Blurbology 101: the chick with the chinchillas

As I mentioned a few days ago, part of my goal in walking my readers through the agents and editors scheduled to attend this summer’s Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association conference is not only to provide information necessary to make an informed decision about whom to pick for pitching appointments, but also to introduce those of you new to the publishing game how to read a blurb. That way, this series is not only useful specifically for those of you planning on attending PNWA, but also as a learning experience to add yet another vital tool to your writers’ tool bag.

The industry definitely has its own language, so to outsiders, blurbs may appear to say something quite different than what they say to an insider. If you a very literal person (as writers tend to be), it helps to be aware of this. At the very least, being cognizant of the possibility of particular phrases meaning something other than what they appear to you to mean on first reading will substantially lessen the probability of your making the classic first-time conference attendee’s mistake: glancing at the brochure blurbs for a minute and a half, looking for key words associated with your genre, and ranking your preferences based upon that scrutiny alone.

To get the ball rolling, let’s look at the blurb posted on the PNWA site for the first agent on our alphabetical list, Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, Ltd.:

“Ginger Clark has been a literary agent with Curtis Brown LTD since Fall 2005. She represents science fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, paranormal chicklit, literary horror, and young adult and middle grade novels. Previously, she worked at Writers House for six years as an Assistant Literary Agent. Her first job in publishing was as an editorial assistant at Tor Books. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. She is the Secretary of the Contracts Committee of the AAR. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and four pet chinchillas.”

For those of you whose editorial fingertips immediately started twitching, longing to correct the typos, fair warning: agent and editor blurbs very frequently feature writing gaffes that would prevent a submission from getting picked up. They will routinely capitalize things that have no business being capitalized in English, as Ms. Clark has done here; they will omit necessary punctuation; they will misspell words.

And no one, but no one in the industry will think the worse of that agent for it. Even if she goes so far as, say, misspelling a genre name. Go figure.

I am bringing this up for a reason: aspiring writers often draw inferences about an agent or editor’s literacy from such errors, but that is a mistake. Since poor writing skill display is fairly universal in these blurbs — and no one in the industry expects anything different — it doesn’t make sense to draw any inference at all other than the one most likely to be true: they wrote the blurbs in 8 minutes at the end of a 12-hour work day and sent them in without spell-checking.

Fortunately for the future of English prose, we writers know better than to do something like THAT, right?

So, typos aside, what can we learn from this blurb? Well, the fact that she mentions how recently she switched from her last job would automatically lead someone versed in blurbology to wonder if she has much experience in selling in the areas she lists; the fact that she transferred from an agency known to favor very literary writing, even in its genre clients, to one more committed to genre on the whole would indicate at least some shifts in interests — which would necessarily mean having to develop new contacts.

You see, contrary to popular belief amongst writers, it’s not enough for a good agent to have a good book in hand that she wants to sell. She needs to be in a position to get that good book under the eyes of the right editor for it, and that can be difficult. The better-established an agent and agency is as sellers of your particular book category, the more likely it is that your book will be shown to an editor with a successful track record with such books — and the more likely the editor is to read it in a timely manner.

Thus, a writer new to the industry is usually better off seeking out either well-established individual agents with a long history of selling books like hers to editors (and thus has established her own contacts) or junior agents at well-known agencies where the AGENCY has a history in the genre. Or in literary fiction, as the case may be.

Ms. Clark, as her blurb tells us, is relatively new to her agency, which is quite well-established — so two thumbs up there. However, the fact of her recent transplantation would alert an experienced blurb-reader to budget a bit more time to do a background check on her than for someone more firmly ensconced at an agency.

Why? It’s no reflection upon her status as an agent; it’s pure logistics. It inherently takes longer to do research on an agent who has switched recently, because it requires looking up client lists, acquisition policies, sales, etc. for two agencies, rather than one. This is kind of a pain.

But it really is in your best interests to check for sales and clients in both venues. When an agent moves from one agency to another (which happens all the time), her clients won’t necessarily go with her, which can mean that in the first year or so after a move, she will appear in the industry databases to have twice as many clients as she actually has.

Why is this potentially important to you, you ask? Well, it means the list you find there might not actually be an accurate picture of what she is representing NOW.

As at any job, the new hire tends to have substantially less say over policy than incumbents who have been there awhile. As a result, a freshly-hired agent may well have less latitude in stretching the boundaries of what the agency represents.

I have no idea whether this is true of Ms. Clark, but it would be a terrific question for someone to ask at an agents’ forum, wouldn’t it?

However, there is an upside: such an agent is often more open to new writers as a result of the move: again, thumbs up. Because she may have lost clients in transit (a writer’s contract is generally with the agency, not the individual agent), a recently-transplanted agent is often hungrier for new clients than someone who has been settled in one place for a long time.

Okay, what else can the blurb tell us, other than that she might be partial to a protagonist who regularly fondles chinchillas? (And no, I have no idea why these blurbs so often include information about what part of New York agents and editors have chosen for residence. It’s not as though they expect us to appear on their Brooklyn doorsteps bearing streusel and cider, after all.)

Some very good things are listed here: she holds an official position within the AAR. That’s the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the fine folks who police the agenting biz internally. The fact that she cares enough about keeping the biz ethical speaks very well of Ms. Clark’s general attitude about agenting — and I, for one, applaud her for her community spirit.

One other thing she has told us: because she used to work at Tor, she should have KILLER connections there. If you have any aspirations whatsoever to write SF or fantasy, this should set your little heart all a-flutter, and send her right up to the top of your preference list.

It should also send you scurrying to see what she’s sold to Tor recently, so see if those connections have been doing her clients much good.

As I’ve said before, however, the best proof of an agent’s interests is what she’s sold within the last few years. Let’s run barefoot through her recent sales, to see what they can tell us about her preferences — and so you can rush to the nearest big bookstore, pull some of her clients’ work off the shelves, and try to get a sense of what kind of writing she likes, if she represents your kind of book.

Because she has moved so recently, I am going to separate her sales under the aegis of Curtis Brown from those at Writers House, to make it easier to see how (or if) her client list has changed. (These are all the sales the well-respected Publishers Marketplace database lists; there may be more, do ask her.) Also, please note: wherever possible, I group sales under the same book category headings used in the blurb, to try to clarify what is specifically meant by each category. (Since Ms. Clark bandied about some non-standard terminology in this blurb, this should be especially helpful.)

Here’s what I could find of her sales since she’s been with Curtis Brown:

Science fiction/fantasy: Jeri Smith Ready’s BAD COMPANY, “about a cadre of vampire DJs and the con artist trying to save their ‘lives'” (Pocket, in a 2-book deal, 2006); Tim Pratt’s BLOOD ENGINES, “the first book in an urban fantasy series featuring a sharp-tongued sorceress, chronicling her confrontation with a crazed fellow sorcerer intent on destroying San Francisco” (Bantam Spectra, in a 2-book deal, 2006); Jon Armstrong’s debut novel, GREY, “set in a future where every single move of the rich and famous is reported by the media and plastic surgery is as common and easy as getting a haircut” (isn’t that already true? It was sold to Night Shade Books, 2006).

YA: Patricia Wrede’s fantasy trilogy FRONTIER MAGIC, “set in an alternative version of the 1800s American Frontier where a 13th child comes to realize she doesn’t have to turn out unlucky” (Scholastic, in a $$$ 3-book deal, 2007).

Fascinating, no? It’s possible that she didn’t post all of her sales since on the standard industry databases, of course, but it is interesting that while the sales listed there coincide with what she reports as her current tastes, not all of what she lists as her current tastes are represented here.

This could mean one of two things: either this is an old blurb, one that reflects outdated professional preferences (unlikely, because the move was so recent, but certainly possible), or she is looking to broaden her areas of focus. If it’s the latter, writers in those other areas should rejoice: she is probably actively looking to recruit in those genres.

Let’s take a look at what she sold at Writers House, for contrast. Bear in mind that since she was an assistant there, not all of the projects she worked upon may list her as primary agent, so the databases may have missed a few:

SF/fantasy: Assistant editor at Locus magazine and nominee for the John W. Campbell Award Tim Pratt’s THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF RANGERGIRL, “a dark fantasy about a young comic book artist whose characters start appearing in her real life — including the spirit of an old and powerful evil” (Bantam Spectra, 2004); Short story writer Eliot Fintushel’s debut novel BREAKFAST WITH THE ONES YOU LOVE, “incorporating elements of Jewish mysticism and gonzo science fiction, featuring the adventures of a young runaway and her new boyfriend as they — with the help of 10 elderly neighborhood men — attempt to bring about the re-opening of Eden” (Bantam Spectra, 2005);

YA: Elizabeth E. Wein’s THE MARK OF SOLOMON, “the fourth in her young adult King Arthur series set in medieval Ethiopia” (Viking Children’s, 2004); Alan Gratz’s debut novel SAMURAI SHORTSTOP, “about a boy in turn of the century Japan who incorporates bushido – the way of the warrior – into his baseball practices to prove to his father there is still room for samurai tradition in the new Japan” (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2004)

Middle grade: Candie Moonshower’s THE LEGEND OF ZOEY, “about a feisty, witty 13-year-old who travels back in time to encounter the biggest earthquake to ever hit Tennessee” (Delacorte Children’s, 2004)

Hmm. Not a lot of Tor, is there? But a whole lot of Bantam Spectra, which makes me wonder if some of her old Tor cronies moved over there. (Again, it might be a good question to ask.) In any case, Ms. Clark’s connections for SF/fantasy appear to be working for her beautifully; we should definitely be impressed by her penchant for brokering multi-book deals for her clientele.

On the down side, I haven’t been able to dig up any paranormal romance, paranormal chick lit, or horror sales at all. Again, she may have worked in these areas as an assistant, or sales may have slipped through the databases, but if I were planning to pitch one of these types of books, I would want to stand up and ask her at the agents’ forum what she has sold in these areas, or if these interests are new to her.

So I did a little more checking, and lo and behold, literary horror IS a new interest for her. (“Think Peter Straub/H.P. Lovecraft,” she says in one industry listing, “not splatterpunk.”).

Turns out, too, that she has only just started accepting e-mail queries (most agents still VASTLY prefer paper), but she will only respond to the ones she likes, she says. So if you query her electronically, don’t expect to see a rejection come flying back at you.

If all this has left you intrigued, I would suggest that you check out her guest blogger spot on Magical Musings. If you are interested in what her philosophies on agenting were when she was at Writers House, as a sort of compare-and-contrast exercise, I found a rather interesting interview with her, featuring a photo of her clutching something furry that I hope to God is one of her pet chinchillas.

Also, if you can’t make it to the PNWA conference, but want to fire some questions at her, she is scheduled for an Ask the Agent spot on Absolute Write on July 5th. (Thanks for the hot tip on that great site, Toddie.)

Whew — I wasn’t kidding when I said that doing the background research on these agents was time-consuming, was I? But isn’t it interesting how much information there is out there on an agent that isn’t covered in the blurb?

Again, I would encourage you not to take what I say here as Gospel: do your own research, and always, always take field trip to a bookstore to try to find work by clients of an agent you think you might like to represent you, to see if your writing style makes sense on her list. If nothing else, it will give you a great little icebreaker for when you bump into her in a hallway at PNWA and want to ask if she’ll hear your pitch: “You represent so-and-so, don’t you? I loved his/her/its last book.”

Trust me, there isn’t an agent in the world whose stony heart won’t soften just a little bit after an opening line like that. Agents work hard, but behind the scenes: they aren’t recognized enough for their work.

More agent profiles follow, of course — although, with this length of write-up, I may skip a day between postings, to rest my weary wrists. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The agents and editors scheduled to attend PNWA this year

All right, enough prologue-ing about how and why the blurbs provided by conferences about their invited agents and editors tend to be woefully insufficient. On to figuring out what we can learn from them, as well as from other sources.

For those of you who were not yet reading this blog last spring, what I like to do is go through the scheduled attendees one by one, finding out as much information about their professional activities as I can. Then I read their posted blurbs in light of this information, to try to gain as much insight as possible into what kind of books they might be interested in picking up this summer. Then I compress it all here into a pithy little post, for your referencing pleasure.

Why? To make it easier for readers who are planning to attend the PNWA conference to pick which agents and editors would be the best fit for their books — and rank them accordingly. (The PNWA, like many conferences, tries to match attendees with their preferred targets as often as possible, so their registration form will ask you to list your appointment choices in order of desire.)

But since this information is undoubtedly useful for anyone thinking about querying these people, it should make for interesting reading for those of you not planning to attend as well.

I will be presenting these agents and editors in alphabetical order, just so you know, not ranked in any sort of hierarchy of excellence or interest, and over enough days’ blogs to justify the length of time it took to track the information down. (The research is seriously time-consuming, enough so that at the end of last year’s binge, I swore I would never do it again. However, readers really loved it last year, so…)

Please note, though: what I will be presenting here is my impression of these people’s book preferences, based upon information available from various publishing industry resources and what I have heard on the quite extensive publishing grapevine. This is not intended to be an authoritative overview, nor the last word on these people. In fact, I would actively encourage you to do your own additional research on any agent or editor you are considering approaching.

Please be aware, too, that the sales and acquisition info I’ll be passing along here is from the standard publishing databases, which are not always entirely up-to-date or totally accurate. Not all agents routinely report their sales to Publishers Marketplace, for instance.

Kindly remember as well that any list of sales will reflect only those clients for whom these agents have actually sold books, rather than their entire client lists, which may not give a truly representative (so to speak) picture.

All of this is beyond my control, I tell you. Stop poking me with that sharp stick.

One last thing: as I mentioned yesterday, I shall not be covering every agent and editor scheduled to attend PNWA, just the ones who did not attend last year. You may find my last year’s write-ups on the returnees in the clearly-marked category at right.

Do be aware that even including these, we may not end up with a complete list of the ultimate attendees. It is far from uncommon for agents and editors (particularly editors) to bow out of conference commitments at the last minute. Happens all the time, in fact, and I’ve literally never heard of a conference’s refunding a registrant’s money because the agent of his dreams cancelled his trip.

Yes, it’s unfair. It is also entirely beyond my control, so please do not ask me to predict possible switches or complain to me if this happens at PNWA this year — or any other year, for that matter. (Contrary to popular belief, I have absolutely no pull at the PNWA — my almost year-long tenure as their website’s Resident Writer earned me precisely diddly-squat plus the opportunity to teach my how to pitch class again this year.)

Okay, all of those disclaimers out of the way, let’s see what we can learn from our first glance at this year’s crop of agents and editors.

Fewer repeats than I had anticipated: of the agents who came last year, the returnees are (in alphabetical order) Jennifer Cayea, Catherine Fowler, Michelle Grajkowski, Kate McKean, Rita Rosenkranz, and Alice Volpe, all of whom I profiled last year.

What, if anything, can we read into the fact that they plan to return? Well, there are two likely explanations. First, they could have been impressed with the quality of the talent they found at last year’s conference, and are eager to tap that pool of talent again. Or — and this happens more often than writers tend to think — they could have a brother, sister, boyfriend, girlfriend, child, college roommate, etc., who lives in the greater Seattle area, and want to use the conference as an excuse to make a tax-deductible visit.

Is this the right place to deny any knowledge of that pervasive local rumor about the VERY influential agent who used to come to PNWA every year because his mistress danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet? If such a person existed, and if he stopped making the trip west after they broke up, I know nothing about it.

Assuming that all of the returnees are on the up-and-up, however, it would be very useful to know if any of them actually signed any writers they met at PNWA last year, as it would give a rather solid sense of how serious they are about picking up clients at conferences. Someone might want to ask them that at the agents’ forum, in fact.

Please don’t depend upon me to ask this question during the forum — I shall not be in the room. I go to the conference to run the Pitch Practicing Palace, which will ONLY be operating on Thursday, the first day of the conference, this year. (I.e., not on either of the days when attendees would be pitching.)

I know, I know: it was not my decision. (See my earlier comment about my not having any pull at the PNWA.)

