All this talk about September 11 caused some people to ask about the books I mentioned in my previous blog post. Both books (Thunder Dog by Mike Hingson and Susy Flory, and Let’s Roll by Lisa Beamer) were big hits, and while I’ve had a long list of books that have hit the various bestseller lists, there’s no question that Let’s Roll was the biggest book I ever represented, and there’s a cool story behind it.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I was in a plane, flying to New York when the planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. It was just a couple of nights later, as I was sitting on the couch and watching President George W. Bush address the nation about the terrorist attacks, that the Prez re-told the story of Todd Beamer’s bravery — how he had said “let’s roll!” to the passengers on Flight 93, and how they had tried to take the plane back from the terrorists, resulting in the crash in the Pennsylvania countryside, and the deaths of everyone on board. After telling the story, Bush motioned to the gallery, where Laura Bush was, and he mentioned that seated next to the First Lady was Todd Beamer’s widow, Lisa. That was the first time most Americans had ever seen her, and I was touched at her poise and grace.
“Good lord,” I said to my family as I sat on the couch, watching, “What a brave woman.” I remember being impressed with her ability to represent the families left behind, so soon after having lost her husband. “She could do a great book.” The truth is, my kids prayed with me about the idea of helping her do a book. Really. And, in my view, that’s how the project was born.
Two weeks later, after commercial flights had begun again, I made my way to Chicago, for one of
I wrote this a few years ago, to remind myself of the events of that day. Life has changed since I wrote this, but on the 15th anniversary, I wanted to share it again and remind everyone what happened, and why we need to remember.
On September 11th, 2001, I was flying along at 36,000 feet, in a United jet heading from Denver to Chicago, then on to New York. I was working as a literary agent for Alive Communications in Colorado at the time, and flew out of Denver regularly. There wasn’t anything special about the flight — I was in first class, seat 3B, and directly across the aisle from longtime Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, who had been in Denver to call an NFL game on television.
We’d been in the air about an hour when I said to the guy next to me, “Something’s wrong. We’re going down.” So I motioned to the flight attendant (a tall, young guy who looked all of 20) and asked him. He clearly didn’t know what was going on either, but said he’d check with the pilots. I watched him knock on the cabin door, enter, stay inside 3 or 4 minutes, then come out, white as sheet. He motioned to me that all was fine, but he was obviously upset, and I knew right away something was deeply wrong. I reached for the phone (in olden days, they had phones in the back of the seat, and you could call home five miles up). The phone didn’t work.
The captain came on the speakers and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to remain seated. There have been terrorist attacks against the United States of America, and all planes have been ordered out of US airspace. We’re going to make an unscheduled stop. Please do not leave your seats. There’s nothing wrong with the aircraft.”
I turned to
Since it’s our tenth anniversary, I thought I’d pull out a couple of questions I’ve had sitting around for a long time, just because they’ll be fun to explore. SEVERAL people have asked me what my favorite proposal of all time is. Certainly having a romance novel manuscript sent to me wrapped in a thong would be in the top five (a true story, by the way — and I didn’t know if I should touch it, since I wasn’t sure where that thong had been). And getting not just a manuscript, but a box filled with a musical CD, t-shirt, and plush toy about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s little brother remains a highlight (in case you’re wondering, his nose didn’t glow — his tail did… in case Santa wanted to put him in the back of the line and, I don’t know, get a tan or something). Also the time I got a threatening letter from a guy who claimed he and his son were “the two secret witnesses of Revelation,” and had been “sent by God to Chip MacGregor by name, in order to reveal the truth to the world.” (I’m not kidding. The author included a letter that said he expected to see “a sizable advance” and warned me that if I did not, God was going to “send heavenly weather events that will kick your ass.”) This is one of the many reasons I’ve loved having part of my career in the religious market. However, the BEST proposal letter I’ve ever been sent is this one…
Yes, this was sent to me by “The President of the Invisible World,” and her two books were Sex with Angels and Hearing Voices? You’re Not Mentally Ill! (If you read through it, you’ll find the author has written a screenplay to Sex with Angels, though I’m probably not old enough to read the manuscript.) I’ve always wondered why I
This week marks the tenth anniversary since I started MacGregor Literary. I’d been working as a publisher with the old Time-Warner Book Group, got the axe not long after the sale to Hachette, and realized I was being given a chance, in my forties, to remake my life.
