Chip MacGregor

August 29, 2008

Talking Agents and Agenting


Here's how this blog works: You send in publishing questions, and I give you a straightforward answer. Nearly all of the recent questions relate to agents…

Rita wrote to ask, "I've been offered a contract on my novel… When an author is offered a deal and they don't yet have an agent, should they seek one at that point? And if an agent accepts, should the agent still get 15% of the royalties, even though he or she didn't market that book or secure the deal for them?"

Ten agents might give you ten different answers to this, Rita. Here's mine: Unless you know publishing, contracts, negotiations, and what's considered standard in the industry, you'd probably benefit from having an agent. So yes, I'd seek out an agent to help you, in most cases. However, I wouldn't feel right about taking the full 15% commission unless I somehow improved the deal for you. If I didn't sell it or find you the deal, it would seem unfair for me to take a full commission. Not every agent agrees with that perspective, so be aware as you talk to people.

Julie wrote regarding a related question: "If I already have an offer from a publisher, will an agent negotiate the contract for a fee?"

Negotiate it for a fee? No. But some will do a contract reading or contract evaluation for you for a fee. Or you could pay a lawyer to review the contract and make notes (be prepared to pay a good sum of money), OR you could pay someone who specializes in contract evaluations to look it over and make suggestions. When someone does an evaluation, they go through the contract, mark it up, tell you what's fair, and suggest things you can ask for in order to improve the deal. But that requires you to actually do some negotiation — so if you're really not comfortable negotiating, you may want to talk with an agent about reviewing the contract and handling the negotiations for a reduced commission — say ten per cent.

Dale sent in this question: "Do agents ever 'go after' a person's story, if they think it would make a great book?"

Sure they do. Look at all those US Olympians who won gold and are now announcing book deals… don't you suspect there were some agents wandering over to say, "Hey — congratulations! Have you ever thought about doing a book?" I've called some people who I thought had the makings of a great book.

Eva wants to know, "How common is it for an author who writes for both the CBA and ABA markets to have separate agents for each?"

Not very common. It happens occasionally, but I don't know that it really works well. Here's why… If I'm representing you, I want us to talk about your writing and your career. I really don't want to talk about part of it, then have some other agent whispering in your ear about another part. I realize there are some CBA agents who really don't have any contacts in the general market, so they're open to this arrangment, but I'm not seeing it working to the point that the author actually has a hit in both markets. My advice: Find an agent you like and trust, and focus on him or her, working together to build your writing career.

Carol wrote and said, "There are a couple famous authors soliciting stories for compilation books right now. I know it's a longshot that mine is selected, but if it is, and I use notes from my book in progress, would I ever be able to use my thoughts again in a different form?"

Probably, but it will depend on the deal you sign. Some compilations projects ask for one-time rights, and you're free to re-use your material. Other compliations want to buy the idea and expression outright, so that you're really selling them the work. Of course, if you're truly putting your thoughts and notes into a different form, you probably don't have to worry, since you'd be using a unique expression. (And this would be a good time to note that I am not an attorney, so I'm not giving you legal advice here. Check with an attorney before making your decision.)

A couple additional notes:

1. Publishers Weekly is doing a special class called Book Publishing 101. I know others have raved about this — a great introduction to the world of publishing. It's a full day seminar, put on by the staff of PW magazine, on Monday, September 22, at NYU's Kimmel Center in New York. If you really want to find out how books are created, you should give it your consideration. For more information, visit

2. A few months ago, I bragged about book sales remaining strong, even though the rest of the economy was going down the tubes. Well, the salad days are over. Though bookstore sales were surprisingly strong the first half of this year, they took a nose dive recently… down more than 7% in July. Ouch.

3. Many readers of this blog have considered attending a writers' conference in other to be face-to-face with an agent or editor. But while that thrills you, it also scares you… what will it be like? What will be said? If you'd like to see a sample conversation between an author and an agent, check out the interview I did with Randy Ingermanson at Randy pretended to be an author with a fine book idea, and I played the role of agent. We created the conversation on instant messenger, so you can read the transcript and see what happens in this type of situation. It will also introduce you to Randy's excellent writing material.

4. I've had numerous readers ask if my friend Mike survived to see his daughter's wedding last weekend. He did. Thanks for your prayers. He's still hanging in there.


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