Chip MacGregor

April 26, 2013

What's the role of an agent in today's changing publishing world?


Someone sent me this question: “What role do agents have in today’s changing market? And I know you do a lot of work in the religious publishing scene — do agents work in that area as well?”

Yes, I do a lot of work in the Christian market. Not exclusively — I work in both the general market as well as the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association). So yes, there are agents who both areas, though not many. The role of agents is changing, just as the role of publisher is changing. Most publishers, including most religious publishers, simply do the bulk of their business through agents. That is to say, most books are represented by a literary agent. Publishing houses rely on agents to do the initial weeding, so that the proposals being considered by acquisitions editors have already been vetted in some way. That’s a change that has come over the past ten or fifteen years — the dross has already been skimmed away. Publishers also expect agents to know contracts, to help make sure the author makes his or her deadline, and to keep the author on track with all the pieces that come with creating a book. 

Authors should expect agents to know the bookselling market and have the relationships in place to get a proposal seen by the right people at publishing houses – something many beginning writers lack. Every author expects his or her agent to understand (and explain) publishing contracts, so the agent can protect you from making a bad decision – an important but often overlooked point, since the document you sign is a legal agreement that will govern the terms of your writing as long as it’s in print. And a good agent will know current publishing economics, so that he or she can negotiate a contract on your behalf that is in line with current market standards. The book world is constantly changing, so staying on top of trends and knowing who is doing what is important. 

Most importantly, an agent can offer you direction and advice to help you shape your writing career, and I can think of very few other sources to whom a writer can turn for that type of help. (While I love publishers, I don’t think they make great career counselors. A publishing house is concerned, first and foremost, with the success of the publishing house, not the long-term success of any individual author.) Therefore, in many ways the agent becomes the go-between, working with both authors and publishers to identify good ideas, foster great writing, negotiate a deal that works for both sides, and ensure the long-term future of the author. That said, remember that your agent works for you, not for the publisher. Your agent ought to be singing your praises, assisting you in the process, and looking out for your best interests.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the role of literary agents recently — the rise of self-publishing has convinced some folks that an agent is unnecessary. But when anyone has a bestselling ebook, what’s the first thing they do? Find a good agent. Why? Because there is a benefit in finding wise, experienced counsel. And when you have some success, and there’s a lot at stake, you need that assistance more than ever. In fact, I’d argue that with the rise of mico-publishers and the sheer volume of opportunities these days, a good agent who can offer solid career advice is more important than it has ever been. (And yes, I’m totally biased. I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, and have been agenting for full-time for 15. I have my own convictions about this.)  

Back to your question, there are a few Christian publishers who still take a fairly paternalistic attitude toward authors, and seem to resent the intrusion of agents into their small, controlled world. But the fact is every profession moves toward more specialization, and therefore needs people who are experts in the details. For example, selling a home used to be a fairly easy transaction to undertake. You turned over some cash, you signed an agreement, and the deal was done. That’s still the basic premise of a home sale today, but with various commissions, layers of government, and everybody from insurance offices to title companies trying to get a piece of the deal, it’s become considerably more complex. When my wife and I refinanced our home recently, we spent nearly two hours in an office, signing our names to a two-inch stack of documents. You can still sell a home on your own in this country – it’s just considerably harder than it used to be, and it’s going to take some significant learning on your part to make sure it all gets done properly. The same is true with a book deal. You can learn a lot of the process, and invest in the relationships you’re going to need, but you should know going in that you’re facing a steep learning curve.

As we move toward more and more digital books, the contracts have been reshaped — it’s important to work with someone who knows those documents and has your best interests at stake. And in a world where any schmuck can get his book published by simply posting it online, working with someone who knows a bit about marketing and sales is vital. Many authors are relying on their agents as de facto business managers, so knowing what you need in your life and business, then finding someone who can assist you in those areas, is essential, in my view.

Okay, so I’ve already turned this into a pro-agent screed. Sorry. Let me offer some additional thoughts: First, I freely admit there are good agents and bad agents. Not every author is a fit with every agent. Sometimes, even two talented and friendly people will be terrible business partners. So don’t be quick to sign with an agent. Check him or her out, asking questions like, “who do you represent?” and “who have you done deals with?” and “what do you do well?” Different agents, like different authors, will have unique strengths. If you need an agent who can offer a strong editorial eye, don’t sign with one who is strong on marketing but knows nothing about words. If you need someone to handle all your business arrangements, don’t assume you’ll be happy with an agent whose strength is editing and discussing ideas. Think carefully about what your expectations are in an agent before signing any sort of representation agreement.