Some of the agencies that send representatives every year are sending someone again, just different people; in a way, this is actually better for the writers who attend every year, since it prevents the rather awkward problem of pitching the same book to the same agent or editor twice. Loretta Barrett Books is sending Nick Mullendore this year, instead of Loretta Barrett; Folio is sending Scott Hoffman, instead of last year’s {name removed at agent’s request; for explanation, please see post of May 10, 2006, when I originally wrote about him}, and Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (DGLM, the agency that represents me) is sending Jim McCarthy, instead of Lauren Abramo. And Elizabeth Wales, although she skipped last year, has been a regular feature at PNWA for years.

It’s worth paying attention when an agency commits to sending a representative year after year: it speaks well of the conference, or at any rate of the agency’s perception of the conference. It implies that the recidivist agencies believe that the conference, or at least its ambient writing community, prepares its writers well for entering the professional sphere.

Or, if you’re cynical, it implies a grateful recognition of the conference location’s ability to attract such affection-generating relatives, friends, and lovers for agents to visit. Either way, these people are coming out from New York (for the most part), and you will be able to pitch to them.

Sometimes, though, agencies will send representatives to a particular conference year after year because they have a specific interest in that region of the country — and if that’s the case, any of you who write novels set in the Pacific Northwest will DEFINITELY want to pitch to them. So it well worth asking agents from these repeatedly-sending agencies whether the agency picked up any new clients at this conference last year, or within the last couple of years, and why.

(See comment above about the probability of my being in the room to ask that question for you.)

My point is, agents seldom show up at a conference randomly. Good agents want to attend conferences where they will meet good writers, and repeat attendance is the primary way that agencies show where they think their representatives are most likely to attain that end.

So think about what we have learned just from glancing over the list of attending agents: of the 17 scheduled, 10 either attended the conference last year, have in the past, or work for agencies that have sent agents here before. That implies a certain industry faith in the level of writing talent PNWA attracts.

And that, my friends, is why I broke my last year’s vow not to profile its attending agents and editors again. It’s a well-respected conference.

Okay, so there’s a sentimental reason I do it, too: I landed MY agent at PNWA. With a pitch. So I know from the very best possible authority that it is possible to pull off.

Details on individual agents follow, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

How to read those annoyingly vague little agent and editor blurbs, part II

Today, I shall begin my analysis of the list of agents and editors scheduled to attend this summer’s PNWA conference. If you are not planning on attending, do not despair of finding this series useful: there is nothing to prevent you from querying the agents I profile here separately from the contest, and reading these posts will help teach you how to interpret what agents do and do not say about themselves in their blurbs.

It will be a learning experience, I promise.

Before I get down to specifics, a little general advice: generally speaking, a web search should NOT be your only means of gleaning information about an agent or editor; this is equally true whether you are thinking about pitching to such an individual at a conference or sending him a query. The ever-expanding web gives people the illusion that all available information can be had online, but it’s just not true.

For one thing, there is no organization out there empowered to make sure that everything posted online is true. (And if you doubt this, please read through the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right: there are plenty of web-based scams aimed at writers.) Also, the relative ease of online searches can give the false impression that the highest-ranked hits on the list are the best — an unwise way to select an agent.

Take everything you find with a grain of salt, and always, ALWAYS double-check the information you find online against one of the well-respected standard agency guides. The best-known are the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and the Hermann Guide, and while they are both a trifle expensive, if you have a short list of agents whose tastes you want to verify, writers have been known to walk into a major bookstore, take a guide off the shelf, consult it, then return it to the shelf.

If anything about how an agency presents itself seems even remotely fishy — if, for instance, they offer you representation before they have read your entire book or book proposal — run, don’t walk, to the Association of Authors’ Representatives website or Preditors and Editors to make sure that they are on the up-and-up. If an agent doesn’t have a $ next to his or her name on P&E, indicating verified book sales, you should definitely start doing some checking before you submit ANY of your work.

I’m serious about this. An unethical agent can cost you a great deal of money and time; don’t fall into the extremely common trap of offering your work to the first agent who turns up on a web search.

Or the first one who mentions your type of book in a conference brochure, for that matter. (Don’t laugh; plenty of conference attendees pick their appointment preferences this way. Agents and editors with last names falling earlier in the alphabet are routinely requested more often than those falling later.) Choosing to whom you wish to pitch is a serious decision, requiring serious strategic thought.

It’s really in your best interest, you know. Think about it: you are contemplating entering a lifetime relationship with an agent or editor, ideally — your chances of success are significantly higher if you find out a bit about their tastes and professional preferences before you pitch or query.

Do be aware, too, that the blurbs listed on websites and in conference brochures are often written in publishing-speak: they need to be read carefully and with a glossary at hand. Sometimes, too, writers misread the specialties listed in the blurb, rushing to read through all of them before making ranking decisions, or do not know that a particular agent does not want to see certain kinds of work at all.

Yes, it seems a little nasty when an agent says he won’t even consider certain genres, but once you’ve been at it awhile, you’ll come to recognize that those who are upfront about their dislikes are giving you a gift: you know not to waste your time, or theirs, if you write work they do not like.

At the risk of sounding jaded (and who wouldn’t, after a decade of attending writers’ conferences all over the country?), it’s been my experience that in reading these blurbs, it’s a good idea to bear in mind that these people SELL things for a LIVING. A very come-hither pitch does not necessarily equate to actual approachability. Sometimes, an agent who sounds warm and friendly on paper turns out in real life to be… well, let’s be charitable, shall we, and say unwelcoming?

Or, as those of you who followed the faux pas series already know, very enthusiastic during the pitch meeting without actually intending to pick up any new clients at the conference at all.

Sometimes, the opposite is true, where a hostile-sounding blurb conceals a warm and wonderful agent. And often, it’s hard to tell whether an agent sounds eager to find new talent because she genuinely is, or because that’s her standard line, or because she’s brand-new to the publishing world and hungry for sales.

For all of these reasons, it can be quite a jolt when you get to the conference, appointment card in hand, and hear your assigned agent speak at the agents’ forum: you catch yourself thinking, if only I knew all this a few months ago, when I made my agent choices. So you scramble around, trying to switch your appointment with others’.

The best way to avoid this situation, of course, is to do advance research on the agents who will be attending.

It also makes possible a very graceful opening line for your meeting: “You represent so-and-so, don’t you? I just love his/her work!”

Trust me, there isn’t an agent in the world who doesn’t like to hear that.

A word to the wise, though: if you use that opener, you had better be familiar with any book you mention. Because a significant proportion of the time, the agent so accosted will want to talk about it. Go figure.

Oh, dear, I seem to have spent so much time on general advice on selection that I need to put off launching into the specifics until tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

How to read those annoyingly vague little agent and editor blurbs

I briefly considered giving today’s post a subtler, more elegant title, but if there is any single characteristic that every agented writer who has ever attended a literary conference shares — other than the sheer fact of having signed subsequently with an agent, of course — it’s that we’re all HUGELY grateful not to be forced to try to decipher any more of those one-paragraph blurbs agents and editors provide for conference brochures. “Hallelujah,” we all say on a regular basis, kissing our fingertips skyward at Whomever, “I don’t have to read THOSE anymore.”

Well, actually, we don’t — the trials of the agented writer are too many, and of the published writer too odd, for us to look backward much. Sorry. But we should, as members of the larger writing community: coming out of an industry ostensibly devoted to promulgating clear, incisive prose that actually means what it says, those blurbs are often downright embarrassing.

And, still worse, unhelpful. Much of the time, they are poorly written, not particularly informative, and seem more devoted to making the agent or editor in question appear to be a nice guy and interesting person than giving the hapless writer staring at the brochure or website enough information about their professional interests — which, I hate to break it to them, is really the only level at which we writers want to be interacting with them, at the conference stage of the relationship — to be able to make a remotely informed decision about to whom we should pitch our work at the conference whose brochure they grace.

I defy you to try to say that last paragraph in a single breath. Louis Armstrong himself would turn blue halfway through. Such is the extent of my chagrin on the issue.

Why am I so exorcised, you ask? Simple: I have been glancing through the agents and editors scheduled to attend PNWA this year, and while their blurbs, as a collection of English prose, really are not any worse than those one might find in any writers’ conference brochure in any given year, I have to say, as Your Friend in the Biz, I’ve been shaking my head. I know some of the people blurbed there fairly well, and have met many of the others — but I’m not sure I would recognize any of them from their blurbs, if names and photos were not attached.

What’s wrong with ’em, you ask? Well, it can be quite hard to tell the players apart — and since the blurbs are ostensibly included in conference brochures and on websites for the SOLE purpose of attracting writers to want to pitch to these people, that seems inefficient, to say the least.

But seriously, as nearly as I can tell, there is no standard for an agent or editor blurb in a conference brochure: some agents choose to share a little, some share a lot. Many of them are quite vague, and others merely list the agents’ best-known clients. However, even that is getting rarer: these days, most just copy their bios first from their agencies’ or publishing houses’ websites, and representation information would be elsewhere on the website.

To add insult to injury, sometimes the same blurb is used for years on end — as are, in flagrant disregard of receding hairlines, photographs — so even if the blurbs do include information about books they have sold or acquired, it is often outdated. (Also frequently true of the standard agents’ guides, believe it or not.)

Why is this a problem? Well, when the titles included were sold quite some time ago, you can’t always be sure that the agent still represents that kind of work, or that the editor still acquires it.

Yeah, I know: bummer.

In their defense, however, the agents don’t list old sales in blurbs and agent guides to be misleading: they are trying to use titles that a prospective client might be able to find in a bookstore. Because the fact is, if an agent sold a book within the last year and a half, it almost certainly is not in bookstores yet for you to find.

I’m going to pause a moment here, to allow that information to sink into the brains of those of you brand-new to the publishing game. It’s true: unless a press is trying to coincide with a specific event (such as a presidential election) or capitalize on a major catastrophe (such as Hurricane Katrina), the MINIMUM time between a book’s sale and its release is generally a year.

Often, it’s longer. And you have only to talk to virtually any agented author to learn that the length of time between signing with an agent and the first sale is frequently as long or longer than production time AFTER the sale.

It’s okay; I’ll wait for you to recover from your swoon.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you, honest, but to clarify why an agent or editor might refer to older titles in his or her blurb. Realistically, the books you are seeing on the shelf today are much more representative of what any given agent or editor was interested in three or four years ago than today.

Unfortunately, you are pitching to the person the agent or editor is NOW.

A lot can happen in a person’s life in three years, and even more in the publishing industry. Three years ago, for instance, memoirs were not primarily regarded as potential lawsuit traps — thank you, James Frey — but as rich sources of highly reader-grabbing material. Ah, those were the days… although perhaps I have a more golden view of them, because my agent sold my memoir to a good publisher almost exactly two years ago.

How quickly things can change, eh?

My point is, while doing your homework about agents and editors is smart conference preparation, the blurbs may not be all that helpful to you. They’re a good place to start, of course, but finding out which writers they represent currently, as opposed to five years ago, can genuinely be hard work.

Agents often seem amazingly unaware of this, or even incredulous when writers point it out: naturally, they huff, their sales are a matter of public record; of course everyone knows about them. It’s a relatively small industry, after all, so everyone within it knows who represents whom, right?

But if you, like pretty much every aspiring writer who did not go to school with somebody important in the industry, don’t know the affiliations, how are you to find out? More to the point, how do you find out what the agent in question is selling NOW, rather than a couple of years ago?

Well, the most direct way of doing it would be to check industry publications to see not only who and what the agent represents, but also what books the agent has sold recently. As in this year and last, the stuff that isn’t on the shelves yet.

Before you swoon again at the prospect of digging up that kind of information, let me break the suspense: because I love you people, I am going to dig up this particular dirt on the agents and editors who are planning to attend this year’s PNWA conference. That way, you can make informed decisions.

To make this a learning experience, however, rather than just an information transfer, I am going to couch all this info within the context of an extended lesson on how to read those blasted blurbs productively.

You’re welcome.

Last year, I ended up devoting a month to this project; by the end of it, I never wanted to hear the word agent again. This year, I shall only be profiling those agents and editors who did NOT attend last year. (This compromise by popular demand; thank you, those of you who weighed in on the subject last month.) So if you find yourself startled to see an agent or editor missing, your best bet would be to check the newly-formed category at right, Agents/Editors Who Attend PNWA, to seek out last year’s only slightly outdated write-ups.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: the moment of truth

As we head into conference season, goosebumps start to rise and stomachs start to knot over the prospect of pitching. I’m going to be delving into the how and whys of pitching later in the spring, but for the sake of all of you readers who are looking at pitching for the first time within the next few months, I am going to plumb that inexhaustible source of wisdom lurking here in our little community: all of you out there who HAVE pitched before.

C’mon, I know some of you have pitched before; I’ve seen you do it. Time to share your experience with others.

So, tell us: what do you wish someone had said to you immediately before the first time you pitched? How did you deal with pre-pitching nerves? What helped you through the experience?

To start the ball rolling: one of the first times I pitched, I was trying to get an agent for a very serious literary novel set in an academic environment. So I looked through the agent listings for the conference and picked the one and only agent there who professed to be interested in academic work. (In retrospect, this was a mistake: I wasn’t trying to sell an academic book; I was trying to sell a novel, so I should have pitched to someone who represented literary fiction.)

The agent was not, how shall I put this, a warm and fuzzy human being: walking into her cubicle was like entering one of those houses of horror Vincent Price used to frequent in old B movies. You could have stored ice cream on her tongue. But I was there to pitch, so I screwed up my nerve and began.

She stopped me at the second sentence. “Doesn’t interest me,” she said. “Why isn’t it a memoir? It would be easier to sell.”

To a novelist, this always seems like a trick question, doesn’t it? “Because it’s not about my life,” I said politely. “It’s fiction.”

She folded her arms across her chest, sighing like Nurse Rachet about to sedate an out-of-control patient. “Not a market for it as fiction. Maybe you should write about something else.” And then she blinked at me, clearly delighting in the expression on my face.

Now, I could have burst into tears — believe me, it would have required no effort at all at that particular moment. I could have asked her to have the basic courtesy to listen to the rest of my pitch before she told me to give up writing fiction altogether. I could have argued with her. I could even have pointed out to her that the vast majority of agents and editors are not sadists, and that they do not use pitch appointments to get their jollies by telling people to shoo.

However, I was lucky enough to grow up around a whole lot of writers, and if I learned anything from that experience, it was that the rare agent who doesn’t like writers cannot be sufficiently avoided.

I gathered up my bag — which was, incidentally, carrying cards from agents who had been charmed by my pitch — and stood. “Thank you for your time. Enjoy the rest of the conference.”

She was flabbergasted. “Wait! We have twelve minutes left. Don’t you want me to tell you how to market your book?”

She looked so distressed at my flight that I almost felt sorry for her. But not quite. “You’ve already told me it doesn’t interest you. Goodbye.” And I walked away, leaving her open-mouthed.

I hope, trust, and pray that none of you will have a pitching experience like this; this level of rudeness is in fact quite rare. I mention it, not to scare you, but to pass along something a very wise writer once taught me: “Pumpkin,” he said, “it’s YOUR story. If they don’t like it, walk away.”

That rather truculent advice, I must confess, has kept my head high walking into many a pitch meeting. The world, I remind myself, will not end if this agent or editor does not like my book. He’s probably going to be nice to me. And if he isn’t, he is not the only agent or editor in the world.

Now it’s your turn, readers who have pitched before. Tell us: what thought kept your head high and your knees from knocking during that meeting?

Trust and mistrust: what every conference attendee should know about pitching to editors at conferences

Yesterday, I was waxing poetic on a must-follow piece of conference-selection advice — if you are looking for an agent, only invest in attending conferences where agents with a proven track record of selling with your type of book will be available for your pitching pleasure. Feel free to derive an important corollary from this excellent axiom: from this moment on, ONLY pitch or query your book to agents who represent that kind of book.

Seems so simple, put that way, doesn’t it? Yet the vast majority of aspiring writers either take a scattershot approach, querying fairly randomly (thus all of those “Dear Agent” letters that folks in the industry hate so much) or let the conferences do the selection for them, pitching to whoever is there with a winsome disregard for matching their books with the right agent.

