Chip MacGregor

August 6, 2013

Does an agent treat authors differently?


Someone wrote to say, “You obviously enjoy your job. But does an agent have to treat authors differently than you would clients in another business?”

It’s true — I love my job. In fact, the one time I stepped away from agenting (to be a publisher for Time-Warner) turned out to be a bit of a career mistake, so I can’t imagine doing anything else. I get to work with talented, creative people and develop books – which I think are the most powerful life-change tools we have. (As I’ve said before, we all love music, but few times does someone say, “My life changed when I heard that song.” Most of us appreciate dance, but it’s rare to hear someone say, “I was never the same after I observed that ballet.” And yet I know all sorts of people who will tell you, “My life changed when I read those words…”)

But to answer your question, no, I don’t think I treat authors any different that I would clients in another business. In fact, I’m not sure I’d know how to treat people differently. I have done organizational consulting and fund raising, interviewed people on the radio, taught at colleges, served on some staffs as an executive/organizational type, and I think I’ve learned that people basically want to be heard and helped to succeed. Sometimes I do that well; other times I suck at it. There’s no single relationship I have with all my authors — some are close friends, some less so. Some want to talk through book ideas, others don’t care what I think of their ideas. Some want to read the contracts carefully, others basically say, “Just tell me when it’s ready and I’ll sign it.” If  there was one way to be an agent, we’d write it down. and anyone could do this job. But there’s not — instead, it’s a series of relationships, which is why there are different people using different skill sets to do this job.

I suppose one could argue that writers are artists, and therefore they all need to be treated with kid gloves, but I haven’t found that to be completely true. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, with all  the talents and foibles we all possess – each unique in his or her own way. Like all relationships, it takes work to figure out how to be friends and work together. So no, I don’t think I have a certain  method or tone I take with every writer that is unique from the rest of my life.

But that leads me to ask a question of writers who visit this page… What is the ONE THING you most hope to get out of an author/agent relationship? 

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  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Aside from the obvious (book deals), I seek a long-term, collaborative partnership, where the agent helps me pick which of my book ideas to pursue and guides my career. Then I work hard to give him (or her) a can’t miss book that’s easy to pitch. He (or she) sells it; then I market it. Repeat; repeat again – and again until my agent retires or I die.

  • Alycia Johnson Morales says:

    ONE Thing: Representation. (There are several others, but this is the ONE thing I’d MOST hope to get out of an author/agent relationship.)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Not “dinner with Chip”? (That’s an inside joke, people. Alycia once won a dinner with me at a conference.) Nice to hear from you, my dear.

    • Alycia Johnson Morales says:

      Well, dinner with Chip is always a treat! 🙂 Thanks! It’s nice to hear from you too!

  • Lynn Morrissey says:

    Chip, did you used to have a mustache, or am I dreaming this?!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I used to. For years. Finally decided I didn’t have to hide my face any more, so I cut it off a couple years ago, Lynn. Good memory!

    • Lynn Morrissey says:

      And it’s good to know that I’m not crazy here! Great photo, BTW.

  • Tiffany Amber Stockton says:

    Definitely a champion and someone who will be honest with me when I’m headed in a direction that isn’t the best one for my career. Someone to guide and coach because I have a lot to learn in the business side of the industry. Someone with whom I can be real without the facade of being “polite.”

    I’ve got that with Sandra at this agency! And to think, I didn’t even set out to find an agent, but love what God worked out.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Really nice to have you chime in, Tiffany. And glad you’re happy with Sandra, who is definitely a champion for you (as well as being a truth-teller).

  • Lynn Morrissey says:

    Chip, this is what I like about you–your respect for authors, seeking their opinions and visions. As agent, you don’t just lay down the law, but work with your authors. I would want an agent who is a partner in glorifying God through the best possible writing and concepts that will change lives (as you said). I would want an agent who respects me as both person and author, who catches my vision, who speaks truth in love, and who shares his expertise in hopes of developing me as an author and friend. I think you hit the mark when you talked about the author-agent *relationship*. It’s all about relationship, mutual respect, give and take, openness, and honesty. And it’s about a good agent telling an author when she starts to ramble with her verbosity, pulling in the reins, and about her listening! So, I’ll STOP!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Lynn. I think speaking the truth is love can be a hard thing to keep in balance. And, let’s face it, not everybody can take the same type of message. So if an agent says, “You know, the story you’re proposing isn’t really salable,” some authors will listen and heed the advice, others will be hurt, still others will simply ignore it and keep writing… which could be the right thing to do, of course, since no agent is right all the time. And that’s where your point about “respect” comes in. I think that’s key to a good author/agent relationship — that we respect each other, listen to one another, are even willing to hear the hard things. Appreciate you saying this.

    • Lynn Morrissey says:

      And I appreciate what you are saying!

