Chip MacGregor

February 18, 2013

Should the agent tell me where he sent my manuscript?


I dug into my “blog” file this weekend, and realized I’ve got a backup of more than 300 questions people have asked. Gulp. That means I could start today, take the next year responding to them, and still not get to everything. So… a change in plans for the next few weeks: I’m going to try and tackle several questions each day for a while, just to offer some answers and catch up a bit.

To begin, someone sent me a note that read, “My agent won’t tell me who she sent my proposal to. She also doesn’t show me the rejection notices. Is that normal?”

Not showing rejection notices has become normal. You need to understand that the days of editors sending long rejections to agents, detailing the perceived issues with a manuscript, went out with the Reagan Administration. It’s not uncommon to get a brief email that says, “No thanks” or “We looked at this and we’re not going to pursue it.” And frankly, there’s not much value in my forwarding those notes to one of my authors, unless I want to drive her into depression and a possible drinking binge. (On the rare times I receive a thoughtful reply, with notes on how the manuscript could be improved, I try to always pass that along to the author.) So tell your agent you’d like to know what people are saying — that’s a fair request. However, I’ll admit I don’t know why an agent wouldn’t show you a list of who’s looking at your proposal. I mean…it’s your proposal, so I wouldn’t think that would be a secret. You may want to ask your agent what the reasoning is behind that decision. I find it odd. I’m not saying she is necessarily wrong, but it’s definitely not the norm.

Someone else wrote and asked, “Can an agent help me plan the marketing for my book?”

Normally an agent can help you think through some of the marketing, maybe even help you plan it or oversee pieces of the marketing plan. But a literary agent is different from a publicist or a marketing manager. As the author, YOU are most responsible for marketing your book, so don’t leave all that up to your agent, your publisher, your sales staff, your publicist, your mom, or anyone else. YOU are in charge of marketing. Nobody knows the book better than you, nobody has more invested in it, and nobody is more committed to its success than you. I probably have marketing conversations most days with authors, and try to give input and provide advice where I can, but I’m not a full-time marketing consultant (if I were, I’d never get my author’s books sold).

One author wrote to say, “I haven’t heard from my agent in six months. Is that unusual?”

My response: Um…really? Six months? Well, to each his own. (Or “her” own, depending on the sex of the agent.) The biggest complaint people have about their agent is generally described as “lack of contact.” Everybody wants to be in touch with their agent. And I guess everybody’s work style is different. I represent a couple authors I speak to every week. I also have a couple authors I have to remind myself to call every couple months, since they are so low-key I want to make sure they’re still breathing. Perhaps you and your agent aren’t on the same track (though I think six months is a bit much). My suggestion would be that you contact him or her and talk about expectations. Make sure you both can live with the amount of communication you have. And remember that you’re probably not the only client your agent represents, so be willing to understand his or her business and adjust your thinking a bit.

I swear I’m not making this one up — I had someone write to this blog say, “I sent you my proposal three months ago! What’s wrong? I need an answer!”

So, um, I gave him one. I won’t share my exact words, but it had to do with a cliff, and the author going there to jump off it. Good grief, learn to be polite. I never mind an author checking in with me (“Hi Chip – I haven’t heard from you in a while, and I was just wondering if you had any updates for me.”). That’s part of the business. And, if this were an author I already represented, I’d have been much speedier. But I have a different reaction when somebody presumes I owe him a response just because he saw my name in a book somewhere and decided to write to me. I mean, what do I owe this guy? I didn’t ask him to write me. I didn’t invite him to send me his proposal. Where does it say I even owe him a response? Listen to me: politeness still counts. (And I’m so polite I even deleted the name “Jerkface” at the end of this answer.)

Another author wrote to ask, “I was told I can’t sell my book without an agent, even in CBA, where that used to be possible. Is that true?”

More or less, that’s true. Most of the houses have instituted policies requesting authors to send them proposals through an agent. It professionalizes the relationship, takes a bit of the emotion out of the process, and moves the task of skimming the dross from publishing houses onto literary agents. Of course, I think it’s still possible to find a deal with a publisher without an agent, but it’s considerably harder than it used to be. To use an analogy, think of it as trying to sell a home — realtors have pushed state legislators to pass so many requirements that it’s a daunting task just to fill out the paperwork on the sale of your house. Four times we’ve sold homes, Patti and I have used a realtor. But we’ve sold another four homes by owner, working to make the place presentable , buying our own ads, and hosting our own open houses, so it’s still possible to do that — just a bit more difficult. It’s the same with selling a manuscript — if you have a great idea, you’ve put together a solid proposal, you have established a good platform for yourself, and you work to get a face-to-face appointment with an editor where you can pitch your idea, it’s still a possibility. It’s a lot of work, but it’s do-able.  Still… consider what you want handled by a professional. When I wanted a will, I didn’t use one of those free online downloads to do it. I felt it was an important enough process that I went to a lawyer and had a professional create it. When I was setting up my retirement account I did some of the investments on my own, but I also used a professional to set up and manage the bulk of it. Ask yourself if you have the knowledge, time, and desire to manage your book contracts and your publishing career.

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