I cannot say this often enough: you do not want to be signed by just ANY agent — although, in the throes of agent-seeking, it’s certainly easy to start believing that any agent at all would be better than none. You want the agent who is going to be able to sell your work quickly and well.

Believe it or not, even the surliest agent who ever strode contemptuously into a literary conference and brushed off a pitcher wants this as well.

Agents, perversely enough, want to sign authors of books they know they can sell. Since they are inundated with queries and pitches, it is in their best interests to weed out the absolutely-nots as swiftly as humanly possible. So if you’re rejected by an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of work — at a conference or via query — it doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of your writing or the idea you are pitching. It’s just about a bad fit.

I know it’s hard to accept when your baby is rejected out of hand, but it is vital for your professional mental health that you bear the issue of fit in mind constantly while you are pitching and querying. Not only isn’t anything personal about a bad-fit rejection — it does not even begin to be a fair test of how the book will fly with an agent who does represent that kind of work.

The best way to avoid this kind of rejection, of course, is not to pitch or query your book to any agent that isn’t predisposed to be interested in it.

Check before you pitch. Even better, check before you register for the conference where you intend to pitch.

Ditto with editors — no editor in the business acquires across every genre; in fact, most editors’ ability to acquire is sharply limited by their publishing houses to just one or two types of book. So it would be a waste of your pitching energies to, say, try to interest an editor who does exclusively mysteries in your fantasy novel, right?

One major caveat about pitching to editors at conferences: be aware that all of the major NYC publishing houses currently have policies forbidding their editors to acquire work by unagented writers. This means, in essence, that the BEST that could happen if you pitched your book to an editor from one of these houses is that he might help you hook up with an agent.

I mention this, because in most of the flavors of common being-discovered-at-a-conference fantasy, an editor from Random House or somewhere similar hears a pitch, falls over backwards in his chair, and offers a publication contract on the spot, neatly bypassing the often extended agent-seeking period entirely. Conference today, contract tomorrow, Oprah on Thursday.

In reality, even if an editor was blown over (figuratively, at least) by a pitch, he might buttonhole one of the attending agents at a conference cocktail party on your behalf, and they might together plot a future for the book, but you’re still going to have to impress that agent before you can sign with the editor.

Before any of you protest that at the last conference you attended, editors asked for your work as though they intended to pick you up, allow me to add: the we-accept-only-the-agented is most assuredly NOT the impression that most conference pitchers to editors receive.

There’s a reason for this: unless they are asked point-blank during an editors’ forum how many of them have come to the conference empowered to pick up a new author on the spot — a question well worth asking, hint, hint — most editors who attend conferences will speak glowingly about their authors, glossing over the fact that they met these authors not in settings like this, but through well-connected agents.

Adding to the mystique is the fact that few conference brochures or websites are honest enough to feature the major houses’ policies next to the appropriate attending editors’ listings. In fact, most conference rhetoric surrounding pitch appointments with editors directly states the opposite, encouraging pitchers to believe that this meeting could be their big break.

I don’t think conference organizers do this in order to be mean or misleading — I just think many of them are not hip to the current conditions of the industry. I don’t know what the declaiming editors’ excuse is, but trust me, no editor is going to jeopardize his job at Ballentine by handing a contract to a writer his boss would throw a fit if he signed.

So why, you may be wondering, do editors from the majors attend literary conferences — and, once there, why do they request submissions?

Editors from the major houses request manuscripts from pitchers all the time — but not because they are looking to sign the author on the strength of the book. They just want to get in on the ground floor if the book is going to be the next…

You guessed it. No editor wants to be the one who passed on the next DA VINCI CODE.

It’s a gamble, pure and simple. So even though they would not in fact pick up the next DA VINCI CODE if its author DID pitch to them at a conference, having a personal connection with the author is a great means of queue-jumping. If one of them is nice enough to you, you might tell your agent (once you hook up with one) that you want your potential bestseller sent to that editor first. Heck, if she’s nice enough to you, you might be gullible enough to insist that she gets an exclusive.

Don’t laugh: it’s not a bad gamble, from their perspective. Aspiring writers, as I have pointed out before, can get some strange ideas about loyalty owed to industry types who met them for a grand total of fifteen minutes once.

But trust me: deep in their steamy little hearts, those editors from major houses who ask you to send chapters will be hoping that you will land an agent before they get around to reading the manuscript they requested you send. If you are looking to pitch to an editor who might conceivably pick up your book right away, you are generally better off pitching to an editor from a smaller house.

The overall moral: learning what individual agents and editors are looking for (aside from the next DA VINCI CODE, of course) will help you target both your conference pitches and your queries more effectively.

Don’t worry — I’m not going to abandon you to attempt this formidable task alone. Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to show you how to decipher those opaque little blurbs about their preferences that conference organizers are so fond of adding to their websites and brochures, as well as how to find out who represents and buys what from other sources.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Picking a conference for its agents, and picking agents at a conference

Sorry, regular readers — I went and got you all excited on Wednesday about how to pick a conference, and then I did not post my follow-up yesterday, as planned. Actually, I did not do anything at all yesterday; I had a migraine that would have stopped Godzilla in her formidable tracks. Hard to peer at a computer screen when light makes one wince.

I’m back on the job today, though, and raring to go.

In my last couple of posts, I stressed the importance of researching both a conference and the pitching opportunities associated with it BEFORE you pay your registration fee. This is true even if you’re not going in order to try to find an agent or a publisher — if what you really want is an intimate venue geared toward craft, where you may be able to have a conversation with a writer you admire about your work, a primarily marketing-oriented conference will probably be a disappointment to you.

If you want a small and seminar-like on the West Coast, try the Squaw ValleyNapa Valley, or Tin House conferences. Do be aware, though, that seminar-like conferences tend to limit their enrollment. You generally have to write your way in — the industry term for having to apply for such an event — by supplying a writing sample; in effect, admissions work in much the same way as contest entries.

Even at a small conference, whether you have to write your way in or not, it is worth double-checking to see if the agents and editors who are attending have some interest in books like yours. You’ll get better feedback that way, and you’re more likely to end up with a long-term connection that will help your career.

The vast majority of literary contest attendees, however, sign up for conferences with an eye to pitching their work. If this applies to you, take this as your rule of thumb: if a conference does not have at least one agent whose DEMONSTRATED (not just stated; of that, more later in this series) interests coincide with your work, choose another conference for pitching.

Cling to this practical little axiom for dear life, especially if you are shopping a book at all outside the mainstream adult market. If your book is YA, for instance, make VERY sure that the agents and editors at your target conference actually do represent it; if they do not, they will not even listen to your pitch, alas. (And with YA, always double-check to make sure they represent your intended audience: not all YA agents represent children’s books, and vice versa.)

Similarly, if you write SF or fantasy, it would behoove you to pick a conference known for helping writers in your genre. Also true of romance and mystery, which have their own excellent conferences. I’m singling these out, because when agents and editors do not deal with these categories, they have a nasty habit of saying flatly, “I don’t want to hear anything in category X.”

Far, far better to receive that dispiriting news BEFORE you register for a conference than when you’re sitting in the dry air of a conference center or hotel, right? Remember, no agent in the world has universal tastes — given the sheer volume of submissions, they all have to specialize, at least a little.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “Wait a minute,” I hear some of you pointing out, “there are plenty of agencies in the standard agents guides who list practically every genre there is in their — ‘we want to see’ blurbs. Surely, this means that they are generalists?”

No, Virginia, it doesn’t. Typically, super-broad listings mean one of four things:

(1) The agency in question is brand-new, and doesn’t have strong connections to particular imprints yet. By intimating that they are open to every kind of book (the way they usually put it: “we love good writing”), they can garner the broadest array of submissions, and thus are not in danger of categorically rejecting the next DA VINCI CODE.

(2) The agency in question is HUGE, and has agents that specialize in a number of different areas. Generally speaking, it is the writer’s responsibility to pick the right agent from the available array, although some large agencies do have screeners that sort queries to land them on the appropriate desk. Why do they do this? So they won’t run the risk of categorically rejecting the next DA VINCI CODE.

(3) The agency in question actually does have a specialty, listed amongst the many in their blurb. However, the only way aspiring writers can find out about it is to send a query; if I had a dime for every writer I know who has queried based upon a listed preference, only to receive a huffy form rejection letter stating that the agency does not represent that particular kind of book, I could take all of you out to lunch and still have change left over.

So why do they throw open the floodgates to varieties of book that they do not represent? Well, they would consider representing the next DA VINCI CODE, if it fell into their laps.

(4) The agency in question is a fee-charging agency, one that makes its money not by selling its clients’ books, but by charging authors for various services. Sometimes, these soi-disant agencies never sell any books at all. (If you are unfamiliar with what fees are and are not appropriate, please see the Fee-Charging Agencies category at right.)

In other words: don’t make the very common mistake of assuming that just because agents are in the business of handling art, they are not primarily businesspeople. They represent what they are relatively sure they can sell, using connections built up over time. The broader the array of book categories an agency represents, the more resources it will need to invest on an ongoing basis to maintain the necessary contacts. It would be prohibitively expensive for an agency to hire enough agents to keep ties open to editors of every conceivable genre.

Unless, of course, the next DA VINCI CODE comes flying into their office — and everyone who sees it recognizes it instantly as such. (Which did not, incidentally, occur with the DA VINCI CODE.) Then, most of them would be willing to make a pitch in the dark.

Tomorrow, on to selecting editors. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Picking the right conference for you, part II: walking in with your eyes open

Yesterday, I began wading into the weird and wonderful world of literary conferences, letting you in on some guidelines for figuring out which conference is right for you and your book. The timing on this is not entirely coincidental: early registration for the PNWA conference this coming July is now open, and there is a nifty benefit associated with signing up quickly: an extra appointment with an agent to pitch your work.

So while last year, I waited until the end of April to start reviewing the sales records of the agents and acquisition records of the editors planning to attend PNWA, this year, I am getting to it early, to help you make your choices about whom to request. Quite a few of last year’s agents and editors are returning this year, so if you are looking to get the skinny on them right away, please see the brand-new category at right — named, with startling originality. Agents/Editors Who Attend PNWA.

In the interests of full disclosure, there is a reason that I annually single out the PNWA conference for my august attention: not only is it one of the larger ones, and noted for its many great pitching opportunities, but I will also be there, along with the Pitch Practicing Palace staff, to help attendees refine their pitches, target the best agents and editors for their work, and generally calm everyone down.

Yes, I just got word today that it is going to happen again this year – many thanks to all of you who contacted the PNWA to say that you wanted the PPP to offer its services again this year. (Fair warning, though: we may only be open for the first afternoon of the conference – i.e., the Thursday – instead of all three days, as we were last year. We’re still working out the details, though.)

So I confess it: I would love to see as many of my readers attend PNWA as possible, so I can meet you. Is that selfish of me?

Before I get down to agent and editor specifics, though, I am spending a few days going over how to pick a conference, as well as general criteria for selecting the agents and editors for your appointments. (For those of you new to the conference circuit, most big conferences will ask you to rank your preferences, so they can try to give you appointments with the agents and editors you want.)

Hint: the conference closest to you geographically may not be the best fit for the book you are promoting. Nor, hard as it may be to believe, the conference regionally closest to ME.

So back to the brass tacks of selection. When you are browsing a conference’s literature or website to see whether you want to register for it, it is not only important to determine whether you are likely to have the level of agent/editor contact you want, as I discussed yesterday – you will also need to take some time to figure out whether the agents and editors scheduled to attend are ones with whom you would WANT to have contact.

In other words, how likely is the array of agents and editors available at any given conference to pick up your book?

Contrary to an astonishingly pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, not every agent or editor is the right fit for every book. Agents and editors specialize, and furthermore, they have personal preferences as well. The more you know about their areas of representation and interests, the more precise a match you can find for your work.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant along with me now: the industry is not monolithic; no single agent or editor’s opinion represents the entire publishing world. So, logically, it matters very much that you pitch to not just any agent, but one who is predisposed to like books like yours.

Before you even consider signing up for a conference, go through its list of attending agents and editors and ascertain that there is at least one of each who represents books in your category. Ideally, at a big conference, you would like to find more than one, especially if your category is a broad one. Agents do occasionally switch specialties, and believe me, the last thing you want to hear when you’re sitting in a pitch meeting is, “Oh, I don’t represent that kind of book anymore; actually, I’m not sure if anyone here at the conference does.”

Or, still more common, “Yes, I represent YA,” — or romance, SF/fantasy, horror, mysteries, etc., depending on the agent — “but that’s not my age group /I only represent romantica/I don’t do werewolf stories/I’ve given up cozy mysteries…”

Doing a little background research on the agents and editors before you select them, even if that research is limited to reading the blurbs that conference brochures and websites routinely provide, can help minimize the possibility of this kind of unpleasant pitching outcome. And if you pick a conference that features more than one representative of your chosen area of endeavor, if one turns out to have switched specialties, you will have other options.

Checking the agents’ and editors’ areas of specialization may sound self-evident, but at every literary conference I have ever attended (and I’ve been attending them since I was in junior high school; a side effect of growing up amongst writers), I have met at least one good writer on the verge of tears because s/he realized only after s/he got there that there was no one there interested in her work – and thus s/he has just spent a significant amount of money and possibly traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles in order NOT to be able to pitch.

It’s sad to see, really it is.

There are good criteria for choosing which conferences to attend, and poor criteria. When asked, the overwhelming majority of conference attendees report selecting based upon factors that ultimately have little to do with the quality of the pitching experience: how close the conference is to home, who the keynote speaker is, snazziness of brochure, having relatives with whom to stay in Houston, never having been to Maui before.

While all of these are worth considering, if you are trying to find an agent or a publisher for your book, they are not vital considerations. (If you are not planning to pitch work, feel free to rely upon these factors.) What is vital is the array of attending agents and editors and the probability of your work being picked up by one of them.

In selecting amongst conferences, make this your mantra: since an agent who does not represent your kind of work is most assuredly not going to respond positively to your pitch, no matter how good it is, it will not serve your interests to pitch to him. If a conference does not have at least one agent whose DEMONSTRATED (not just stated) interests coincide with your work, choose another conference for pitching your book.

Tomorrow, a little more theory, then we launch into how to read those abstruse little agent and editor blurbs. (It’s not you – they really do tend to sound identical.) In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS: Longtime reader and good writer Kris Swartz has an entry, “Fries, Lies, and Alibis” – good title, Kris — in the Borders/ First Chapters Writing Competition. Winners are determined by reader reviews, so why not take a moment to hop on over to her entry and offer a fellow writer a bit of support? Her entry will be posted there through the end of this month.

What makes a conference right for you?

Well, it’s that time of year again, folks: spring is in the air (at least in my neck of the proverbial woods), those of us in the Pacific Northwest get to see the sun in brief, blinding glimpses after our long annual bout of being locked in a closet by Mother Nature, and a writer’s thoughts begin to turn to literary conferences.

Or is it only me?

I suspect not; this is the season when most of our mailboxes, literal and e-mail, begin to break out in conference brochures — that is, if you’ve ever subscribed to Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, or The Writer, taken a writing seminar, entered a literary contest, or attended a conference before. One of the plagues of modern civilization is the sale and resale of mailing lists, and the let’s-help-writers market is not immune.

Why pay attention to all of this recycling bin fodder now, rather than wait until the weather warms up? Simple: the summer conference season actually starts in the spring, running through October — and, since there is quite a bit of competition amongst conferences for attendees, early registration often carries some tangible benefits.

Commitment incentive, if you will. For instance, as I have mentioned before, the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association’s conference is offering an extra pitching appointment to the first 150 registrants. Not a bad reward for the ability to put a stamp on an envelope or log onto a website faster than other people, eh?

The benefits of conference attendance are, of course, clearly spelled out on the brochures and websites — masses of informative classes, famous keynote speakers, perhaps the opportunity to meet a favorite author or two in the flesh. But let’s be honest about it: most writers go to conferences primarily to pitch their work in person to agents and editors.

