through a special program? Did Chip owe my dad a favor?
I’ve found there are usually two paths to working in publishing. One involves getting the right internships and then getting hired on afterward. And the other involves just being in the right place at the right time.
For me it all happened at a book signing in 2008. In Fort Wayne, Indiana.
I was working as an admissions counselor at a university at which Chip was a visiting professor. My friend, who happened to be a student there, kept telling me about this big-time agent who was on campus and how I needed to meet him. But despite it being a very small school, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out who he was.
(Now, in retrospect, I had seen him around campus. But with his goatee and pressed dress shirt, I assumed he was the new Pastoral Ministries prof.)
So the only way to be sure to meet him, my friend decided, was to trap him at an author book signing.
At the time, I (ashamedly) didn’t recognize the name of the author holding the book signing (Chip tells me it was Lisa Samson), and I honestly didn’t know very much about Chip or the role of an agent. But I DID know that my friend had told me he was epic. And that he had worked with Britney Spears’s mom. Which, let’s be honest, was enough to get me really wanting this to happen.
I mean, what else could come of it than me being Brit Brit’s bestie?
So, off we went. We walked in to the store; my friend located Chip; and then I took a breath, walked up, and introduced myself.
He said something sarcastic.
A friend wrote to say, “I’ve been told we should have a launch party when my book comes out. Is that a good idea? And what what makes a good launch party?”
I think a book launch party is a great idea — it allows an author to involve friends and acquaintances in the release of the book, is an easy way to garner some local media, and can help you kick off book sales. (Besides, it can be great for an author’s ego, if done right.) Let me offer a couple of suggestions to help make it a success…First and most important, you want to make sure you INVITE people. In other words, don’t sit around and hope people show — be proactive and make sure you get a house full. That means you need to find a big group who can be supportive, like your local writer’s group, you church congregation, the organizations you belong to, all your relatives, people at the clubs or sports you’ve joined, and all your fans in the region. Pick a venue you can fill up, since getting 40 people in a tiny bookstore makes it feel like a great party, but getting those same 40 people in a huge shopping mall gallery can feel empty. Determine a definite start and end time, and make sure everyone sees it’s a celebration. Again, you’re trying to get the word out, and get commitments from some folks to attend.Second, if you really want to make people show up, offer an incentive — books at a discount, or free chocolate, or wine and cheese (a few big boxes of wine don’t cost much and seem to bring people out of the woodwork). If you can’t do wine, ask a couple people to bring their latte machines and offer free lattes to everyone. Your only expense is the price of coffee. But have something that
Your novel is ready to go. Your nonfiction book is fleshed out. NOW WHAT?
We’ve got a brand new book releasing to help all writers who are trying to create the best book proposal possible. Step by Step Pitches and Proposals: A Workbook for Writers is the new book from longtime editor Holly Lorincz and me.
This book uses clear, detailed explanations, work-sheets, and annotated examples to walk you step-by-step through: industry terminology, querying, pitching, creating a proposal, and formatting the whole thing. You’ll find helpful information regarding what to say, who and when to query, and how to find contacts. Suggestions on how to create a pitch are offered, along with sample pitches, as well as advice from a speaking professional on how to deal with a face-to-face pitch.
Inside, there are detailed instructions for building professional, industry-standard proposals, both fiction and nonfiction, using plenty of examples and multiple samples of successful, real proposals. In fact, that’s one of the things that sets this apart from other books on proposals — I went back to authors whose books I had sold, and asked their permission to use the proposals we created. So the text offers real-world examples of proposals from books that actually sold in the market, including a couple bestselling books. There are also worksheets available in each section which readers have found extremely useful, walking the writer through their own material. There is even a section on how to format a manuscript before attaching it to a proposal. Here’s what some people in the industry have said:“Chip MacGregor was my first literary agent and helped me get my very first book deal. I don’t know if there’s a better possible way for me to answer the question ‘Does Chip MacGregor know what he’s talking about?’ than that!” – Jon Acuff, New York Times Bestselling author of Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work and Never Get
If you were having a medical problem, you’d undoubtedly want to get the problem diagnosed so that you can see a specialist who can help resolve the problem. (No sense going to an Ear, Nose, & Throat doctor for a kidney problem.) If your car is having trouble, you want someone to tell you what’s wrong before deciding on the solution. (No sense getting new spark plugs if your timing belt is busted.) If you were planning a party, you’d want to know the details –occasion, theme, setting, number of attendees — before jumping into action and ordering the food. Everything we do requires some planning. So if you’re an author who is deciding on an agent, could I offer two simple suggestions for you to consider as you make your plans?
