Chip MacGregor

December 10, 2008

Some Personal Questions


Over the past couple of months, I've received a boatload of personal questions about agenting in general, and my agency in particular. Instead of taking each one separately, I'm going to clump them together and try to answer as many as possible. But be warned: Some of this reads like a commercial. I'm sorry about that — my intention on this blog is to answer the questions that come in. But since I've had so many questions like this, I decided it was best to try and answer a bunch of them at once, rather than routinely sprinkle self-serving questions throughout my posts. Here goes…

David, Tracy, and several others asked, "How long have you been an agent, and how did you get your start?"

I used to make my living as a collaborative writer, and about 20 years ago I decided I needed to educate myself regarding the industry. So I became the writer at conferences who could talk to authors about contracts and negotiations, about what makes a good proposal, and about who is buying what. Soon I had authors asking me to look over contracts, help them shape proposals, then help them talk with the right people. Eventually I figured out I was working as an agent (without actually getting paid for it). I spent three years as the Senior Editor for Harvest House Publishers, then Alive Communications came calling and asked if I was interested in becoming an agent. It took me a nanosecond: "Yes!" I joined them, and spent six years working as a literary agent at Alive, which at the time was the 800-pound gorilla of Christian agents. I learned a lot from experienced agents Rick Christian and Greg Johnson, and we were representing all the major properties at that time: the Left Behind series, the Thoenes, Karen Kingsbury, Terri Blackstock, the Every Man's Battle series, etc. A huge list of hits. I got into the agenting business early, about twelve years ago, when there were only a dozen of us who were qualified literary agents focusing on Christian books. That gave me my start. Then, in a shrewd business move, I decided to throw my career under a bus by becoming a publisher with Time-Warner. It didn't work out in the long run, but when I left them, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: start my own agency. So a few years ago, I hung up my shingle and created MacGregor Literary. We've become one of the busiest literary agencies in the business.
I've had six people ask, "What makes your agency different from any other?"
There are several things that make me a bit unique, I suppose. First, I made my living as a free-lance writer for several years, so earning money as a writer isn't just a vague notion with me — it's a real-world experience. There aren't many agents who made it as writers. Second, I'm a multi-published author. The idea of putting together a good proposal and buttressing it with strong writing is something I've done for myself as well as others. Third, I worked as an editor, senior editor, acquisitions director, and associate publisher, so I have a good working knowledge of the industry. I actually got my first job in publishing 30 years ago, when I took a job as a copy editor at Clearing magazine in order to help me get through college. Fourth, I have a strong track record — I've done deals with every major publisher, and books I've represented have been on all the major bestseller lists (even hitting #1 on the New York Times list). I guess I could say that the number of deals I've done, and the quality of books I've represented, stack up pretty well against most agents. Fifth, while every agent seems to parrot an answer about doing "career development," my business sense tells me that some of them can't even define what that is. While I was working on my doctorate at the University of Oregon, I had a position as an Assistant Director of the Career Planning and Placement Office, specializing in working with students graduating in the Arts. So I have actual training in helping artists put together a workable career plan — and that's a unique aspect of my agency.
Okay…sorry if all this sounds self-serving. You asked. The fact is, I think I've proven that I'm pretty good at what I do. And there are a bunch of good, solid agents working in the business who have other skills and might be a perfect fit for you and your projects. But I'm regularly meeting people calling themselves "agents" who don't seem to know much of anything about words or books or publishing houses or contracts or the market — and, to be blunt, I'm worried that they're going to make all the rest of us look bad. If you're going to work with an agent, do yourself a favor and check them out; maybe find somebody who actually knows what they're doing.
I've received at least a dozen notes from people asking, "What are you looking for?"
Try to hear my answer: I don't work that way. I'm not normally the type of agent who is looking for a particular project ("I need an Amish detective thriller that takes place in space"). Instead, I'm usually looking for a big idea, expressed through great writing, from an author with a strong voice, who has (preferably) a big platform. Honest. That's the most likely way to get in the door.
Dan, Jeremy, and Lydia all wrote to ask, "What would you like to see more of?"
I'd like to see more writing with a strong voice. I probably see too many things that aren't bad — they're just not outstanding. They don't have a particular personality that stands out and demands to be read. There's a lot of flatness in writing (conferences have a tendency to foster that, by telling prospective authors there is a "right" way to do things), and I'm always interested in the clear, quirky, outstanding voice coming out on the page. 
Similarly, a couple people have asked, "What are you tired of receiving?"
 I'm tired of seeing overly positive pitch letters for novels that aren't very unique, or for nonfiction books by people with no expertise. The majority of novels I see are similar, with little to make them stand out. And most NF proposals I see are done by people who have nothing behind them — it's not that the idea is bad, but that there's no vehicle for moving copies, which means the publishers are going to turn it down. And when these projects come across my desk, they always seem to be introduced by a letter that promises more than it actually delivers. Less hyperbole, more substance would be nice. I'd encourage authors to spend time working on their craft in order to make sure they are great writers. Because here's a secret: Most people reading this aren't great writers yet. I'm not being critical, I just know this because most of the projects crossing my desk aren't great. There are few great writers, and all the great writers I know are published. Therefore, if YOU become a great writer, I'm fairly certain you'll get published as well. So I'd encourage writers to focus on finding their voices, making sure the writing is strong, and having a great message to share through that voice. The fact is, voice in writing will always get my attention in a good way. 
Jeff asked, "How can a writer stay on your radar without driving you insane?"
This isn't usually a big issue for me. I represent a relatively small number of authors, I pick carefully who I'm going to represent, and they become friends. Nobody really hates hearing from friends. So I don't get too worried about authors I represent driving me insane.
Jeff also asked, "What do you wish more writers understood about you as an agent that they don't seem to?"
I'm going to offer a very sensitive answer to this one… so steel yourself: Just because I work in publishing, and represent authors, and am a Christian, I don't "owe" you anything. If you send me an email and I've never heard of you, there's nothing written in Scripture that says I owe you consideration, or a rejection, or even a response. I receive a couple hundred emails a day, and while my goal is to represent Christ to people as much as I can, I don't believe there's any command that says I somehow owe everyone ten minutes to talk about their book idea. This is a tough business, so while I always aim to be polite (and sometimes fail), not all writers understand my role. 