Why is this a good idea, given that books are acquired based not upon how well their authors can speak about them, but rather upon the writing, plot, etc.? Well, essentially, in-person pitching allows you to skip a step of the process. A very annoying step, as it happens, and well worth skipping: the querying stage.

It is really, really helpful if you walk into a conference understanding that: you are there not to be discovered by the agent or editor of your dreams, signed instantly, and swept off to literary stardom, but to garner invitations from agents and editors to skip the otherwise-requisite cold querying step and move right on to the send-me-the-first-50-pages step. You are there, in short, to grab at a chance to have your work judged on the merits of the writing, not on how a screener reacts to a 1-page letter.

And that, my friends, is not an opportunity at which to sneeze. Pitching at a conference can speed up a book’s journey to publication by years. So, as investments in your writing career go (especially tax-deductible ones, as a literary conference can be for a writer who files a tax return for a writing business), it can be a doozy.

Provided, of course, that you work the conference well.

For those of you who have never pitched at a literary conference before, here is how it works. Most conferences invite one or more agent(s) and/or editor(s) to speak. At some conferences, like the PNWA or the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, to name two of the best in my neck of the woods, every attendee is given, as part of the price of admission, a brief pitching appointment with an agent and/or editor. 5-15 minutes is average, but at some conferences, it is as little as 2.

At others, such as my favorite small conference, the Flathead River Writers’ Conference, only a limited agent and editor appointments are available. These appointments are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, so it pays to register early.

Thus your first step in considering a conference as an investment should be to ask yourself: realistically, how likely am I to get face-to-face time with an agent or editor? Will I be able to register in time to get an appointment?

If you can land one of those coveted appointments at a smaller conference, it tends to be very worth your while to attend. Usually, in venues where every attendee is automatically booked for face time, the agents and editors will not have read any of your work prior to the appointment, but in a smaller, more seminar-like environment, attendees are often asked to send excerpts of their work beforehand, so the agents and editors can read prior to the appointments. (One of the few larger conferences where everyone gets an appointment AND the agents and editors read work first is Words and Music.)

At a larger conference, however, it substantially easier to pitch outside your scheduled appointment time, and thus to more agents and editors, for the extremely simple reason that there are more of them wandering the hallways. If you are brave enough to attempt the high dive of the conference circuit, the 1-minute hallway pitch, a larger conference will give you more opportunities.

Don’t worry; as we get closer to conference season, I shall be going over how to prepare both a standard pitch and the swifter hallway variety. (You didn’t think I was going to send you in there unprepared, did you? Perish the thought.) Right now, all that is important for you to do is think about the kind of environment likely to be most conducive to your presenting your work well. Not every conference venue works for everyone.

For instance, I have noticed that in conferences in the South, personal appearance is far more important than it is at conferences in other parts of the country — a bit odd, since most of the agents and editors trolling there for new writers tend to be Manhattan-, Los Angeles-, or San Francisco-based, where different standards prevail. (In New York, they notice whom you are wearing; in LA, they notice the body under what you’re wearing, and in San Francisco, they’ll notice how friendly you are. Seriously.)

As a Westerner born and bred, it took me several forays to Southern conferences before I figured out why relative strangers kept asking me if my luggage with all my high heels had been lost in transit and offering to loan me their hair dryers: where I come from, looking good without apparent effort is prized.

Suffice it to say, I now wear heels, and even — sacre bleu! — nylons to Southern conferences, suits in the Midwest, sleek black in the Northeast, and whatever happens to be clean in the Pacific Northwest.

Just as not every outfit is appropriate for every conference venue — leave the Mickey Mouse ears at home, unless you happen to be pitching to Disney executives — neither is every book, or every writer. By giving some thought to the kind of conference experience you are seeking before you send off that check, you can maximize your investment in your writing career.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into the thorny issue of how to decide whether the array of agents and editors scheduled to attend any given conference is right for you and your book. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

A different secret entirely

I was writing in my favorite French bakery on Friday — is there anything better than drinking good coffee while the smells of baking bread and pastry swirl around your laptop? — when I bumped into a delightful writer I met at last year’s PNWA conference. (Here’s how good her pitch was: out of the hundreds I heard last July at the Pitch Practicing Palace, I still remember hers. In detail.) She’s had submission success — hooray! — and we spent a few minutes chatting.

Like so many working writers, we both spoke humorously about our respective disappointments since we’d seen each other last, and it struck me: amongst our ilk, well-justified complaint has become something of an art form. To be capable of expressing one’s continual astonishment at how hard it has become for good writing to find home at either an agency or a publishing house in a beautiful but not bitter manner is, in fact, regarded as a mark of professionalism.

I have mixed feelings about this, to tell you the truth: yes, it’s great that amongst writers, it’s considered completely acceptable, and even normal, to bemoan one’s experiences, as long as one does it in an entertaining manner. In fact, getting together to vent is a time-honored tradition in our inherently isolating profession. I meet regularly with other writers, not to exchange material (I have another group for that), but to compare notes on our respective progress. Which means, a good 90% of the time, collective kvetching.

That crash you just heard was all of the devotees of THE SECRET fainting.

They — like the New Agers before them, Norman Cousins (laughter is the best medicine) in the 1970s, Dr. Coué (every day, in every way, I am getting better and better), in the early part of the last century, and Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science) in the century before that; how a philosophy so well-advertised and commercially promulgated for so long can be called a secret is beyond me — will tell you that collectively dwelling on our setbacks will only lead to more setbacks. We should think only of our future success, in order to attract it.

For writers, I do think there are benefits to this kind of chin-up-little-soldier optimism. Because the path to publication is such a hard road — and no, Virginia, I don’t believe that acknowledging that fact makes it more so; quite the opposite, in fact — it is very, very easy to talk oneself out of walking it at all. So looking on the bright side can be very helpful, to keep oneself out of the doldrums.

I must say, though, that I have yet to find any adherent of this particular stripe of the law of universal attraction who has been explain to me why, if taken to its logical conclusions, it does not lead to blaming the victim. Did everyone living in a war zone think the wrong thoughts before the bombs started falling, for instance? Will any sociologist who studies sexual assault inevitably be raped — or, for that matter, anyone who follows sports become an athlete? When I ask these questions, I am invariably advised to stop following the news — it will only cause me, I am told, to dwell on negativity.

I think that venting amongst writers serves many valid functions, prominent among which is staving off depression. Without mutual honesty about our respective progress toward publication, it’s too easy for any of us to start to think that we’re the only ones to whom setbacks are happening — and if we are the only ones having a hard time, mustn’t that mean that our work, and not the state of the industry, must be at fault?

Just don’t go there. It’s a depressing spiral, and it won’t help you get your work out the door.

So I’m all for writers sharing their woes. Surely, if anyone is going to understand the angst of waiting to hear back from an agent, or the adrenaline-pumping joyous panic of receiving a request for an entire manuscript, or the nail-gnawing agony of knowing that three editors at major houses have told your agent, “Well, I haven’t had time to read it yet, but let me know the second somebody else has made an offer,” another writer will.

It’s the being entertaining part that’s difficult, of course. It’s hard enough to go through the agent-seeking and book-circulation processes without having to turn each twist and turn of the slog into a piquant anecdote. All that work, and we have to be urbane, too?

Actually, if you’re going to hang out with working writers, you do — and here’s why: even very successful writers have problems, and unless the Archangel Gabriel descends from heaven with Dante on his right side and Jane Austen on his left to smite the publishing industry until it treats us better, less successful writers will have problems, too. It’s one of the things that brings us together as a community, the need to air our moans.

But if we didn’t manage to share the details as entertaining little stories, we would all depress one another into a stupor.

As I left the café, warmed by a pleasant contact with a talented writer who genuinely does deserve to succeed (and I am sending positive energies to that outcome like crazy, Dr. Coué), I found myself thinking about Norbert, my faux pas examplar from a couple of days ago, the one who alienated agency screeners by using his queries to vent about the unpleasant necessity of using valuable writing time to find an agent. And about Olive, who tainted her pitch appointment by using it to complain about how hard she had been trying to land an agent, and with what little success. In both of these cases, dwelling conversationally upon their woes certainly did lead to rejection.

However, I would argue that both Norbert and Olive might have avoided this unpleasant fate by complaining MORE — just in a different forum. Had they found each other at a conference, for instance, and spent an hour or two commiserating, perhaps that venting opportunity would have relieved the pent-up pressure enough to enable them each to interact with agents WITHOUT venting.

And that, my friends, would be complaint time well spent.

There’s one more reason, I think, that we writers tend to talk about our setbacks, rather than our victories, when we get together, and not just because those of us with agents and publishing contracts don’t want to sound like swell-headed jerks. It’s a reason that explains why the farther along the path to publication we are, the MORE likely our anecdotes are to linger on our problems. (Explain THAT one, Norman Cousins!) Because it’s a reason that is tied closely to the actual secret of any writer’s publication success.

Come close, and I’ll whisper it to you: the only way to attain success as a writer is to keep trying. And trying, and trying, and trying.

So by sharing our querying setbacks, we tell one another: I am serious enough about my work to keep on querying, even though it is a very unpleasant process.

By sharing submission snafus, we tell one another: I am putting my ego on the line, because I believe in my work.

By sharing agent traumas, editor horror stories, book sales woes, writer’s block, and the million other setbacks those lucky enough to have their work picked up routinely experience — and believe me, there are just as many problems associated with getting subsequent books published as with a first; they’re just different problems — we tell one another: the system may be frustrating, but I keep expressing myself. Because I’m a writer, like you, and that’s what we do.

The custom of talking about our problems getting published, I think, is our far-flung tribe’s way of telling one another that we’re still treading the path side by side. Call it a secret handshake.

But, as the examples of Norbert and Olive have shown, best reserve that secret handshake for those in the club. Resist the temptation to expose it to the scrutiny of agents and editors; they won’t understand its true value.

Let’s reserve it for amongst ourselves, shall we? Keep up the good work, everybody.

Making it easy to help you, part VI: the other side of the etiquette equation, and a final exam

So, after all of this discussion about the ins and out of industry etiquette, what have we learned, other than to tread lightly and carry a stack of thank-you notes? That when one is entering a foreign culture with different customs — which, for most of us who aspire to publication, the publishing industry definitely is — it’s important not to assume that you know what is expected of you.

When in doubt, ask, and ask politely.

That being said, though, I think the reverse expectation — that writers will not only take the time to learn the norms of industry-acceptable behavior, but also that they will KNOW that they should learn them — is a tad unreasonable. Which naturally begs the question: why should it be left to articles at the front of agents’ guides, conference speakers, and writers on writing like me to explain what their expectations are? Wouldn’t it be easier on everybody in the long run if, say, the ten biggest agencies all agreed to post a list of expected behaviors for queriers?

Actually, some agencies do, but you sometimes need to look hard for it — which, again, presupposes that any given writer will know to look for it in the first place. The agency that represents me, for instance, has posted an excellent little essay on what a querying writer should do and should expect, but one has to pull up their submission guidelines to find it.

Just because some of the quirks of industry etiquette are a bit counter-intuitive, though, doesn’t mean that the standards themselves are arbitrary. Many of the expectations are deliberately distancing, a necessity born of having literally millions of aspiring writers simultaneously trying to flag down the pros’ attention.

Now, as my long-time readers already know, generally speaking, I don’t have tremendous sympathy for the vicissitudes to which agents and editors are subjected in the course of plying their craft. At this point in publishing history, for instance, surely everyone going into the agenting line is aware going in that he’s going to have to read thousands upon thousands of queries per year, and that many of them are going to sound very similar.

Ditto with encountering manuscripts that are not in standard format: since deviations bug them so much, I see no reason why EVERY agency should not have a page of its website devoted to the specifics of submission standards. (Ah, I can always dream, can’t I?)

But on the subject of the sometimes extremely fine line between being nice and being taken advantage of, I think that agents and editors often do have legitimate cause for resentment. As do established writers, writing teachers, and so forth. Because, really, it is a little hard when one can’t simply practice the politeness one’s mother drummed into one without giving the impression that one intends to make promoting the work of the total stranger in front of one one’s life’s mission.

(And that, by the way, is why no one but writers and professors at British universities like the continual formal use of one in sentences. Couldn’t resist tossing in that little editing tip, although I constantly violate it myself. Do as I say, not as I do, as the father of the 6-year-old said while juggling flaming bowling balls while riding upon a snarling tiger’s back.)

True, it wouldn’t kill most of these people to be nicer to aspiring writers, but pretty much everyone in the industry has at least a second-hand story about a small act of kindness that went terribly awry. Most of us — and yes, I include myself here, as I get masses of requests for unpaid help — have had negative first-hand experiences.

Doubt this? Get a couple of drinks into any group of presenters at a major conference, and out will pour stories about how people they barely knew blandly expected mountains to be moved on their behalf — and, when said mountains were moved, were not even grateful.

“Ungrateful?” I hear some of you gasp. “I would give three of my toes for a genuine publishing opportunity! How dare they assume that I would be ungrateful, just because others were?”

Well, perhaps it is unfair, but they do it for precisely the reasons we’ve seen cropping up in many of this series’ examples: because granting one favor so often raises the expectation of further favors; because favors that require effort on the helper’s part are received without gratitude; because sometimes, the person we choose to help acts badly, making us look bad. Remember, it only takes one ungrateful, pushy person, or even one a well-meaning person conveying an avalanche of expectation, to provide a substantial disincentive to future kindness.

To demonstrate why, and to round out this series, I’m going to subject you to two more examples — but this time, I will tell the stories from the point of view of the imposed-upon, rather than the imposer. Keep a weather eye on the aspiring writers’ intentions here: from the other side, were they clear and honest, or did the pro have good reason to back off?

Flipped perspective scenario 1: Ursula has been working the conference and intensive seminar circuit to the advantage of her career for quite some time now. She has learned a great deal, gotten agents’ and editors’ feedback on her writing and incorporated it judiciously, and has made friends with a number of good writers, aspiring and otherwise.

One of these conference friends, Vickie (I give up on trying to come up with another U name), enjoys an excellent relationship with her agent, William. Since Vickie and Ursula write for the same market, Vickie has historically been glad to give Ursula marketing advice every now and again.

A few years into their friendship, Ursula sends Vickie an e-mail: does Vickie think that William would be a good fit for the book Ursula had just completed?

Since Vickie has been around the block a few times, she can read the subtext here: Ursula is gearing up to ask for a referral. Although she had not read any of the book in question, she had read some of Ursula’s first book; she knows that Ursula can write. From what Ursula had said about the book, William might be interested.

So, after giving the matter a little thought, Vickie says, “Yes, I think you should query him — and, if you like, you may say I sent you.”

Feeling a warm glow from having done a good turn for a deserving writer, Vickie goes back to work, assuming that Ursula is more than capable of following through on her own. A few weeks later, Ursula e-mails another request, however: now that she has sent off the query, would Vickie mind putting in a good word with William directly, to confirm the recommendation?

Well, this is unusual, but Vickie’s a good soul, and she honestly does want to see Ursula succeed. Contacting William about a writer he’s never met is putting herself on the line more than she intended, a significantly stronger recommendation, but again, she thinks about it, and decides she’s willing to do it. After writing William a glowing e-mail about what a pro Ursula is, and how much she deserves a break, she once again goes back to work.

The next day, she receives another e-mail from Ursula: had she put in the good word yet? A little surprised, Vickie writes back that she has — and once again goes back to work on her novel.

Upon turning on her computer the following morning, Vickie notices with some trepidation that there’s yet another e-mail from Ursula.

This one is overjoyed: on the strength of Vickie’s recommendation, Ursula decided to e-mail William directly, as a follow-up to her query letter. And William had graciously e-mailed back right away, requesting the manuscript!

Although she is thrilled for Ursula, something about this exchange nags at Vickie. Why did Ursula e-mail William at all, when she had already mailed a query? Isn’t she afraid of bugging him? But she shrugs it off, congratulates Ursula, and goes back to work.

