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.

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