Thursday, February 28, 2019

How to Write and Publish--12--Agents and Contracts and Platforms, Oh My!

Let’s talk about more of the scary beasts in the publishing swamp: agents, contracts, and platforms.

In the process, we’ll note some of the differences between Mennonite and other publishers and conferences.

One conservative Mennonite publisher is Christian Light Publications. They also host a yearly conference that I’ve attended a few times. There’s no expectation that you’ll be writing for CLP if you attend. The stuff you learn is applicable anywhere.

I’ve also attended numerous one-day conferences and one week-long summer conference through Oregon Christian Writers. Their focus is writing for Christian book publishers such as Tyndale, Harvest House, and Moody, and also Christian magazines such as Guideposts and church take-home papers such as Live.


An agent is a go-between. He or she takes an author’s work and submits it to publishers. Most big publishers such as Tyndale or Penguin don’t accept work coming straight from the author. They insist you use an agent.

Agents are paid a portion of royalties—usually 10%--that an author earns, so they are motivated to get the author the best deal possible. Any agent who asks for payment up front is probably fraudulent.

An agent is also good at looking over your work and telling you if it’s publishable or not, and they are really good at deciphering all the fine print in your contract.

I don’t have an agent yet, but I’ve actually talked to a few of those scary creatures.

Last summer I attended the Oregon Christian Writers summer conference in Portland. They have an efficient system where you can sign up to talk to editors and agents one on one, in 15-minute slots.

One agent turned out to be Nick Harrison from right here in Eugene, whom I knew because he used to work at Harvest House and I ran into him now and then. Also his wife was a Yoder, once upon a time, so we have that in common, and her parents do machine quilting for a retirement hobby.

I signed up to talk to an agent whose list of preferred projects looked like a good fit for me, and she turned out to be Sherry Gore’s agent. Sherry is a Beachy-Amish writer from Florida, so that felt serendipitous. I wouldn’t have to explain what Mennonites are all about if I worked with her.

Then someone snagged me and said another agent would like to talk to me. That one was Bob Hostetler, who works for the Steve Laube agency and wanted to see if we were freindschaft and if I was interested in working on a book idea he had about the Amish.

So the agents turned out to be nice approachable people. I haven’t asked any of them to represent me, but it’s nice to know I have options.

And they are not as terrifying as I had feared.

At the OCW summer conference, I heard agents mentioned often, especially from the panel of book acquisition editors who answered questions about how to get our eager feet in the door. 

Not so at the CLP conference. I don’t think I heard the word once, which confirms that they are open to proposals directly from authors. 

In my experience, the same is true for other Mennonite publishers. Herald Press had contacted me about doing a book for their Plainspoken series, and I didn’t have time, but I sent a few other names their way. One of them was my daughter Amy’s friend Lori, who is an Amish missionary in Thailand and who writes beautiful stories and poetry. “Tell her to send me her idea for a book,” said the editor at Herald Press. No agent required.


If you’re writing a book for a Christian publisher, especially if it’s a Mennonite publisher, you might assume that contracts are not a big deal. If they offer you one, fine. If not, you’ll work it out with a verbal agreement because both you and they are honest, trustworthy, and Menno-nice.


Here’s my advice: Insist on a contract, on paper, no matter how Christian the publisher is. It should cover the types of rights they're purchasing, and for how long. Royalties, author discounts, what happens if they go bankrupt, and many more things you wouldn't have thought of including.

Take the contract they offer and have an experienced author, at the very least, look it over. An agent or a copyright lawyer would be even better. If the terms are questionable or outright unfair, negotiate or leave.

Carrie Stuart Parks, the speaker at a recent OCW conference, told how she published three how-to-draw books for a Christian publisher. Yes, there was that little line in her contract that said the publisher could pull from her books to add them to a compilation, and she wouldn’t receive royalties for that, only a set fee. But that seemed fair enough.

The publisher proceeded to take most of the content of her three books and put it into a compilation, for which she was paid a lump sum of $4000. That stopped the sales of the original books, and the compilation was a bestseller. She estimates that she lost $10,000 a year by agreeing to that little clause.