The next day, Vickie receives another e-mail from Ursula, this time angry. “All I did was call William to tell him I wouldn’t be able to send my manuscript for a few days — I want to revise it a bit more first — and boy, was he cold! Do you think he’s turned off the project?”

Vickie has been in the biz long enough to be able to picture William’s probable reaction to an unsolicited phone call from an aspiring writer. Now beginning to regret that she made the recommendation at all, she gently explains to Ursula that calling probably hadn’t been a good idea.

The next day, Ursula e-mails again; Vickie is beginning to dread turning on her computer. “It’s okay,” Ursula writes, “William’s not mad. After I got your e-mail, I called back and apologized.”

By now, Vickie wants to crawl into a hole. It had never occurred to her to make sure that Ursula was familiar with the rules of industry etiquette before recommending her; how is she ever going to be able to recommend anyone to William again? Now, instead of getting back to work on her next novel, she spends hours on end composing letters of apology to him, then tearing them up.

A week goes by: Ursula again. “Why haven’t I heard back from William?” she writes. “Can you give him a call and find out?”

Vickie does not reply.

The next day, the request is repeated, and the day after that. The e-mails begin to become angry: does Vickie want to help her or not?

And so it goes, day after day, week after week, until William rejects the manuscript: every second, it seems, Ursula is e-mailing her to ask a further favor — or letting her know that she has called or e-mailed William again herself, and what he said. Vickie feels positively haunted, and downright relieved when Ursula angrily sends a final e-mail: “I don’t know why you said he’d be interested. He obviously wasn’t.”

If you don’t know what Ursula did wrong here, I can only urge you to go back and re-read this series for tips on how NOT to interact with an agent or established writer. But wasn’t it interesting to see how stressful and humiliating this set of events was for Vickie? And, by extension, for William?

This, my friends, is why the industry clings to its rather old-fashioned etiquette — and why agents tend to be so quick to reject aspiring writers who bend its strictures just a little. Everyone in publishing knows someone like Vickie or William — or has BEEN someone like Vickie or William.

Realizing this fact is extremely valuable to writers new to the publishing world. Agents, editors, and established writers don’t keep aspiring writers at arm’s length just for the fun of it, and this attitude is most assuredly not personally aimed at any individual writer. They’re trying to protect themselves from imposition, because although 99,993 of the writers who approach any of them in any given year may be perfectly respectful, the other 7 were lulus, time-consuming and rude.

Your job, then, is to demonstrate from minute one that you’re not one of those 7.

Okay, I’m running quite long here, but I can’t resist finishing up the series and the alphabet with one more tale. This is your final exam: what did our exemplar do wrong, and at what point would you have pulled the plug had you been the pro?

Flipped perspective scenario 2: Xerxes is a writer ostensibly on the verge of making it big: his agent, Yarrow, parlayed those two novels that had been sitting in his bottom drawer through eight years of agent-searching into a three-book deal at a major house. Yet two years after that contract was signed, exhausted from an extensive round of readings and stressed from lower-than-expected sales on the first book, he struggles to complete the third, interrupting his work frequently to check his first’s current rank on Amazon.

At a family get-together, his godmother pulls him aside. She points out another guest, someone he’s never seen before, as Zebulon, an aspiring writer, someone she met at the gym. As a favor to her, would Xerxes mind giving him a few pointers on how to land an agent?

Admit it — you’re already cringing, aren’t you? Remember that feeling the next time you attend a book reading or conference — that’s precisely how established writers start to feel.

However much he may resent being approached through his nearest and dearest, Xerxes is aware that he needs to be careful about alienating potential book buyers. Besides, he is fond of his godmother. So he walks over and introduces himself to Zebulon.

Rather to his surprise, Zebulon turns out not to be a vampire intent upon sucking his advice wells dry, but a fairly charming person; even more surprising, it turns out he is quite a good writer, as he learns when he looks up Zebulon’s blog. In fact, Zebulon seems to have quite a following, writing exactly the type of story that brought Xerxes to national attention as a short story writer years before. So much so that Xerxes’ agent would be an almost miraculously perfect match for Zebulon’s work.

Again — note that twinge of compunction, for future reference.

Contrary to expectation, Zebulon does not ask Xerxes to introduce him to his agent, Yarrow; he does not even seem to understand why he needs an agent at all. Explaining makes Xerxes feel magnanimous, big — all the more so as Zebulon keeps saying how grateful he is for the information. Touchingly, Zebulon does not even seem to have any idea of what makes one agent a better fit than another.

Determined to save this babe in the woods from what he knows from long, hard personal experience can be an ego-destroying journey of years, Xerxes does something for Zebulon for which millions of aspiring writers would cheerfully kill: he picks up the phone and talks Yarrow into agreeing to have a 15-minute conversation with Zebulon, to allow his new friend to pitch his work over the phone. It’s not an easy sell.

Yet when Zebulon calls Xerxes after this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he seems disappointed. “Your agent wouldn’t even visit my blog,” he tells Xerxes, incensed. “She said she could not commit to anything until after she read my manuscript.”

“Yes?” Xerxes asks, waiting expectantly to learn why Zebulon is upset.

It was not until three months later, when Zebulon calls to say he was on his way over to Xerxes’ house with his now multiply-revised manuscript, begging aid for the fourth time this week, although Zebulon by his own admission had the flu and a fever of over 100 degrees, that it occurs to Xerxes that he might be being imposed upon.

Or, rather, to be more precise, the realization occurs while he is explaining to Zebulon that no matter how badly he wanted to get a book published, he should not give the flu to everyone he knew — especially now that Xerxes is right on top of his own book deadline.

“But I want to get this out the door by Monday,” Zebulon keeps protesting. “And you told your agent I was going to send it.”

Xerxes closes his bloodshot eyes, willing the entire situation to disappear. He had gone out on a limb with Yarrow on behalf of a writer he did not know particularly well at the time, so now Xerxes’ credibility is tied up with how professionally Zebulon meets his stated deadlines — as well as the quality of the manuscript, since he had insisted that Yarrow could not live another minute without reading this guy’s work. Essentially, by having promoted Zebulon so enthusiastically, he has condemned himself to be unpaid editor and writing coach, all with no conceivable future benefit to himself, other than the prospect of pleasing his godmother.

And that, my friends, why so many agented writers will automatically run the other way when approached by a perfectly polite writer with a request for a reference. Most of us have been burned at least once.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but honestly, I’ve heard versions of the same story from practically every established writer, writing teacher, and freelance editor that I know, and even a few agents as well. Once someone like Zebulon gets it into his head that someone like Xerxes can help him, all boundaries seem to vanish: the helper goes from feeling generous to feeling used.

How used? Well, enough for me to stray from my series-long commitment to presenting only composite cases to fill you in on what ultimately happened with my own personal Zebulon: my agent did sign him (or was it her?), and within a matter of a couple of weeks, Zebulon had virtually dropped out of my life. Turned out he (or was it she?) had known all along precisely who my agent was; now, after I got him what he wanted, I degenerated into just another unpaid social debt. A few short months later, when Zebulon’s first book sold, I found out from — you guessed it, my godmother.

Once something like that happens to you, you don’t forget it easily. So believe me when I say: if a sweet person like me is still mildly annoyed a year after an event like mine, the average agent is still livid over his.

So remember to be on your best behavior when walking into the publishing world: you have other writers’ faux pas to rise above. That’s a tough row to hoe, so keep up the good work, everybody.

Making it easy to help you, part V: why attention to etiquette is becoming a better and better idea

This is my penultimate post on industry etiquette, at least for the nonce, and while I have been trying to keep this upbeat, I feel it would be remiss not to address some of the faux pas that are less inadvertent. Before I conclude this series, I want to spend a day dealing with some…well, one hates to use a term like dishonesty.

Let’s just say that these examples are frowned upon in the industry, and leave it at that.

I have mentioned the possibility of using an introduction from an established client as a stepping-stone to getting an agent’s attention. Generally speaking, there are two ways in which established writers make such an introduction without excessive trouble to themselves: either they can grant you permission to use their names in your query letter (as in the sterling beginning, “Your client Rufus Rudyard recommended that I contact you about my book…”), or they can forward your work to their agents themselves, with suitable commentary about how terrific you are.

Either way, the results are potentially very good for you. Such a recommendation usually means that the agent will actually see the query letter, rather than just a screener. At minimum, the query will be taken more seriously.

As we have seen, it seldom pays to assume that an offer of help automatically translates to the latter. Authors tend to have reservations about forwarding work themselves, for very good reasons: it’s a lot of responsibility, assuring an agent that the forwarded writer is the next great find; if the agent is slow or hostile in response, the referring author feels he’s let the writer down; if the writer turns out to be hard to work with, unprofessional, or just not very talented, the author’s credibility with his agent may be compromised. Oh, and by introducing his agent to another writer, the author is bringing into the agency someone with whom he will have to compete for the agent’s usually already stretched-thin time.

Given all of those disincentives, it’s not a great surprise that most authors are more than a little reluctant to go this route, is it?

The other, infinitely more common approach is to say, “Sure – this is my agent’s name; go ahead and say that that I recommended you to him.” While this may not at first blush seem like much of a favor, bear in mind that all of the disincentives above still apply – this route is merely less work for the author – so it is still a piece of assistance well worth your gratitude.

Because such recommendations are so valuable, over-eager aspiring writers occasionally fudge just a little in their use, implying more of a recommendation than the author in question was actually offering. The most famous form of this, of course, is the query that begins, “Saul Bellow said my work is the best thing he’s read for the last five years.”

A recommendation that would be considerably more impressive if Mssr. Bellow had been alive for more of those five years than he actually was, no?

Sometimes, though, recommendation blurring of reality is unintentional — the aspiring writer merely misunderstood how much of a leg up the author was actually offering:

Misguided approach 3: Rachel meets Rapunzel, a writer she has admired for years, at a book signing. Rachel, being a polite writer, approaches Rapunzel with respect: she arrives at the reading well-versed in Rapunzel’s work, including her latest novel, LIFE AFTER HAIR; she asks intelligent questions during the reading; she brings a book to have Rapunzel sign, and buys another for her mother, and she gushes at Rapunzel long enough after the signing that the author spontaneously asks her what she writes.

So far, so good, right?

In fact, they hit it off so well that Rapunzel invites her to e-mail with questions, and after a reasonable exchange, the author tells Rachel that she may use the valuable Rapunzel name as a reference in approaching her agent, Rafaela.

Rachel is thrilled – and promptly sends her entire manuscript off to Rafaela, saying that Rapunzel had told her to send it. She is astonished to see her manuscript returned within a week with a form letter rejection.

What did Rachel do wrong?

She misunderstood, quite innocently, what Rapunzel was offering her: the opportunity to use her as a reference in a query letter, period. If she had pursued this route, Rafaela probably would have asked to see the manuscript. By sending her manuscript before Rafaela asked for it, however, Rachel just sent an unsolicited submission. As such, it may not even have been read.

Here again, we see that asking follow-up questions could have saved the writer a lot of grief. But it’s hard to hold Rachel very responsible for the outcome: she simply did not know enough about how agencies worked to realize how much unsolicited submissions are despised. Not all referral mistakes are this innocent, however.

Misguided approach 4: Samuel met agented writer Samantha at a writers’ conference a few years ago. They have been cordial ever since whenever they met, and occasionally e-mail about their respective publishing progress. Having heard so much about Samantha’s agent, Sydney, Samuel feels as though he knows her.

One rainy Monday morning, Samantha is startled to see an e-mail from Sydney in her in-box. (At work: since she has only sold a couple of mid-list books, Samantha still can’t afford to quit her secretarial job.) “Can you tell me something about this writer you recommended?” Sydney writes. “I’ve been thinking about getting into representing this kind of book, but his bio was really sketchy. Can you fill me in?”

Huh? Samantha thought.

A few days later, Samuel receives his manuscript and a form-letter rejection with an angry scrawl in the margins. “Our client didn’t recommend you,” it reads.

What did Samuel do wrong? Without seeing his query, it’s a trifle hard to tell, precisely, but we can certainly make some educated guesses.

At best, Samuel fudged his initial query, turning an acquaintance into a recommendation. Perhaps, if asked, he would respond that since Samantha had spoken so often and so glowingly of Sydney, he thought she was making a recommendation. But regardless of why he did it, or if he intended to misleading, he’s blown his chance with Sydney (and his friendship with Samantha) forever: evidently, it didn’t occur to him that the agent might check.

Word to the wise: they do. Habitually. If you harbor even the slightest doubt about whether an agented author is offering a recommendation – and you should, unless the author has actually produced the words, “Tell my agent I sent you” — ASK.

Rather than wasting our energies upon trying to figure out what Samuel could have been thinking, let’s look at another version of the misused recommendation. This one is hard to read as anything but manipulative, but at least the exemplar in this instance is cautious about the possibility of the agent’s checking up on her:

Misguided approach 5: Tanya met agented author Tremaine through networking; he’s the friend of a friend. Because she seemed to be nice and was complimentary about his work, Tremaine was happy to answer a few of Tanya’s questions via e-mail. Lately, however, he’s been deliberately slowing his responses, because she’s starting to e-mail him every day.

Clearly, he thinks, Tanya is thinking of this as a friendship, rather than what it actually is, an author being nice to a reader.

One sunny Tuesday, Tremaine sees yet another e-mail from Tanya in his inbox. Sighing, he leaves it to answer another day. On Friday, he opens it, and is startled to find a cheerful missive from Tanya, telling him she has already sent a query to his agent, Trevor — using Tremaine’s name as a reference. Would Tremaine mind following up with Trevor, to confirm the recommendation and try to speed up the process?

Tanya’s put Tremaine in a tough situation here, hasn’t she? On one level, she has used his name without his permission, and he would be well within his rights to pick up the phone and tell Trevor that she used his name without his permission, killing her submission’s chances.

On the other hand, doing so would make him look bad in the eyes of his agent: if he confesses to having been used, the next time Tremaine actually does want to recommend an aspiring writer, he will have to pass the manuscript along to Trevor personally, to avoid the possibility of another misappropriation of his name.

Which, as we have seen, will be a whole lot of work for him.

Again, it was Tanya’s responsibility to ASK Tremaine for permission to use his name, not tell him about it afterward. And while it is possible that she DID ask, but Tremaine overlooked her question because of the sheer volume of her e-mails, it is never legitimate to assume that silence equals consent.

A good rule of thumb in any context, actually.

What happened to Tremaine happens to famous writers ALL the time, incidentally: unfortunately, there are plenty of aspiring writers out there who have mistaken professional kindness to a fan for the beginning of a lifetime friendship. And friends help one another, right?

Before you use a recommender’s name, make ABSOLUTELY sure that you have the recommender’s permission to do so; you may make an honest mistake, but because some unscrupulous folks have used this leg-up technique on purpose, the knee-jerk assumption on the agent’s end is almost certainly going to be that there was no misunderstanding at all. Just misappropriation.

It’s just not worth the risk.

A graceful way to confirm: if you are meeting in person, ask the recommender to write the agent’s name on a handy piece of paper for you. Then ask, “And it’s really okay for me to say that you sent me?” If said in a pleased, wondering tone, this will be perceived as a compliment — “Wow — YOU’re willing to recommend me?” — rather than doubting the author’s word.

Via e-mail, it’s even easier: if the language of the offer has been at all ambiguous, e-mail the recommender, saying that you are going to contact the agent. But make sure, unlike Tanya, you do it BEFORE you, well, contact the agent in question.

The overarching moral of all of the examples from the last few days: it is ALWAYS better to ask a follow-up question or two than to assume that someone intends to help you more than his words have stated specifically. If the recommender is indeed offering to help, the question is merely considerate; if not, it’s far better you know about it before you act, right?

And regardless of the outcome: remember to express gratitude for the help you did get. As well as, of course, keeping up the good work!

Making it easy to help you, part IV: when in doubt, ASK for directions

My, but yesterday’s little homily was unsettling, wasn’t it? For those of you tuning in late, I was waxing poetic on how appallingly easy it is for a perfectly innocent writer, unburdened with much knowledge of industry norms of conduct, to alienate a pro who was previously all ready to help him.