First, before deciding to sign with an agent, figure out who you are and what you need. What are your strengths? (That will help you talk with a potential agent about your future.) What are your weaknesses? (A good agent should assist you with those areas.) What are the opportunities you have? What are your goals? Specifically, what things would you like an agent to assist with — contracts? negotiations? editorial help? marketing? talking through your story? speaking? handling your career? Once you have some clarity as to what help you need, you’ll be better prepared to find the right agent.
Second, before saying “yes” to the first agent who offers you representation, find out what that particular agent brings to the relationship. Do his or her skills match up with your need? What do other writers have to say about his work? What do editors and publishers think of the agent? Take a look at the authors he or she represents. Look at the types of books he has contracted. Research the number of books she has represented, and the houses those books have landed at. You’re
Someone wrote to say, “I have published one nonfiction book, and have a contract for another. But I’m not happy with my agent, and would like to change. What suggestions can you give me to make this happen without hurting feelings?”
You want advice for ending a relationship with no hurt feelings? I have none. The end of any relationship usually has some hurt feelings. If you’re decided, I’d bet that there will be some pain. But before you move forward with that, I’d like you to consider something…
Most of the time an author wants to fire an agent it’s because some expectation wasn’t met — the project didn’t go out fast enough, the phone calls weren’t frequent enough, the money wasn’t great enough. The frustration builds, and they eventually get to the point where someone says, “That does it — I’m leaving!” But in my experience, having a good conversation can often clean up the bulk of the problems. (Not always, but a lot of the time.) So go back and talk to your agent before racing into this decision. And by the way, having clear expectations, for what both sides want, can resolve a lot of issues. Frequently a good conversation about the struggles you’re having will give the agent a better picture of how to move forward with you.
Case in point: I once had an author fire me and state, “You can never remember my children’s names!” My response was something along the line of, “Um… you have children?” I didn’t realize that part of the relationship was so important to her — turns out she felt it was critical. Now I try to do a better job of gauging what each author wants. Just so you know, there is no “one right way” to have an agent/author relationship, just like there’s no “one right way” to have any friendship. Each is unique.
This question came to my in-box recently: What is the protocol for getting an agent for a book that was agented before? I don’t think I should withhold that information, but I don’t want to put up roadblocks either. I’ve let it stop me from going forward and could use your input.
If you had an agent in the past who took your book to market but was unable to land you a deal, by all means reveal that to your new agent or prospective agent. For example, if my buddy Greg Johnson has taken a World War II novel manuscript out to all the houses doing those types of books, then I need to know that. Things with the manuscript would have to change for me to take it out to publishers. We may need to shift the story a bit, do some heavy rewrites, re-title it, or do some serious revising to make it work. So if you took this out to editors already once, it’s fine to try again, but you need to let me know what’s changed.
So if you had an agent take the manuscript out a couple years ago, and have done serious work on it to change and improve it, talk to your agent about it. Find out where it was sent, and, if you can, what was said about it. That will help him or her when they start talking to editors about it and somebody begins asking questions.
