Chip MacGregor

April 29, 2014

Wrapping up our visit with a literary agent…


All month I’ve been inviting writers to send in questions about what they would ask a literary agent if they could just sit down for a face-to-face chat. Here’s the latest bunch of questions as I try to wrap up the series…

I’d love to figure out how to connect with an agent at a conference without coming across as a stalker. When I saw you in Indy, you were always surrounded by people vying for your attention. I don’t want to be a psychotic sycophant.

First, you can often sign up for a meeting with an agent during the conference. Second, if all the slots are taken, try to find that agent and simply ask if there is a time to meet. (Be aware: There may not be. I always try to arrange my calendar with meeting times, but sometimes the days get filled.) Third, you may be able to catch an agent at a meal, or just after a workshop. Fourth, offer to help an agent out — maybe drive him to the airport, or offer to be the person who sets up and helps tear down. And fifth, I appreciate you not wanting to be a stalker. We’ve all had those crazy types who just don’t seem to have figured out the social grace it takes to have a polite conversation during the down times at a conference. Be aware that manners count, agents prefer people who act like they’re relatively normal, nobody likes to feel they’re constantly being pitched, and having a nice chat somewhere over a cup of coffee may be better than setting up the hoops and sparklers so you can do your special presentation on your new manuscript.

Is it in the author’s best interest to acquire her own copyright for her book? I’ve always understood that it is. How can an author acquire those rights? And do publishers usually agree to that, even if you’re a new author?

You don’t need to “acquire” your own copyright in this country. Our copyright laws are very clear: If you created your book, you own it. But yes, you can register to get a formal copyright notice, should you want — you’ll find the forms online. But I question if that’s necessary. And if your book is being published with a legacy publisher, they will arrange to get you a copyright automatically.

Is it normal for agents to have a clause in publishing contracts that the advance and royalty payments go to the agent, who takes out their percentage and then mails the rest to the author. Is so, why? I’ve heard agents say they work for the writer, so why would the agent pay the author instead of the other way around? Just curious.

Traditionally, the publisher paid 100% of the advance and royalties to the agent, who deducted the agency commission (usually 15%) and sent a check to the author for the balance. That was done so that the agent could check to see the author was paid the right amount, on time, for the right project. Many agents still work that way. Some agents (and MacLit is one of them) decided to request divided payments. So when money is sent for a book I’ve represented, the publisher cuts two checks — one is for 85% and is sent to the author, the other is for 15% and is sent to the agency. I started doing that years ago, since I noticed if an agent and author were going to fight, it was probably going to be about money or communication. I prefer having the author paid directly, so he or she never has to call me and say, “Hey, Chip, why haven’t you sent me my money yet?!” But there’s nothing wrong with having the money go through the agency, if you’re comfortable with that (and be aware that most foreign publishers won’t divide the payment, so they’re going to send it all to the agency anyway).

Does a reputable house send free copies of a published book to the author? And if so, how many should an author expect?

Yes. And there’s no “right” answer to the number of books you should receive. The standard publishing contract will offer the author about ten copies, but I’ve seen authors negotiate for as many as 200 (and as few as zero). The number really should depend on need, since the reason an author is being sent free copies is to use them as marketing tools. I would say the industry average is probably about 50, but don’t assume that’s the number you need — figure out how many you can use to help promote your book, then ask for that number and give a rationale for the request.

I am looking to improve my writing skills by getting an MFA, but I have a job and family. I am looking into the low-residence programs at Antioch, Bennington, Vermont, etc. Is there a problem with getting an MFA from a low-residence program? Does the quality of the writing trump the pedigree of the program?

The quality of writing at every MFA program is basically tied to the faculty. So take a look at the faculty of the program you are considering. Are they publishing in places you’d like to be? Are they recognized authors? Are they doing books you respect and enjoy? Do you think they have something to teach you? And look at the alums — are they moving forward in their careers? A graduate program is basically built on the reputation of the faculty and the alumni, so that’s probably the best way to judge a program. (And no, I don’t see why a low residency program would not be considered of equal value to that of a high residency program.)

