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SEPTEMBER 2011

Chip MacGregor
President, MacGregor Literary

 

Chip MacGregor WG:      Welcome, and thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month. To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself.

CM:      I'm President of MacGregor Literary, located in Portland, Oregon. Formerly was a literary agent at Alive Communications for several years. I started agenting about 15 years ago, and have been in publishing more than 30 years. I started part-time in magazines, later worked for various publications, including as a senior editor at two houses, and as associate publisher for Time-Warner Book Group. I also made my living as a free-lance writer for a few years, and have authored or co-authored a couple dozen books. I went to Portland State University for my undergraduate degree, did a Master's at Biola University, then did a PhD program in Policy & Management at the University of Oregon. Later did a post-doc at Oxford University.

WG:      Can you tell us why you decided to pursue a career as an agent and what steps you took to get you where you are today?

CM:      I fell into agenting because I love books and words, but seemed to have a good understanding of the business side of writing - probably because I ran my own writing & editing business for a few years. While doing that it occurred to me that I needed to learn about the business and contract side of the book business, which led to my talking about that at conferences, which in turn led to my assisting several writer friends with business decisions, then contracts, and... eventually, I found myself agenting. I enjoy this role very much.

WG:      What genres/lines do you currently represent?

CM:      About three-quarters of my business is fiction - which is odd, since I started as a nonfiction business-book sort of guy. But when I started my own agency 6 years ago, certain segments of fiction were fast-growing... and I'm not stupid. So we have done a lot of romance, romantic suspense, historicals, Christian fiction, and suspense/thrillers. I still do some health, lifestyle, business, and Christian living titles. As to publishers, I think we have a list of more than 50 publishers we've worked with - it includes all the major New York houses, as well as nearly every CBA house.

WG:      Are you interested in expanding into other genres, and if so, which ones?

CM:      We're business people, so we're always interested in growth opportunities. Recently we brought on Amanda Luedeke to give us more strength in the YA and children's areas, and I can see us getting into more thrillers, perhaps horror, paranormal, possibly scifi/fantasy, and graphic novels. On the nonfiction side I think we're going to be very open to more memoir & narrative books, sports, humor, business & investing, and parenting & relationship books.

WG:      Are there any genres you have absolutely no interest in representing at this time?

CM:      Porn, gruesome serial killer stuff, westerns, poetry, textbooks, screenplays. I personally don't read much fantasy or children's work, so I'm not looking for those, though other agents at the company are.

WG:      Do you represent any authors of non-fiction? If so, have you been successful in selling their projects? If not, is this a market that interests you?

CM:      I answered this above - we do a fair bit of business on the NF side, in a wide variety of areas and topics. I tend toward great stories and thoughtful writers, I suppose.

WG:      What genre(s) do the majority of your recent sales fall into? Has this changed over time? How so?

CM:      According to the statistics at Publishers Marketplace, I do a lot of romance novels and suspense books. That's a major change from a few years ago, when I was selling a ton of "deeper life" books.

WG:      What publishing houses/lines have you sold to in the past 12 months?

CM:      I suppose your readers know they can research this for free on Publishers Marketplace. A quick look reveals Random House, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Zondervan/HarperCollins, Baker, Bethany House, Waterbrook, Guideposts, Harvest House, Barbour, Moody... Over the past couple years, I've been arguably the busiest literary agent in the country, if you go by what is reported. Not everything gets reported, but by any evaluative tool you use, MacGregor Literary is a very busy, successful agency.

WG:      Approximately how many clients do you currently represent and what is the ratio of published to unpublished?

CM:      There are three literary agents at MacGregor Literary, and we represent a total of roughly 130 authors. With the people I'm personally representing, they are all published except for one (and yes, I think it's important for an agent to have someone new who they are trying to help land that first deal).

WG:      Approximately how many works by first time authors have you sold in the past 12 months?

CM:      Over the past year? Probably five or six.