The fact is, I’m a lifer in publishing. I got my first job in the industry working at Clearing Magazine back in the 70’s as a part-time copy editor (and, um, the fact is, I didn’t really know what a “copy editor” was when I applied). But I stayed at the Mag (a monthly for junior high science teachers, now part of Ranger Rick and the World Wildlife Federation), became a staff writer and eventually the managing editor. I kept my hand in writing and publishing forever — managed the newspaper at my graduate school, wrote hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers, coordinated the print resources for a couple organizations. No matter what job I had (I taught at a college, worked on staff at a church, hosted a syndicated radio show, did some consulting, even spent a year starting a speech team at a high school), I was always writing.
My big break came when I was out of work, waiting for my first book to come out, and wondering when I was going to have to grow up and get a real job. I was in my thirties, had three kids, and was trying to find a way into the system that was traditional book publishing. Out of the blue, a guy by the name of Steve Halliday approached me. We’d gone to the same church, and Steve was building a reputation as an excellent ghostwriter who was connected with important people in publishing. I’m not sure who told him to talk with me, but he gave me an extra project he had that needed some help. I did
I used to regularly include updates of the books I’m reading on this blog, until I had some people complain that my personal reading habits weren’t that helpful to their writing careers. So I stopped doing it, and I’ve found I have missed talking about the various titles I’ve read, and being able to discuss books with readers books we liked or disliked. So when I received an email over the weekend that asked, “So what have you been reading lately?” I thought it was time to chat about some of the best and worst of the past few months. (Be warned: I’m a binge reader. I read a LOT in my job as a literary agent, and sometimes I’ll get on a roll and need to read several books on a topic. So maybe you won’t find all of this helpful, but at least you’ll know what an agent is reading — and I’ll encourage you to drop by the “comments” section at the bottom and tell me what YOU’VE been reading.)
-Over the past six months, I read a bunch of Malcolm Gladwell titles. I re-read Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point, then read David and Goliath. He’s one of those writers I always find interesting, and one of the few I feel I can go back and re-read without being bored. I learn a lot from Gladwell, and he causes me to think in new ways.
-In a flurry of reading on art forgery, I read several titles: Provenance, The Rescue Artist, The Art of the Con, Stealing Rembrandts, Caveat Emptor, Priceless, and Art of the Deal (the Horowitz version, not the Donald Trump version… though I suppose that book also touches on con men). I thought Priceless was great, Provenance was interesting, Caveat Emptor was awful, and the others fell somewhere in between. If you want to learn about a subject, reading a half-dozen books on
Someone wrote in to ask, “Can you explain the difference between an acquisition editor and any other type of editor? Who do they do? How are they hired?”
There are a bunch of different types of editors at any particular publishing house. An “editor” works on the story and wording of a manuscript, a “production editor” oversees the creation of the actual book, a “senior editor” gets to lord it over the other editors and grab the first donut in editorial team meetings, etc. At most houses nearly every editor acquires some manuscripts and is responsible for editing them and getting them ready for production. But some houses have dedicated “acquisitions editors,” who talk to agents, find authors and manuscripts that will be a fit, sign them to the house, then turn them over to developmental editors, who will actually work on the writing. Usually an acquisitions editor has spent time with the company so they have a feel for what he or she should be acquiring. And yes, personal tastes will shape the books they bring in. Therefore, a publishing house gets shaped by the editors who work there, so it’s important the people they hire know the distinctive of the house. Very few editors (just a handful of senior or executive editors) have the authority to simply go acquire whatever they want.
In general, the acquisition system looks like this:
Step one is that the acquisitions editor finds a project that fits the house. Maybe an agent has called to talk with her about it, or the editor and author met at a conference, but there’s a connection, and the editor likes the project. He or she works with the agent and author to sharpen the proposal and make it as strong as possilble.
Step two occurs when the idea is taken to the editorial board or team. In this meeting the merits of the book are discussed,
I’ve had a bunch of people write to ask some version of “How does a writer create a career plan?” There’s a lot of talk about it, but not much in the way of specifics.