Two of my friends were ill-used by a now-defunct Mennonite publisher who changed remuneration on one author and also hedged and delayed about offering a contract. They held the other’s manuscript for a full year without making a decision, during which she couldn’t shop it around anywhere else, and then decided not to publish it because it was a bit too controversial.

Insist on professionalism. Don’t let them Menno-guilt you into a verbal agreement, vague terms, or royalties far below the industry standard. They are running a business, not a non-profit ministry, and they shouldn’t tell you otherwise. You may be a beginning writer, but if your work is worth printing, then you are worth being taken seriously.


This is your reach, influence, and readership. It would include blog readers, your email list, your newsletter list, Twitter and Facebook followers, groups who ask you to speak, and people who buy your books or read your magazine articles.

At the OCW summer conference, I heard about platform everywhere I turned. It seemed to be the terrifying qualification that every decision-maker insisted upon and every writer was desperately trying to build. I met far too many grandmas who finally had time to write their book and were hoping to have an acquisitions editor look at it, only to be stymied by that elusive platform qualification and the online and technological know-how it required.

I was told, numerous times, that in the old days you could sit in your attic and write, and the publisher took care of publicizing your work to readers. But today, the author is expected to fire up that train and keep it going, full steam ahead.

My nephew Jason has written a book on suffering, and I pitched it to a few agents, editors, and authors, because I think it is that good. They all evaluated its quality, but they seemed more interested in my nephew’s ability to keep cranking out books and, of course, his platform. Is he on Twitter? Does he have a podcast? Well then. . .

It seemed so wrong.

These are the tactics that “worldly” publishers have adopted, due to competition, ebooks, bookstores closing, focusing on a few big-name authors, and a host of other reasons. Christian publishers have followed precisely in their footsteps.

Another angle of the platform emphasis, which I have heard from a number of writers, is that, similarly to what Good Books did to me, publishers consider your blog “theirs," even if this wasn't specified in the contract. Suddenly they dictate what you post. You’re supposed to make lots of noise about your new book, and everything in your posts is supposed to fit the theme of the book. So if they published your book on cooking with turmeric, you’re in trouble if you post about caring for your grandma, unless you added turmeric to her soup.

I also sensed that the emphasis on platform is a big reason why writers are saying, “I go to the Gentiles.” If you have to do all that publicity either way, you might as well publish your own books. So self-publishing is making a neat end run around the big publishers, who are wringing their hands but not changing their techniques.

However. It was not so with the Mennonite publishers. Again, the word wasn’t mentioned at the CLP conference. Maybe, with the vast interconnectedness of the Mennonite world, it simply isn’t necessary. One mention in the catalog and everyone is informed.

Or maybe CLP and others know that promoting your own work goes against long-held and ingrained Mennonite tradition, and they are wise enough to work with the tradition instead of against it.

I wish I could send all the confused grandmas at the OCW conference to a Mennonite publisher.

Tomorrow: self-publishing books, and a list of decisions you need to make.


  1. I am thinking of starting a blog again. I had one for several years.
    I’d like to know what your advice would be concerning ownership rights. I once wrote a blog post about prayer. I noticed in my stats that I was getting a lot of visits from a certain blogger. A few days later I saw “my” blog post with prayer changed to new age meditation on his blog. He was smart enough to pre date so it appeared to have been written before mine. But without a doubt it was mine. He had only changed a few words.

    So my question would be if I were to write poetry on my blog would it be open for a “theft” such as this?
    Is there anyway to protect my content?

    And Mennonite publishers seem so much easier to work with on the whole.

    1. First of all, that was a horrible thing that happened to you!
      I really don't know much about copyright legalities, and if you have any recourse to prevent this sort of situation.
      I hope you find a way to make it work, though.

    2. Yes, I was completely appalled. He stole my “words”. That was about the same time I stopped writing on my blog, I’m not sure if that was a factor in why I did or not.

      I guess there probably is no way to protect your writing from being “stolen” in that way.

      But, as you pointed out platforms are important to have. I’m not sure how to have one, if not in a blog. I read many blogs and thoroughly enjoy them. I learn a lot about writing too.
      Thanks again for these posts. I’ll be reading and referring to them often!