Chip MacGregor

February 14, 2009

More Wisdom From Sandra Bishop


Since Chip is trying to keep his tan from fading and bleaching his hair to make us all think he's gone blond, it's probably time for me to offer a few additional thoughts.

David wrote to say, "At a conference last year, you told me you liked my writing but couldn't represent me because the timing was bad. What does that actually mean? I hear a lot of people talk about timing in publishing, but I have to admit I'm not sure what they're referencing."

David, I think I remember your submission. I think I even remember seeing your eyes glaze over when I uttered the dreaded "timing" phrase. Sorry. Rejecting material that shows promise is one of the hardest parts of this business — especially when Chip and I rail on about how important good writing is. I must have thought your writing showed promise or I wouldn't have said so. Take whatever encouragement you can from those words and keep at it.

Here's the deal regarding the "timing" comment: I only have so many hours in the day, and I simply can't take on too many projects which I know will take an extraordinary amount of time to sell. So sometimes I'm already working with a similar project, and it's the wrong time to take on another. Other times I like a project, but it smacks of something that is already out there, so the timing is all wrong. There are many facets of the job of agenting, but when it comes down to it, selling my authors' manuscripts is how I make my living, how I serve my clients, and how I keep Chip happy (well… that and occasionally telling him how young he looks).

Let me offer an example… I've been working with an author whose story is unique and haunting and charming, and who I think has a great future. I've been showing her proposal to people for six months, and have a collection of responses like, "Wow, this is beautiful, but I don't know where we'd place it on our list right now" and "I really like this, but we just acquired another book on this same topic" and "This is nice, but we recently released a similar project, so we'll have to wait and see how that one does before acquiring more in this genre." I've just about come to the conclusion that this particular manuscript may not be the one that will launch this author's career. So what do we do? We set this one aside, move forward, and try something else. And that takes an enormous amount of energy and commitment on both our parts. Also, to be quite frank, it takes up space on my mental and physical to-do list. So that decision dominoes into further rejections for other authors whose work might be worthy of representation.

It's not pretty sometimes. I often go to conferences and see good projects that I just can't take on. But that's the nature of this business — a literary agent chooses to work with a certain group of writers. I can't represent everyone, and sometimes the timing is just bad when I see a perfectly good project.

Julie wrote to ask, "How much do an agent's or editor's personal preferences matter when it comes to choosing who they will work with?"

That's a very good question, Julie. I've spent the better part of the last year deciding what kind of material I want (and don't want) to represent. And I've been working to get acquainted with editors and learn what they get excited about, what pushes their buttons, and what sends them over the edge. If you're an established author, you already know this, but if you're a newer writer who is just getting to know the publishing industry, here's a valuable tip: When you meet agents or editors, whether at conferences or over the phone, you need to keep in mind that they are not only people with a fair amount of influence, but with a lot of liberty. Most of them make very studied choices regarding the kind of material they choose to work with. There are exceptions — I know an editor who loves literary fiction but whose house simply cannot sell it. Still, for the most part you aren't going to have luck selling horror to an editor who has never read or worked on anything but historical romance. The business just doesn't work that way. And I, for one, am glad for it.

I don't do blood and guts horror — in my opinion, it's a slippery slope into darkness. I don't read erotica, which I basically regard as porn for women. I love reading children's books, but don't have a clue how to sell them. I don't handle military sagas, even though I was a Marine (been there, done that, had enough already). And I have no interest in science fiction or mystery noir. But there are plenty of other genres I do represent. And while I may still be figuring out what all I want to represent, I know what I won't read and what will fail to get my attention. I simply have to spend too much time with material to expose myself to reading stuff that doesn't interest me. (Or worse, stuff that makes me want to scream. Or run. Or both.)

An author and an agent need to match up. Not every agent you meet will be a fit for you. And you don't want an agent trying to pitch your proposal if she doesn't like it, or doesn't believe in it, or isn't enthusiastic about it. Or, worse, doesn't want to read it. Every agent has personal preferences. Finding an agent who loves your work is the way to move forward in your career.

Got a question? Send it in — I'll stick it in a bottle and send it across the Pacific to Chip. Maybe he'll spot it while snorkling off Waikiki or something.

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