Wednesday, 8 January 2014

US Literary Agents: Yea or Nay for the Australian Author?

Hi! Lucy Morgan-Jones here. Today, I’d like to share my experiences with working with an agent, why you might need one, and how they can benefit your writing career.

So, you’ve written a fabulous story and now can’t wait to share it with the world—a.k.a. everybody outside of family and close friends. Manuscript clutched between slightly sweaty palms you gather up courage and consider your audience: publishing through an Australian publisher, or perhaps through something larger, like a US publisher.

Narelle Atkins has written a blog post about being published in Australia here. I’ve chosen the route of being traditionally published through a US publisher, and the first roadblock I encountered is that unlike Australian publishers, pretty much all major US publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Unsolicited? What?? I mean, I’m not selling Girl Guide cookies here, or fundraising for an organisation, just trying to get my book into reader’s hands.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I soon discovered that publishers simply won't accept un-agented proposals any more. In the words of my agent, Chip MacGregor, “They've done that as a means of trying to professionalize the relationship. They've also done it because the scads of young editorial assistants they used to have don't exist any more, so they don't have the personnel to wade through the unsolicited slushpile. It doesn't get talked about much, but the fact is publishers now rely on agents to be the first filter -- to go through the material and clear out the dross. They expect agents to help bring in publishable, salable manuscripts that fit the house and are well-written,” he says.

Michael Hyatt (former CEO of Thomas Nelson) also explains the process in more depth also here.

Right, I said to myself. I need an agent! Can’t be too hard, surely….

Blithely, I set about procuring one of these mythical beasts. Being slightly introverted, this meant I read copious blog posts from other authors, avidly read every ACFW article and post, and listened to what other authors and important figures in the writing industry were saying about various agents. 

Over time I began to get an idea of who the “good” and “bad” guys agenting out there were, what their reputations were like, their sense of humor (or if they had one!), their values, and what authors/books they were representing.

From that I came up with a short list of agents I felt would fit with me, whose opinion I valued, and who I thought would benefit my writing career. 

My short list was: 
Chip MacGregor
Tamela Hancock-Murray
Mary Sue Seymour. 

In 2012 I attended an ACFW conference in Dallas, Texas and had the extreme privilege of having appointments with both Chip and Tamela. I genuinely liked both of them and was very excited to have them both request my full manuscript, and then to have them both (within a day of each other!) offer to represent me. I recognize that this was a total God-thing. Most people do not land an agent this easily. I can only attribute God to the speed and ease of this happening.

I chose Chip MacGregor. He really is my dream agent. :) He’s been in the writing business for around 30 years and knows the ins and outs of every single part of it. He has the contacts and the connections to publishers and a working relationship with them that I will never ever have. Plus, he has a zany sense of humor that I really like. :)

I mentioned my “writing career” earlier and want to expand on that just a little. These days it’s not just enough to have written a fantastic book and sit in our comfy chairs sipping tea, nibbling on biscuits, and cheerfully writing in seclusion. No, these days a writer (whether published in the US or in Australia) is expected to help market their books. This means utilising social media, figuring out marketing strategies, and finding and then connecting with readers on a more personal basis. And yes, most writers are woefully underequipped to deal with this. One of the things that Chip had me do once I’d signed with him was to fill in questionnaire about my writing career, and really nail down why I was writing, where I wanted to be in 1, 5, or 10 years time, what exactly I wanted to achieve and how I was going to get there. I jokingly refer to that as the “Epistle to the Saints” as the document ended up being over 26 pages long.

So, what has it been like working with an agent? Stretching. It has been a great learning curve. Anyone expecting to be published is going to have to put in some hard yards to achieve that. Chip didn’t pull any punches with me. He said that I had good bones to my story but to work with him (and to be published) I’d have to be prepared to put some serious work into my manuscript. Once signed with him, he read my manuscript and then gave me a list of stuff I’d need to fix. He didn’t give me a line-by-line critique, but more of a birds eye overview of bigger things that needed fixing. I pondered his advice, studied my angle of attack and set to work on my story. I cut 30k of words and rewrote the rest. Now, he didn’t say to do this, but based on the plot holes and to make the story stronger that’s what I felt needed doing. And the story is now much, much stronger because of it. My first manuscript is now in his capable hands and he is shopping it around to the various publishers that he has contacts with.

Because I have an agent I now have many more opportunities and avenues to sell my books to. Because I have an agent, my stories can land in more readers hands. My writing career is guided by someone who understands the writing business and can help me avoid the pitfalls and make stronger choices regarding my future in writing. Yes, he is my business partner, someone to bounce story ideas off, and to give me excellent feedback regarding my books, but he is also someone who is wholeheartedly for me and my books in a publishing world that can sometimes be full of sharks. I’m thankful for that. :)


If anyone has any questions or would like me to elaborate further, I’d be happy to help. Shoot me a message on facebook, or ask in the comments below.

9 comments:

  1. Lucy, great post. Good insight into your workings with Chip. It's wonderful to see how you are already benefiting significantly from your partnership. Excited to see what happens when Novel 1 lands a publisher.

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  2. A great post, Lucy, and very informative. I do think it is important to actually meet the agent to see if you could work with that person. I discovered years ago that communication expectations are also very important when having an agent overseas. Thankfully, communication methods nowadays have improved tremendously since my own "not so good" personal experience.

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  3. Thanks Lucy that was very informative. I think I might do that myself - do a self-evaluation of my writing career an long-term goals.

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  4. Thanks for that post, Lucy. It's great to see that good agents will not just shop around for publishers but also advise authors on where their manuscripts could benefit from tightening and fixing. I hope the book goes well with Chip, and that you have more good news to tell about it very soon.

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  5. Lucy, excellent post! Thanks for sharing your experiences with Chip and giving us a helpful insight into the author-agent relationship.

    Not all agents are prepared to work with unpublished writers and edit their mss. There are definite advantages to signing with agents who have writing and/or editorial experience, and who have worked in the publishing industry in various capacities. Your agent needs to know the publishing business inside out, and have the connections with editors to sell your books.

    I recently signed with Steve Laube after meeting him at a conference appointment at the 2013 ACFW Conference. I walked out of that appointment knowing that Steve was the right agent for me. My experiences are different to Lucy's because I was in the middle of a six book contract with Harlequin when I met with Steve.

    I agree with Mary, and I wouldn't sign with an agent unless I had met the agent in person. It's an important business relationship and you only want to sign with an agent if they are a good fit for you.

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  6. Yes! Agreeing here with Narelle and Mary: meeting the agent in person is so important.

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  7. Great information both in Lucy's article and the comments. Thanks Lucy for sharing your experiences.

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  8. Thanks for sharing your experience Lucy

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