Chip MacGregor

October 2, 2012

Why does an agent accept or reject an author?


A prospective author wrote me a note and asked, “What is the main reason you choose to accept or reject an author?”

An interesting question. The “rejection” part is easy: Most of the people whose projects I reject are NOT turned down because I don’t like them, or because they’re unknowns, or even because I dislike their ideas. Most authors are turned down because they can’t write. Simple as that. Not all, of course. I just saw a very good nonfiction idea, but I’m already trying to sell a similar project and felt it would be unfair to take on something so similar. And with the advent of so many good writing resources, I’m often seeing novels that are well-done, but not of the knock-my-socks-off quality. So a bunch of things I see aren’t bad, but they aren’t great. Or they are 70% done, and they need to be 100% done. I’d say under-writing and under-finishing and under-editing are the reasons so many projects with some merit don’t get picked up. The author gets started, but can’t get finished — or perhaps he or she doesn’t know now to finish. That’s why having a critique group or writing partner can help offer you perspective on your work. Another set of eyes can really make a difference on a manuscript.

Still, I do get sent some really crummy stuff. Bad ideas. Projects where the author doesn’t speak English. Proposals written in crayon (presumably because the wardens won’t let them play with anything sharp). I hesitate sharing some of them, since I’m always afraid I’m going to really tick off someone who sent me an idea they thought was brilliant, and I found laugh-out-loud bad. But…

A while back I got in a proposal for a book called “How to Make Out With Chicks.” The author was apparently thirteen, or at least stopped growing emotionally and intellectually at thirteen. (From the tenor of his advice, he was not writing from experience.) I also received a proposal I thought was a joke, until I checked it out and discovered the guy was serious — a novel about a boy who falls asleep and wakes up as…Harry Potter! Hey! Cool idea. I’m sure Scholastic is going to allow that to get published. And some guy just sent me the very unique idea of turning the Book of Revelation into a novel! Wow — why hadn’t somebody thought of that one before? (The best part — he says he’s going to use his novel to correct all the theological errors in Left Behind. A fabulous idea. Sort of combination novel/theological treatise/literary critique. Could be a whole new genre!)

Most of us keep a “dark file” — the worst of the worst crap we’re sent. They’re fun to pull out and look at after a bad day, just to remember that, somewhere in the world, there is someone even dumber than I am. Years ago I got a full-color proposal for a book about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’s second cousin, or something. Um…without going into the gory details, you should know that his nose didn’t glow — his butt did. (Really. I swear I’m not making this up. And no, I have no idea why you’d want a deer’s butt to glow. I mean, Rudolph’s nose lit the way for Santa during a bad storm. I don’t know what his cousin’s glowing butt did… give Santa a tan?) Anyway, the proposal even came with a t-shirt, which I took home so my kids could wear it and, um, share the love.

Of course, the author probably sold it to somebody. You gotta love this business. But back to the question — you wanted to know the main reason I agree to represent an author. It’s usually because I like the writing. And I like the individual (this life being too short to work with jerks). And I either like the idea or I like the writing enough to believe the author is going to be successful. I figure any good book proposal is going to be a combination of a good idea, expressed through great writing, preferably by an author with a strong platform and a likable personality.

Sorry to make it sound so simple, but it’s the truth. If we meet at a conference and I like your work, think I’d be a good fit for it, and you come across as a (relatively) normal person, I’m apt to explore representation with you. But I’m picky about the writing I like — I have to be, since it’s how I make my living. And let’s face it — for years I’ve made a pretty good living with my writing judgment. It doesn’t mean I’m always right (I’ve whiffed on a couple projects that turned out to be huge), but I’m reasonably secure in my own judgment of writing ability. I see some bad writing. I see a lot of okay writing. But I see little great writing… and you can check out my website to find some writers offering great writing.

I’ve said it before: If you want to be published, the best thing you can do is to become a great writer. I don’t know any great writers who are unpublished. And if I find them, I immediately want to sign them up, because they’re going to be published soon. Let me know if that helps.

