Talking Shop: Q&A with your favorite insiders
You spent many years as a successful publisher at Time-Warner—what drew you back to agenting?
I love agenting. I enjoy working closely with authors, doing book development, planning careers, and spending time talking over projects. Actually, I never really got comfortable in my role as publisher – I always felt like a “suit.” Much happier being back on the agenting side of the desk.
Publishers Marketplace regularly lists you among their top dealmakers (this week, #2)—to what do you attribute your success as an agent?
Most likely it’s my good looks and Scottish heritage. But aside from that, I have a pretty good eye for writing. And let’s face it – an agent is only as good as the authors he or she represents. If I’ve had good success, it’s because I’ve had the privilege of representing really good writers. Go to my web site, select any author, and read a novel… all of them can write. That’s the main reason I’ve been successful.
What type of projects do you get excited about when they come across your desk?
I always tell authors at writers’ conferences that I’m looking for “books that change me.” It’s true. I get excited about reading a book that will leave me changed, since I know it will have the potential to significantly impact readers. I also look for a strong voice – your book shouldn’t sound like everyone else’s book. If there’s great writing, a strong voice, and a message that has the potential to change me as a reader, I know I’ve got a winner.
On the flipside, are there tired topics that make you yawn?
Sure – The tough-guy hero opens his eyes, squints, stares at the ceiling fan, looks out the window, stares at himself in the mirror, and reflects on life. The Christian novel that starts with a rape scene. A novelist who feels a need to describe every piece of furniture in the room, or every article of clothing the smart-but-rambunctious heroine is wearing. ANY novel that wants to re-create Left Behind, or correct perceived theological errors in Left Behind. And, of course, the romance novel that has a first page filled with adjectives. Yeesh.
How would you describe your ideal author?
Great writer. Creative. Listens. Low maintenance. Good sense of humor. Strong writing voice. Wants to change the world. Love God and other people. Preferably Scottish.
What is one thing that would surprise our readers about what agents do?
Read books on writing. I love words and books, so I’m always reading books that offer tips on improving writing. That makes me a better agent.
Other than the good news surrounding Baker’s recent success, the industry has been pretty down. How do you see publishers responding to the economic forecasts?
The economy is having a rough time, the cost of paper and transportation is up, and publishers are feeling the squeeze. Thomas Nelson’s recent announcement (coming at a time when they actually grew their backlist 16%) has made publishers skittish. Mike Hyatt’s response (trim the staff, cut the list, focus on money-makers) is interesting, but I’m not sure it’s an easily repeatable solution. The fact is, publishing isn’t an easy business to track – we all get surprised by the books that break out. If a house trims all of the unknown authors, there will be no chance to grow new voices. I know some of the NY houses will do 15 titles, expect 2 to break even, and expect 1 title to break out and carry the line. Successful publishing requires we take risks on new voices. So I hope publishers continue to reach out, to try new ideas, to give unknown authors a chance. And Dwight Baker is a friend of mine, so CONGRATULATIONS to him for leading his company to such significant growth.
You frequently update a very interesting blog—why do think blogging is important for you as an agent?
I don’t know if it is important. But I enjoy having a place to vent, it keeps me close to people and offers me instant feedback. I suppose the best thing for readers is that it gives them a bit of a peek behind the curtain into what an agent is thinking, and the best thing for me is that my blog has proven fairly popular and has given good exposure to my agency.
Talk to us about how agents view book publicity and what role you like to play in the PR process.
This is the single biggest change in the years I’ve been an agent. We’ve always done editing, and talked through book ideas with authors, and kept healthy relationships so that we could effectively sell manuscripts for authors. But nowadays it’s imperative an agent become involved in the marketing of the books he or she represents. Since “platform” is now king, an agent has to help his or her authors strengthen platform, make an effort to work on publicity, and maximize the marketing done by the publisher. Frequently that means helping the author fill in the gaps in the marketing plan. Most agents probably don’t enjoy the publicity angle a lot (it’s usually the “word” side that got them involved in the business in the first place), but it’s absolutely necessary. So I’ve become more of a marketing strategist than I ever planned to be.
Many agents steer clear of conferences while you seem to thrive in that atmosphere, working behind the scenes to mentor authors and provide one-on-one feedback. Why is that important to you?
It’s true – going to writing conferences probably isn’t significantly boosting my agency business. I do get to spend time with editors who are on faculty, and I occasionally see an author with a great voice and platform, but for the most part it’s just a way of giving back. I’ve had several people question why I have spent time at conferences over the years, and the simply response is probably, “Because I enjoy it.” I like speaking to people about the industry and helping newbies navigate their way. Some of us were made with a built-in desire to mentor, so I find it hard to stay away from conferences.
What should readers be watching for from MacGregor Literary this fall?
An incredibly strong list. New novels from Lisa Samson, Brandt Dodson, and Susan Meissner – all established writers with great stories releasing. (Keep an eye on Susan – she has 7 or 8 books out, but is about to be discovered.) Claudia Mair Burney, Ginger Garrett, and Alison Morrow are younger writers who have all won awards and are taking a big step forward in their careers with novels this year. Two more established names, Irene Hannon and Susan Page Davis, are gong in some new directions that are exciting. Nonfiction projects include Shane Stanford (a pastor who is HIV positive and has some great lessons to share), Charles Marshall (a full-time comic), Lorilee Craker (with a fun baby name book), and Lael Arrington and Kelly Kullberg (they are doing a great devotional book for Christians who think). We’ve also got a handful of finalists for some major awards – it’s going to be a great year.
What are you reading right now?
Lawrence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World, which is the story of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. Fascinating stuff.
What is your favorite industry conference and why?
I just attended the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing last month, and found it to be the best writing conference I’ve ever attended. Great presenters, great wisdom, and lots of different directions to go. Loved it. Easily the most complete conference I’ve ever attended.
Who is an up-and-coming author we should keep an eye on?
May I offer two? Kimberly Stuart has just released Act Two, and it’s fabulous – the story of an opera diva who takes a job teaching voice at a small liberal arts college in Iowa. And Jenny B Jones has got an incredible writing voice. Both of these writers have the personality (in their work as well as in their lives) to be stars.
What would surprise authors about Chip MacGregor?
I have a soft voice. People read my blog and assume I’m a loud guy – but that’s only in print. I like to tell people I’m much bigger in print than I am in real life. It might also surprise people to know I’ve been married 26 years – hard to believe anyone would have the patience to stay with me this long, but Patti has done it.