WG:      Are you actively seeking out new authors to represent, and if so, what would it take to catch your eye?

CM:      While our agency is actively pursuing new authors, it would take something really eye-catching for me to personally take on an unpublished author. It still happens, obviously, but these are basically authors who have either very strong platforms or fabulous writing (and, let's face facts - there aren't that many fabulous new writers).

WG:      How would you describe your agenting style? What is your involvement with the author's creative process? With his/her career planning? Or is your relationship strictly the business side of contract negotiation and as author/editor interface?

CM:      Busy. I work hard for the people I represent. I think if you ask the authors I represent, they'll tell you I'm good at staying in touch. So no, it's not strictly a "business" relationship. The authors I represent tend to become friends, and remain friends for the long term. One thing we pride ourselves on at MacGregor Literary is our career planning with authors - something I think a lot of literary agents talk about but can't actually define. When I was in my doctoral program at the University of Oregon, I had a graduate teaching fellowship and served as an assistant director of the Career Planning and Placement office. The U of O is strong in the arts (writing, dance, theater, music, fine arts, etc), and my job was to create tools that would help them map out a career plan. So I have actual training and experience, both in creating and discussing tools with people in the arts. So we try to have regular conversations with authors about what their career goals are, and how we can help them achieve those goals. That said, there is no one "right" relationship between author and agent. Some authors want to sit and talk through their book ideas; others don't care what I think about their ideas. Some want to be totally involved in the business side; others don't want to hear anything about contracts besides "it's ready to sign." So there are a lot of roles an agent can play in the life of an author.

WG:      Do you enjoy one of these roles more than the others?

CM:      Sure - I like talking through book ideas with authors. That's always been a favorite part of my job.

WG:      Given that you feel an individual author's manuscript is marketable, how important is it that you personally like the work in order for you to pursue acquiring it?

CM:      I think I have to like it. Think of it this way: Can you really sell what you don't like? It's why I shake my head when I run across an agent who doesn't actually READ what he (or she) is asked to sell. I come from a family of car people, and I can't imagine a car guy trying to sell you a car, talking about its benefits, describing why you'd enjoy driving it.... then admitting, "But I never actually drove it."

WG:      How often do you provide feedback to your clients on the status of their submissions?

CM:      I tell authors when I send something out, and who received it. I then occasionally go back and give them updates as to who responded. I will pass along the occasional rejection if it has helpful feedback - but let's be clear: that doesn't happen very often. Most rejections we receive aren't filled with thoughts for improvement or reasons for not offering a contract. Most of the email responses we get are simple rejections, and passing those along to an author is usually just depressing.

WG:      What is your process for submitting work to editors? Is this different if the editor is one you've had no prior contact with as opposed to one you've already built a working relationship with?

CM:      We determine who we think is a fit, do our homework, then reach out to them. As to how we do that - it depends on the project, the editor, the author, and the relationship.

WG:      How do you feel about sending a particular work to multiple houses simultaneously?

CM:      Sometimes that's the best way. That said, more and more we're finding that many projects are only seen by one publishing house. That is, many projects these days are created specifically with one publisher in mind, is shown to them, they are asked to give input and shape it, and it ends up being exactly what they want.

WG:      Once a work has been sold, do you provide any input to the author and/or editor in the area of marketing and promotion for the book?

CM:      Yes. That's become an essential part of the agent's role these days.

WG:      What do you see as the personal strengths you bring to the table in the agent/author relationship? In the agent/editor relationship?

CM:      Well, I can recognize good writing right away. I have a lot of experience in the industry. I have a background in writing and editing, and a lot of experience in marketing. I have a facility for getting along with people. Um... I'm a good ballroom dancer.

WG:      Do you feel that writers' conferences provide significant value to you in the way of networking with authors? With editors?

CM:      Yes, of course. Every beginning writer should invest in a good writing conference. Good information on the industry, and the best way to meet editors and agents.

WG:      Have you ever been involved in the sale of movie rights? Foreign rights? If so, did you handle this yourself or did you work with someone more specialized in this field?

