Chip MacGregor

February 25, 2008

The Hard Questions


I’ve been sent some tough questions lately — questions that you might have been wondering about in your own writing career. It seems like there are some difficult publishing questions that frequently get ignored, so I’ll try to tackle a couple of them today…

Donna wrote to say, "It seems like there are a ton of books that have sold a million copies lately. Can you tell me what the top books last year sold?"

I can, but prepare to be surprised. There were only four books last year that sold more than a million copies — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which sold more than 7 million); The Secret (just shy of 3 million); Eat, Pray, Love (just shy of 2M); and A Thousand Splendid Suns (sold 1M). That’s it. Four books.

There were another 15 titles that sold between a half-million and a million copies: The Dangerous Book for Boys, Kite Runner, Water for Elephants, and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter all sold just under a million. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, Stephen Colbert’s I Am America, Sidney Poitier’s The Measure of a Man, John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, Bob Greene’s The Best Life Diet, the two You titles (You: On a Diet and You: Staying Young), The Glass Castle, Eclipse, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince all sold more than 500,000 copies. And that’s it. There were 250,000 new books printed last year in this country. 19 of them hit the big time. Yikes.

John wrote to ask, "Do you have ethical problems with ghostwriting?"

I hate this question, because too many people are quick to say "YES!" without understanding the terms. I used to make my living as a collaborative writer. A well-known speaker would send me his notes and his seminar on tape, and I’d turn it into a book for him. It was all his material — I was just asked to wordsmith it for him. Sometimes I’d get the credit; other times I wouldn’t. Did I see that as unethical? Not really. As often as I could, I tried to get the writing credit, since I needed the attention in order to get more writing jobs. Sometimes I’d have someone ask me to really create something out of thin air — and I always insisted I get the writing credit for that, since I was including my own material. But rarely was I asked to create an entire book and let somebody else take the credit for it. That wouldn’t sit well with me.

However, there’s a type of writing-for-hire that is done routinely. I used to turn a couple of Christian radio preachers’ sermons into readable chapters — I was paid a flat fee to move the text from spoken word to written word, and I never considered that "ghosting." Some media types have their blogs or newsletters crafted by a collaborative writer, and nobody views that as ghostwriting. The comedy bits done on television talk shows are written by writers. and I don’t hear anyone complaining about not knowing who penned which joke. So why suddenly are people up in arms about the collaborative writing of books?

The real offender is sometimes the publisher, not the writer, by the way. I once had a publisher "forget" to include my name on the book cover. I sometimes would fight with publishers who argued that including the collaborator’s name on the cover would hurt sales (a ridiculous notion — it’s never hurt a Hollywood celebrity or a sports star to include a collaborative writer’s name). However, the strongest advocates for ghostwriting I’ve ever come across are some of the big Christian media types. I can think of one woman I worked with who would always start out asking for a collaborative writer and claiming cover credit would be shared — but then when the book was done and the cover being planned, without fail, she would argue that she couldn’t share the cover with a little-known writer. She always claimed it would create a problem with sales and marketing… but the fact was, it would only create a problem for her ego. Anyway, my point is that you shouldn’t always blame the writer. He or she is usually just trying to find projects that will keep food on the table.

Denise wrote and noted that, though she’s a novelist, she had been encouraged to write some nonfiction by her publisher."What’s the advantage of writing nonfiction if I’m a fiction writer?"

If you really don’t feel led to do it, Denise, say no. There are some marketing advantages — a nonfiction writer has another platform, another income source, and another way to get his or her message out to people. It’s arguably easier to get media and speaking engagements for a nonfiction writer than it is for a novelist. But there are also some disadvantages to switching from fiction to nonfiction: you can confuse people (important people like readers, editors, and publishers) by offering mixed messages. Generally speaking, a writer is know for his or her brand, and it can be harder to establish a brand if you write in both markets. That said, I represent some authors who write both fiction and nonfiction. Some have done well with both. Others try it and feel it takes them away from their true passion, which is writing novels. Don’t get forced into something because somebody else thinks it might be a good idea. Make sure you feel passionate about the topic before you throw yourself into a nonfiction project.

Carol wrote me and asked, "If you wrote a book for someone, and he paid you but never published it, does he still own it? Is there a time limit for something like that? Unfortunately, I did this, but we never had a contract, so I don’t know what my rights are."

Ouch. My first advice would have been simple: check your contract. If this was a work-for-hire, then no, you don’t have any rights to it. If it was a regular book deal, you might — talk to your lawyer and ask. This is exactly why you want a written agreement, signed by both parties, before you invest significantly in a writing project for someone. Without a written contract, you’ll probably have to rely on the oral contract you had — what did the two of you agree on? You’ve got to be careful here, because if you simply take your material and try to sell it, he might sue you for breach of contract.

Jan sent me a note that read, "I’ve been to your site. It seems like you have a lot of authors. How many authors do you work with?"

Actually, I don’t work with a lot of authors compared to some agents. But my guess is that most people wouldn’t know a big list from a small list, since they don’t know how to measure something like a literary agency — except perhaps in the number of deals they do. And, well, I’m currently in the top ten in terms of doing deals, according to Publishers Marketplace. And unlike many agents, my authors are listed on my web site, so you know who I represent. However, nearly all the authors I represent are under contract… so why the concern about numbers? Wouldn’t an author want to work with an agent who has a proven track record of success? While I was a publisher with Time-Warner, I worked with a much larger author base than I currently represent. I talked with a fellow agent about this recently, and he said to me, "I don’t think the size of a roster means that much. But the service, the reputation, and the quality of the agent means a great deal." I’d have to agree with him. Big or small, I’m comfortable with the number of folks I represent.

And while I’m talking about the people I represent, I’ve got a great story. Kaye Dacus is a novelist who has been working at the craft for several years, trying to get her project ready to sell. Her parents have been very supportive of her as she worked on manuscripts and went through grad school. Late last year, I helped her land her first deal. So for Christmas, she wrapped up a copy of her first book contract and gave it to her father. She took a color copy of her proposed cover, wrapped it around a book, and gave it to her mother. Her way of saying thanks, and of showing them she’s finally arrived. I just find that a very sweet story, and wanted to share it with you.

And one last, totally self-serving question… Carolyn wrote and asked me, "Why do you take the time to help writers and answer so many questions from all experience levels? Did you get similar help in your career, and are you now paying it forward?"

Um… I do it because it seems like the right thing to do. And yes, I’ve had some great help over the years, so I’m just repaying kindnesses, I guess. I owe people like Tom Day and Helen Bateman and Ursula LeGuin and Gene Robertson and Steve Halliday and John Van Diest and Pete Richardson and Rick Christian. Along the way, they showed me how to succeed. I love helping other people do the same. Now you know. I’ll get back to saying something snotty in a day or two.

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