Let's say you're a baker. You're in a commercial kitchen, mixing and testing and baking bread. Do you mind having a tour group come through sometime, to ask you questions about baking? Nope — happy to help others. But if you had a steady stream of people wandering through your kitchen each day, some of whom are rude, some wanting to make suggestions for improving the quality of the bread, and some acting as though you OWED them an answer to all their questions… well, you get to the point where you decide your first job is to make bread for customers, not answer every question that comes from a visitor. (Note: If you were a tour guide, you might feel differently. But I'm not a tour guide to publishing. I'm an agent. In fact, the only way I make money is by selling my author's manuscript. I don't charge the author a fee, so if I can't sell projects, I can't make a living. Any guided tours are a courtesy extended to people because I believe in the process of helping others. But it's not my main job.) Does that help you understand? 

I know, having said this, someone is bound to complain, "Chip doesn't care about authors!" That's rot, of course. But I'd love it if writers, especially newer writers, took the time to educate themselves about the role of an agent, and saw this as my business, rather than as my ministry.
And one more: "What's the best way for a writer to reach you?"
First, a writer should read my blog for a while. That way you'll get to know me a bit. Second, spend some time on my website, so that you understand who I am, what I'm looking for, and what sorts of things I represent. (I'm always surprised when I get somebody handing me a children's book, or a book of poetry, or a sci-fi novel… I have no idea what to do with those projects. I don't represent them. I know little about the markets for them.) Third, if you're serious about your writing career, I supposed I'd encourage you to invest in a good writing conference and try to arrange a face-to-face meeting. That way we'll have connected, and we'll both have a better sense of whether or not we might be a fit. (I'm not completely comfortable suggesting a conference, because I realize they are expensive, and I hate spending other people's money for them, but it's a good way to get into the same space with me.) Fourth, you'd query me. Or you'd query Sandra Bishop, the agent who works with me. She's great — a longtime freelance writer, with 15 years' experience working in the industry, and a lot of moxie. 

Hope this helps. Next time we'll be back to answering questions about publishing in general. -Chip
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