CM:      Yes, we sell movie rights (we just landed a nice deal), as well as foreign rights. We sometimes work with another agent for foreign rights, though not exclusively.

WG:      Realistically, what is the normal timeframe for your response to queries? Partials? Fulls?

CM:      A query can be very short - a few days. A proposal or manuscript can take a few weeks to a couple months.

WG:      Do you feel an agent based in New York has a significant advantage over one who is not? Why or why not?

CM:      No. I mean, I've been one of the five busiest literary agents in the country for several years now, and I don't live in New York. I love Manhattan, but the whole "you have to live here" argument is overdone.

WG:      What sort of misconceptions/ unrealistic expectations have you encountered from authors about what an agent's role is?

CM:      "Having an agent will make me a success."

WG:      In your opinion, when is the right time in an author's career for him/her to start actively looking for an agent?

CM:      When they have a great book idea, and the writing is ready. Most of the projects I see simply aren't ready yet (despite the author's enthusiasm). I shouldn't be the first person reading your manuscript. And if it's not ready, you really can't expect that I'll have much enthusiasm for discussing your work.

WG:      What piece of advice or 'pearl of wisdom' would you like to offer authors who are considering approaching you (or any agent) for representation?

CM:      I'm most impressed by great voice. Even if I don't like your idea, I'll pay attention to you if you've got great voice in your writing.

WG:      Do you think contest credits help authors further their career before and/or after making that first sale? Have you ever acquired a client that you discovered via a writing contest?

CM:      Surprisingly, yes. Not only that, but publishers seem to really like contest credits as well.

WG:      Do you visit the websites and blogs of authors you work with or of authors you are considering working with? If so, is there something in particular you look for that potentially impacts your view of the author and their work?

CM:      Yes, if I'm considering an author, I usually try to check out the website and blog. With aspiring authors, I look for personality and voice in their writing, as well as fresh ideas and creative thinking.

WG:      How important do you think self-promotion is to a writer's career? Is there a particular area of promotion that you feel is most effective?

CM:      With nonfiction, there's no doubt having a big platform makes a huge difference in the way an author is perceived by editors, agents, retailers, and the media. With fiction, there seems to be a huge emphasis on self-promotion, even though there isn't a ton of evidence to suggest it will lead to significantly greater book sales for most novelists. So... count me as one of those people who think that anything a novelist can do to support his or her book is a good thing, but I'm not completely sold on the notion that a lot of activity makes for a lot of sales.

WG:      I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc. Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share?

CM:      "The task of history is to judge quality...but the quality of judges is a history of tasks." --From a biography of Richard Nixon

WG:      When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

CM:      Either a book guy, or the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.

WG:      What do you do to relax and have fun?

CM:      I go to Maui, swing dance, watch football, enjoy a great bottle of wine, and laugh with friends. Preferably all in the same day.

WG:      Other than your client's work, what do you enjoy reading?

CM:      History. Given a free day, I'll almost always pick up a political thriller or a history book. My favorite novelist is Ross Thomas.

WG:      What are your favorite movies and/or TV shows? Why?

CM:      Citizen Kane. Casablanca. Schindler's List. Lawrence of Arabia. The Third Man. Doctor Zhivago. Bringing up Baby. Funny Girl. Anything with William Power. Big stories, great acting, the large issues of life, and the occasional smart remark.

WG:      Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your life? In what way?

CM:     Sure - Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel, Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus, Donald McCullough's The Consolations of Imperfection�all helped me understand myself and my relationship with God better.

WG:      Before we close, is there anything else you'd like to mention about yourself or the agency?

CM:      I've got the best business partners in the world with Sandra Bishop and Amanda Luedeke.

WG:      Is there a website you can point us to where folks can go to learn more about you and/or your agency?

CM:      www.macgregorliterary.com

WG:      Thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit in this month's spotlight. It was delightful 'visiting' with you here.

 

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