Chip MacGregor

August 25, 2010

On Relationships in Publishing


Donna wrote to ask, "Is it possible to have two agents, one for fiction and one for nonfiction, or one for ABA and one for CBA?"

It's possible, I guess. I'm not a fan of this plan, since I think it makes it harder for an agent to do his or her job in terms of career planning. Still, some people do it. The alternative? Find an agent who fits what you do. 

Julie wrote with this: "Some agents have a large number of clients, and represent very successful authors. But where does the midlist client fit in today's market?"

I think your question presupposes that having a small list of clients is a good thing — perhaps better than being part of a larger agency. In my view, it's not as simple as that. First of all, I don't think most authors would know what a large or small number of clients is. I represent around 40 or 50 authors. Is that large? Not in publishing — it's fairly small. But so what? You don't sign up with an agent because he or she has only five clients, do you? You sign up with an agent because he or she does a good job, knows how to help you, is a fit for you and your work, and can help make you successful. Move from the world of books to the world of investments for a moment – Would you prefer to hand your hard-earned money to a startup guy who admits he doesn't have many clients, or to somebody with a proven track record of success? (And I"m not making an argument for going with a big agency here — I'm just trying to show the weakness of this particular argument.) Janet Grant, a friend and a very good literary agent, and I are two of the people who have been agenting the longest in CBA. We've both seen lots of agents come and go, and we both represent about the same number of authors. One of the things we've noticed is that some agents seem to work best with a smaller group of authors, and other agents do fine handling a large list of authors. So some of this is going to be personality and/or personal preference. But why would you make a decision against one agent because "this guy represents a lot of authors already"? Oh — and as for where the "midlist" client fits… isn't nearly everyone a midlist author? Publishing is made up of a handful of A+ stars, a group of newbees starting out, and a huge group of midlist authors. If you're midlist, welcome to the club. Most of the folks an agent represents could be considered "midlist." 

Jennifer asked, "What do you do if an agent has had proposals with publishing houses for longer than a year, and you don't hear from them unless you request a status report?"

The biggest complaint authors have is that they don't hear from their agent often enough. Having regular communication is a fair request — so how often do you need to hear? Once a quarter? Once a month? Once a week? I think you should make it clear what your preferences are when you're having a conversation with your agent early in your relationship. If you don't feel you're hearing frequently enough from him or her, GO TALK TO YOUR AGENT. Explain what you'd like to have happen, and be willing to listen to the agent's responses (I can tell you from firsthand experience that it's frustrating to call four weeks in a row and say, "well…there's nothing to report!") This is a key point when selecting an agent — talk through some of your expectations, so that you won't be surprised at the amount of contact. And keep in mind that contact points go up and down, depending on where the author is in the project. Some authors want to talk to me about their piece as they're planning their next book; others could care less about my opinions, but want to talk a lot during contract negotiations. Some authors want me to read their work and comment; others really want an agent to handle the business stuff and not get too involved in the writing process. So it would be a good plan to figure out what YOUR expectations are, then find an agent that seems a good match. Um… and if your proposals have been with a publishing house for year, you probably need to face the fact that the publishers are not terribly keen on the idea. 

And Trisha sent this in: "You have talked in nice terms about parting ways with an agent or publisher house, but CBA is a small world. Is there a backlash when a client leaves a well-known agency? Are there hard feelings when an author leaves a publishing house?"

Last week's issue of Publishers Weekly had an article on the fact that several A-level authors were changing houses (the article mentions Philip Yancey, John Maxwell, Dave Ramsey, Frank Peretti, John Eldredge, Beth Moore, David Jeremiah, Ted Dekker, and Charles Swindoll). The bulk of these authors seem to be landing at a couple houses — FaithWords (a division of Hachette) and Howard (a division of Simon & Schuster). And some of the people quoted in the piece claim this seems to be a combination of authors seeking greater distribution, agents seeking bigger deals for their clients, and the lousy economy throwing everything into a state of flux. 

The way I look at it, this is nothing new. Authors have always bounced around, and agents have always been on the lookout for bigger opportunities. This is a business, and everyone accepts that authors leaving is part of it. The house seeing authors leave certainly isn't happy, especially if they invested a lot of resources into making the author successful to begin with. But no, for the most part there aren't a lot of hard feelings toward an author leaving one house for another. I was an associate publisher for Time-Warner Book Group when Joel Osteen left us to do a book with S&S. I thought it was crazy at the time. TWBG had sold millions of copies of his book — how much more success could he expect to have? But the deal with S&S was huge, and I'm sure he felt it was a great "next step." It proved to be okay, I guess. Joel's next book hit the bestseller
lists. But he didn't ha
ve the runaway hit he'd seen at TWBG. I thought we knew him, and had helped build him, and could have cross-sold his books — but who's to say we'd have had greater success with that second book? There aren't any real guarantees in this business.

There are, however, some huge unearned advances out there. Signing a hit author and asking them to jump to a new house means the publisher has to figure out how to woo all those readers to a new imprint. And jumping houses is no cure-all for a waning career. John Eldredge had a huge hit with Wild at Heart at Thomas Nelson a few years ago, and followed it up with Captivating, a hit book he co-authored with his wife, StasiBut then he did several titles that didn't have nearly as much success, and he decided to jump to Doubleday. A lot of us were surprised, thinking he just needed a bit more time for the magic to happen again at Thomas Nelson. Um, have you seen his book with Doubleday? Yeah, me neither. Love and War tanked. You've got to wonder if he'd have been better off staying with Nelson — or if things had grown stale and he simply felt a need to try something new. Again, sometimes we just can't know the right answers.

As for leaving an agency, I was an agent at Alive Communications for years, and had great relationships with authors. I got fired a few times — sometimes for doing something stupid or hurting someone's feelings, and I still hurt over those relationships. But other times I was cut loose for less meaningful reasons. (One author fired me when she discovered I'm not a charismatic. Color me surprise.) Again, I'm truly sorry for the people I hurt, and I still feel bad about every relationship that ended unresolved. I eventually left Alive to go be a publisher for Time-Warner (a shrewd business move, moving into a job that wasn't a fit). When I left Alive, I had to say good-bye to all my clients. TOUGH DAY. But with only a handful of exceptions, I'm still friends with nearly everybody I represented while at Alive. Several years ago I came back to agenting. I have stayed away from most of the people I used to represent at Alive, not because I'm applying for sainthood, but because it seemed like the right thing to do. I'm still friends with the folks there (a great group of people, by the way), and maintain a deep respect for The Boss (Rick Christian). I've only been fired by authors a handful of times in the last several years. Usually they were surprises, and none of the people spoke to me about any problems we were having before leaving me. So sure, it hurts. But I love those authors and wish them well, and couldn't imagine wanting anything bad to happen to anyone's career, if that's what you mean. Life's too short to hold a grudge. And this business is too small to want to create a backlash. 

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