That’s why I refer to the finesse that allows savvy writers to avoid such faux pas as industry etiquette: like the old tried-and-true Emily Post guidelines, following these rules may not allow you to relax much around agents, editors, and published authors, but at least you know you won’t come across as a (fill in the clumsiness metaphor of your choice here).

As the British used to tell their children, manners cost nothing — but, as we saw in poor Pablo’s case yesterday, sometimes not having manners can be very costly indeed.

At this point, I could bore you to extinction by running through all of the common permutations Pablo’s ilk of misapprehension tends to take: topping the hit parade, for instance, are handing a manuscript to an agented friend and just assuming he will pass it along to his agent; not giving any sort of writing sample to an agented writer at all, but asking her to recommend you to her agent anyway; e-mailing an unrequested manuscript to an agented writer with a request that it be passed along.

But really, these are all fruit of the same tree — the initial assumption that someone else is going to do the writer’s legwork for him.

Instead, I’m going to concentrate today and tomorrow on more creative ways to mess up a relationship with a potential helper. While you’re reading through, keep asking yourself this question: what single, simple thing could each of these exemplars has done to prevent falling into the proverbial soup?

Misguided approach 2: Quincy and Quetzalcoatl (hey, there aren’t a whole lot of Q names) have known each other for years, having met at a writer’s conference a long time ago. Although they live on different sides of the country, thanks to e-mail, they have kept in touch as well as they would have had they lived in the same major metropolitan area.

Perhaps more so: writers, as we all know, are far and away the best e-mail correspondents.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but when ordinary citizens e-mail one another, they exchange only a couple of lines. Gospel. Some — oh, I tremble to tell you this — don’t even put that much of themselves into correspondence with their friends, but instead merely forward jokes written by other people and photographs of their infants drooling!

I know; shocking.

So, being writers, Quincy and Quetzalcoatl have shared the highs and the lows of their quest for publication in great, multi-page detail. Last year, Quetzalcoatl successfully self-published a slim volume on how to use commas to maximum effect, and has been going around to conferences ever since, speaking and promoting his book. Sensibly, he made a point of chatting with all of the agents at these conferences, with an eye to ending up on one of their representation lists.

After one such conference, Quetzalcoatl e-mails Quincy, all excited. “You’re not going to believe it,” our serpent king writes, “but agent Quibble jabbered for ten minutes about the kind of book he’s looking to represent, and it sounded just like yours!”

Quincy is astounded and grateful, of course — he has been shopping his epic, QUO VADIS, around since the last millennium, raking in stacks and stacks of rave rejections, but no offers.

So he immediately e-mails Quetzalcoatl back: “Tell Quibble about me!” To make it easier for his friend, he attaches a complete e-mail version of QUO VADIS for Quetzalcoatl to forward to Quibble.

Although he waits for months to hear that his big break has arrived, Quincy never hears from Quibble at all, of course. Suspecting that Quetzalcoatl never bothered to follow through, Quincy stops returning e-mails, and the friendship fades.

Finish wiping your eyes over this sad tale of loss and betrayal, put away your handkerchiefs, and consider: what did Quincy do wrong, other than jump to unwarranted conclusions about his long-term friend? (Fie! Fie!)

At one level, Quincy made Pablo’s mistake: he assumed that because he was being offered help, the helper would be doing all the requisite legwork from here on out. However, his follow-up misconception was a subtler one. He thought, mistakenly, that he was being offered a personal introduction to Quibble, and before he took advantage of it, he wanted to make sure that Quetzalcoatl had already pitched his book in glowing terms. Essentially, he wasn’t willing to put effort into this opportunity until he was already assured a warm reception.

But he did not tell his friend that, so Quetzalcoatl in his turn assumed, naturally enough, that a querier as experienced as Quincy would automatically have leapt upon the tip and run with it. He would have been flatly astonished to learn that Quincy did not follow up on it, but since Quincy was too busy fuming to say anything at all, Quetzalcoatl has never heard one way or the other. All he knows is that for some unexplained reason, Quincy has disappeared.

Could be a lot of reasons for that, right?

It’s vital to remember that it’s not the helper’s job to second-guess what the helpee thinks is going on; it’s precisely the other way around. In point of fact, Quetzalcoatl was offering something quite different than Quincy assumed: a lead to an agent who had stated publicly that he was already interested in Quincy’s kind of work. As those of us who have been through the querying mill a few dozen times know, such a tip is not to be sneezed at, upon, or even near. It’s valuable information, and Quincy should have been grateful for it.

So what should Quincy have done instead? Sent out a query to Quibble that very day, of course, including in the first paragraph the sentiment, “Since you announced at Conference X that you were interested in Roman epics, I hope you will be open to reading my novel, QUO VADIS…” Basically, he should have taken the precious information Quetzalcoatl had given him, run with it, and blessed his friend eternally for providing it.

Instead, he just waited for the person who had just helped him to help him still more — essentially expecting Quetzalcoatl to act as his agent (as if he didn’t have his hands full fighting off Cortez, the conquistadors, and smallpox AND marketing his own book). Then, still less excusably, instead of talking to his old buddy Q about what should happen next, he kept quiet until he began to resent that Quetzalcoatl hadn’t done MORE for him.

Pretty nasty payback for Quetzalcoatl’s having done his friend a favor, isn’t it?

In essence, Quincy let a long-term friendship deteriorate because it did not occur to him that his own conception of what he was being offered was inaccurate. From an outside perspective, this seems rather silly, because a few simple questions would have elicited the fact that Quetzalcoatl was not in fact in a position to offer Quincy anything more than a little inside information.

Truth be known, Quetzalcoatl is not on terms of close personal friendship with Quibble: in reality, they sat at the same table for lunch on one day of a three-day conference, chatting about their favorite science fiction books. While waiting for his own lecture to start, Quetzalcoatl sat in on a class Quibble taught — and that was where he learned of Quibble’s love for QUO VADIS-like literature.

Now, this information could not help him personally — Quetzalcoatl’s next book is a NF tome on the historical importance of the ampersand. Yet, like the sterling member of the aspiring writer community that he is, he immediately bethought himself of his friend’s book, and passed the info along.

Thus was a good deed punished. And, should Quetzalcoatl ever find out why Quincy stopped speaking to him, how likely is he ever to do a similar favor for another aspiring writer again?

The moral of this story is not, as a cynic might tell you, never to stick your neck out for a friend. No, I think we can all agree that the world — or at any rate our little corner of it — would be a far, far better place if more of us acted like Quetzalcoatl. No, not by being friendly to the plague-carrying conquistadores; by using what we learn at conferences, classes, online, etc., to help our writing friends whenever and wherever we can.

No, the moral is that it’s ALWAYS a good idea to ask follow-up questions of people offering to help you get ahead in the industry. Make sure you know precisely what kind of assistance is on the table — and what you will need to do to take advantage of it.

Oh — and remember to thank your benefactors, for heaven’s sake, regardless of the ultimate outcome of their assistance. Regardless of his original misapprehension, it wouldn’t have killed Quincy to scrawl “Thanks for the tip” in a holiday card. By doing so, he might have saved the friendship — and restored Quetzalcoatl’s faith in humanity.

A scant handful more examples, and then I’m through. Next week, on to PNWA agent and editor profiles! In the meantime, keep up the good work.

Making it easy to help you, part III: accepting help gracefully

Before I launch back into the absorbing topic of how to NOT to make yourself appear difficult for an agent to help, I want to pass along an announcement from the fine folks who run the Faulkner/Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. For those of you who write novels or creative nonfiction essays, the Faulkner is well worth looking into: it has a good track record for its winners landing agents, and it’s one of the few literary contests to include both a novel-in-progress category and a teen writers category.

Apparently, though, they’ve been experiencing some website problems. Take a gander:

“The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, Inc. is once again sponsoring its
William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. Guidelines can be found on our website.

Because we failed to correct a mistake on the website, there has been considerable confusion about the postmark deadline for the competition this year. Originally, we announced the deadline as April 1, 2007. However, the guidelines also say, “…entries postmarked after May 1 will not be accepted.”
Because of our mistake, we are officially changing the postmark deadline to
May 1, 2007.

We look forward to receiving your entries.

We hasten to say that you need not wait until May 1 to mail your entries!

Sorry for the confusion.”

Now, I call that quite decent, don’t you? Admitting their mistake, and clearing it up in a way that’s beneficial to all of us. Well done, Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society!

Unfortunately, as I’ve been discussing for the past few days, this kind of open-handed friendliness to aspiring writers is rare; in approaching most contests, as well as most agencies and presses, this is most emphatically not the norm. It is usually in the writer’s best interest, then, to assume that contest readers will be uncharitable, agents will be in a rush, and editors will want to be wowed by the end of line 2.

Or, to put it another way: make it as easy as humanly possible for people in the industry to help you.

Again, this seems self-evident in theory, but it’s not often put into practice. Especially in the cases I was discussing at the end of last week, where, from the established authors’ perspectives, the writers requesting help might almost have been working overtime to make it difficult to help them.

That, my friends, is not the best way to get someone to help you. Minimizing the effort required to do you a good turn is.

(Hey, you didn’t think that I was talking at such length about the blandishment of established authors because I was advising you never to try it at all, did you? Heck, no — when you do it, I want you to SUCCEED.)

Putting a little advance thought not only into how to ask for help gracefully, but how to render it as simple as possible for your designated helper to give you a leg up. Here are a couple of ways that writers often fumble the approach.

Misguided approach 1: Pablo has approached established writer Pauline a sensible way: he read her work first, was able to give her a sensible, well thought-out compliment on her latest book, and established a cordial relationship before asking for any favors at all. Eventually, Pauline asks to read some of Pablo’s work, and, enthused, sends him an e-mail saying that she is willing to recommend him to her agent, Percy.

“That’s marvelous,” Pablo writes back immediately. “Send Percy the manuscript I gave you, and let me know what he says.”

He is astonished never to hear from Pauline again. Nor, to his shock, does he ever hear from Percy at all.

Okay, what did Pablo do wrong — or, to put it another way, what did he do to render Pauline unlikely to follow through, and Percy unlikely to see his work at all?

Pablo violated the golden rule: he made it difficult to help him. To be precise, he assumed that because Pauline was willing to help him at all, she would automatically be eager to put in a great deal of leg work on his behalf, too. Suddenly finding herself expected to do a massive favor when she had offered to do a smallish one, Pauline froze and backed off.

Why? Well, what Pauline was offering Pablo was actually a great big helping hand: a personal recommendation to her agent, something few previously unpublished writers ever get. In her mind, this would entail Pablo’s beginning his query letter to Percy with, “Pauline recommended that I contact you about my book…”

That’s it. It may not sound like an immense favor, but as it would place Pablo’s work in a different pile than every other query that came into Percy’s agency, it could potentially have made an enormous difference to Pablo’s querying success. If Pauline felt very enthusiastic indeed, she might have called or e-mailed Percy, to let him know that Pablo’s work was coming.

But that would be the absolute limit to what an established writer like Pauline would do for a new acquaintance. She could potentially OFFER to do more, but realistically, Pablo should have accepted this much with gratitude and, taking the initiative to promote his own work, followed through himself.

Instead — and herein lay his biggest mistake — he misunderstood what Pauline was offering. Brushing aside the actual offer in a way that inadvertently came across as dismissive, he pushed 100% of the follow-up responsibility onto Pauline, essentially expecting her to be his agent, pitching his work to her agent.

Think about this from Pauline’s point of view: why on earth would she do this? Even if Pablo is a brilliant writer, the utmost personal benefit she could possibly derive from the transaction is the glow of having done a good deed and Pablo’s gratitude. But if Pablo begins the process by appearing ungrateful, why should she lift single well-manicured finger to help him at all, much less put herself on the line to promote his work?

At one level, it’s hard to have too much sympathy for Pablo, isn’t it? He botched an opportunity for which many another aspiring writer would gladly have given his pinkie toes. On the other hand, from a writer’s point of view, he really made only one small slip, and that inadvertent.

While we could debate from now until Doomsday whether the punishment fit the crime here, the overall message is clear: when you want someone to do you a favor, your best strategy is to minimize, not maximize, the amount of effort your patron will need to invest to assist you. Don’t simply assume it’s understood — ask questions about how you can make it easier to help you.

When in doubt, you can always fall back on the most basic, most welcome question of all: “What can I do to make this easier for you?”

That’s a bit counter-intuitive, I know: ostensibly, this process is about others helping you, not you helping others. But trust me on this one: the easier you make it to help you, the more likely you are to receive help. Pablo’s response to Pauline’s offer should have been all about her, not him: “That’s fabulous, Pauline; thank you so much. What do you want me to do?”

Adopting that attitude toward helping hands, I promise you, will make you more welcome in virtually any industry gathering. Why? Because it will make you a better addition to the professional writers’ community.

More on this theme follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Making it easy to help you, part II

Yesterday, I switched gears a little in my ongoing series on common faux pas writers inadvertently commit, infractions of industry etiquette the eager often stumble into without realizing. I had intended, from here on out, to talk about only what you should do, rather than what you shouldn’t. However, since conference season is coming up, with its concomitant pitching opportunities, I thought it would be a good idea to follow Norbert’s example from yesterday with another unfortunately pervasive conference misstep.

This next example is the one that most consistently breaks my heart, because it is almost always merely a side effect of the nervousness most writers feel the first few times they pitch their work — and, as such, seems to me disproportionately frowned-upon in the industry. This is the one that prompted me to establish the Pitch Practicing Palace, actually, because so very many first-time pitchers do it. Case in point.

Misguided approach 2: Olive has been querying her excellent first novel unsuccessfully for some years. Having read that it is easier to make contact with an agent at a literary conference than through cold querying (which is quite true, generally speaking), she plunks down a significant amount of cash to attend a major regional conference.

Once there, however, she becomes intimidated by both the enormity of pitching her beloved novel to a powerful stranger and the sheer number of confident-seeming writers around her, all geared up to pitch successfully. Since she knows no one there, she does not have an opportunity to talk through her fears before her appointment; she walks into her pitch meeting with agent Osprey shaking visibly.

Osprey is a nice enough guy to see that she is nervous, so he does his best not to be any more intimidating than their relative positions dictate. He shakes Olive’s hand, offers her a seat, and asks, not unreasonably, “So, what is your book about?”

His kindness is the last blow to her already tenuous composure. Staring down at the tabletop between her and the agent of her dreams, Olive is horrified to hear herself begin to babble not about the book, but about how difficult it has been to try to find a home for it. About her years of querying. About her frantic total revisions of the book after every 20th rejection or so. About how she has gotten to the submission stage a few times, but was never given any reason why her book was rejected — so when she sat down to revise again, she was doing it essentially in the dark.

She has become, in fact, the complete anti-salesperson for her book. Every so often, Osprey tries to steer her back toward the book’s content and why it would appeal to her target audience, but by now, it feels so good to talk to someone, anyone, in the industry about how hard it’s been for her that she just can’t stop. Her every third sentence seems to begin, “Well, you probably wouldn’t be interested, because…”

After awhile, Osprey stops asking questions, letting her ramble. When she finally works up nerve to glance up at his face, her throat contracts: his eyes are distinctly glazed over, as though he were thinking about something else. At that point, all Olive wants to do is run away.

“So,” Osprey says, making a note on a paper before him behind a defensive arm. “What is your book actually about?”

This situation is so sad that I hesitate to ask this, but what did Olive do wrong? Not from a writer’s point of view, but from Osprey’s?

From a writer’s POV, of course, her problem was lack of confidence that led Olive to go off on a tangent unrelated to her pitch, right? But Osprey is an agent well used to dealing with nervous pitchers: her fear alone would not necessarily have put him off.

Her real mistake was telling him — indirectly, of course — that she would be hard to help.

How? By not telling him what the book was. What book category, at what target market it aimed, who the characters are, what the premise is. What the book is ABOUT. Essentially, by airing her fears of rejection at such great length, Olive turned the pitch meeting into a guessing game for Osprey.

