Chip MacGregor

December 19, 2012

What do agents look for (and why won't they take on my screenplay or poetry)?


Someone asked, “What’s the first thing you look for in a proposal?”

Voice. I’m a sucker for great voice in a writer. If I see great voice, I’m almost always willing to take the next step with an author. 

Another wrote to ask, “As an agent, do you ever ‘go after’ an author? I mean, do you see a person you think has good book potential, then try to track them down?”

Very rarely. I mean, it happens occasionally, but not often. I was in the air on September 11, had to make an emergency landing, saw first-hand the things going on in the air and at airports, and was emotionally impacted by the events of that day. So a couple days later, when Patti and I were watching the President speak, we saw him introduce the very poised Lisa Beamer. I turned to Patti and said, “She could do a great book.” So I started trying to connect with her, spoke to her pastor about how to handle media requests, and put her in touch with a publicist to help her manage all the people approaching her. Eventually Lisa and I met at her home, talked things through, and started shaping a book. I brought in Kenny Abraham, who did a fabulous job working with Lisa on her manuscript. That book hit #1 on the New York Times list, and was the bestselling nonfiction book of the year. So, yeah, having an agent seek out an individual can happen… but not often. People with the platform of a Lisa Beamer don’t show up every day. Besides, most agents are seeing pretty good proposals on a regular basis, so there isn’t much of a need to chase anyone down. 

Someone noted, “It seems like agents either sell manuscripts or screenplays. Is it too much to ask one agent to do both? If I decide to write a screenplay, do I need two agents?”

You’re right — most agents either sell books or screenplays. Trying to do both, in my experience, usually results in one area not being taken care of very well. The world of books is completely different from the world of movies — it requires different relationships, it has different contracts, it needs very different expectations. The truth is, I’ve rarely found a good book agent who knew what he or she was doing with a screenplay (though I’ve known many who CLAIM to do both). So while I’ve often sold the dramatic rights to a novel, I don’t take on a screenplay by itself, and I tell authors I’m fine with having them talk to a good screenplay agent. Not every agent feels this way.

And someone else noted, “I just heard an agent say she sold a book in a genre that isn’t very popular right now. She noted it was a lot of work to land a deal… and that made me wonder: How successful will a book be in that sort of situation?”

That’s an interesting question, but there’s no way to answer it. No publisher contracts a book unless they think, at the time, they can sell adequate numbers of copies to make money. But if a genre is trending down, then yes, it can be an uphill climb to try and make a book in that genre become successful. 

Finally, someone wrote this: “Don’t get mad, but I publish poetry. Why is it that agents don’t want to see any poetry submissions?”

I don’t get mad at those types of questions. I think that’s a legit question. The answer is simple: there’s no money in poetry. I love good poetry (also intentionally bad poetry, if you’re a regular reader). If I could make money representing poetry, I would. But I can’t. There’s no market for poetry, no way to make a living at it, and since I’m not independently wealthy, I have to choose to represent projects that pay me money. 

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