Chip MacGregor

September 24, 2013

Yes, You Need an Agent



We’re living in a new publishing economy.  Over the past five to ten years, nearly everything about the publishing industry has changed significantly. The way information is gathered, tracked, and shared has changed. We now live with digital royalty reports and catalogs. There are fewer bookstores, fewer editors working for publishers, yet more books being published than ever before. There’s less editing, smaller advances, and a bunch of new, more nimble start-up companies that are gaining a toehold in the market. The move from brick-and-mortar stores to an online experience is completely different – there are more titles than ever, and I can get anything delivered quickly, but the online shopping experience isn’t nearly as fulfilling as wandering through the aisles of a bookstore, exploring unknown authors and discovering hidden treasures.

Publishers no longer worry about ink/paper/binding costs, or transportation & warehousing expenditures, so their margins have grown. At the same time, while authors are being offered greater royalties for digital books, their per-book earnings are down. And while the growth of the web has offered those authors more opportunity to market their titles to readers, with the opportunity has come responsibility – to the extent that many writers feel they are full-time sales people and only part-time writers.

But the biggest change of all, of course, is that Amazon and Smashwords allows for ANYONE to claim to be an author. Just write some words, post it on Amazon, and – voila! You’re an author. It’s led to what I call “Publishing as Amway.” Those of you who lived through the 80’s will remember the Amway revolution… You were told all you had to do was sign up, buy some soap products, and start signing up your friends to do the same. They’d sign up their friends, who would in turn sign up their friends, until, through the miracle of multiplication, you’d have this awesome downline – a bunch of people, all buying products and giving you a small piece, and the money would come rolling in. You’d be buying a Cadillac and taking that trip to Hawaii in no time.

We all tried it. None of us succeeded. We bought the shampoo, wrote our dream circles, talked our friends into joining, and… no money came in. The magic Amway money didn’t show up, except for the occasional rare person who got up to speak at gatherings of other wannabe millionaires, and who somehow seemed to harbor some knowledge the rest of us just didn’t share. I have nothing against Amway personally, and I’m sure there are a handful of people who shared their dream circles and saw them all come true, but the fact is for most of us the entire experience was more promise than reality, more dreams than dollars.

And that’s the same dream being pushed, by people who see publishing as Amway. “Just post your book on Amazon and watch the money roll in.” Like the million you’re about to make in multi-level marketing, it’s a myth. Amazon saw its list of titles increase from 2 million to 4 million titles in just a couple years due to wannabe authors posting their self-published novels, yet most sold fewer than 100 copies. For every author who made a thousand bucks, there are hundreds of authors who made almost nothing. In fact, it’s only the occasional breakout book — THE SHACK or GONE GIRL or FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY — that keep authors chasing after the unlikely dream of posting their novel and hitting the big time.

I write this because I was at a conference recently where some people made a big deal about not needing agents in this new publishing economy. “All you need to do is post your book,” one said to me. “You can always call a lawyer if you’ve got a contract question.” That’s an interesting perspective, particularly coming from someone who spent a lot of time bragging about THE SHACK.

Take a look at THE SHACK, which at first seemed to provide a compelling argument for self-publishing. The three authors worked together, created a story that talked about God in creative ways, and worked hard through social media to get the word out. While I was never a fan (I couldn’t get past the turgid prose or the heavy-handed spirituality), the book took off, sold a million copies, and eventually they sold the whole thing to Hachette, who went on to sell another several million more copies. The authors were quick to proclaim how they’d never needed an agent – they did it all on a handshake, and it worked great… until it didn’t. Because eventually those authors started suing each other. It turns out one guy thought he wasn’t getting enough money, and another that he wasn’t getting enough credit, and then they were worried that the publisher (which happens to be the company I was a publisher for) wasn’t doling out the money correctly. Everybody sued everybody, and the whole thing turned into a mess. Now? They all have agents.

You see, in the complex, changing environment that is contemporary publishing, it’s nice to have somebody who knows what’s going on. In the early days of publishing, authors were frequently cheated. They weren’t paid, they had bad contracts, and they didn’t know how to negotiate. Authors didn’t know the systems, or have access to the people in charge, so there was a paternal aspect to publishers. Worse, there wasn’t anyone to look after the author’s best interests when they diverged from that of the publisher’s.

Enter the agent. You could argue that my job, as a literary agent, is fundamentally the same as it’s always been: locate talent, nourish it, land them at a publishing house, and do a good job representing their best interests. But in reality the details of my job are completely different than just a few years ago. I could spend nearly all my time discussing marketing with authors – something I didn’t use to do. The market changes faster than ever, and contracts have moved from three page documents in the form of a letter to thirty-page monstrosities written by lawyers for whom English is apparently not their first language. A good agent manages backlist, interprets your royalty report, sings your praises, and says the hard things to the publisher when they need to be said. They still talk through a story, and offer insight into the system, and negotiate your contract, but more than anything a good agent looks after your career in difficult times.