Translation: she made it clear to Osprey that if he wanted to hear about her book project — which is, ostensibly, the primary reason they are having this conversation — he was going to have to invest quite a bit of energy in drawing the book out of her. Sad but true. Even sadder, Osprey never got an opportunity to hear about Olive’s book, which is actually very well written.

Try not to judge Olive too harshly — she fell into a very common panic spiral. It may seem odd to those of you who have never pitched your work verbally, but in the moment, it’s amazingly common for pitchers to take five or ten minutes to calm down before they are able to talk about the book at all. This is why every conference guide ever printed will tell you to prepare your pitch in advance: so you actually talk about the book.

Advance preparation can substantially reduce the probability of falling into a panic spiral — or into the other form Olive’s faux pas often takes (I am re-using Olive here, to give her a happier lifepath):

Misguided approach 3: Olive has brought her excellent novel to pitch to agent Osprey. He shakes her hand, offers her a seat, and asks, “So,” he checks his schedule here, “Olive, tell me what your book is about?”

Delighted by his interest, Olive tells him her title, then proceeds to tell him the entire plot of the book, beginning on page 1. Ten minutes later, she has reached the end of Chapter 4.

Osprey looks shell-shocked, but that might just be effects of the day’s cumulative pitch fatigue. “Um, that sounds very interesting,” he says, standing to lead her back to the appointment desk, “but a trifle complicated for us.”

This version of Olive reached the same result — convincing Osprey that she would be hard to help — by completely opposite means. By presenting a kitchen-sink pitch, replicating the entire storyline rather than concentrating on the primary themes of the book, Olive told Osprey — again, indirectly — that he would need to put in a lot of effort to make her work market-worthy.

In other words, by prepping your pitch in advance (and don’t worry; I’ll do a nice, juicy series on how to do that between now and conference season), you are telling the agent to whom you pitch, “Here I am, making it as easy as humanly possible to help me. I am more than prepared to meet you halfway, and together, let’s walk the path to publication.”

Sort of disorienting, isn’t it, to think of it that way? Give some thought to how you can present yourself as easy for an agent to help, and keep up the good work!

More faux pas: making it easy to help you

My series on industry etiquette is beginning to wind to a close, and reading back over it, I realized that it does sound as though agents just sit around, waiting to be insulted by aspiring writers. That’s not really the case, actually: it’s just that the competition for their scant attention is so fierce that the costs of walking away from a gifted writer who is even just a bit rude are minimal.

I think agents everywhere should forgive us, however, if from the rejected writer’s point of view, though, the distinction between being very easily turned off, inordinately picky, and aching to be insulted sometimes look very similar indeed.

My hope in running through some of the major faux pas is to make sure that none of my readers inadvertently give them an excuse to don those walking boots. Since I’ve been concentrating so much lately on what you SHOULDN’T do, though, I wanted to devote some time today talking about what you SHOULD, to talk about how to be polite rather than how to avoid being impolite.

To that end, I am going to share an extremely important piece of writerly advice, one that I learned from established authors in my wayward infancy, even before I knew my way around a keyboard:

Make it as easy as humanly possible for folks in the industry to help you.

Seems kind of self-evident, doesn’t it, stated baldly like that? But honestly, aspiring writers don’t practice it enough.

Oh, most of us send the requisite SASEs with our work — a courtesy which, incidentally, is regarded by the industry as a convenience for the writer, not for the agent or editor, a way to assure that the manuscript in question did not just float into a black hole somewhere, never to be seen again. The theory that SASEs are an insidious means of forcing writers to pay postage on their own rejections is exclusive to writers’ minds.

However true it may be.

There are other little courtesies that make it easier for the agent to respond, of course. Back in my querying days, I would habitually enclose a business-size SASE in addition to the manuscript-sized one whenever an agent asked for a partial manuscript, to make it a snap to ask for the rest of the book.

These days, one is much more likely to hear back via e-mail, or even phone, so a great way to make it easy to say yes to you is to include your e-mail address and phone number prominently in your cover letter.

I would also — as intrepid and clever reader Janet mentioned doing in a comment a few weeks back — include a stamped, self-addressed postcard, to make it easy as pie for an agency to let me know that it had received my submission. To render the process a little more fun, I used to enliven mine with checkboxes: “Yes, the manuscript arrived in one piece on (date),” “No, the manuscript was mauled by the post office in transit; please send again,” and “Only this postcard arrived intact.”

No one ever checked anything but the first, of course, but at least I amused a screener or two, and I had physical evidence that my manuscript had indeed reached its desired destination. More to the point, I made it clear to the agency screeners that I was taking responsibility for getting my work to them promptly and in one piece — and demonstrated that if something went wrong in transit, I wanted to know about it so I could make it right.

I was, in short, showing that I would be easy to help once they signed me.

Similarly, when asking for feedback from a first reader, I like to include a set of questions I would like answered with the manuscript. That way, the first reader does not need to second-guess what kind of feedback I want. It tells the reader up front that instead of waiting defensively for critique, I am welcoming it.

Again, I was signaling that I would be easy to help.

Can you see this one coming? Chant with me now the sensible mantra of anyone who wants to do a little climbing within the industry:

Make it as easy as humanly possible for any agent with whom you have contact to help you.

Again, seems self-evident in theory, but it’s not often put into practice. After all, we writers reason, we’re being judged on our writing at the agent-finding phase, not our manners, right? No one sends off a query with the intention of carrying off the Miss Congeniality prize.

Of course, talent alone SHOULD be enough to open the door to success — but honestly, you would be amazed at how many query letters and pitches come across as calculated to make sure that the quality of the writing is the ONLY criterion that could possibly explain acceptance, as if coasting into a professional relationship on the wheels of personal charm were somehow cheating one’s muse.

Seriously, many queries and pitches are downright truculent, or even actually hostile. And half the time, writers do not even seem aware that they are coming across that way. But take a look at some common first impressions agents receive:

Misguided approach 1: Norbert has been working on his novel for a number of years. Having tried his luck at a few small presses, he finds to his chagrin that none of the major publishing houses will even look at an unagented manuscript. His heart sinks when he realizes that he is going to have to invest still more of his precious writing time in finding an agent.

Disgruntled, he sits down at his keyboard to compose his first round of queries. “Since it is impossible to get a fiction publishing contract anymore without an agent,” he writes, “I am writing to see if you will be willing to represent me.”

Okay, what did Norbert do wrong — so wrong, in fact, that few agency screeners would bother to read beyond this tragic first sentence?

While it may seem a trifle unfair to stop reading simply because Norbert has stated a fact about the current state of the publishing industry, from an agency reader’s POV, he is taking his frustration out on the agency for a situation for which the agency is not responsible. It is certainly to agents’ advantage that they have become the gatekeepers of the industry, but the decision to limit how publishing houses accept submissions was the publishers’ decision, not the agents’.

It is human nature to resent being blamed for other people’s actions, but that is not the only reason Norbert’s approach is unlikely to yield positive results. Agents are looking for writers with whom it will be easy to work, and beginning the relationship with what they perceive as whining about necessity — hey, it’s their perception, not mine — does not, in their eyes, convey a cheerful, gung-ho willingness to adapt to the rigors of the publishing world.

They’d rather deal with someone who doesn’t lambaste them. Go figure.

Actually, agents have good reason to be cautious about writers’ attitude problems, you know. Contrary to common belief amongst unagented writers, a writer can seldom simply hand his book to his agent and walk away, confident that it will be sold. Especially a first book. Even if the agent loves a book to pieces, she usually will want changes to it before she begins to market it to editors, to make it easier to sell. A client who complains at every step is going to be harder to handle at this stage, as well as later on, when the manuscript is circulating amongst agents.

Harder how, you ask? Pick up any of the standard agents’ guides, and check out what they almost universally say about nightmare clients: ones who call and e-mail constantly for reassurance, rather than letting their agents get on with the serious business of selling their work.

Norbert’s mistake, then, is that he gave the impression in his query letter that his attitude toward the agency’s role in the publication process would make it hard for the agent to help him succeed. Given a choice, virtually any agent would prefer to help someone who would not bring that anger to the table.

No matter how well-justified that anger might be.

Of course, not all aspiring writers are as up front as Norbert is about his issues. Some prefer to air the ways in which they will be difficult to help indirectly. Tomorrow, I will tell you their sad tales.

In the meantime, take a few minutes to glance over your query letter: does it make you sound like a writer who is going to be hard to help along the path to publication, or like one who would be, if not always a joy, at least a professional who understands that the road is often hard?

It’s worth giving some thought. And, of course, keep up the good work!

More faux pas: the helping hand that spirited itself away

Yesterday, as part of my ongoing series on how to recognize and avoid common faux pas writers make in their initial encounters with agents, I introduced exemplar Lorenzo, an intrepid soul who believed that arguing with the agent who rejected him would cause her to change her mind and take him on as a client.

Instead of which, he merely impressed her as an ill-mannered boor and unprofessional writer who could not deal with rejection well. And in an industry where even ultimately very successful books are often rejected dozens of times before being picked up by an editor or publishing house, that latter quality is NOT one any agent is likely to be eager to embrace in a client.

However, a writer does not necessarily need to go over the top to bug an agent with over-persistence. Sometimes, the trick is knowing when to stop following up. Take, for example, the case of Mina:

Blurry boundary scenario 3: After several years of unsuccessful querying, Mina goes to her first writers’ conference. There, her learning curve is sharp: much to her astonishment, she learns that the ostensibly tried-and-true querying and submission techniques she had been using are seriously out of date; as a result, her submissions may not even have been read for more than a paragraph or two before being rejected.

Mina, like many writers when first faced with an accurate realization of just how hard it is to land an agent, reacts with depression. Fortunately, she has made friends with a couple of more experienced writers at the conference, one of whom introduces her over drinks to Random House editor Maxine.

After having spent many, many years trolling for clients at conferences, Maxine instantly recognizes the source of Mina’s despair, and takes the time to speak to her encouragingly. At the end of their chat, seeing that Mina is still a little blue, Maxine hands her a card and tells her to go ahead and send the first chapter of her novel.

For the rest of the conference, Mina chatters excitedly about her new friend Maxine. (To Lorenzo, as it happens, but he is too busy talking about Loretta to hear her.) But after the conference, when she sits down again to pull together her post-pitching packets, her former depression returns, even more strongly. So she seeks out the help that worked before: she sends a friendly, chatty e-mail to Maxine.

Maxine never replies. Wondering what went wrong, Mina tries again — and again, no response.

Mina is shattered, deciding that since Maxine’s friendliness had obviously been a sham, she must also have been utterly insincere in her request for pages. But wait — since Maxine was so much nicer than everybody else, and she turned out not to want the pages, doesn’t that mean that the other agents and editors who requested submissions wanted it even less? Why bother?

Having talked herself out of the possibility of ever succeeding, Mina ultimately never sends out any packets at all.

Okay, what did Mina do wrong?

She made that ubiquitous conference mistake: like Lauren and Lorenzo, she did not understand that a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference, not necessarily the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Nor was a lack of effusiveness an indication that the other agents were not going to read her work carefully — the behavior of one person, however well connected in the industry, is just the behavior of one person. But, like about 40% of writers asked at conferences to submit materials, Mina managed to convince herself that she shouldn’t bother to place her ego on the line further: it was easier to decide instead that all of these people were too mean, too self-centered, too hostile to writers, etc.

But this train of thought (which is a common one, unfortunately) followed Maxine’s non-response, rather than prompted it. So what was Mina’s INITIAL mistake?

If you shouted out that it was not knowing Random House’s policy on unagented authors, give yourself partial marks: being aware of that would have helped her here. But Mina’s primary mistake was not so much a professional lapse in judgment as an interpersonal one: she mistook someone in the industry’s being nice to her as an invitation to take advantage of similar kindness in the future.

This, I assure you, happens ALL the time — not only to agents and editors, but to anyone who speaks at conferences, teaches writing classes, or publishes a book. It almost always begins fairly innocuously: after an initial contact, a writer will e-mail or call with a question. Then e-mail or call again — and again, and again, until soon, it starts to look to the industry professional as though the writer is inventing excuses for contact, for precisely the same reason Mina did: to try to evoke a human response from an industry that from the outside appears monolithic, cold, and hostile to writers.

That’s nonsense, of course: the industy’s not monolithic; it’s polychromatically cold and hostile.

From the encroaching writer’s POV, of course, the progression of contact doesn’t look like this. Mina just thinks that she has a friend on the inside who can help her retain hope; most of the time, writers who e-mail or call speakers at conferences have legitimate questions. But it’s a slippery slope: there’s a big difference between calling on a resource person who is happy to help out with the occasional quick question, starting to regard that person as one’s FIRST stop for any publishing-related question — and e-mailing four times a day because one enjoys having contact with someone in the industry.

All of the above are real examples, by the way, and all have happened many times to every conference speaker I know, myself included.

By all means, seek expert advice, but tread lightly: remember, by definition, people involved in the publishing industry are trying to make a living at it — and as my agent keeps telling me, no one has ever made a solid living dispensing free advice.

Except, of course, Dear Abby.

“Wait just a minute!” a protesting cry emerges from cyberspace. “Maxine gave Mina her card! Why would she do that, if not to encourage future contact?”

For the reason Maxine said: so Mina could send the first chapter to her. While handing over a card may well have seemed like the heavens opening and St. Peter reaching out his staff to a writer who has been buffeted for a long time by rejection, it was actually a fairly low-commitment (and certainly low-effort) thing for Maxine to do. Random House, like all of the major US publishers, has an absolute policy against picking up unagented writers: even if Maxine fell in love with Mina’s work at the first paragraph, the best assistance she could have offered would be a recommendation to an agent, not a publication contract.

In that case, what was so wrong with Mina dropping Maxine a friendly line?

Well, as I hope any long-time reader of this blog now parrots in her sleep, there is NOTHING that people in the industry hate more than having a nanosecond of their time wasted. So extraneous e-mails, letters (beyond queries, cover letters for requested materials, and perhaps a simple thank-you note), and virtually any phone call that is not initiated by the agent are all regarded as symptoms of unprofessionalism in a writer.

Why is that a bad thing, in a writer marketing a first book? Well, agents are pretty tenacious of their time, and a neophyte is going to have a lot of questions to ask. That’s fine, if they’re intelligent, thoughtful questions — but the next time you’re at a conference, ask any agent you happen to meet for a definition of their nightmare client, and I can assure you that it will include a shuddering reference to someone who contacts them so often that they can’t get on with their work.

Is it unfair for Maxine to assume that Mina is one of these fearsome types based upon a single chatty e-mail? Probably — but she had a pretty good reason to draw a negative inference from Mina’s behavior. Any guesses?

Mina made one other mistake: she sent the e-mail INSTEAD of mailing (or e-mailing) off the chapter Maxine requested. Even if she requested it only to be nice (as seems probable here), a professional request is a professional request; by not complying with it, Mina announced to Maxine as effectively as if she had used it as the subject line of her e-mail that she’s not industry-savvy enough to be likely to break into the industry very soon. So, professionally speaking, Maxine would lose nothing by brushing her off.

Beggars, the old adage goes, can’t be choosers, and aspiring writers, as we all know to our cost, cannot set the terms of engagement with prospective agents. Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, these terms are unfair; certainly, agents have set the rules to their own advantage.

Which means, perversely, that there is a fail-safe fallback rule governing your interactions with them: let the agent determine the level of intimacy between you.

Within reason, of course.

Obviously, it makes sense for you to take the initiative to pitch and query your work; equally obviously, it is to your advantage to send out your work promptly after it is requested. Perhaps less obviously, it behooves you to follow up if an agent has sat on a project of yours too long without responding.

Beyond that, however, let the agent set the pace of your progressing relationship. Save the chatty e-mails for after she has started to send them to you; call only after she has established that she welcomes your calls. And keep the contact professionally courteous until you have solid, ongoing evidence that your agent regards you as a friend as well.