The thing to remember is that there’s no magic in MY taking a book out that everyone has already rejected. Occasionally I’ll have an author approach me with a manuscript and say, “Well, this other guy has shown it around to everyone already.” Okay… so why would I be able to land it? It’s not like I can take a book and place it with an editor who has already seen
I’ve been getting all sorts of interesting (if sometimes random) questions from readers lately, and wanted to offer some notes on genres, writing style, and the contemporary publishing market. Here are some questions that came in recently:
What do you do when your story doesn’t fit into the box of any specified genre? For instance, if characters and/or objects in a story symbolize something deeper, but the story can also be taken as a literal story (e.g., The Le Petit Prince or Pilgrim’s Progress), is it going to be classified as inspirational, or drama, or children’s story? Is there some other genre out there that I’m missing?
If you have a story that uses characters or objects that symbolize something deeper, you’re probably writing an allegory. And right now there is very little market for allegory. A bit, perhaps, with “business fables” that teach organizational principles, or the occasional sci-fi novel, possibly with some children’s books. But for most part, allegories are one tough sell.
I am a freelance editor and writer, so editing is what (barely) pays the bills, but I have a couple of novel projects I feel need to come out of me. However, my writing style tends to reflect the style of books I love to read—the descriptive, long-sentence style of Dickens, for example. Dickens is one of the greats, but nowadays the passive construction has a bad rap and “show, don’t tell” seems to be the motto of the industry. My question is this: is there a market for descriptive writing anymore?
The truth? Not much of one. Maybe you could capture a new audience and re-start it, but no, the culture has moved on from that style. Remember, writing is art, and art needs its own new expressions in each generation. That’s why it’s hard to go back and read James Fenimore Cooper – his prose just doesn’t work in contemporary culture. (For that
I’ve had a bunch of questions come in recently, as people get ready for the conference season…
I have received a request for pages and a synopsis. However, I have also just went to a conference and had my head crammed full of ideas that I want to apply to my novel. So, how long do I have to polish before I send my work out? I don’t want to lose momentum or attention, but I so want to make sure that I have done my absolute best work.
If you attend a conference and an agent or editor asks to see more of your proposal, you want to get a polished chunk of your work into their hands as quickly as possible – I’d say within 30 days. Longer than that, and you’re running into the problem of the agent moving on. We see dozens of proposals, and it can be hard to remember one (even one that we liked at a conference meeting) for more than a few weeks. I’ve sometimes had emails that started with the words, “You asked to see this at a conference four years ago, but I’ve been polishing and revising my work…” Um, yeah. As though I’m going to remember that project years later. Or as though the market is the same as it was when we talked four years ago. Look, things change. All of us see a lot of projects. If you want to garner the attention of an agent or editor, have your piece ready, show it to them, then follow up fairly quickly after the meeting.
Can you give me your thoughts in regard to how and when authors should use editors vs. writing coaches/mentors as they progress through their writing project?
A mentor or writing coach is normally a long-term relationship, so that person is with you as you think through your stories, write your pieces, and
A bunch of questions recently about author/agent protocol…
Chip, could you talk about writers who change agents? Many of them seem to think that when they break the relationship, the agent no longer receives royalties on books they brokered.
Well, they would be mistaken. Your agency is on the contracts for the books they represented. That’s a legal document, that will guide the book for as long as the contract is in force. If you fire the agent, the contract is still in force, so the agent is still paid a commission.
This question also gets raised when an agent leaves an agency. When I left Alive after all those years, I didn’t get to take the commissions with me – the agency was on the contract, and I was no longer with the agency, so I didn’t get one penny to take with me. (I’m not complaining, by the way. Just explaining the situation.)
Following a writer’s conference, I sent out proposals to agents as requested. Since I don’t quite trust technology, I followed up the next day with an e-mail asking if my proposals arrived. Most agents/editors responded with a quick “Got it,” and some added a note about when I could expect a response. But one went on to say he didn’t have time to respond to every query that comes in, etc., and he made me feel I was out of order to have checked. Was I?
I doubt you were out of order. If you sent it, I think it’s fine to check on it. Just be polite about it. And it’s possible you’re reading too much into the response – some agents automatically tell anyone sending them a submission that they just can’t respond to everything. I can’t. I mean, I’d love to, but look at this from my perspective – I’m an agent, who makes his living selling books to publishers. If