Is it possible to get an agent too soon? How can I find the best agent for me? What should I expect my agent to do for me?
Literary agent and OCW summer conference faculty member Chip MacGregor is constantly asked questions about how a writer can find the best agent. He has generously put together a sampling of some of the most common questions and answers to help you plan for summer conference appointments.
To get a book published, do I need an agent, or do publishers still take authors without agents?
If I think I need an agent, do I have to have a publishing record to catch an agent’s eye?
And if I have an agent, what should I expect? Reviewing, critiquing, and editing my proposal? Or is it basically submission and contract help?
Are agents just for deal-making, or do they help shape my idea?
I’m a literary agent. I’ve been in CBA for more than 20 years, full time for the last 15. I made my living as an author and later as an editor before I fell away from the Lord and became an agent. I was with one of the top literary agencies in the business for many years; then seven years ago I started my own agency, so I’m admittedly biased. I’m pretty successful at what I do in a business where many people call themselves “agents” but don’t know what they’re doing (and, consequently, don’t last very long). I’m fairly well known in the industry and, by and large, have developed a pretty good reputation. Feel free to ask around and see what others say. Most people who know me will tell you that I’m not an agent evangelist. I’ll be the first one to tell you that not everybody needs an agent. And I’m fairly safe in talking about this stuff because I’ve been saying the same stuff for years. So I’m going to give one man’s opinion . . .
When not to get an agent:
—When you’re not a proven writer. Generally, publishers are looking for 1) great ideas, 2) expressed through great writing, and 3) offered by a person with a great platform. Sometimes they get all three, usually they settle for two out of three. (I’ve taken on some unproven writers because I liked an idea or the writing, but understand that I work much harder for an unknown author, and get less return than I do for a proven author . . . and that’s why agents prefer to work with proven authors.)
—When you don’t have either a full manuscript (if it’s fiction) or a dynamite proposal and sample chapters (if it’s nonfiction). Without those, you’re simply not ready.
—When you won’t let others critique your work. Criticism is how we get better. Why is it that the worst writers seem the least ready to listen? Maybe because in their hearts they know they aren’t that good, and admitting that would hurt their self-esteem (or maybe I’m guilty of psychologizing).
—When you’re not ready for rejection. This is a tough business. Do you have any idea how many times I hear the word “No” in a week? If you can’t take “no,” or if you can’t take criticism, or if you can’t take direction, go back to the dry-cleaning business. You obviously aren’t tough enough for the writing biz.
—When you have time on your hands. (Right. Like that’s going to happen.)
—When you feel like you’re “giving away” 15% of your income. I don’t think any of the authors I work with resent my percentage . . . they know I help them earn more than they’d get on their own. But if you don’t feel that way, you’re probably not ready to work with an agent.
—When you enjoy selling books and negotiating contracts.
When to get an agent:
—When you have a dynamite proposal that a publisher will fall in love with. The agent should maximize the deal.
—When you don’t know who to go to. The agent should have strong relationships in publishing. Always ask a prospective agent who he/she represents, ask to talk with some of his/her authors, and ask what deals he/she has done lately. If an agent doesn’t really represent anybody, or hasn’t really done any deals, you have to wonder if the person is really an agent or just play-acting. One more thought: Agents live or die on their relationships. Make sure you pick somebody who is good at those.
—When you don’t know about contracts. (They are legal documents that can impact your life for years.)
—When you don’t know what a good deal or a bad deal is.
—When you don’t know how to read a royalty statement.
—When you don’t know how to market your book.
—When you don’t have time on your hands and don’t want to negotiate with the publisher yourself.
—When you don’t want to be the person promoting or selling yourself and your work.
That said, my advice for finding an agent is pretty clear:
—Go meet agents up close and personal. Attend conferences, make appointments, connect at a convention, etc.
—Get to know and trust the agent. Again, I think there are a lot of people who claim to be agents who don’t really know the business, so it pays to check them out.
—Find out if they like books and if they’re good with words. In my view, the best agents are word people first. (That’s an important point. Just because a guy has negotiated contracts doesn’t mean he can help you with ideas or writing or editing or selling.)
