Chip MacGregor

December 5, 2012

What if my agent and editor disagree on my manuscript?


Continuing with questions people have about agents, someone wrote to say this: “I received different advice about my manuscript from my agent than I received from an editing service I hired. What’s the best approach to take when you get different advice from trusted sources?”

Here at MacGregor Literary, we always rely on divine guidance. I toss the Urim and Thummim, read sheep entrails, and — Voila! God reveals the answer. So I’m never wrong. However, for those not as spiritual as me, you might want to assume that even good people can disagree. I mean, there’s no one right way to write a book. So take the time to think things over, and move ahead slowly with the decision that feels right.

You know, many agent have editorial experience, and are good at talking through your ideas. Other agents may not have a lot of editorial experience, so the advice they’re giving you may be just to try and sound smart. What’s your experience with the agent? In the same way, in-house editors have the best interests of the publisher at heart. (That’s not a criticism, by the way. I’m just saying they’ll want to make your book fit their line.) Or, if it’s a freelancer, he or she may have a particular way they like to spin a manuscript. And it’s no secret that some editorial services are using unpublished authors at editors, who may not really have the experience or wisdom needed to assist you. So ask some questions. If you’re going to work with your agent long-term, talk it through with him or her. Make sure you understand what the different sources are saying. And remember this bit of Scottish wisdom: “Good is always better than fast.” Don’t be in a hurry to get something decided.

Another author wrote to say, “I terminated my agent’s contract after he apologized for being hard to reach and told me he had put his agency on hold because it’s not the primary way he makes his income. I waited a few months. Was I too impatient? What is a reasonable length of time an author should wait for an agent to do something with his manuscript?”

I don’t know if you were too impatient, but certainly a conversation between author and agent would have been in order. Sometimes life happens that slows us down. (I was in a car accident a couple years ago, and that caused me to move in slow motion for a few months. Happens to the best of us.) There’s no set time an agent takes to develop interest in a manuscript. Sometimes it happens in a rush — we see the idea, and immediately recognize the potential in it. (When I first read Vince Zandri, I knew immediately I wanted to represent him.) But other times it can take months to get people on board, or to help them see the value in an idea. My buddy Lee Hough spent a year working as the agent on Same Kind of Different As Me — but that book went on to a life on the bestseller lists. So again, don’t be in a hurry. As I noted yesterday, a couple months to hear on a submission is probably the industry norm with agents. And if the agent already represents you, the norm would be that he (or she) would stay in touch regularly, since, um, he’s working for you.

So, having said that, if you really can’t reach your agent, or he isn’t working at the business full time, there’s a problem. And if he’s shutting down his agency because it ain’t working, there’s a REAL problem. Look, if you’re a writer looking for representation, by all means seek out someone who does this full time, not somebody who represents books, runs an editorial service, is a part-time realtor, and sells Amway on the side. Work with a professional. It sounds like the person you had was a wannabe-agent. You might be best to move on. There are good agents out there, who will do their job and stay in touch and get things done. Really. So don’t give up hope.

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  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I once had two people who I respected give me dramatically different advice on a book. Both presented their perspective in a persuasive manner. In the end, I followed the recommendations of the person I had the longer history with — and I’m glad I did.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    “Even good people can disagree.” Such an important truth in many different areas of life — church, family, employment, friendship. Thanks, Chip, for sharing your wisdom and experience.

  • Iola says:

    Isn’t the saying something like “you can have it good, you can have it fast or you can have it cheap, but you can’t have all three”?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well… no. At least that’s not the saying I grew up with. Maybe they say that wherever you are, Iola.

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