Friday Five Interview – Chip MacGregor

By Daniel Darling

It is my privilege to interview one of the top literary agents in the country. Chip MacGregor is more than just a literary agent, he’s a consummate “book guy” enjoying a successful career in all phases of publishing, from writing, editing, collaborating, publishing, and representing. Chip has discovered, collaborated with, and coached some of the most well-known authors, including Kay Arthur, Dr. David Jeremiah, Joe Stowell, Andy Andrews, and many others. Chip’s authors have spent numerous weeks on The New York Times best-seller lists, perhaps his most famous was Let’s Roll, the moving memoir by Todd Beamer’s widow, Lisa. Chip has also authored twelve books, including two bestsellers.

Chip is a favorite at writer’s conferences all over the country. He is a legend in the Christian publishing industry, known for his candor, knowledge of the industry, and passion for good writing. Personally, I have heard Chip speak on numerous occasions and have known him personally. He’s always a good and honest source of advice and is fiercely loyal to his clients. He’s also got one of the wicked senses of humor around. His blog, is a rich source of information about the publishing industry, one that every serious writer should immediately bookmark.

1) Chip, a lot of people are talking about the future of books versus the digital technology (iPad, Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader). What is your perspective on where this is going?

History has taught us that as new technologies are developed, the culture adapts to them. We used to walk across the room to change TV channels. We used to stop and find a pay phone to call home. We used to re-type each page of a manuscript that had error. But we’ve adapted our lives to adjust to remote controls, cel phones, and PC’s. (And, of course, the advent of TV’s, telephones, and typewriters were cutting-edge technologies in their own days — each requiring adaptation from radios, telegraphs, and handwritten notes, respectively.) Right now we’re moving from printed materials to digital materials, and that’s creating a lot of change for people. My son will read a book on his cel phone — that’s about all anyone needs to know regarding the future of digital technology. All those extant great books and words? They’re all out there, ready to be interpreted through a new medium.

2) It seems on the one hand more people are reading than ever before–but it seems that they are getting their content in new ways. Is that true, in your experience?

Sure. Some examples… Technology may be killing the cookbook. Think about it — the last time you needed a recipe, did you go to a cookbook? Or did you simply go online and do a quick search for the ingredients? Technology may be killing the do-it-yourself manual. If you need help with a new software program, do you want to drive to Borders to buy a copy, or look for your solution immediately online for free? It’s clear that technology is changing the way we view books and written content. The Kindle was great because of the wireless ability to download books. The Sony Reader was nice because of the workability for those of us in the industry who want to read Word docs. The Nook is better than both, in terms of handling and use. And I think the iPad will outdo all of them because of the flexibility it offers (and no, I do NOT understand why Apple isn’t touting the iPad as the future of ebook readers… THAT’S it’s best strength). So, in my view, everyone who is reading this will own a digital reader in the next two or three years. (Yeah, you can tell me how much you like the tactile feel of pages, the acrid scent of ink in a real book, etc. Um… I remember when you told me you didn’t see why we needed a TV remote, since you were fine with just walking across the room, or why you didn’t need a cel phone, since you could always find a pay phone.)

However, the question that seems to be discussed most is usually posed in a fearful manner: “Will ebooks lead to the death of the printed book?” And my answer: Not in my lifetime. We’ve got a very rich history with printed books, and I don’t see them all disappearing any time soon. It’ll lead to change, sure — in fact, we’re already seeing that change. And change seems to be happening faster than it used to, so the speed with which we change to a digital book world is faster than when the culture was asked to adopt the automobile or the telephone. Still, there is no lack of interest in books. In fact, the world is becoming more literate, not less so (some readers will remember just a couple decades ago when the government was doing a report entitled “Why Johnny Can’t Read” — nobody is much concerned with that issue today, since we read all the time). The concern for those of us who work in the industry (writers, editors, agents, publishers, booksellers) is more of distribution than creation. We KNOW there’s a readership. We KNOW people want material to read. What we’re trying to figure out is how we can monetize it so that the creators can still make a living, and how the people who polish, market, and sell it can still make a living. That’s the area everyone is really trying to figure out. It’s changing considerably right now, and we have yet to arrive at that next stage where we’ve all determined who is making money, how they’re making it, and what they’re making.

3) If someone feels a desire to write and a call of God to write, what would you say should be the first steps? Most people want to fast forward to that book contract, but there are many growth steps before that. Can you explain?

Well, yes… sometimes it seems as though everyone is writing a book. But a “desire” doesn’t constitute a “call,” of course. Neither does a “need” constitute a “call.” Nor does “a cool personal story, complete with miracle” constitute a call to write a book. I mean, I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my life, and I realize the world is made up of millions of people who apparently all want to be rock stars. But the desire to be a rock star doesn’t mean you can actually sing, or that people will pay money to come hear you sing. There’s a big difference between sounding pretty good in the church choir and asking people to plunk down $18.99 for your new CD at WalMart.

