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she learns that the ostensibly tried-and-true querying and submission techniques she had been using are seriously out of date; as a result, her submissions may not even have been read for more than a paragraph or two before being rejected.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!