Category : Deep Thoughts

  • October 2, 2012

    Why does an agent accept or reject an author?


    A prospective author wrote me a note and asked, “What is the main reason you choose to accept or reject an author?”

    An interesting question. The “rejection” part is easy: Most of the people whose projects I reject are NOT turned down because I don’t like them, or because they’re unknowns, or even because I dislike their ideas. Most authors are turned down because they can’t write. Simple as that. Not all, of course. I just saw a very good nonfiction idea, but I’m already trying to sell a similar project and felt it would be unfair to take on something so similar. And with the advent of so many good writing resources, I’m often seeing novels that are well-done, but not of the knock-my-socks-off quality. So a bunch of things I see aren’t bad, but they aren’t great. Or they are 70% done, and they need to be 100% done. I’d say under-writing and under-finishing and under-editing are the reasons so many projects with some merit don’t get picked up. The author gets started, but can’t get finished — or perhaps he or she doesn’t know now to finish. That’s why having a critique group or writing partner can help offer you perspective on your work. Another set of eyes can really make a difference on a manuscript.

    Still, I do get sent some really crummy stuff. Bad ideas. Projects where the author doesn’t speak English. Proposals written in crayon (presumably because the wardens won’t let them play with anything sharp). I hesitate sharing some of them, since I’m always afraid I’m going to really tick off someone who sent me an idea they thought was brilliant, and I found laugh-out-loud bad. But…

    A while back I got in a proposal for a book called “How to Make Out With Chicks.” The author was apparently thirteen, or at least stopped growing emotionally and intellectually at thirteen. (From the tenor

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  • September 24, 2012

    Should I write my cool personal story?


    I frequently get proposals telling me about someone’s cool personal story. Right now, I’m looking at a New York cop who busted several organized crime figures, a guy who spent his life in the bush, the child of an on-the-road professional musician, a former Islamic soldier who came to see the world differently, and a very talented poet and songwriter who survived breast cancer. These are all fairly interesting stories, and I doubt very much I’ll take any of them on. Why? Because there’s very little market for personal story books. 

    Here’s what I consider to be a hard truth: You may have led a fascinating life, seen incredible things, and even had miracles happen to you. But in today’s market, there’s not a ton of interest in publishing this information in book form. And while you may not like that truth, the fact is, it’s where we are in today’s publishing economy. No matter how successful these books used to be, or how interesting your story is to you, publishers just aren’t selling enough copies of personal story books to make it worthwhile anymore. 

    I mention this because I’ve been seeing more and more personal story proposals cross my desk. (In hard economic times, MORE people create proposals, apparently thinking they’re going to cash in and make some easy money. Ha!) But right now network television is filled with reality shows — and these are basically personal stories. There are 20 million blogs — many of them people sharing their stories. In fact, the web is filled with people who want to tell the world about their stories. So there are cool personal stories everywhere, and they’re free. And that’s taken away the incentive people have to purchase a personal story book, unless there is a great sense of celebrity or media associated with the book. I represented Lisa Beamer’s post-9/11 memoir, LET’S ROLL, a few years ago,

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  • September 12, 2012

    Seven Leftover 9/11 Notes…


    Back to the topics of writing and publishing tomorrow, but today I was to share a handful of interesting things about 9/11 I didn’t put in yesterday’s post (and you can feel free to add your own images in the “comments” section at the end)…

    1. Did you know that between the two World Trade Center Buildings, on the west side by the Hudson River, was a Marriott Hotel? When the towers collapsed they fell on it, and the hotel was also destroyed. Nobody really seems to know how many people died in the Marriott, but a group of people (ten firemen and a lawyer who was staying at the hotel) survived when one corner of the building remained standing. I had stayed at that Marriott just months before the attack, and it was lovely.

    2. Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the two French filmmakers who happened to be filming in Manhattan that day and created the riveting documentary 9/11, were the only people who caught the first plane hitting the north tower. If you view it, note what the police officer who happened to be standing in the shot says: “That’s an act of terrorism! He steered that plane right into the building!” To New York’s finest, they knew immediately what had happened.

    3. Three weeks after the attack, I finally took my trip to New York. The scope of Ground Zero was amazing. Television couldn’t capture it. A huge pile, and a huge field of debris — the size of  it took my breath away. 16 acres of rubble. Imagine.

    4.  I got to walk completely around the perimeter of Ground Zero with a friend. I noticed there were dump trucks getting filled with debris from loaders, then heading out to Fresh Kills so investigators could sort through the rubble. We waited at the exit where the trucks were leaving, thinking there would be a break. It never came.