Trust me on this one: agents are not typically shy people; habitual reticence would be a serious professional impediment. If an agent has decided to make you a lifelong friend, she’s going to let you know about it.

Keep your chins up, everybody, and keep up the good work!

More faux pas: the monster always returns

A major milestone today, my friends: this is my 200th Author! Author! blog!

To those of you who did not follow me over from my old blogspot as the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Resident Writer, this announcement may seem puzzling, given the volume of back blogs stored here: I posted 206 times as Resident Writer, and those posts are archived here as well. My entire advice opus, as it were.

But these last 200 have been entirely on my own dime, in every sense, and without having to serve the institutional interests that inevitably limit what an organization’s designated columnist (which is really what I was; over my protests, the PNWA site did not allow readers to post comments) can say. So writing the blog since has been a heck of a lot more fun, and, I hope, even more useful to my readers.

As a 200th birthday present, will you do me a favor, please? Will you make a back-up of all of your writing documents NOW? I hadn’t nagged you about it in a couple of months, and I would hate for anyone to lose a manuscript through mechanical failure.

Thank you. I feel better now.

Yesterday, in broaching the subject of how blurry boundaries can lead writers astray in their relations with potential agents and editors, I introduced the case of Lauren, a trusting soul who believed that because an agent was nice to her, she did not need to continue pitching her book to other agents.

Lauren, you may have noticed, was awfully well-behaved about it all, and thus did not offend agent Loretta with her misconceptions. For the sake of argument, let’s meet another of Loretta’s pitch appointments, Lauren’s twin brother Lorenzo, to see how someone less knowledgeable about industry norms might have responded to the same situation:

Blurry boundary scenario 2: Lorenzo attends the same conference as his sister, and like Lauren, has a positive pitch meeting with agent Loretta. Pleased, he too stops pitching, boasting in the bar that is inevitably located no more than 100 yards from ground zero at any writers’ conference that he has found the agent of his dreams. From here on in, he has it made.

So, naturally, Lorenzo goes home, spends the usual panicked week or two frantically revising his novel, and sends it off to Loretta. Like Lauren, he too receives a beautifully sympathetic rejection letter a few weeks later, detailing what Loretta feels are the weaknesses of the manuscript.

Unlike Lauren, however, Lorenzo unwisely picked conference week in order to go off his anti-anxiety medication. His self-confidence suffers a serious meltdown, and in order to save his ego from sinking altogether, he is inspired to fight back. So he sits down and writes Loretta a lengthy e-mail, arguing with her about the merits of his manuscript.

Much to his surprise, she does not respond.

He sends it again, suitably embellished with reproaches for not having replied to his last, and attaching an article about how the publishing industry rejected some major bestseller 27 times before it was picked up.

Still no answer.

Perplexed and angry, Lorenzo alters his first 50 pages as Loretta advised, scrawls REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the envelope, as he had the first time, and sends it off.

Within days, the manuscript is returned to him, accompanied by a curt note stating that it is the practice of Loretta’s agency not to accept unrequested submissions from previously unpublished authors. If Lorenzo would like to query…

Okay, what did Lorenzo do wrong? Where do we even start?

Let’s run through this chronologically, shall we? First, he made all of the same mistakes as Lauren did yesterday: he did not check Loretta’s track record, assumed that a conference conversation automatically meant a lasting connection, and did not keep pitching. Had he stopped there, he would have been a much happier camper.

But no, our Lorenzo pressed ahead: he decided to contest with Loretta’s decision, adopting the always people-pleasing strategy of questioning her literary judgment. In order to insult her knowledge of the book-buying public more thoroughly, his follow-up included an article implying that no one in the industry knew a book from the proverbial hole in the ground.

Bad move, L. Arguing with an agent’s decision, unless you are already signed with that agent, is always a bad idea. Even if you’re right. Perhaps even especially if you’re right, because agents’ egos tend to get bruised easily.

More to the point, arguing with rejection is not going to turn it into acceptance. Ever. At the agent-seeking stage, this strategy has literally never worked. All it does is impress the agent (or, more likely, her screeners) with the fact that the writer in question is not professional enough to handle rejection well.

And that, my friends, is not an impression at all likely to engender a sympathetic re-read.

I’m sure, however, that you’re all too savvy to follow in Lorenzo’s footsteps, aren’t you? You would never be so blunt, I’m sure, nor would you ever be so dishonest as to write REQUESTED MATERIALS on materials that had not, in fact, been requested. (Since Loretta had not asked Lorenzo to revise and resubmit, her request ended when she stuffed his initial 50 pages into his SASE.)

However, a writer does not necessarily need to go over the top right away to bug an agent with over-persistence. Tomorrow, I shall show you how.

Happy 200th post, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Reader’s success — and an unrelated faux pas

Before I launch for today, I have some good news: long-time reader and lyrical writer Barbara Brink has just had a delightful article in the current issue of the Minnesota Star Tribune. Congratulations, Barbara, and keep up the good work!

I’m a great believer in keeping the ol’ writing résumé fresh by adding gems like this to it from time to time — articles; contest semi-finalist, and places; writing residencies. It takes time, of course, to write and submit these résumé-builders, but they do look lovely in the credentials section of a query letter, don’t they, and in an author bio? Not to mention building one’s potential readership in the long term.

Oh, come on — you’ve never picked up a book in a bookstore because the author’s name looked vaguely familiar?

I am hoping to wrap up my series on industry etiquette (phew!) within the next couple of days, so I can move on to researching the agents and editors scheduled to attend PNWA this year who did not attend last year. (Thanks for the feedback on that, those of you who posted comments on the subject; I like this compromise.) I want to get the info out to you soon enough that you can take advantage of that nifty first-150-registrants-get-an extra-appointment offer.

Oh, by the way, in case you were not aware of it: the first 150 people who register for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference this year will receive an additional appointment with an agent!

I’ve been writing for the last couple of weeks about the ways in which writers often overstep the bounds of what the publishing industry considers courtesy, and for the most part, I’ve been concentrating on simple differentials of expectation: the pro expects one standard of behavior, and the hopeful petitioner another. Sometimes, though, the depth of the writer’s desire to be published leads to a total disregard of boundaries — which, in turn, leads the industry professional the writer is pursuing to back away quickly.

Much of the time, the boundary-blurred writer does not overstep; she merely assumes that her project is of greater importance to the pro than is actually the case. If she doesn’t transgress the expected norms of behavior, this mistaken belief will harms the writer only emotionally, not professionally, as in the case of Lauren:

Blurry boundary scenario 1: After working tirelessly on her novel to make sure it was ready for conference season, Lauren lugs it to a conference. During the agents’ forum, she is delighted to hear Loretta, the agent to whom she has been assigned for a pitch appointment, wax poetic about her great love of writers and good writing. This, Lauren decides, is the perfect agent for her book.

Since she has only pitched a couple of times before, Lauren takes advantage of the Pitch Practicing Palace, where she works on her pitch with someone who looks suspiciously like yours truly. After having worked the major kinks out of her pitch, my doppelganger asks to whom Lauren intends to pitch it.

“Oh,” Lauren says happily, “I have an appointment with Loretta.”

My apparent twin frowns briefly. “Are you planning to pitch to anyone else? As far as I know, she has not picked up any clients at this conference in years. She writes really supportive rejection letters, though.”

Lauren shrugs and walks off to her appointment with Loretta. Her pitch goes well; the agent seems genuinely interested in her work, and asks to see the first 50 pages of the novel. Walking on air, Lauren decides that since she’s made such a good personal connection with Loretta, she does not need to pitch to anyone else.

The second she returns home, Lauren prints up and ships off her first 50, along with an effusively thankful cover letter. Three weeks later, her SASE returns in the mail, accompanied by a very supportive rejection letter from Loretta.

What did Lauren do wrong?

Actually, not much: she merely responded to her meeting with Loretta based upon her hopes, not upon solid research. Lauren should have checked before making the appointment (or asked Loretta during the agents’ forum) how many debut novels she had sold lately, and how recently she had picked up a new writer at a conference. Even if she did not have the time to do the necessary background research, since the Pitch Practicing Palace lady had raised the issue, Lauren should have asked around at the conference.

If she had, she might have learned that Loretta had been attending the conference for years without picking up any new clients at all. Unfortunately, there are agents — and prominent ones — who attend conferences regularly, being charming and supportive to every writer they meet, but without seriously intending to sign anyone at all.

Unless, of course, the next DA VINCI CODE falls into their laps. Then, they might make an exception.

While this attitude is not in itself an actionable offense — I would be the last to decry any agent’s being nice to any aspiring writer — it has roughly the same effect on the hooking-up expectations of conference attendees as a mysterious young man’s walking into a Jane Austen novel without mentioning that he is secretly engaged: the local maidens may well fall in love with him without knowing that he is attached.

And who can blame Lauren for falling in love with Loretta? The absolute demands of the industry can be so overwhelming at the agent-seeking stage that when that slammed door opens even a chink, it is tempting to fling oneself bodily at it, clinging to any agent, editor, or author who so much as tosses a kindly smile in the direction of the struggling.

So what should Lauren have done differently? Done her background research, of course, and kept on pitching her book to others. Even if Loretta had actually wanted to sign her, Lauren should not have relied so heavily upon her — as it turned out, false — first impressions of her. Nice interpersonal contact may help nudge an agent toward offering a likeable writer a contract, but ultimately, no experienced agent would make such an offer upon a conversation, or even a verbal pitch, alone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: no matter what pitching experts, including myself, tell you, a pitch alone is NEVER enough to sell a book to an agent or editor, no matter how good it is. The writing always needs to fulfill the promise of the pitch; the pitch merely opens the door to a favorable reading.

And, realistically, Loretta did not expect exclusivity from Lauren, so there is no chance whatsoever that she would have been offended had Lauren pitched to every agent at the conference. Long-time readers, chant with me now: if an agent wants an exclusive, she will ask for it.

Learn from Lauren’s example, and don’t be a cheap date: it should take more than a few kind words to make you lose your heart — and your valuable pitching opportunities — to an agent. Don’t act as if you are going steady until your signature has dried upon a representation contract.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

More faux pas: the fatal assumptions

Okay, now that the shock waves from Jenna Bush’s book contract (see yesterday’s post) are out of my system, I can return to the topic at hand: faux pas that neophyte writers commonly make when first coming in contact with the publishing industry. On Monday, I was discussing the pitfalls associated with approaching established writers to ask for their assistance in landing an agent.

This particular set of problems is not discussed much on the conference circuit — or, to be precise, they are not discussed much in front of contest attendees; they are discussed by agents, editors, and authors backstage at conferences all the time, I assure you, and in outraged tones.

Why? Because overeager writers overstep the bounds of common courtesy all the time — and, as I can tell you from direct personal experience, it’s not easy being the first personal contact a writer has with the industry: one tends to be treated less as a person than as a door or a ladder.

And no one, however famous or powerful, likes that. Case in point:

Writer-approaching scenario 3: at a writers’ conference, Karl meets Krishnan, a writer who has recently acquired an agent. The two men genuinely have a great deal in common: they live in the same greater metropolitan area, write for the same target market, and they share a love of the plays of Edward Albee. (Don’t ask me why; they just do.) So after hanging out together in the bar that is never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference venue, it seems perfectly natural for Karl to e-mail Krishnan and ask him to have coffee the following week.

When Krishnan arrives at the coffee shop, however, he is dismayed when Karl pulls a hefty manuscript box out of his backpack. “Here,” Karl says. “I want to know what you think before I send it to the agents who requested it at the conference. And after you read it, you can send it on to your agent.”

Krishnan just sits there, open-mouthed. As soon as his cell phone rings, he feigns a forgotten appointment and flees.

Okay, what did Karl do wrong here?

Partially, he echoed Isabelle’s mistake from a couple of days ago: he just assumed that by being friendly, Krishnan was volunteering to help him land an agent. However, there are a LOT of reasons that industry professionals are nice to aspiring writers at conferences, including the following, listed in descending order of probability:

*Krishnan might have just been being polite.

*Krishnan might have regarded Karl as a potential buyer of his books, and as such, did not want to alienate a future fan.

*Krishnan might have been teaching a class at the conference, or hoping to do so in future, and wanted to make a good impression.

*Krishnan is lonely — writing is a lonely craft, by definition, right? — and is looking for other writers with whom to commune.

*Krishnan is looking for local writers with whom to form a critique group.

*Krishnan’s agent might have asked him to be on the lookout for new writers at the conference (rare, but it does happen occasionally).

Of these possibilities, only the last two would dictate ANY willingness on Krishnan’s part to read Karl’s work — and the next to last one definitely implies that reading would be exchanged, not one-way. However, if either of the last two had been Krishnan’s intent, it would have been polite for Karl to wait to be ASKED.

Ditto with Karl’s request that Krishnan pass the manuscript on to his agent. Even with a super-open agent, an agented author cannot recommend others indiscriminately. At minimum, it could be embarrassing. If Krishnan recommends Karl, and Karl turns out to be a bad writer, a constant nuisance, or just plain nuts, that recommendation will seriously compromise his ability to recommend writers in future.

That’s right: writers like Karl, while usually well-meaning in and of themselves, collectively make it harder for everyone else to get this kind of recommendation.

There’s another reason Krishnan would be inclined to run from such an approach: resentment. Not of Karl’s rather inconsiderate assumptions that he would automatically be willing to help someone he’s just met, but of Karl’s attempt to cut into a line in which Krishnan stood for quite some time.

That’s right: just as it is relatively safe to presume that the more recently a writer landed an agent, the more difficult and time-consuming the agent-finding process was — because, by everyone’s admission, it’s harder than it was ten or even five years ago to wow an agent — it is a fair bet that an agent who has been signed but has not yet sold a book will be lugging around quite a bit of residual resentment about the process, or even about his agent.

If an agented writer’s hauling a monumental chip on his shoulder about his agent seems a little strange to you, I can only conclude that your experience listening to those whose first or second books are currently being marketed by their agents is not vast. Almost universally, a writer’s life gets harder, not easier, in the initial months of being signed: practically any agent on earth will ask for manuscript revisions of even a manuscript she loves, in order to make it more marketable, and no one, but no one, on the writer’s end of the game is ever happy about the speed of submission.

Even if Krishnan’s agent is a saint and habitually works at a speed that would make John Henry gasp, Karl was unwise to assume that Krishnan would be eager to speed up the agent-finding process for anyone else. For all Karl knows, Krishnan struggled for YEARS to land his agent — and, unhappily, human nature does not always wish to shorten the road for those who come after.

Just ask anyone who has been through a medical residency. Or a Ph.D. program.

Note, please, that all of the above applies EVEN IF Krishnan has time to read the manuscript in question. Which, as the vast majority of agented-but-not-published writers hold full-time jobs and have to struggle to carve out writing time — as, actually, do many of the published writers I know; not a lot of people make a living solely from writing novels — is NOT a foregone conclusion.

The best rule of thumb: establish an honest friendship before you ask for favors.

It may well have turned out that Karl had a skill — computer repair, eagle-eyed proofreading, compassionate dog-walking — that Krishnan would be pleased to receive in exchange for feedback on Karl’s book. Krishnan might even have asked Karl to join his critique group, where such feedback would have been routine. But Karl will never know, because he jumped the gun, assuming that because Krishnan had an agent, the normal rules of favor-asking did not apply to him.

The same rule applies, by the way, to any acquaintance whose professional acumen you would like to tap unofficially. If I want to get medical information from my doctor about a condition that is plaguing a character in my novel, I expect to pay for her time. Nor, outside of a formal conference context, would I expect a professional editor to read my work, an agent to give me feedback on my pitch, or an editor to explain the current behind-the-scenes at Random House to me unless we either already had a close friendship or I was paying for their time, either monetarily or by exchange.

Tread lightly, and be very aware that you ARE asking a favor, and a big one, when you ask an author to help you reach his agent. Not only are you asking the author to invest time and energy in helping a relative stranger — you are also expecting him or her to put credibility on the line. And that, dear readers, is something that most authors — and most human beings — do not do very often for relative strangers.

Keep up the good work!