  • Julie Surface Johnson says:

    Mutual respect . . . the energizing kind that comes from working together on something bigger than either of us.

  • Bonnie Doran says:

    Thanks for the post, Chip. My agent has been great in going to bat for me when I have a concern with the publisher (rare) for which I need clarification. The agent and editor can discuss the issue at a higher and more expert level than I can. They may or may not agree, but I’ll at least understand the editor’s decision.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Bonnie. You’ll find the agent can often have those debates without much emotion, since it’s just a business discussion — that is, the book is not my work, so I don’t feel I have to “defend” it, so that moves it away from being a personal dispute. A reasoned and dispassionate mind is one of the things most authors need in an agent. Appreciate your thoughts.

    • Bonnie Doran says:

      Exactly right, Chip. Also, my agent is a bit more assertive than I tend to be.

  • Rajdeep Paulus says:

    Hi Chip,

    I think when I first pursued an agent, I wanted someone who would help me to jump in the passing lane and fast forward to Published. Since we’ve started working together, I’ve learned so much about the process, the importance of waiting, and the wisdom of learning from experience. But the things I appreciate most about my Agent is his honesty and gentle delivery of the hard conversations, like when you told me, “Raj, that idea about an alien falling in love with a human just to get a green card. Not happening. Yeah.” Truth be told, never expected to find a friend. It means so much that you care about me as a person, you champion my writing, answer all my crazy questions, and check in with me when you return from vacation. 🙂 Even willing to chat with the backdrop noise of Home Depot trucks beeping while I shop for the perfect shade of mint pastel paint. Thanks, Chip. Appreciate you. 🙂 -raj

  • Jane Gaugler Daly says:

    I’ll be looking for an agent at the upcoming OCW conference. I need someone who will be honest, even if it’s harsh. I’m looking for a cheerleader, a shoulder, and a swift kick in the butt. Oh, and the occasional bag of Peanut M & M’s.

  • Becky Doughty says:

    Chip – Ha! Here’s the “artiste” diva coming out in me! I thought, by the title of this post, someone was asking if agents treat the authors they represent differently, one from the other. My first reaction was, “Well, if they don’t, I’m going to be pretty bummed, because I know for a fact that my agent has clients who work ridiculously hard, pumping out mss like rabbits, and clients who are destined to be one-hit wonders, or possible one-hit so-soes (I don’t think “soes” is even a word – the only close option my spell check gives me is “sows” and I think that’s rude.). I would hope that she treats the busy bee differently than the… koala.

    Since I was so off base with my assumptions, your answer to the real question is encouraging…and challenging to me as a writer, because I stopped and asked the same question of myself. Do we writers treat our agents differently than we would any other supervisor or mentor or co-worker in any other line of work? I’d like to think that the answer would be a resounding “NO!” but I’ve seen otherwise in the business, and at times, even in my own behavior. You’ve given me something for me to think about.

    That’s not an exact answer to your question, but I think reciprocal respect and mutual investment in the agent/client relationship covers a pretty broad scope of “things,” you know?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, I think you’re doing a good job of wrestling with the question, Becky. Because I think both author and agent clearly have a responsibility in the relationship that extends beyond “write the manuscript” and “find a deal.” I appreciate you thinking through the issues.

  • Consistent, mutual activity.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Belonging. Because someone believes in me.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah — that’s an important one, Cherry. Sometimes an author just needs a cheerleader. Somebody who knows the business, and is savvy enough to recognize the fact that a writer belongs. Thanks.

  • Elizabeth Wehman says:

    I want an honest agent who isn’t afraid to step on my toes and tell me to start over whether it be an idea, a manuscript or even a thought. I have big ideas and sometimes I need someone to tell me it will never work before I put everything into a project. A writing career can be lonely. I need someone to come alongside of me and share the journey with me offering advice and suggestions…but never being afraid to set me straight. A few “pats on the back” would be thankfully received as well.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s interesting, Elizabeth, since I know there are authors who don’t really want anyone to curtail their creativity. Maybe that just shows the differences between authors — and once again reaffirms my point that there is no one “right” way to agent.

  • Lisa Van Engen says:

    Someone to gather support and expertise, but also share the faith journey of the career. Someone who will challenge me to dig deeper.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes — thanks for that, Lisa. It’s easy (even for me) to get sort of lazy and not push the author to do her best. Love that. Thanks.

  • Cheryl Russell says:

    Someone whose will help me build a career. Not in a “hold my hand” sort of way, but someone I can trust to be honest and straightforward about writingcareer decisions. Or at least I think that’s what I want. 😉

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, I’ve long thought career building is the single most important thing I can do as an agent, Cheryl. That will mean creating a different plan for each author, of course, but that is the job.

