Friday, February 17, 2012

Uber agent Chip MacGregor

The literary agent. 

The person who knows the people who know how to convert a writer into an established, well known author.  Yeah; THAT guy!

If you're serious into writing you have, in one fashion or another, had some form of dialogue between yourself and a lit agent.  For most of us that form of communication has been either one sided and rather brief.  As in, "While your writing shows promise, it currently isn't a format or genre we are working with at the moment."
(Come to think of it; that's kinda the same line a lot of publishers throw at us!  Hmmm . . . )

Or, you've been one of the lucky ones and you found an agent willing to work with you.  Congratulations!!  You've already beat the odds heavily stacked against you!

Nevertheless, the life of an agent is fascinating to contemplate.  I suspect a number of writers would, if they discovered they were not going to succeed in their chosen craft, seriously consider trying their hand at becoming an agent.

A writer-friend of mine (Les Edgerton) introduced me to uber agent, Chip MacGregor.  Chip is a West Coast agent and let's just say he's BIG in the agenting business.  Big in the Christian market.  Big in the mystery/detective market.  Lots of clients.  Lots of contacts.  Very knowledgeable in his trade.  So how could I pass this up?  How could I NOT ask for an interview!

Chip was very gracious in agreeing to this little conversation.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

1. You've been a successful literary agent now for a number of years, so tell us; what first brought you into this field, and at what time in your career did you decide you wanted to create an agency of your own?
I more or less fell into agenting. I was working as a freelance writer and editor, and started doing research on my own books (after getting a terrible deal on my first contract). Pretty soon I become knowledgeable about contracts, so authors started asking me about contracts. Then I started exploring negotiations. Then I started developing good friendships with editors, and was soon introducing authors and editors. Eventually a literary agency came along and said, "Why don't we pay you to do all this?" Agenting was a very natural fit for me.

As for starting my own agency, I'd been at another agency for years, and was the senior literary agent there, when Time Warner Book Group came calling. They wanted me to come be a publisher for them, so I went, thinking I could really help shape in the industry. Instead, I became a corporate suit. I really felt like I wasn't doing any of the things I had been successful at for years -- working with authors, determining the best writers, talking writing careers, etc. Within two years the company was sold by Time-Warner to Hachette, and I was handed my walking papers. I knew immediately what I wanted to do, so six years ago I started my own agency. I'm very happy with that decision.

2. Your reputation was first set as an agent for Christian material. But surprisingly your agency is also at the top of the food chain when it comes to placing mystery/detective

material. Is there a dichotomy here or was there some form of natural progression to drew you there?
When I started my agency, religious fiction was the fastest-growing segment in all publishing. I was starting a new business, so... my mama didn't raise morons. If people were buying Christian fiction, I was going to focus hard on Christian fiction (a part of publishing I was already familiar with). I suppose if the market had been crazy about vampires and werewolves at the time, I'd have focused on those. (That boom came later.) But my favorite genre to read is the mystery/thriller, so over the years I've done a lot of business in the thriller market. I really enjoy suspense and true crime, and my true love is crime noir -- so representing more in that area is simply an expression of who I am and what I like.

3. Several writers have told me you are one of the few active literary agents who appears to have embraced the dawn of epublishing with open arms. What are you views on this upstart, but vibrant, form of publication?
It's true. I was self-publishing books of card tricks back in the days when everyone looked askance at "vanity publishers." And I'm smart enough to figure out that technology was clearly moving us toward e-books the way it had moved us toward cell phones (instead of pay phones), GPS devices (instead of maps), and remote controls on televisions (instead of walking across the room to change the channel). It's not just that I believe ebooks are the future -- it's that I believe publishing is in the throes of a complete upheaval. We're seeing new companies start up and old companies decline, and the entire process of selling, marketing, producing, and reading books is changing. Some of those new companies are going to be big; others will disappear by this time next year. I don't know anyone that really has a handle on it -- perhaps it's always difficult to describe the future when you're being carried along by the waves of change. We'll need a bit more time before the industry settles in.

That said, I believe we're in the Golden Age of publishing. There are more people who can read than ever before. There are more words being generated than ever before. There are more opportunities for writers than ever before. We should all be celebrating the fabulous opportunity given to all of us who works with words, instead of bitching and moaning about the loss of more jobs at Random House and the decline of paying magazine jobs. The money will come back -- it will just happen in different ways, rather than in ways it did in the 60's and 70's.

It's funny you'd say this, of course, since I've also been hammered by some people in the industry for "talking bad" about self-publishing. Some folks (people who don't bother with things like "reading all the way to the end" or "listening to those bothersome facts") have criticized me pretty hard for not being the Evangelist For All Self-Published Authors. Sure, I've self-published. I've been successful at it and made money. But I've also been critical of the self-appointed experts who make big promises about authors not needing publishers. Frankly, I think all the "every writer can make a million dollars by self-publishing" messages are utter rot. A few succeed. Most don't. Why? Because if history has proven anything to writers it's that "it is hard to make money at art." So for every William Young, who sells a bazillion copies of The Shack, there are hundreds of other crappy novels that don't make much at all. For every Jon Konrath, who sells a boatload of badly written horror-porn, there are hundreds of wannabe authors who can't understand why their badly written horror-porn isn't making them a fortune. So... yes. I've embraced ebooks. I just don't feel it's the automatic money machine some people seem to.

