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!