—Ask who they represent and then go check with some of their authors.
—Ask, “How many books have you contracted in the past year?”
—Look for a full-time agent, not somebody who is part agent, part editor, part author, part Amway salesman. More and more I think this is true. Look . . . not everybody can be an agent. Just like not everybody can be an author, a copy editor, a sales rep, or the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. So look for somebody who knows this job and is sold out to doing it, rather than somebody who is trying to represent people while also doing a dozen other things. Check and see if they know what they’re doing, have a proven track record, and are a member of the Association of Author Representatives.
—Go create a wonderful proposal with good writing and a complete bio. Make sure to include your sales history and a market analysis.
—Remember MacGregor’s Law of Agenting: “Make sure you like the person.” There’s nothing worse than having to do business regularly with people you don’t like. I like the authors I represent. Most are personal friends. I can’t imagine working in my office, having the phone ring, hearing the receptionist say, “Mr. Farnsworth is on the phone,” and me going into a spasm of disgust: “Yikes! Farnsworth! I hate that guy! Tell him I’m not here!” Life is too short. I routinely tell authors that I’m not the agent for everyone. My personal style is fairly gentle (believe it or not . . . I’m not nearly the smart aleck in real life as I appear in print), I’m pretty soft-spoken at meetings (people are often disappointed when they meet me). So I’m not the right guy for a writer who wants Mr. Take-Charge. If you don’t like the individual, don’t choose him.
—Once you settle on someone, make a commitment to work with him or her long term. A good agent should talk with you about your writing career. My goal is to work with the authors I represent for the next 20 years, so we can all retire together and still be friends. That said, always ask if the agent you’re talking to relies on a “term” agreement or an “at will’ agreement. My agency agreement is a letter that serves as an at-will agreement. There’s no term—it starts the day we sign it; it ends when we start calling each other names and throwing copies of manuscripts at each other. I’ve talked with too many authors who got locked into really bad term agreements: “I’d like to have you represent me, Chip, but I’m stuck with Mr. Bonehead for the next two years.”
—Understand that not all agents are alike. One person is a “contract” guy—his focus is on intellectual property rights law and tough negotiation. Another person is an “editorial” type—her emphasis is on helping you craft a great manuscript. Some agents are “idea” guys (they come up with great ideas), others are “life management” types (they will coordinate your speaking, writing, media, money, and even your wardrobe, I suppose). My strengths are in “recognizing great writing” and “career development,” and those are two things I’ve established pretty firmly as my agent identity over the last decade. I’m good at talking through your story to find the strengths and weaknesses; not so good at offering a point-by-point critique. Figure out what you need in an agent; then determine what the agent’s strengths are.
That’ll move you down the path much more quickly.
Again, I tell would-be agents: (1) Only represent people you like, and (2) only represent good writers. I’ve been able to hold to that, and done really well in the business. So . . . can you get published without an agent? Of course, you can. You can also sell your house without a realtor and draw up your own will. But you may not want to do any of those things, and it’s getting harder and harder to get a career established in publishing without an agent. It’s doable, but it’s harder than it used to be. A good agent should help you decide on a salable idea, create a better proposal, and get that proposal in front of the decision-makers who matter.
Chip MacGregor is the president of MacGregor Literary, Inc., a full-service literary agency that works in the CBA as well as the general market. Chip has been working in the publishing industry for three decades and before that made his living as a freelance writer and editor for several years. Formerly a publisher with Time Warner, he began working as an agent 16 years ago and has represented hundreds of titles, including numerous award winners and best sellers, and one that hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Seven years ago he began his own literary agency, and over the past few years he has been one of the busiest literary agents in the United States. His popular blog, www.chipmacgregor.com, has been named one of the best websites for writers by Writers Digest. A well-known speaker at writing conferences, he lives on the Oregon coast. Chip will teach the coaching class “Proposals: How to Write One that Gets You to YES!” and a workshop with Susan May Warren entitled “What’s the Story? The Four Pillars of a Best-Selling Novel.” Chip will also host the Agent Panel at Summer Conference.