I have written a novel and its been three years. i have emailed every literary agent whose name i have come across on the internet, and have been promptly rejected. I probably hold the record for the highest number of rejections. It is written well (not filled with spelling and grammar mistakes.) It is complete. Why dont agents ever tell you what is wrong with your work?

Three thoughts for you, my friend… First, if it’s been three years, you may want to simply put that manuscript away and take a fresh crack at a new topic. Second, while I know you said your proposal is written well, your question has some errors. That makes me assume your manuscript might have some as well. And third, there are plenty of agents who will tell you what is wrong with your work, but they may not want to get into an argument… They may be like me, and just tell you, “I’m not an editing service. I’ll edit the manuscripts my authors are working on, but I have no intention of setting up a free editorial service for everyone who decides to write to me.” So you may need to change your expectations. My advice? Pay a good editor to take a crack at it.

I’m wondering what additional considerations an author needs to make if he is writing a nonfiction book with another author. If the two of them have agreed to share equal responsibilities and equal profit for the project, is everything else the same as when only one of them is writing it? Or are there complications that can arise that some authors (like me) don’t think of?

THE SHACK authors were always quick to tell people they didn’t need an agent or an agreement — they’d simply shaken hands and had developed “an understanding” about working together. Then they started fighting and began suing each other. So yes, you may want to have an agreement that both authors sign, laying out who will do what, how they will write it, when and where they’ll do it, and what the split of future revenues will be. You can find those types of simple documents online.

If I wanted to set up an editorial service, what advice would you have for me?

Make sure you love editing. Invest in a good copywriting class. Definitely get Scott Norton’s “Developmental Editing.” For additional editing information and training, check out and — both have good resources. For fiction editing I’d suggest reading Self Editing for Fiction Writers, by Dave King, The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman, and Revision and Self-Editing and Plot and Structure both by James Scott Bell. You can find used copies of all these books on Amazon. In terms of running a small business, pick up Small Business for Dummies and The Big Book of Small Business. You might also like How to Succeed as a Small Business Owner. And then learn to call someone who runs a good editorial company and ask questions. I encourage you to talk with experienced people — stay in touch with good editors. Maybe think about asking a good editor what she does to help fellow writers improve their fiction.

Can you tell us about any truly awful book titles you’ve seen? I’m trying to figure out a good title and subtitle.

I once got a proposal in from an author for a book about parenting, focused on how couples need to balance discipline & regimen with grace and creativity. The proposed title? GOOD AND HARD: How Parents Can Do It. No, I’m not kidding. Keep in mind that most nonfiction is a problem/solution format, so a good title for a nonfiction book reveals the problem and hints at the solution, or creates interest, or makes a promise and offers hope for the future. (Unless it’s a simple history or biography — then the title clearly states the content.) And remember that, if you use an evocative title, your subtitle won’t re-use any of the words in the title, but it will explain clearly what the novel is about. If you have an evocative title on a nonfiction book (something like Parting Clouds), the subtitle much be very clear in explaining what the book is about (Finding the Perfect Career). You can’t have an evocative title AND an evocative subtitle (Parting Clouds: The Gathering of Light). It may sound cool to the author, but no potential reader will have any idea what it is. A fiction title evokes something in the story, either intriguing the reader of creating a memorable emotion in some way.

And our month of literary agent questions is about done. One more day — so if you have any questions to ask me, please do so.

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  • Joe says:

    Chip, If you had to choose between brand and producing product for a newer author, which would you choose? I’ve published two stand alone novels with a common theme and an overlap of main characters, but the third novel is barely started. I have a complete but unrelated novel in the same genre with cameos by some of my other characters. Do I risk losing my brand by publishing it or risk losing my readers forgetting about me since the third novel in the series is 6 to 12 months out?

    Thanks, Joe

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’d choose great books, Joe. Eventually it all comes down to words on the page. I ALWAYS choose quality of craft over great platforms.

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