Chip MacGregor

November 12, 2012

What is an agent looking for?


Someone wrote to ask, “What do you look for when you are considering representing a new novelist?”

I suppose every agent is looking for the same basic components in reviewing a proposal: a great idea, expressed through great writing, supported by an author with a great platform. Those are the general issues an agent considers when reviewing any proposal, in my view.

But more specifically, I’m always looking for a strong voice in the writing. Is it fresh? Does it stand out? Is it something that makes we want to continue reading? Is there personality that shines through? If I can find a manuscript with a strong voice, I’m always much more apt to continue reading. And I guess I’d also have to admit I’m looking at the writer, not just the writing. I don’t represent any high-maintenance people, so I often insist on meeting an author before I agree to represent him or her. I want to make sure we’re comfortable with each other (I’m not a fit for everyone). Occasionally I’ll have an email exchange with an author and we’ll seem to be a match, but then we meet and the vibe isn’t right. So I value being eye-to-eye with an author, and having a chance to visit if at all possible.

On a related note, someone wrote to say, “I’ve been told by a well-known author that publishers look more for a novelist’s ability to sell books (i.e., the author is an established speaker, or someone in the media) than they do for the ability to write books. True?”

I would say that’s an overstatement. Certainly publishers are looking at writers more and more with an eye toward “platform,” and there are some qualities the publisher will appreciate. (Is the author an expert? Can she get major media attention? Does he have connections with a source for selling large quantities of books?) But with fiction, I find that less true. While I think it’s fair to say publishers are now at least asking the “platform” question of novelists, they still weigh their publishing decisions more upon the bigness of the story and the quality of the craft.

Another person asked this: “When does a writer’s strong voice have an advantage, and when does it become a detriment or a distraction from the story? Does it matter more in certain genres than others?”

I’d be hard pressed to tell you when a writer’s voice becomes a detriment. As I’ve said several times, I’m a huge fan of voice in fiction. I believer our educational system for teaching writing (college classrooms, conferences, even many mentoring workshops) have a tendency to flatten voice by making it appear as though there is one way to write a novel. Sure, I suppose one could argue there are some genres where the house doesn’t care about the author’s unique voice and merely wants a romantic story told… but I’m not sure I believe that. Not every voice fits every genre, but every editor I know falls in love with a great writing voice.

And I has several people write to ask a version of this question: “With all the talk about high concept novels and the importance of platform, where is the best place for emerging writers to focus their time? Should we develop an audience, or learn to excel at the craft?”

That’s an easy one: Become a great writer first. I don’t meet that many great writers (I meet a lot of “pretty good” writers). Whenever I meet a great one, I try to sign them up. It doesn’t even matter if they’re unpublished — if they’re great, they soon WILL be published. Because greatness gets discovered. In simpler terms, if you really want to get published, focus on creating great characters in a compelling story. (That may not be the most profound thing you’ll read today, but it’s the truth. Acquisitions people at every house are on the prowl for great characters in big, marketable, compelling stories.)

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  • Becky Doughty says:

    Chip – Meet face to face? Do people do that anymore? Besides at conferences??? Very cool.

    This may not be the place to ask this, but… I have a touchy question that I haven’t seen addressed much: How much does image affect agents’ decisions about representation? I would think personal presentation would be a fairly substantial part of platform, but perhaps it doesn’t matter as much in the CBA as in the secular world?


    • chipmacgregor says:

      Image… as in “Do I look nice?” I suppose that matters somewhat (all of us tend to shy away from the thriller writer who resembles Jabba the Hutt). But the words on the page trump image. It’s a funny thing — sometimes at a writing conference I’ll meet a pretty, confident woman who seems to have it all together, or a strong guy with a charming personality, and I’ll be thinking, “Great! Let’s see what they’re like on paper!” Then I read their work, and… yuck. Has happened to me several times, in fact. I’m expecting that a great presentation means great writing, but it doesn’t always. And the opposite can be true — I have sometimes met mousy people with no confidence, then I read their stuff and it just sings. Um… I’d say the one important thing is that I feel the author can do something to help market their work, since that’s going to be expected. Certainly a nonfiction writer who intends to speak on a subject had better be able to present himself or herself to an audience. Does that make sense?

    • Becky Doughty says:

      No, not so much the “Do I look nice?” thing – anyone can get dolled up and look nice if they try. I’m referring more to the whole platform-building (including gaining representation) thing. How important is image when building a platform? I know it’s a personal pet-peeve when I go to a website and DON’T see a real person SOMEWHERE on the site. I want to know if you take yourself seriously enough to present yourself and do it well. I want to see who it is I’m “interacting” with, you know? So if it’s important to me as a reader and fellow writer, is it something that you take into consideration when looking at representation? I read recently on another agent’s blog that she puts a lot of effort into making her authors “presentable” and that it’s not a personal thing, just something she considers important. I wondered if that’s a common sentiment with agents. You pretty much answered my question – I guess it was a little ambiguous, wasn’t it?

      So, yes, your answer makes sense.


  • Jane Daly says:

    How does one know if she is “pretty good” or “great’?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You run it through the “” magic evaluation machine, I think, Jane. Or maybe you ask people who are able to judge such things.

  • Rick Barry says:

    Always interesting to read your responses from the other side of the desk. Thanks for taking time to provide these, Chip.

  • Karen Morris says:

    Another insightful visit. I’m working my fingers to the bone on this next book, Chip, so it’ll be ready if you ever pop over to The Fort. I’d love to share a cup of joe with the infamous CM and discuss my “vocal” abilities.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    I appreciate that you try to meet face-to-face before offering representation. It seems to be a monumental decision, akin to yoking with someone in a business venture. I’m sure that makes both you and the author more comfortable with the arrangement as well as more enthusiastic.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah– I can’t always. Sometimes I’ll find something great, we’ll speak on the phone, and we’ll both gauge to see if we’re a fit, Meghan. But it’s certainly my preference to meet face to face.

  • Josh Kelley says:

    I am “just” a pastor of a small church, so the first couple Q & A’s were discouraging, because I chose to focus on improving my writing before my platform. Needless to say, the last Q & A was more encouraging.

    Josh Kelley

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