Chip MacGregor

November 5, 2013

The word from the marketing seminar…


I’m just back from our MacGregor Literary Marketing Seminar in Chicago, had a wonderful time with more than 50 authors we represent, and enjoyed the Windy City. One of the discussion points that came up at the gathering was the topic of career planning for writers.

As regular readers know, I have a background in organizational development — that is, the study of how an organization grows and changes over time. In my job as a literary agent, I’ve found it’s proven very helpful when talking to writers about their careers. You see, my contention is that some agents pay lip service to “helping authors with career planning,” but many don’t really have a method for doing that. (Actually, from the look of it, some don’t even know what it means. I think “career planning” to some agents is defined as “having a book contract.”) During my doctoral program at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), I served as a Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Career Planning and Placement Office. The focus was on helping people graduating in the arts figure out how to create a career plan, and that experience allowed me the opportunity to apply the principles of organizational theory to the real-world setting of those trying to make a living with words. So here are a few things I like to consider when talking with a writer…

First, I want to get to know the author. Who is he (or she)? What’s the platform he brings to the process? Does she speak? If so, where, how often, to whom, to how many, and on what topics? Does he have experience with other media? What kind? What’s her message? What books has she done in the past? What other writing is the author doing that could boost the platform?

Second, I want to find out about the author’s past – the significant events and accomplishments. I also like to make sure I’m clear on things like strengths, gifts, burdens… all of that helps give me context when discussing career paths.

Third, we have to talk about perspective – what is important to the author? How does he define success? What does she need to change? What do they want to accomplish?

Fourth, we sit down together (or talk on the phone), and we talk about personal organization. Every author needs a TIME to write, a PLACE to write, and a GOAL that he or she is writing toward. Do they have a plan in place? Are they moving forward? Do they have a project they are working on? Do they have a filing system to keep track of projects? Do they have a writing calendar, so they know what  and when they are working on each project? I encourage authors to create a budgeting calendar — something that is very important to every working author. Of course, each writer is unique – what they are writing and how fast they write it will be different for each person. But knowing their financial goals and what sort of help they need from me makes my role clear.

Fifth, we start to talk about an actual writing plan – what will the writer create over the next two years? The next five years? What plans are they making? Do those plans reflect their values? Does it all match up with their life purpose? Does it maximize their strengths? Is their spouse in agreement with it all? Knowing an author is at peace with the overall plan is important if this is all going to happen in the writer’s life.

These things all work together to create a career map for an author. Various documents are derived from this information — a writing calendar, a budget, a wish list, maybe a statement of purpose. But my goal isn’t to get an author to write some grand purpose statement — my goal is to help an author create a workable plan he or she can use to move forward in a writing career. I aim to keep writers results-focused. I’ll sometimes ask an author questions such as, “What person would you most like to invest in this year?” or “What single thing would you most like to purchase this year?” or “What obstacle seems to be holding you back right now?” In talking through issues like this, we start to gain some clarity as to what an author wants to accomplish.

And, to be completely open about this, sometimes an author will work through the process and decide she really doesn’t want to be a full-time writer. And that’s okay — the goal is to figure out the calling. I want the authors I work with to be crystal clear in their two- or three-year career plans. That way an author can understand what “success” is, and each one has a means of measuring progress. Feel free to ask me questions.

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  • Matthew Sheehy says:

    I am not represented by MacGregor
    Literary, but I did attend the seminar. Every presenter showed us career tools
    and how to use them. It was well worth the money to spend a day with MacGregor
    Literary and see them in the book-business setting (instead of a
    talent-evaluating setting as in other conferences I have attended) because it gave
    me a picture of what I need to be as an author. It reminded me of being a
    teenager and going to Texaco laboratories on Career Day and seeing what a chemist
    does on an everyday basis. I also got to talk with established authors in my
    genre who shared their research resources. If you didn’t go, you missed out.

  • Becky Doughty says:

    Chip – I really appreciate how you’ve laid this out – I’m looking forward to what more you have to share on it. I have a great place (and time) to write, and I already work off a writing calendar, although as Ginger Garrett indicated below, that often gets reset as deadlines or edits come in. I have a few slightly ethereal long-term goals (besides the generic “I want to be a full-time author forever and ever and ever”), but this isn’t something I’ve ever really worked through with my agent, for whatever reasons. However, that shouldn’t stop ME from implementing something more concrete on my own, right? Some of the questions you list above strike me as pretty important for setting long-term goals, and this post has me re-thinking direction, motivation, calling, and more. Thank you.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    The conference was excellent. I love the idea of the writing calendar. Such a simple way to keep track of what I’m doing–or supposed to be doing, anyway.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Nice to meet you and have a chance to visit, Robin. And thanks for coming out to Toby Keith’s with us!

    • Robin Patchen says:

      It was so fun. Saturday night while we waited for a table for dinner, Gina taught a couple of us some dance moves. Sort of awkward in the entry at the Irish pub, but we didn’t know anybody, so we didn’t care. I’d forgotten how much I love to dance. Now I need to take dance lessons.

  • Vicki Cato says:

    Thank you for your thought provoking post. I would like to know more about creating a career map. Where can I get the documents to help me make a plan.

  • Ginger Garrett says:

    It was a fantastic seminar, to be sure. Lots of great info to put into practice. Not really sure I have a 2 year plan anymore, though. It’s more like, “This is what I’ll try next year.” If you’re hitting the reset button, is it okay to think in six-month increments?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Of course. And, realistically, in today’s market a lot of us are pondering what we’re doing for the next six months, Ginger. Good point — maybe I’ll reshape that a bit.

  • Rene` Diane Aube says:

    Thank you for these probing questions. There is a great deal to chew on and digest. I think it’s time to get going on my career plan! How about it?

  • Can I say that I love that you give yourself away to an author, caring about the whole person, not just what they have to offer your firm in terms of monetary benefits? This seems a bit like coaching someone so they will find fulfillment in their calling as a writer, which is a huge benefit (to both of you) and something I don’t take for granted the further I dive into the deep end of this world. I would’ve liked to have been a fly on the wall, listening to the conversations that erupted in this workshop.

  • Jean Wise says:

    Your workshop sounded so interesting and I hope you open it up again in the future. I sure appreciate your willingness to help writers. And thank you for explaining how you see a career path developing. This is a great time of year to review the past year and plan for next year and your clear explanation of the steps is great guidance. Thank you!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Glad you found that helpful, Jean. I’m going to try and include more about this topic in the next couple weeks.

  • J.A. Marx says:


  • Ramona says:

    This is one of the reasons I love working with MLA, although I’m sure I drive Sandra mad with my inability to stay on plan. Or schedule. But I’m trying.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ha! I doubt you’re the one to blame for Sandra being driven mad. More likely it was me saying, “Hey, what if we decided to change THIS…” :o)

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