The publisher has a team of accountants and lawyers looking after their interests. In today’s complex publishing environment, who do you have? That handful of authors who sold a million copies of their ebook and now are looking at landing a mega-deal with a huge publisher? They’ve all got agents now. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.


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  • Chanda Griese says:

    Being a newbie in the business side of writing, I find this post to be helpful and saved it for when the time comes to find an agent. Thanks for all your insight (:

  • evamarieeverson says:

    Chip, do you remember … about 15 years ago when I first came into this industry. No one had an agent. There really weren’t that many. But one found me about five minutes after “contract offer” was said. Or maybe it was five minutes before. I recall a conversation you and I had once … “Used to be,” you said, “you couldn’t find an agent in CBA. Now you can’t swing a bat without hitting one.” For a while there, anyone could hang a shingle and call himself or herself an “agent.” But I think that what we have now–for the most part–is excellence in the agent business within our industry. You have been at the forefront of that for a long, long time. Thank you for your insight, your persistence, and your willingness to sit down long enough to write blogs such as this one.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for the compliment, Eva. And yes, I remember us talking a long time ago. Seems like we’ve both come a long way. Congrats on your bestseller!

  • Shaun Ryan says:

    Great post.Yup, you need an agent. I don’t even have one yet, and I’ve already benefited from the experience and insight of a certain guy who knows the industry and what works in storytelling better than I do. This was a short e-mail. Imagine what an hour-long conversation might do for your book and your writing. Then there’s all the other benefits Chip mentioned.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for that, Shaun. And you’re right — sometimes just sitting and talking with someone who has broad experience in the field is one of the most helpful things you can do.

  • Jerilyn Jackson says:

    yep…. I probably need an agent…. and I’ve been to a lot of conferences and have met some and listened to all….. now I have AMG and David C. Cook looking at my book…. however, it isn’t that easy to find an agent who represents Children’s fantasy chapter books…. and, yes, I’ve self published… a devotional book which I sell when I speak… and lots of magazine articles…. I wonder a lot about whether I should have an agent…. but I’m not very prolific so probably none want me… I do know a contract attorney so maybe that’s enough…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You’re right, Jerilyn. Have you checked out the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators? (SCBWI, or “squibby,” for those who don’t know.) A great resource for those writing children’s books, and a good place to meet agents who specialize in kids books.

  • Janet Ferguson says:

    Good information!

  • carlagade says:

    Just have to say, my agent is the best of the bunch!

  • Jamie Chavez says:

    This is a great state of the industry/agenting summation, Chip. And thanks for saying out loud what I have said privately about The Shack.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ha! I appreciate you saying that, Jamie. I’ve heard from others who disagree — which is fine, of course. I respect the fact that some people felt their life changed when they read THE SHACK. I just don’t happen to be one of them. :o)

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I’m with you; I don’t need any convincing! (But the reminder was good; thanks)

  • J.A. Marx says:

    And I bet an agent will know which editor is a potentially good fit with the author, even if an editor rants and raves about a book, buys it, then… (I learned the hard way. Now searching for an agent.)

  • Lisa Van Engen says:

    I very much hope for representation. The publishing world is changing so fast, I want that guidance and support!

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I wouldn’t feel like I was an author without an agent and a traditional publishing house. A writer–maybe…but so is my 3 year old daughter 😉

  • Lynn Morrissey says:

    I’m standing up and applauding.I wish I’d had an agent when I published my books. I think when you’re a “new” author, you’re just so grateful for publication, you accept anything, no questions asked, no waves made. However, is that best to do in the end? Is it ultimately best for the work that you send out in the world? If it’s God’s message that we want to launch, then it deserves the best send-off. Thanks for a powerful and thought-provoking post, Chip, that goes against the new conventional-wisdom tide of do-it-yourselfers. I’m taking note.

  • pixiedust8 says:

    I have an agent. She is great, especially since she was (and still is) a contracts attorney. However, as the story you told illustrated, I don’t think anyone NEEDS an agent until they are contracted to a publisher. If they are self-published and selling well, they won’t have an issue getting an agent when they need one, although I’d argue that a contracts attorney would also work.

    That said, it’s a lot easier to get an agent than it is to get published traditionally.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Maybe… unless you’re the type of author who wants to talk through the story, or get some editorial help, or navigate the systems, pixiedust. Then an agent can be helpful.

    • pixiedust8 says:

      I love my agent. She has been incredibly helpful with my story. However, some people cannot get agents, and go on to self-publish and make fortunes. I would say that those people don’t need an agent for anything but contract help.

  • Bonnie McKernan says:

    I suspect I speak for many who say, “But we’re trying to find an agent, Chip. My goodness, how we are trying.” And receiving great book reviews and literary awards push us to KEEP trying. However, when some agents–especially those highly respected and deemed a good match for our novels–aren’t open to query submissions due to an overflowing roster, it makes the process significantly harder. While this is an insightful post, affirming what I’ve known in my gut for years, it’s a hammer on the head of those “non-Amway” writers striving to be represented.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I totally agree, Bonnie, and I understand (I made my living as an author for several years, and struggled with agents). It’s why I encourage agents to participate in conferences, where we can be face to face with authors. There aren’t that many opportunities for that any more. But yes, I feel your pain. There are plenty of good writers who can’t find an agent because so many of the good agents are full up.

  • In some ways it feels more necessary to have a guide whose job it is to stay up on all the changes and help me, as writer, negotiate them. I wouldn’t count out agents, yet. Also, for me, the process of honing my craft in order to peek the interest of an agent has made me a much better writer! If anyone chooses to self-publish without one, I’d be skeptical about reading their stuff unless they’d found another way to develop beyond just typing out words.

  • Laura K. Cowan says:

    I’m wondering if the new trend is going to be authors having to start on their own for the most part and then getting agents when things take off, as you mentioned happening in so many instances of self-publishing turning traditional. What do you think about this, Chip? I’m pretty sure most of us would love to have agents at the get-go to avoid sticky situations, but it’s harder than ever to make that happen. I feel like I’m dating through a matchmaker service or begging someone to take me on as an indentured servant, not pitching a business. Even with a dozen high-profile agents potentially interested in my novel, I’m still getting “too much of this, too little of that in the narrative,” “just too introspective for my tastes,” etc. alongside all of the “you write wonderfully,” “this is beautiful,” “there is a lot to admire here.” Eventually something will click and I’ll know how this is going to move forward, but I can’t afford to sit around crying into my tea until someone picks me, not with 6 books in progress and 3 more on the horizon. What do you think about authors doing their best to polish their work but just putting it out there and producing more and building their own platform until they can find the right match with traditional publishing to take them to the next level?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think that’s what most authors have to do these days, Laura. I’m obviously not opposed to self-publishing, and think that’s one way a writer can sometimes get noticed.

  • The more I read your thoughts, the more I like you. I feel the same way about the Shack. And I worry about anyone who thinks they can do anything on their own, being self-reliant isn’t always a gift. It can sometimes be the a sign of prideful foolishness.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a good point, Shelly. I’ve seen that happen — a writer assuming they know more than they do. (I’ve doubtless been guilty of that myself a time or two, of course) The issue is simply, “who is helping you when you need help?”

  • Ellen Gee says:

    I suppose it’s safe to say, the author who resents himself just may have a fool for a client.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’m not always an agent evangelist, Ellen. I think some authors probably have the skill to do this themselves — but not many, and my experience is that some people who assume they know more than they do can get into trouble.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Having a professional in the industry on my side? Seems like a no-brainer to me. I’m convinced.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    Honestly, Chip, I’ve never faltered in my belief or desire to have an agent. I also feel agents are more of a necessity now than ever before, for the many reasons you stated. It’s bad enough so much more time has to be spent, on the author’s (and agent’s) part, on marketing strategy and execution. Even if contracts were still 3-page documents, the last thing I want to do is handle the legalities of something that important. And just hiring a lawyer is only to address that aspect of it.

    To me, an agent (if he/she is a good one) is not only a “compass,” but a “weather man” and experienced “captain” in the publishing industry, to not only point me, my career and my work in the right direction, but know how to weather the “storms” and navigate the sometimes treacherous “waters.” Even Captain Jack Sparrow knew, as he tried to teach Will Turner as he hung from the boom of the “commandeered” ship, about what a man can and can’t do: “Now me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can’t bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies. Savvy? So–can you sail under the command of a pirate…or can you not?” 😉

    Now me, for example, I know I can’t bring my ship into Tortuga all by me onesies…nor do I want to! 🙂

    P.S. I didn’t know THE SHACK was a 3-author collaboration. Personally, I couldn’t stand the book. It was recommended to me by someone who knew I was spiritual and thought I’d enjoy it. Well, the beginning hooked me, but it started getting a bit “weird” and once there was the actual arrival AT the shack, I couldn’t handle the portrayals. Ugh.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, there were three guys involved in the creation of The Shack. According to the various lawsuits, one guy wanted to get credit as the author. But the other two were making more money, and a lawsuit was the result. The other side counter-sued, and the whole thing got ugly. They eventually all settled… so much for all those friendly handshake agreements.

  • Faith Bogdan says:

    These days one can be an author without having to be a writer. Having an agent is a good way to distinguish which one you are.

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