  • Shaun Ryan says:

    I’ll second that, Dana; I hope to find an advocate and a mentor, because regardless of whatever talent and skill I may possess, I have much to learn and always will. Life is learning and it can’t be taught, only experienced and shared, and shared experience, passed from one to another in good faith and with an open, honest heart, engenders growth like nothing else.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Shaun. As an agent, it’s fun to think of working with the same writers for a long period of time… That rarely happens, since authors fire agents regularly (I’m thinking of doing a few blog posts on that topic), but it seems like it ought to be the goal — to work together for years, build a career, then all retire as friends.

    • Shaun Ryan says:

      I agree. That is the goal for me. Except the only retirement I envision, from writing at least, is death. If I’m lucky and don’t get too senile first. I’ll not stop, even if I never sell a thing, can’t. Too much to say, to share in the hopes of persuading, through emotional response to their own reflection in my characters and stories, even one person to think about the things I believe are vital to our humanity. How do you retire from that?

  • Dana Mentink says:

    Someone to mentor my career and champion my books because he/she believes in them. And I’ve already got those things in you, Chip! ☺

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I want an agent who is real. Someone I can swap sarcasm, faith, or thoughts with and not have to censure every sentence. Not that I want to be vulgar or flippant, but I appreciate a working relationship where I don’t have to hide behind a veneer of plastic facial expressions and canned jargon. Does that make sense? As a writer, I find there’s a fine balance between being too professional and cold vs being irresponsible and devil-may-care. So in the same way, I’d like an agent who can dish out constructive (but not icy cold) criticism when my book sucks. The truth is the truth, so just say it and let’s move forward. I married someone who tells me to suck it up when I need to be told to – well – suck it up, so that’s always appreciated by me. I need to hear it some times. So let’s just be real. And in return, I’d would want to offer the same thing – the real me. (probably not the suck it up part, ’cause I’m guessing telling that to your agent doesn’t go over so well when you’ve missed a deadline 😉

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate your comments, Jaime. And not having to censure every sentence is important — as with any other relationship, it allows you both to be honest about things. Thanks for this.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    Chip, God’s honest truth, I don’t know if I can ever narrow something of importance down to just ONE thing 🙂 Heck, I can rarely even do it with unimportant things, like my favorite song, color, anything… lol That said, I’ll try to at least narrow it down to a few:

    PASSION: for the written word itself, and certainly for my ability to write them and my potential to write them as effectively as possible.

    HONESTY: being truthful and forthcoming about pretty much anything in life, but in this case about the WHOLE publishing process (this includes attitude as an author–generally and toward the quality of the final product, attitude toward the business, etc.). Some things are too important, and life is certainly too short, for anything but honesty. In other words, I’ve never understood the logic or desire behind “Tell me lies…tell me sweet little lies…” Huh? Dear Lord, WHY?

    RESPECT: this would be a mutual thing, whether as people, concerning the work, opinions, etc. Can’t have any valuable relationship without it (along with honesty) 🙂

    To me, put all these together and you have a winning recipe. If nothing else, you have two people who don’t waste much time while trying to get the job done with the results having the best chance to benefit all involved in as many ways as is possible.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, I think that does a better job of summing it up than I would have offered, Donna. Thanks for this. The respect part is really important, by the way — sometimes an agent is seen as a rock star, and I’ve never figured that out. It’s the author who is the star — so both sides need to offer respect for the other.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    Well, Chip, it’s the usual answer — it’s difficult to identify just one thing. But I was heartened to read that some authors want to talk through book ideas. Yes, writing is a passion. Yes, I would write even without being published. But to spend hours and days and weeks and months away from other pursuits, like my family, for novels that are completely unpublishable? I would want an agent who knows the market and is willing to take the time to share his expertise and knowledge with me to guide my ideas into a better chance for success. Success for both of us.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes, and it’s hard for some people to tell you, “Ya know, Meghan, this just isn’t publishable.” Maybe that’s why some people make good agents and editors, and others don’t. A good agent will tell you the truth.

    • Lynn Morrissey says:

      Chip I would just add here that while I completely understand your point and Megan’s, there are those rare times when an agent, editor, and/or publisher will tell an author that a work is not publishable, and yet in God’s providence, the book does get published. Mine is one such example. I realize that this is unusual, so I think your answer to Megan is certainly correct (and your honesty is wonderful); there are times, though, when there are exceptions to general rules. 🙂

  • Carey Green says:

    I’d want a person who believes in my ability and in the book(s) I’m writing. They’d need to communicate that to me pretty clearly. That’s part of why I’m heading toward the self-publishing track (besides all the expense issues)… I haven’t met that person yet.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Nothing wrong with self-publishing (though that’s another discussion, I suppose), but if the issue is finding someone who believes in your work, I wouldn’t give up yet, Carey. Make sure your work is good, and garner some introductions — then it’ll happen.

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