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  • September 11, 2012

    Remembering 9/11


    On September 11th, 2001, I was flying along at 36,000 feet, in a United jet heading from Denver to Chicago, then on to New York. I was working as a literary agent for Alive Communications in Colorado at the time, and flew out of Denver regularly. There wasn’t anything special about the flight — I was in first class, seat 3B, and directly across the aisle from longtime Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, who had been in Denver to call an NFL game on television.

    We’d been in the air about an hour when I said to the guy next to me, “Something’s wrong. We’re going down.” So I motioned to the flight attendant (a tall, young guy who looked all of 20) and asked him. He clearly didn’t know what was going on either, but said he’d check with the pilots. I watched him knock on the cabin door, enter, stay inside 3 or 4 minutes, then come out, white as sheet. He motioned to me that all was fine, but he was obviously upset, and I knew right away something was deeply wrong. I reached for the phone (in olden days, they had phones in the back of the seat, and you could call home five miles up). The phone didn’t work.

    The captain came on the speakers and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to remain seated. There have been terrorist attacks against the United States of America, and all planes have been ordered out of US airspace. We’re going to make an unscheduled stop. Please do not leave your seats. There’s nothing wrong with the aircraft.”

    I turned to the guy next to me and said, “You know, I fly just about every week, and I’ve never heard anything like that before.” Of course, I was right. Nothing like that had ever been said before. So everybody in first class reached for the phones,

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  • August 14, 2012

    What is success?


    A while back, an author wrote with a simple question: “In your view, what is success?”

    I have purposefully stayed away from this topic on my blog, figuring a lot of people would give nice, religious answers in the comments section (“Success is just doing the right thing” or “It doesn’t matter if I have success, as long as I feel like I’m serving God!”). My problem is that I’ve been in this business for years, and I don’t believe that sort of thing is honest for most writers. We were all born with a desire for power, attention, and success. This is a business filled with egos. To most writers, “success” is defined simply by book sales. You sell a lot of books, you’re a success. You don’t, you’re a failure — even for people writing in the religious market. No, that’s not the BEST thing for a writer to focus on, but I have to be honest and say that “sales” tends to outweigh “obedience” or “calling” when most of us talk about our writing careers.

    So… how do I define success as a writer?

    Years ago, I used to teach a workshop on creating a plan for your life. (Remember, I’m the guy who went through a doctoral program in organizational development.) In that workshop, I used to tell people that “success is the feeling you get when you reach your goals.” I still stand by that definition. (And that wording is not original to me – it’s a bit of wisdom from management guru Bobb Biehl.) If you set a goal of getting one book contract this year, when you actually sign the deal, that wonderful feeling you have is the feeling of success.

    That, of course, is why some people never feel successful, even if they’ve sold a boatload of books. If an author wants to sell 250,000 copies, but only sells 100,000, she doesn’t

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  • July 20, 2012

    The Golden Weenie Award


    I’m just back from ICRS (the International Christian Retailing Show), where I always enjoy getting to see longtime friends in CBA. A lot of people in publishing don’t really understand the Christian Booksellers Association — they still refer to it as “the inspirational market,” and have no idea that it’s a HUGE part of publishing. I think it’s funny that a major magazine recently admitted, while putting together notes about book publishing in the US, that they had excluded all religious works in their totals… then noted that religious publishing accounts for about 20% of all publishing in this country. That would be akin to a publisher saying, “Here are our sales figures for last year — but, of course, they don’t include any of the books we sold on Amazon.”

    Anyway, we at MacGregor Literary represent a bunch of Christian books. We don’t work exclusively with religious books (though I get that question frequently, we do about a third of our business in the general market), but Sandra, Amanda, and I probably sell as much Christian fiction as any agency in the country. So I was there, representing the company at the book show, trying to act nice, and remembering to wear a clean shirt.

    As usual, I loved seeing editors and authors. There were great new covers to see, some trends in books that we’ll get into later, and authors we represent won several major awards — so a good show all around. It was once again held in Orlando — faithful readers will know that the people in charge of ICRS hold high-level meetings each year, to try and determine which will be the hottest city in the country the next year, in order to book the show someplace completely uncomfortable. (“How about hell? Have we considered doing the show in hell?”) Rumor has it they light candles, throw the urim and thummin, and then decide to

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  • July 16, 2012

    What if I’m asked to endorse a book I don’t like?


    Andrea wrote to say, “An author recently gave me a copy of her book to review. I wasn’t very impressed with the writing or the story, but I felt indebted to write a fairly positive review, since she gave me a complimentary copy. What is my obligation in this situation?”

