Chip MacGregor

June 29, 2008

Talking Compilations and Agents


Jacob wrote to me and said, "I submitted to one of those compilation books, and the company requested I put my social security number on all my submissions. I wrote to ask them about the practice, since my submission had not yet been accepted, and was told by one of the people who helps with the project that he ‘puts his SSN on everything’ he submits. What’s your advice on this subject?"

My advice is clear: DO NOT PUT YOUR SSN ON YOUR PROPOSALS. In fact, my guess is that anybody who routinely sticks that sort of confidential information on all his proposals is a dipstick. Don’t take career advice from that individual. Yikes.

Belinda wrote and noted, "I have been accepted into a compilation book, but their contract has an endless non-compete. When I asked them about it, I was told they ‘don’t mean it like that.’ What should I do?"

Sticking with the dipstick theme, if the editor said to you, "I know the contract only calls for you to make a 2% royalty, but we don’t mean it — we’ll pay you 15%," would you agree to sign? No way. The reason you have a written contract is to clarify exactly what the deal is. If they want to offer a broader non-complete clause, get it written down, or suggest some wording for them to insert into the contract. Basically a non-compete is there to protect a publisher from an unscrupulous author writing a book with one house, then writing a very similar book and producing it with another house, thereby cannibalizing sales. An author who regularly writes and speaks on a particular topic needs to gain some freedom, so as not to be prohibited from ever writing on that topic again. A good contract strikes a balance between the publisher’s protection and the author’s calling to speak to a certain issue.

Timothy asked, "How long does a publishing house normally hold a submission before they make a decision?"

I don’t think there is a "normal" period of time, but generally if a house likes a project, you figure they’re probably going to get back in touch with the agent with a decision within two or three months. S0metimes it’s much faster. But if a publisher has had a project for four or five months, they most likely don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for it.

Stephanie wants to know, "How long does an agent wait after they’ve queried a publisher before they check back with that publisher?"

That depends on a myriad of factors — what’s the project? who’s the author? what’s my relationship to the editor? how much interest am I getting on this project? how big of a hurry are we in? It’s not uncommon for me to check back within a couple weeks on a normal project, just so I get a feel for how a submission is being perceived by the publisher.

Shanielle asked, "Assuming someone approaching you is a great writer, would you take them on as a client if he or she was not yet a full-time writer? And would you take on a person who has no plans to become a full-time writer?"

Most agents I know would be thrilled to take on a great writer, whether the author is full-time or part-time. But I’d say the goal with many writers is to move toward being full-time. Not everyone shares this dream — I represent a novelist who has clearly said to me she doesn’t have the desire to move toward a full-time writing career. But she’s probably in the minority.

Chris wrote to ask, "How can I find a listing of reputable agents who will accept queries from unpublished writers?"

There are four books you should review… You can look at Chuck Sambuchino’s comprehensive Guide to Literary Agents, from Writers Digest Books; or try Writers Market, the  guide to the industry also published by Writers Digest each year; or Sally Stuart’s Christian Writers Market Guide, published by Random House each year; or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, an annual from Three Dog Press. You can also go online to numerous sources in order to research literary agents — try the Association of Author Representatives site, or simply begin to do some googling.

Two sites every author should be aware of include Writer Beware and Predators & Editors. Both are sites aimed at protecting authors by offering advice and pointing out unscrupulous agents. They serve an important function in an industry that sometimes attracts some bad characters.

Got a publishing or writing question? Send it in and I’ll try to get you an answer.

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