Chip MacGregor

March 1, 2013

How do you know which agents will work hard for you?


I’ve been going through a long list of questions people have sent in, trying to offer short answers (as compared to my usual loquacious responses). One person wrote this: “I’m interested in getting an agent. How do you know which agent will work hard for you? For that matter, how can an author know which agents the publishers view as legit?”

If you want to know about an agent, you can always start by asking around. Ask publishers and editors in confidence what they think. Go onto the agency website and check the agent out. Check with “Predators & Editors” and “Writer Beware” to see which agents are not considered legit. Look into “Agent Query” and the other agency-ranking organizations. Pick up a copy of Chuck Sambuccino’s Guide to Literary Agents so you can do some research into the agent. In my opinion, you should look for an agent that’s a member of the Association of Author Representatives (AAR), the professional organization for literary agents. To see if the agent will work hard for you, all you have to do is to see which authors are happy and which agents are doing deals — you can find information on the number of deals done by an agent in the “Dealmakers” section of Publishers Marketplace. A lot of people will just tell you to “talk with other authors,” but I find that less than helpful. First, most people don’t want to say bad things about an agent, or worry that saying something honest will lead to a lawsuit. Second, many authors don’t often know a good agent from a bad one — if their agent got them a deal, they’re happy. I know some authors who have a lousy literary agent, but they’re completely satisfied because they don’t have anything to judge it against.

 Another writer sent me this: “I’m a beginning author, have written a novel, and want to start submitting query letters. What advice would you have for me?”

First, make sure your novel is well done. Have some other writer friends read it, get feedback from some experienced writers, and if possible talk with an editor about your work. The #1 reason projects get rejected is because the book isn’t really done — it might be a good idea, but it’s basically 60% completed, and if you send that in you are sure to get rejected. Second, do some research on literary agents. Don’t do a mass sending to a bunch of agents — find out who represents the type of book you write, who among that list is taking new clients, then try to get some sort of introduction. Publishing, like all businesses in this country, is a relationship business. If you can meet and talk to an agent (perhaps at a conference, or simply through an introduction from a mutual friend) you’ll be much further down the path in the submission process. Third, research what makes a good query letter. I sometimes laugh when I see an author has spent two years writing a book, and two minutes banging out a query letter.

This came in from a writer a few weeks ago: “What word count should I shoot for with a light romance? I heard one agent say if a novel gets over 115,000 words, she gets nervous. Are some of the long bestselling novels exceptions? I’ve seen several very long bestsellers lately.”

The genre romance houses are basically asking for 55,000 words for contemporary novels, and 75,000 words for historical novels. If you move away from a genre house and begin talking to more of a general lines publisher, you’ll find this publishing economy demands more from writers — so novels are often in the 90,000 to 100,000 word range. But yes, I am VERY reluctant to take on someone who has written more than 120,000 words. The investment by the publisher is huge, it takes extra work, the production costs are higher, and the final price point will be higher… so publishers find it easier to reject a book like that. They have to fall in love with a longer novel to contract it. (Pointing to mega-bestsellers that are extra-long is an exercise in futility. Better to look at the norms, not the exceptions.)

I got this question in from an author I met at a conference: “I recently won a writing contest, then saw how many ‘winners’ there were… It felt like I had ‘bought’ the win with my entry fee. How do agents and publishers feel about writing contest winners?”

I realize the people managing contests want to have happy customers, so they name a lot of “winners.” But in my experience, agents and publishers still like to see authors who can tell them they won a national writing contest. There’s still a prestige associated with that.

Here’s a question I get frequently: “I have published a novel, but now want to do a nonfiction book. What advice would you have for me?”

A nonfiction book is a completely different animal than a novel. A novel basically offers entertainment — a nonfiction book offers a solution to a problem or an answer to a question. It requires a different writing style. Most nonfiction writers think in terms of “telling,” and most novelists in terms of “showing.” For a nonfiction book, you’ll need to think about scope and sequence, strong principles with clear solutions, and good, illustrative stories. Don’t expect your fiction readers will cross the aisle and read your nonfiction book — they won’t. If you’re just trying your hand at NF, my best advice would be to study the basics of writing again. It’s not easy to slide from fiction to nonfiction.

One young person said, “I have a work that has promise, but needs a good, literary editor. Are there any grants or programs available to help inspirational authors fine-tune a work?”

I am not aware of any grants, however joining an online writing group or a critique group might prove helpful. It gets your writing in front of other eyes, so that you gain from the perspectives of others. You could also consider taking some formal writing classes, to glean advice from good writing instructors, or trying to team up with one of the many successful writers who run a mentoring program.

Another writer sent this: “It seems like the information about ‘platforms’ is always geared to nonfiction authors. What steps would you suggest for a fiction writer to start building a platform?”

That will depend on your novel, of course. The core of marketing is to figure out where the readers who would be interested in your story are gathering, then go stand in front of them. So if you’re writing Amish fiction, it would be good to figure out where people who love Amish gather — what sites do they visit, what ‘zines to they read, what programs do they follow. Where do they go and take part in a community of other like-minded readers? You want to figure out how to get in front of those folks. I’ve said this before, but think of “platform” as a number — the number of people you can say read your words and have some sort of investment in you, so they’re strong possibilities to buy your book. If you have a blog, do articles in your local newspaper, write things in your church or denominational newsletter, contribute to an online e’zine, speak to groups, teach classes, and appear in the media, all of those activities have a number of potential readers associated with them. You build your platform by participating in those activities, getting your words in front of people, and making sure they know the words are from you. You do your best to capture that audience, so you can approach them with your novel when it releases.

Again, if you have a question you want to post to an agent, ask away — I’m trying to blow through a bunch of topics quickly, and I’m happy to respond.  

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  • Robin Patchen says:

    Great information. I was especially interested in the contest question. I always wondered if winning a contest made any different at all. Interesting to note agents and editors do take that into account.

    By the way, I registered for the OKC ACW conference yesterday. Looking forward to meeting you in a few weeks.

  • rachel says:

    one of the best, and easiest ways, i think for writers/bloggers to extend their platform is to read blogs similar to theirs and comment. comment. comment. as a blogger, i LOVE it when people comment on my blog. indeed, i am so flattered (especially if it shows a careful reading or a witty response) that i am likely to track that commentor’s blog down, check out their twitter account and attempt to repay the favour. the blogging community in the book community is a very popular medium for discussion.

    • Jennifer M Zeiger says:

      So true, Rachel, I’m finding the more involved I am in other’s blogs, the more they return the favor and being active in the blog sphere is very educational about the market.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Great comment, Rachel. Thanks for jumping into the conversation.

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