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!

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