Chip MacGregor

February 6, 2013

How can I connect with literary agents?


Someone wrote me to say, “I’ve got my manuscript done, I’ve run it by a professional editor, and I’m feeling ready to talk with literary agents. Can you suggest ways I connect with some good agents?”

Sure I can.

Go meet agents. Attend conferences, make appointments at their office, connect at a book show, etc. Don’t just focus on one person — try to get some exposure to a few literary agents. 

Get to know and trust the agent. Again, I think there are a group of people who claim to be agents but don’t really know the business. So check their websites, read their blogs, ask around. 

Find out if they like books and if they’re good with words. The best agents are word people first… and that’s an important point. Just because a guy has negotiated contracts doesn’t mean he can help you with ideas or writing or editing or selling.

Ask who they represent, then go check with some of their authors. Just because she claims to be popular doesn’t mean her clients are happy. Go ask others. 

Ask “how many books have you contracted in the past year?” You can also ask about which houses, which genres, etc. I’ve frequently suggested a number of questions you could ask agents. Check out some of my old posts on “agents” and make a list of questions that fit your particular situation. 

Look for a full-time agent, not somebody who is part agent, part editor, part author, part Amway salesman. More and more I think this is true. Look, not everybody can be an agent. Just like not everybody can be an author, a copy-editor, a sales rep, or the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. So look for somebody who knows this job and is sold out to doing it, rather than somebody who is trying to represent people while also doing a dozen other things.

Go create a wonderful proposal with good writing and a complete bio. Make sure to include your sales history and a market analysis. The fact that you’ve completed your novel and have had it reviewed by a competent editor is a plus. 

Remember MacGregor’s Law of Agenting: Make sure you LIKE the person. There’s nothing worse that having to do business regularly with people you don’t like. I LIKE the authors I represent. Most are personal friends. I can’t imagine working in my office, having the phone ring, hearing the receptionist say “Mr Farnsworth is on the phone,” and me going into a spasm of disgust – “Yikes! Farnsworth! I HATE that guy! Tell him I’m not here!” Life is too short. I routinely tell authors that I’m not the agent for everyone. My personal style is fairly gentle (believe it or not…I’m not nearly the smart-ass in real life as I appear in print), and I’m pretty soft-spoken at meetings (people are often disappointed when they meet me). So I’m not the right guy for a writer who wants Mr. Take-Charge. If you don’t LIKE the individual, don’t hire him or her. 

-Once you settle on someone, make a commitment to work with him or her long term. A good agent should talk with you about your writing career. My goal is to work with the authors I represent for the next 20 years, so we can all retire together and still be friends. (That said, always ask if the agent you’re talking to relies on a “term” agreement or an “at will’ agreement. I use an at-will agreement. There’s no term — it starts the day we sign it; it ends when we start calling each other names and throwing copies of manuscripts at each other. I’ve talked with too many authors who got locked into really bad term agreements — “I’d like to have you represent me, Chip, but I’m stuck with Mr Bonehead for the next two years.”)

Hey, the strength we have at MacGregor Literary is that Sandra and Amanda and I are both WORDS people (not just “contract” people). But does that make us the agency for everyone? Nope. Again, I tell would-be agents:(1) only represent people you like, and (2) only represent good writers. I’ve been able to hold to that, and done really well in the business. So… can you get published without an agent? Of course you can. You can also sell your house without a realtor and draw up your own will. But a good realtor can smooth things out for you, and a good lawyer will probably get the will done faster and more neatly. By the same token, a good agent should help you decide on a salable idea, create a better proposal, and get that proposal in front of the decision-makers who matter.

I hope this helps. Let me know any other agent-related questions you have.

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  • Peter DeHaan says:

    …but what if I want to still be writing in 20 years?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      No. I’m sorry, Peter, but we’ve decided to shut it all down then. If you’ve got something to say, best say it now… :o)

  • Susan Donetti says:

    Great information as always. Really enjoyed meeting agents at the 2012 ACFW conference. Everyone was so willing to share their expertise. Made some great connections with other writers, too. Helps to share the journey. 🙂

  • Hi Chip, I’m really trying to learn as much as I can about the business. That’s why I’ll be here everyday and that’s why I’ll be in Nashville in a couple of weeks. I’m not at all what people expect either. I don’t have much of a southern accent and am shy to a fault…I think the word generally used with writers is “reclusive.” I look forward to meeting yourself and all the great folks!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think you’re heading the right direction, Steve. You learn, you apply, you change… Stay the course and see where it leads.

  • Jan Cline says:

    Conferences…yes! Perfect opportunity to meet agents. But I find that so many writers, even those who have a completed manuscript, are hesitant to seek representation or even just get an appointment with an agent to talk about their project. Is this because they are too scared or just not prepared? It’s such a great opportunity to get to know them and so many miss out.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s true, but it’s one of the few places you can be face to face with several agent, Jan, that I encourage authors to be bold, prepare their best stuff, do some research, and sign up for an appointment.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I was curious about the, “make appointments at their office,” line. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this. Is that something writers do routinely? I feel like I have to attend conferences all over the place just to meet agents. It would be much easier just to visit their offices.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Oh, sure. I mean, it has to fit my schedule, and I need a reason to want to actually meet, as opposed to just hearing another pitch. But if I’ve seen the proposal, it’s good, and I want to find out more, I prefer meeting the author if at all possible.

  • Lisa Van Engen says:

    Great thoughts, thank you. I have found agencies blogs to be completely invaluable in this process. I am so thankful for the insight they have given me and the gracious opportunity to get to know agents.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Amen to that, Lisa. I’m always surprised when I talk with an author who says they’re interested in representation but haven’t checked out the blog and company website.

  • Thanks for the good advice, Chip. And we all need to be reminded of what we need to look for in an agent.

  • Lindsay Harrel says:

    Great thoughts, Chip. I’ve really been able to get to know several agents’ personalities through simply reading their agency blogs and interacting with them there. Agents are more accessible than ever in that way.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Glad you said that, Lindsay. I find the same thing to be true — but you’d be surprised how many times authors come to me having never spent ten seconds on either my blog or our company website!

  • Melissa Tagg says:

    “Make sure you LIKE the person.”

    That point made me smile simply because of how much I like-like my agent. A working relationship would be such a drag if there wasn’t an element of genuine like and friendship in it. Amanda–and all of you at MacLit–rock.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Okay, Melissa… but who could NOT like Amanda Luedeke? I mean, really — she’s smart, talented, knowledgable. In a couple years she’s going to be one of the go-to people in publishing. Thanks for saying something.

    • Melissa Tagg says:

      Plus she’s really good at wrapping presents and has good taste in 90s TV shows featuring long-haired, hatchet-throwing guys… 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      AND she can sing!

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