Chip MacGregor is President of MacGregor Literary. A longtime agent, he started in publishing as a copyeditor more than 30 years ago. He has been a publisher with Time-Warner, served as an editor at two different houses, and is the author of dozens of books. You can check out his blog at www.chipmacgregor.com.
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...
I’m a literary agent. I’ve been in CBA for more than twenty years, full time for the last fifteen or so. 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, and now I’m out on my own— so I’m admittedly biased. I’m pretty successful at what I do. I’m fairly well-known in the industry and, by and large, have developed a good reputation (more evidence of the mercy of God).
Feel free to ask around and see what others say about me. 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 it for years. So I’m going to give you my opinion…
When NOT to get an agent:
-When you're not a proven writer. Generally, publishers are looking for great ideas, expressed through great writing, and 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, which is 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 psychoanalyzing.)
-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 percent 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, you have the relationships with editors to set up your own book deal, and you don't mind singing your own praises.
When TO get an agent:
-When you have a dynamite proposal that a publisher will fall in love with. The agent should help you maximize the deal.
-When you don't know whom to go to. An agent should have strong relationships in publishing. Always ask a prospective agent whom 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 represent anybody or hasn’t done any deals, you have to wonder if they’re really an agent or just playing one on TV. One more thought: An agent lives or dies on his/her relationships. Make sure you pick somebody who is good at relationships.
-When you don't know about contracts (legal documents that govern every aspect of your book for as long as it's in print . . . a contract 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.
More on "How to Get an Agent" in a future post.