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  • Bethany Jett says:

    Meeting an agent in person is one reason attending conferences is a must. Liking each other is a big deal when you’re looking for your career partner.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    There seems to be so much else that us writers need to be doing, so it’s easy to forget to put the writing first — and become great at it. That’s my new goal; thanks, Chip.

  • Chip, thanks for putting up with me over the years…my ego, my manic personality…creative folks are weirdos and I am not unaware of the fact that I may be the King of Weirdos. I appreciate your advice and your friendship, brother.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Great post. Very entertaining, and not terribly surprising that what you’re looking for is a great writer. That’s why I pray the Lord would make me a great writer rather than constantly asking him for an agent and editor to love my writing. I figure if I get the the writing thing figured out, the agent and editor will soon follow.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Thank you, that helps.

  • Jane Gaugler Daly says:

    I’m very glad you didn’t use my proposal in your blog….ha! I appreciated you telling me at the OCW conference that I could resubmit after some work. Maybe I’ll change the main character into a combination of Rudolph AND Harry Potter…

  • Jan Cline says:

    Well said. I tell my group this all the time, but sometimes I don’t think they understand the total package of becoming a great writer. I know I didn’t for a long time. There is so much good instruction out there to take advantage of – my bookshelves are full of great how to write books. And conferences are not only great for meeting agents, like you, but the teaching is so valuable. (My conference is good:) ) Thanks for a peek inside an agent’s POV.

  • Rohini says:

    Chip, how would I go about sending you a proposal? I have a couple of stories that are an awkward length – as in not long enough. I’ve had a few people send it back telling me they like the writing and the story but it’s just not long enough.

    • I read somewhere that Deb Raney said if you have trouble reaching your word count it could be that you are telling instead of showing. Often I believe that’s true. Something to look for.

    • rohini says:

      I came upon this site after ages! And thanks Cindy Thomson, it is possible I’m not “showing” enough!


  • Ruth A. Douthitt says:

    Good to know! Thanks chip.

  • R Taylor says:

    My novels wouldn’t be what they are today without the input I’ve received from critiquers and readers. Thanks for the insight – oh, and I’m finding your suggestions from the proposal session at ACFW helpful in preparing my proposals!

  • Melissa Tagg says:

    Okay, so I once interned at a publishing company in England…and one of the best jobs they gave me (next to forcing me to like tea) was writing rejection letters…which meant I got to see the proposals for projects they were rejecting. My favorite was a proposal for an autobiography from someone who claimed she’d had the second immaculate conception. Quite possibly the most entertaining thing I’ve ever read. My favorite part? The part at the end where she insisted the publisher send her a visa so she could travel to the UK and present the book in hard copy.

    I really like your answer, though, about why you choose to accept/reject an author/manuscript. You have to like the writing and like the person. That gives writers looking for agents a pretty darn clear course of action–keep working at the craft, keep working at professionalism, keep working at becoming the kind of person other people actually like to be around. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Melissa. And if you know of anyone having more immaculate conceptions, feel free to be in touch…

    • Melissa Tagg says:

      Will do. Maybe I can contact the UK publisher and get the lady’s address so I can send her your way. Warning, she’ll ask you for a visa.

  • Karen Morris says:

    Thanks, Chip for a glimpse into your perspective. It was both enlightening and entertaining. I’ll make sure to tear up my ms on Rudolph’s half brother George now…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      The notion of Rudolph having various glowing body parts makes for a fun evening of story-telling, Karen.

  • Keli Gwyn says:

    Chip, you may have passed up a winner with the Rudolph cousin book. What could have made it work? A suggestion that the deer in question fly behind Santa’s sleigh and serve as a taillight. Wouldn’t want the big guy in red rear-ended, ya know. =)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      We considered that idea, but figured there wasn’t enough traffic for Santa to be worried.

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