    Eeek. I hate that situation. Been there many times myself, and I always felt like a weenie when I didn’t tell the truth. Besides, none of us like reading a glowing endorsement of a book, only to buy the book and feel ripped off by a reviewer who clearly either (a) lied, or (b) didn’t read the book, or (c) can’t read. It’s frustrating. So my advice is lifted entirely from my Grandmother: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

    There’s a limit to this advice, of course. If you’re hired to do a review, just close your eyes and tell the truth. But in a case like you’re describing, where you’ve been given a copy by someone who probably thinks of you as a friend, it is sometimes best to write back and politely say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do a review on this book after all. I wish you the best.”

    What advice do you all have in this situation?

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  • July 4, 2012

    Celebrating All Our Imperfections


    To celebrate the Fourth of July, my daughter Molly and I are going to go watch a small-town parade, complete with vintage cars, city fire truck, the local high school marching band, some county sheriff on horseback, and a VFW color guard. There will be a few friends riding in it and waving, people tossing out candy, and the occasional pooper-scooper, in case the marching band follows the sheriff. The local church will be there, handing out lemonade and cookies. I happen to know there will be a couple African-American soldiers marching, some Hispanic neighbors, and at least one bagpiper, most likely playing “Scotland the Brave.”

    All of that is a celebration of our history. It reminds people that America, though it hasn’t worked out all the racial and religious and cultural differences, is still a melting pot of individuals from all over the world. I plan to be standing with my friend Max, who was born in Morocco, and his wife Julie, who is Asian. My grandparents emigrated from Scotland and Ireland (in this part of the country, there are a lot of us with Celtic roots), my wife’s grandparents from Iceland. And I’ll be there with my daughter Molly, who is studying for her PhD in food sustainability in Sweden, so that she can go to Africa and help feed starving people in third-world countries. We’ll all stand when the American flag goes by — not because we think everything in this country is perfect, or because we all want to be cheering “USA! USA!,” but because we get to take one day each year and celebrate some great history.

    My first dad served in the US Navy for 12 years, and was in World War II. My second dad served in the old Army Air Corps (now the US Air Force), and fought in the Battle of the Philippines. I’ve got a lot of respect for the

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  • June 21, 2012

    An interview with novelist Les Edgerton, plus…


    Crime writer Les Edgerton, author of Just Like That and The Bitch, offers some good writing… have a look:

    Read it and hear what he has to say. You will not agree with everything Les offers (and you may get offended at some of it), but the man can write, and is a student of words. Good stuff here for writers.

    And if you’d like to learn more from the man, he’s teaching online workshops next week — find out about it here:

    Oh… and if you type in the secret code SHUfriends (yes, it’s case sensitive), you’ll get 50% off each class. The benefits of reading my blog!

    By the way, I keep getting questions about HarperCollins’ new “360” publishing program (which aims to release two new ebooks EVERY WEEK — yow). You can read the details here:

    In a stunningly bad move, the Department of Justice has decided monopolies are now good (at least when it comes to publishing):

    If you’re interested, here’s what the Association of Author Representatives had to say to the DOJ:

    And Cory Doctorow had some good insights into the role of publishers in his latest Publishers Weekly column, which you’ll find here:

    Now don’t you feel up to date?

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  • June 6, 2012

    Amazturbation and Other Perils of Publishing





    Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the author of the award-nominated novel My Hands Came Away Red. A memoir, Love at the Speed of Email, will be released in June 2012. She lives in Laos with her husband and infant son. To learn more, visit

    When my first book, My Hands Came Away Red, was published, I fell prey to an addiction that afflicts many authors at some point during their publishing career. It’s a behaviour I now call amazturbation – obsessively checking your own Amazon ranking to see how your book is stacking up sales-wise against the hundreds of thousands of other books that Amazon sells.

    I visited Amazon to check the rise and fall of this number first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

    I checked it when I was feeling glum and when I was feeling all right.

    I checked it at work and I checked it home. I even checked it on my phone.

    I checked that number at breakfast and I checked it at lunch.

    I checked that number a whole, whole bunch.

    My Amazon addiction started the way most addictions do – with a rush. Right after the book was released I was in Ghana, traveling for work. When I got access to the internet for the first time in a couple of days I dropped by my Amazon page to see if anyone had left a new review, and was amazed to see that my sales ranking was way higher than it had ever been before.

    After an exhausting and stressful week of leading workshops on trauma, seeing that happy number was a huge rush. And I wanted more of that feeling.

    Understandable? Yes. Dangerous? Also, yes.

    We authors have never had so many ways at our disposal to track and quantify our own popularity. We can find out Amazon sales rankings as well

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