Moving with the times

Pardon my couple of days of silence, please: I have been in California for the last week, packing up my mother’s house, and we drove a U-Haul 1000 miles north over the weekend. I’m just a trifle tired, as a result.

Posting from the Napa Valley was a bit of a challenge. Since my mother is something of a Luddite, her house was still not equipped with a phone jack, and thus e-mail capabilities, until four days ago: that’s right, the rotary dial phone was still hard-wired to the wall, believe it or not.

How the phone company people laughed when I told them that.

Some of you may be too young to remember this (and is there a phrase in the English language that makes the speaker sound older than THAT?), but back in my early childhood, the phone company actually owned one’s home phone, at least in my neck of the proverbial woods; the homeowner merely rented it from the company. In our case, the rental was a model from the early 1950s, already installed long before I was born, a huge, black behemoth with a 3-pound receiver and a metal dial so hard to turn that I needed to use a pen for leverage when I was a kid.

Then one day, the phone company (only one at the time, recall) decided to get out of the rental business altogether, and presented its customers with a fateful choice. You could either pay to have your home rewired for the newfangled phones, the kind that required jacks, and go out and buy a new phone to plug into them, or you could go the cheaper route and just purchase the phone you’d always used. My parents opted for the latter, and that’s why the muscles in my upper arms were so abnormally well developed when I was a teenager.

We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the phone jack decision represented a fork in the road for my family, one that continues to carry repercussions to this very day — or rather, until four days ago, when my stalwart boyfriend whipped out a screwdriver and installed a phone jack in about seven minutes flat.

What kind of repercussions, you ask? Well, maintaining the big black beast (which, incidentally, came north with me in the U-Haul, both because I have fond memories associated with it and because I could use the upper-body workout these days) limited our communication options for more than two decades. Since it was hard-wired into the wall, we could not, for instance, install such cutting-edge communication technology as an answering machine. Nor, since it was not a significantly more complex instrument than the one which Alexander Graham Bell used to transmit, “Watson, come here; I need you,” could we participate in such sterling community activities as navigating through any given business’ voice mail system, because that requires a touch tone phone. (In case you’re curious about how this can possibly be done at all, what the owner of an old-fashioned phone does is wait on the line until the computer finally figures out that no numbers are being punched in. On average, it takes about 20 minutes.)

So why did we put up with it for so long? Well, habit is a powerful thing, and over time, many of us rationalize away inconveniences as inevitabilities, don’t we? My mother, bless her heart, forgot that that she had plunked down the $30 to buy the phone: she believed — until last Tuesday, to be precise, when I flatly forced a phone company employee to explain that what she believed was no longer possible — that the phone company still owned the phone; she only rented it, and thus was in no position to change how she communicated with the outside world. And after a decade or two of trying to convince her otherwise, I simply gave up and bought her a cell phone five years ago.

I needed to be able to leave messages for her.

I can feel some of you out there squirming in your computer chairs, wondering what this has to do, if anything, with marketing your writing, or indeed, with the writing life in general. Just this: a significant proportion of the advice out there on how to land an agent was minted at approximately the same time as my mother’s decision to buy the phone, instead of moving on to new technology. Heck, some of the truisms you hear about how to hook an editor were old by the time that rotary phone was installed.

That is the way with aphorisms: they are notoriously slow to move with the times.

And that is why, dearly beloved, that those time-honored tips that you learned about querying and submission often do not work anymore. The business has simply changed, like phone technology, and as with the phone jack revolution, if you stick with the old ways, you’re going to come across as a bit behind the times to those who are working on the cutting edge.

That being said, I am going to ask you to accept something that would have been anathema according to the old submission rules, so take a deep breath. Here it is: if you are waiting to hear back from an agent or editor who has requested pages, you will be MUCH better off if you keep querying while you wait.

I’m going to be honest with you here: practically everyone else who is giving writing advice at the moment will tell you otherwise. If you’ve been to a writers’ conference or two, you have almost certainly been told not to do this. When an agent asks to see your book, we’ve all been told, it’s downright offensive to show it to someone else; such a request forms a sacred bond between writer and potential agent, one that will be irreparably harmed if the writer keeps submitting. It’s like cheating on your spouse a week before the wedding.

Yes, and phones all used to be hard-wired into walls. Times change, as do the industry’s expectations.

The fact is, most agents currently working in the United States would be ASTONISHED to hear that a truly talented but unagented writer with a strong manuscript WASN’T doing multiple submissions. Agents may not universally understand much about art, except how to make a profit on it, but they do almost to a man enjoy a deep comprehension of the concept of time being valuable. The idea that a good book would remain under wraps for a couple of months because of a brief conversation at a conference would not only flabbergast most of them — they would regard it as poor marketing strategy, as well as a truly puzzling ignorance of how the industry works.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course, the agencies who refuse even to consider multiple submissions. But they are very, very rare — and quite uniformly state in the standard agents’ guides and on their websites that they have such a policy. If they do not state it as a preference, they simply do not operate that way.

Repeat after me: phones no longer have to be hard-wired into walls. Phones no longer have to be hard-wired into walls.

Until you have actually signed with an agent, you are perfectly free to keep shopping your book around. You are more than within your rights to continue querying — as your book’s best advocate, you should.

I don’t care how many times you have heard otherwise on the writers’ grapevine: the myth that you will mortally insult an agent by showing your book to other agents is even more widely reported than the one about how every query at every agency is logged into a national agents’ database, so that agents can check to see who has already rejected any given book. Or the one about how agencies keep such good track of queries and submissions that if you have ever received a rejection from them, you can never try again.

Frankly, I think that the main purpose of these pervasive but untrue rumors is to help writers feel more important (and certainly more memorable) in the face of an industry that often treats them like interlopers. It’s pretty appealing to imagine an agent falling so in love with your book that she becomes jealous over it, isn’t it, flying into a green-eyed rage when another agent so much as flirts with it? Or that your submission was so memorable that screeners at an agency will, although they have rejected the manuscript, remember your name for years to come? Or that your book is so potentially revolutionary to the world of prose that agencies would devote significant resources to working in concert to preventing its ever landing on bookshelves near you?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but statistically, none of those ego-pleasing things are at all likely to happen. As important as a submission is to its author, it is, alas, one of an avalanche to the agent. The average agency receives over 800 queries per week, far too many to remember or even catalogue each rejected one individually. Agencies ask to see dozens of manuscripts per week, at minimum, and reject most of those they receive. They simply could not do business otherwise: in order to make money, an agent has to spend most of her time selling the work of her already-signed authors, rather than picking up new ones.

Oh, and phones plug into jacks now.

Don’t feel bad if you believed the old stories — there was a time when most of them were true. (Well, okay: the national database one has never been remotely true. Was there even a national database for missing children before a year or so ago?) But your chances of succeeding in this business go up significantly if you respond to the current conditions within the industry, not what was true when Carter was in the White House.

Adopt, adapt, and improve, as the Knights of the Round Table used to say. Let’s install a phone jack and communicate like the big kids do, huh?

Which brings me to the blog’s mission for this week: I am going to be talking about ways to find new agents to query, over and above going through the standard agents’ guides alphabetically or simply searching online under “literary agents.” Because for the sake of your book, even if you are biting your nails to the elbow, waiting to hear back from the agent of your dreams, you honestly do need to keep querying.

That’s not being pessimistic; it’s just being practical. And it’s doing what the agent of your dreams is probably already assuming that you’re doing, anyway. Times have changed.

So expect to see some good nuts-and-bolts advice here over the next few days. And in the meantime, keep up the good work

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