I’m a pretty good ballroom dancer, and can usually make even a beginner look pretty good as a partner on the dance floor. But there’s quite a difference between being a pretty good amateur at the publisher’s ball and asking people to pay $65 to come see me dance in a show. Writing is an art, and with any art it takes practice, training, creative vision, talent, and hard work. I too frequently see people who want to do a book because they think they can make a fast buck, and they lack all of the above. Or they think they have a “lesson” to teach the world, and they feel a need to write it down — as though all of life’s lessons are publishing-worthy. Every book is a combination of a great idea, expressed through good writing, generally from an author with a solid platform. Your great lesson may just be for you and those close to you. Your cool spiritual experience may not be book-worthy.

So… you want to write a book? The first step is to learn to write. Don’t assume because you graduated from high school that you have the ability to write a book that will keep me reading for 250 pages. Writing well takes a lot of practice — just like anything of value takes times. You don’t take a couple piano lessons and rent Carnegie Hall. You don’t throw some paint onto a palette and create a masterpiece. Art takes time, and discipline, and, generally, a lot of failure before you reach success. Learn to write, practice your skills, learn from other writers, listen to what editors have to say, start to ask questions about the business.

I think what’s happened is that “American Idol” has perpetuated the myth that the world is out there waiting for you, as the next great talent, to reveal yourself. It’s a riff on the 1930’s story of Carole Lombard getting discovered while standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine — “Maybe if I just write this book, magic will happen.” Then we hear about something like THE SHACK and think, “That’s it! I’ll write the next Great American Novel and get discovered!” Um… that won’t happen. Sorry. THE SHACK was one of those once-in-a-lifetime, God-ordained miracles. The writer created it, apparently showed it to family and friends, and it took off. What makes it such a great publishing story is that the miracle actually happened. But that won’t be happening again any time soon. This decade’s publishing miracle has been used up. If you want a get-rich-quick scheme, you’re better off buying a lottery ticket.  (And right now I should admit to being one of the immune — I read THE SHACK and didn’t find it great or deep or even terribly moving. You are welcome to disagree with me, and that fact might cause you to discount what I’m saying here.) The world is NOT waiting for you to come out with your novel. And, frankly, if it’s a book that no professionals have edited or helped shape, it’s probably not very good. So go take a writing class. Learn the craft. Read widely. Attend a conference and meet some other people who are learning the business. Then let your creativity go wild and write something, but be bold enough to show it around and let others take a look at it. That’s where you start.

4) For the uneducated, what exactly does a literary agent do and why is an agent necessary in the Christian publishing world?

A good literary agent will help an author focus an idea, respond to the writing, perhaps offer thoughts to give shape to the manuscript, assist in the creation of a strong proposal, know who will be interested in the project, have the relationships to get it in front of publishing decision-makers, solicit offers, walk the author through the decision-making process, negotiate the deal, and ensure contract compliance. Depending on the relationship the author and agent have, the literary agent may very well serve as encourager, timekeeper, counselor, career guidance officer, and sounding board to the author. Or the agent may serve as a business manager, helping the author map out the details of making a life in the arts.

Why is an agent necessary? Because most authors don’t know all of those things, and need a specialist to assist them. And because a good agent brings access through his or her relationships in the industry. AND because publishers long ago realized the value of agents, and generally won’t look at unsolicited manuscripts, but ask that all proposals come through a legitimate agent. Think about selling your home — you can do it on your own (Patti and I have sold houses “by owner”), but it ain’t easy. You’ve got to educate yourself in order to make sure it’s all legal and that the deal is done appropriately and fairly. And if you own an expensive home, it’s awfully tough to sell it yourself — buyers want the professionalism that comes from having the assistance of a good realtor overseeing the sale. Similarly, when you sign a book contract, you’re agreeing to a series of legal clauses that will govern your book for as long as it’s in print. Having somebody help you through the process is always nice, and often necessary. Having someone assist you with the long-term view of a writing career is usually deemed important by most career authors.

5) You’ve spent many years as a writer, publisher, editor, and agent. You’ve worked with many well-known Christian authors and speakers in crafting their books and stories. What keeps you going and what has fueled your passion for words?

I love books and words. I believe in the ministry of words. There are many movies I love, and several that have had a short-term emotional impact on me, but I’d be hard-pressed to name many movies that actually changed me. I love music, and have been moved by songs and arrangements, but I doubt I could tell you my life was ever changed because of a song. The same is true with paintings, sculpture, dance. The arts are great for helping us explore the world, feel things, see things in a new way. But their influence is usually short-lived. Yet I can point to several books that simply changed my life. After I read Brennan Manning’s RAGAMUFFIN GOSPEL, I was simply never the same. When I completed Frederick Buechner’s SACRED JOURNEY or Henri Nouwen’s THE WAY OF THE HEART, I was different than I’d been before I read those books.

Words can do that. A book can have a life-changing effect on a person. Perhaps that’s why when God came to earth as a man, His closest friend, in trying to describe Him, didn’t say “He was a Song” or “He was like a Symphony” or “He was the Great Dance.” Instead, the guy who was closest to HIm wrote, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.”

I’d like to work with authors doing great books, with words that make a difference in the lives of others. And I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to work with those types of writers. That’s what keeps me going.