As regular readers know, I have a background in organizational development — that is, the study of how an organization grows and changes over time. In my job as a literary agent, I’ve found it’s proven very helpful when talking to writers about their careers, since the core of it is “figure out where you are, decide where you want to go, then determine a plan to get there.” That the core of org development, and its also the core of career planning. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of specifics about that in our industry. My contention is that some agents pay lip service to “helping authors with career planning,” but many don’t really have a method for doing that. (Actually, from the look of it, some don’t even know what it means. I think “career planning” to some agents is defined as “having a book contract.”) During my doctoral program at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), I served as a Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Career Planning and Placement Office. The focus was on helping people graduating in the arts figure out how to create a career plan, and that experience allowed me the opportunity to apply the principles of organizational theory to the real-world setting of those trying to make a living with words. So here are a few things I like to consider when talking with a writer…
First, I want to get to know the author. Who is he or she? What’s the platform he brings to the process? Does she speak? If so, where, how often, to whom, to how many, and on what topics? Does he have experience with other media? What kind? What’s her message? What books has
We’ve been talking about making a living at writing, and I had three people all ask the same basic question: If I’m going to make writing my career, how do I treat it as a business instead of as an art or an avocation?
First, I recognize that some writers will insist on treating their writing as an art — which is fine, and for some writers no doubt more appropriate. I represent some authors who don’t really see themselves as “business” people, but as artists, creating words that share their stories. I totally understand and respect that perspective, since some writers are, in fact, artists with words. But if it’s important to you that you generate a full-time income through your writing, and you’re pondering how to create a number of writing projects that will improve your bottom line, then you need to begin to see your writing as a business. In essence, your words are a service or product — they have value, and others need to pay you in exchange for them.
Second, determining the value of your words is tough at first, which is why I’ve encouraged authors to begin by setting a small monthly financial goal, then building up the number as you find success. If you know you need to earn, say, $2500 per month, then it’s clear the goal is about $500 per week (which sounds small when you put it that way, doesn’t it?). Thinking in that manner moves writing into more of a business model, since it reduces your work to numbers: “I need to make $500 from my writing this week.” You then begin to map out which projects you can do that will generate the cash flow you need.
Third, as I’ve said a number of times on this blog, today is a great time to be a writer. There are more readers and more opportunities than ever before,
Someone wrote to ask, “Is it a big deal if my book doesn’t earn back its advance? What percentage of books earn out? And does a publisher lose money if a book doesn’t earn out?”
I frequently get questions about advances, and to answer them I need your patience… Let me answer this with hard numbers, so that I can make my case. It will take a couple minutes to run the numbers.
First, you always want your books to earn out. Every time. If your book earns out, it means your book is selling, the financials on the book aren’t going to be an ongoing concern, and the publisher is happy and is going to want to work with you again.
But second, keep in mind that only about 25% of books earn back their advance. That number goes up and down according to the year and the economy, but over the years that’s been the figure publishers have used. Which means that of all those books out there, roughly three quarters of them are in the red. That can give you a bit of perspective. (That said, remember: with the massive growth of ebook publishers and smaller houses that pay no advance, there are many more books on the market in which the author was paid nothing — he or she is earning all their income on sales.)
Third, to answer your question about a publisher losing money, keep in mind that every business can lose money. Retail shops, service business, investment firms, everyone. If you own a shoe store, order in shoes that don’t sell, and then have to drastically reduce prices, you can lose money on each pair sold. That’s business, and publishing is no different. The publishing house pays out an advance, they pay an editor, hire a cover designer, buy ink and paper, pay a printer, and cover overhead such as the light bill
A few years ago, I created a talk about how an author can make a living with his or her writing. I called it The MacGregor Theory (with apologies to the MacGregor who came up with all the Theory X and Theory Y stuff back in the 90’s), and over the years it’s been picked up and discussed by all sorts of writers and editors in the blogosphere. I’ve revised and tweaked it a few time, but now, with the recent changes we’ve seen in the world of publishing, it’s time I go back and revise my theory of making a living at writing. So if you’re interested…
I have five rules for authors who want to make a full time living at writing:
1. You need to have four-to-six books earning you a royalty. In other words, you’ve done some traditionally published books in the past, you’ve had some earn out, and you currently have some books that are making you a passive income.
2. You need to have 18 months to 2 years of contracts. This is much harder to do in today’s publishing economy, but if you’re going to do this full time, you probably need to know clearly what you’re going to be writing for the next year or two. If you have your calendar filled up for the next 18 months with projects that are contracted, so that you know you’re going to be generating some income, you’re at least afforded the clarity that comes from knowing what you’ll be working on.
3. You need to be self-publishing. These days, most successful authors are generating income by regularly posting new projects, earning some sort of income by self-publishing books, novels, novellas, articles, and/or short stories. With fiction, it’s clear an author needs to have a number of titles gong (having one or two books isn’t going to cut it — a series of books will