Second, remember that anybody can call themselves an agent these days, and I sometimes run into people calling themselves agents who don’t know words, don’t have strong publishing relationships, and don’t know how to shape a writer’s career. Don’t sign with someone who charges fees for reading or for simply meeting — that’s a blatant violation of AAR guidelines. Be wary of agents who are also running editorial companies or are trying to sell you other services (agents earn their money from publishers, not off their authors). Though you’ll be tempted to sign with the first agent who expresses an interest in your work, be willing to take the long view. Your career matters, and nothing has the potential to shape your career more than the people you hang out with. 

I hope all this ranting helps. If you have a question about writing or publishing, send it along and we’ll offer some perspective. And if you have a good or bad agent story, I’d LOVE to have you share it in the “comments” section! 

Share :


  • Melissa DePasse says:

    I’m working on my first manuscript and am new to the book publishing world, so thanks for this helpful post. Your advice about not automatically accepting the first offer for representation you receive from an agent is gold. Hopefully one day I will be in a position to be represented, and this warning will be firmly planted in my mind. (Sometimes we newbie writers just want affirmation and encouragement. How tempting it would be to run, crying, into the arms of the first agent who took notice of us?)
    Speaking of the author-agent relationship, I was wondering if you had done a post (or were planning on doing one) about the keys things to look for in an agent in order to find the right match for you. For example, what areas do you have to have compatibility? What are some warning signs that the agent might not be the right fit? I’m sure that there are some intangibles involved, but are there things that we can measure?
    Thanks again!

  • Jan Cline says:

    I think it’s important to note that a positive pitching session at a conference is not always a true indication of whether you and an agent would be a good fit. I suppose that could be said also of a negative pitching session. I once started to pitch my non-fiction to an agent who interrupted me after 2 sentences and asked me how many times a month I spoke for groups, organizations, etc. When I replied only a few times a month she turned to the rest of the group and said she will never get published if she’s isn’t speaking at least 10 times a month (or some number like that). Then she moved on to the next person without letting me finish. Since then I have had several friends sign with her and they love her. I have avoided submitting to her because of the session, but I know I shouldn’t throw away a possible future working relationship from that experience. Just my opinion. Love the post btw.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Agreed — a positive pitch session is a nice start, but it’s not something you want to base your decision on. Appreciate your comment, Jan.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Great info, as usual. Thank you.

  • Becky Doughty says:

    I have a high regard for agents, especially those who DON’T frown on, and even support hybridized publishing methods. It’s a changing industry, and agents who adapt and adjust and broaden along with their author-clients, are going to be the ones who rise to the top, I feel certain. I read stories like Amanda Hocking’s, who signed with an agent (Steve Axelrod – not sure if she’s still with him now), for all of the above reasons, Chip, specifically in the area of foreign contracts. Self-publishing guru, Joanna Penn, signed with Rachel Ekstrom last August, and defended her decision, both in acquiring an agent and in doing some traditional publishing, in this well-written post:, from a successful author’s point of view. Regardless of small press, large press, CBA, or general, traditional, or self-publishing, an agent is a BENEFICIAL team member – unless, of course, we don’t do our homework, and end up with an agent who has an agenda that’s different from ours. There’s nothing like knowing that someone who’s been there, done that, has the connections, the sway, etc., is going to bat for you, and has your best interest at heart, BECAUSE your best interest is in his or her best interest, too, right?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Right, Becky. I think an agent must look at the best interests of the author, which means exploring traditional publishers, alternative publishers, self-publishing options, and anything else that can help the author make a living. Appreciate your thoughtful response.

  • Laura K. Cowan says:

    This is terrific, thank you. I’ve heard so many agents lately insisting on their value but not offering compelling reasons. Your post was solid and useful to the author. Thanks again.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    The role of the agent in today’s changing publishing world is to write spot-on blogs of encouragement and reality and to provide engaging, but wary, seminars at writer’s conferences; so that aspiring writers may find a light of hope, encouragement, caution – and sometimes sarcasm- in the morass of publishing details.

  • Ron Estrada says:

    Great post, Chip. What I’ve learned over the years is that you do what you’re good at. Let somebody else handle the stuff you’re not good at or don’t have time for. Most authors, like me, have a “day job.” It’s all we can do to crank out a few hundred words before bedtime, which seems to get earlier and earlier the older I get. So I’m more than happy to pay someone else to handle those details that I simply don’t have time for and, honestly, would stumble over. Thanks again. Always enjoy your posts.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’m good at watching baseball games and drinking beer and brats… You’ll have to let me know if you hear of any openings, Ron!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.