Book marketing 101: are you really ready to go steady?

Since yesterday’s was SUCH a long post — being giddy over the book sale certainly seems to have made me chatty, doesn’t it? — I’m going to be a bit less garrulous today. And the topic is much more fun: what you should do if you find yourself being wooed by an agent at a conference.

In a professional way, I mean. In the other, more common sense of the word, it’s naturally up to you how to handle it, if you are both consenting adults. (Although for a few insights about how that kind of behavior tends to be regarded at writers’ conferences, please see my post for February 22: Is It Hot in Here, or Is It Just the Guy in the Leather Pants?.)

If an agent does fall deeply in love with your book premise at a conference, you might hear one or both of the following pieces of industry-speak fall from her lips: “I need you to overnight this to me” and/or “I want an exclusive look at this.”

And you, in your giddiness, may be tempted to say yes immediately to one or both.

I wouldn’t advise saying yes to either, because the first will cost you quite a bit of money, and the second is not in your best interests.

Why? Well, manuscripts are heavy, and overnight shipping is expensive. And in the New York-based publishing industry, the normal pace is hectic, so writers dealing with it are exposed to an odd rhythm: delay/panic/delay/panic. Even manuscripts that are of burning interest often sit on desks for a month or two, because other projects are more pressing — after all, acquiring new clients is not how an agent makes a living; commissions come from selling books.

A deal in the hand is worth 128 down the road, I guess.

So when agents and editors say, “I want it now,” or even “I want it NOW!!!” it’s not usually a statement of intention that may be legitimately translated as, ‘I am going to read it as soon as it arrives.” Rather, it’s an expression of serious interest, a way of telling you that they are excited about it — and will read it immediately after the other 17 exciting projects already on their desks.

Ditto with a request for an exclusive — it’s intended to convey to you that the agent is very, very interested in your work, not that she is going to clear her schedule for an entire day as soon as she gets back home to read your book.

It’s meant as a compliment, not as a time prediction – and thus there is no reason for you to break the bank in order to get your manuscript to New York before the agent has even unpacked from her trip. It’s expensive; it will require endless trouble on your part; it will preclude your having time to give the manuscript a last read to catch errors — AND it probably will not get your work read any faster.

Save yourself the dosh.

Besides, it’s pretty generally understood that most of the rest of the country has a slower pace of life than New York. If you are pitching at a conference in the Pacific Northwest, the agent may not be sure if you even have clocks on the walls of your vegetarian commune yurt.

There’s no reason that misconception shouldn’t work to our advantage from time to time. The fact is, it’s a good bet that the requesting agent already has a million manuscripts on her desk — and so does her screener Millicent. A few extra days in the mail will not make any difference at all.

Or, for that matter, a few extra days of proofing it in your vegetarian commune yurt.

I have a firm policy for my editing clients and myself: NEVER overnight ANYTHING to an agency or publishing house unless the RECEIVER is paying the shipping costs; instead, I use the USPS’ Priority Mail, which is infinitely cheaper. Packages with overnight stickers on them are NOT attended to more quickly than those that do not; Priority Mail packages with REQUESTED MATERIALS written on the outside are opened just as fast.

Because of the industry’s peculiar sense of time, where having your manuscript be on the top of someone’s to-read list might mean he’ll read it tomorrow and it might mean it will still be propping up fifteen other manuscripts on his desk four months from now, I also always advise writers to refuse to give any agent, even the best in the world, an exclusive look at any book.

An exclusive, for those of you new to the term, is when a writer agrees not to show a manuscript to anyone else while an agent is trying to make up his mind whether to represent it.

It is almost never in the writer’s interest to agree to this — all you are doing by granting it is making sure that no other agent at the conference can beat the one you’re promising to the punch. It’s tying your hands so you can’t send your work out to anyone else, while at the same time depriving the agent of any possible incentive to read it quickly, since he knows that there’s no competition over the book.

Just say no.

In fact, it’s a VERY good idea to send submissions to every agent and editor who requests them simultaneously — and mention in your cover letter that others are reviewing it as well. This often results in a quicker read on the agency end.

What you should NOT do is submit to your top choice, wait for a reply, then submit to the others who have requested it. Effectively, this is granting an unrequested exclusive, and it’s not to your advantage, no matter how much you liked the agent when you met.

Writers new to pitching grant unrequested exclusives all the time, unfortunately, under the assumption that hooking up with an agent is like making a best friend in junior high school: if you even talk to anyone else, your new BFF might get huffy.

But this is a business. Unless the agent of your dreams has actually ASKED to see the material exclusively, she does not expect to be the only one looking at it.

If you absolutely must grant an exclusive — or if you read this AFTER you already have — say (and repeat it in your cover letter when you send the book), “I am happy to give you an exclusive look at my book for three weeks. After that, I shall still be eager to hear from you, but please know that I shall also be submitting it elsewhere.”

Three weeks is plenty of time for anyone to read any manuscript. And then on Day 22, if you haven’t heard back, bite the bullet and submit it to another agency — and send an e-mail or call the first agency and tell them another agent is now looking at it. If they really are rushing to read it in time, trust me, they’ll call you to ask for an extension.

More on dealing with good news on Monday. Keep up the good work!

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