4. Now if you would, give us an assessment on the health and future prospects of traditional publication. Are the prophets accurate? Is the demise of the classical form of a good book soon to happen? Or do you see traditional publication hanging on for a while but slowly evaporating into nothingness over a long period of time?
I am bullish on publishing. I don't know that it will exist in the same form it does today, but I'm bullish on publishing. People WANT to read, and they want to read good stuff. And, ultimately, it is publishers who know how to provide that for them. All of those free books on Amazon have been loaded to millions of Kindle devices, but sooner or later the people who own the Kindles will start reading those books, realize how much crud they've acquired, and scale back their list to some good authors. It's why I continue to think the major publishers (who have been admittedly late to the party) will recognize the importance of ebooks, put their best marketing and editorial people onto the problems, and begin creating great products. They have the knowledge and skill to do a great job with ebooks, and to reach new markets, so I continue to believe that traditional publishers will wake up, seize control of the market, and do an excellent job of producing and selling digital content. In fact, it's already happening. That doesn't mean all those new ebook publishers will go away (they're going to rule some of the niches, and, from the look of things, they're going to force mass market lines out of business), but it means the traditional publishers are going to have to change and learn to do things in new ways. Again, we're already seeing this happen. That's why some of those huge-selling ebook authors have decided the next step in their careers is to sign with a traditional publisher -- somebody who knows how to sell books to the masses. And those same authors are going to recognize the assistance a good agent can offer -- to help build an author's career. So no, I don't see traditional publishing going away. Announcements of publishing's death are a bit premature.

5. The role of the literary agent, is it changing for the better or for the worse when it comes to dealing both in the epublishing format and with traditional publishing?
I don't put a value judgment on whether it's good or bad, but it's certainly changing. In fact, I'd say my job as an agent is considerably different today than it was 15 years ago when I started. A big chunk of my day now goes to discussions of marketing -- something that happened only occasionally when I started. But the core of what I do -- recognize great writing and offer career guidance to writers -- that remains stable, whether it is with authors doing ebooks at a startup like StoneGate Ink, or doing print books at Simon & Schuster.

6. An old question I'm sure you've been asked a million times before. But I'll ask it anyway----is there a difference between an East Coast Literary Agent and a West Coast Literary Agent? Is it easier or slightly more difficult for an agent based in California to have a book placed in an East Coast publishing house?
Yeah, I've heard this a million times... "How can you be a literary agent if you don't live in the 212?" Well... I've been doing this a long time. I represent some really good people If you look at the projects reported in Publishers Marketplace (admittedly not a perfect venue, since it's all self-reporting, but it's the closest thing we've got to a complete database of publishing deals), I think I've done more deals than any literary agent in the country over the past few years. All while living on the left coast.

Look, the business is still about finding great writers with good stories and strong platforms, then getting someone at a reputable publishing house to see the talent and want to bring the author to market. Are face-to-face meetings important? Sure they are -- it's why I'm in New York on a regular basis. But the fact is, most of what we do these days is really handled by phone or email, and I don't need to be in Manhattan to send an email. Whenever anybody asks me how I survive, I just bring up the number of deals we do... the facts tend to quiet the critics.

7. What is it about the mystery/detective genre that seems so attractive to you? And do you see this genre continue its currently popularity? Or is it going to eventually diminish as time goes by?
Well, the genre is attractive to me for the same reason it appeals to the millions of people who like cop shows and suspense movies -- it's entertaining, it engages the brain in a mystery, and it brings out primal responses in readers (fear, curiosity, the desire for justice, a love of redemption). One can argue that thrillers have been around ever since the caveman sat around the fire pit telling stories about hunting and the attendant dangers. It took on a new art form with Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, and continues to be a popular theme with old and young alike. As for the future... I don't have the gift of prophecy. I don't see it fading like westerns have, but instead evolving into new and different directions. Romance, mystery, and religion -- aren't those the three things which mankind will always have an interest in? They all have an element of the unknown, and they all speak to our greatest needs to find love, understand our world, and know God. So yes, I guess I see the genre continuing.

8. How many more years do you see yourself working as both a literary agent and the head of your own agency? Do you see the agency growing in the near future? And finally, have you ever thought about retiring and starting up in a field completely removed from the publishing world?
I love what I do. I love who I work with -- Sandra Bishop has proven to be a great business partner, Amanda Luedeke is an up and coming talent, and Marie Prys and I have worked comfortably together for years. I love books. I love words and the power they bring. We've all been moved emotionally by a song we've heard, but few of us can say our lives were actually changed by music. Many of us love dance, but I don't know any people who would tell you their lives were never the same after they saw a ballet or learned to rhumba. Yet I can point to all sorts of people who would tell you their lives were never the same after they read a book. Words have the power to CHANGE us.

I've always thought it was fascinating that, when the guy who was closest to Jesus wanted to think of a way to sum up what he was like, Saint John referred to him as "the Word." I think that demonstrates the power of the written word. I mean, he could have said Jesus was "the song" or "the dance" or "the painting" or "the symphony." But, given the chance to describe the most important religious force in the history of the world, he said, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God."

So yeah, I see myself continuing to do this for a long time. Frankly, I love the authors I represent, and I want to keep working with them. And yes, we're growing. We're about to bring on another agent, and we're always finding new markets we want to get into. (We haven't done anything in the graphic novel or manga realms, and my son, who is 27, is really into those...) We're also bringing on a digital content specialist to help authors who want to self-publish their works. So I see us growing and expanding over the next few years as we find exactly the right people to work with the authors we represent.

As for what else I'd do...No plans to retire. At times I've thought about joining the Anglican priesthood (I'm not kidding), but simply haven't had the time to make that a priority. Of course, if Sports Illustrated ever comes calling, and needs a new guy who appeals to the middle-aged Scottish immigrant population for their annual swimsuit edition, I'm all over it.

1 comment: