Yesterday, I spent a very practical few pages of post talking about ways to save money when shipping requested materials to an agent or editor. We writers don’t talk about this very much amongst ourselves, but the fact is, the process of finding an agent can be pretty expensive.
How expensive, those of you still working up to the marketing stage ask? At minimum, we’re talking about postage, shipping, boxes, paper, ink cartridges, wear and tear on your computer, and a ton of your time that could be used for, well, anything else. Not to mention the even greater optional costs of attending conferences, entering contests, and hiring freelance editors like me to help pull your submission into tip-top shape.
It adds up, so I like to pass along money-saving tips where I can.
If you’re a US citizen and marketing a book, it’s also worth looking into the possibility of filing a Schedule C for your writing as a business, so you can deduct these expenses. Talk to a tax professional about it (I am not a tax professional, so I cannot legally give you advice on the subject), but do try to find one who is familiar with artists’ returns: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must sell work in a given year to claim associated expenses, but that’s not necessarily true.
Yesterday, as part of my ongoing quest to save you a few sous, I brought up the case of Lysette, the writer who rushed out and overnighted her manuscript. I went into her possible reasons for doing this — rather than sending the book regular mail or the more affordable 2-3 day Priority Mail rate. Today, I want to talk a bit about the other primary motivator for jumping the gun: eagerness.
Few souls walking the planet are in a greater hurry than a writer who has just received a request for materials, especially if that request comes at the end of a long period of querying. Whew! the writer thinks, the hard part is over now: my premise has been recognized as a good one by an agent who handles this sort of material.
Now, naturally, everything is going to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah. You know, the average trajectory for any garden-variety blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to cut a week, or even a few days, out of tackling that bright future?
I sincerely hope that yours is the one in eight million submissions that experiences this particular trajectory — and that’s the probability in a good year for publishing — but writerly hopes to the contrary, a request for submission is the beginning of the game, not the end. The fact is, as small a percentage of queries receive a positive response (and it’s unusually under 5%), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.
There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know. I want yours to be in that top percentile. Which is why I would rather see your resources and energy going toward perfecting the submission itself, rather than getting it there with a rapidity that would make Superman do a double-take.
Also, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent will not make one scintilla of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read — or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, whether the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or in the 2-3 days offered by the more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference to response time.
Especially this time of year; most of the industry is on vacation from early August through Labor Day. Or around Christmastime, when the biz more or less shuts down.
This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Gilberto:
Submission scenario 2: Gilberto has just won a major category in a writing contest. During the very full pitching day that followed his win, five agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Glenda, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that he overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away.
Being a savvy submitter, Gilberto says yes, but submits simultaneously to all six, rather than waiting to hear back from Glenda before he sends off his other submission. He writes REQUESTED MATERIALS — FIRST PLACE, CONTEST NAME on the outside of every submission and mentions the request in the first line of his cover letter, to minimize the possibility of his work being lost in amongst the many submissions these agencies receive.
Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all but one of them; puzzlingly, Glenda is the last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with form letter.
What did Gilberto do wrong? He said yes to an unreasonable request.
Why was it unreasonable? In essence, the situation was no different than if Glenda had asked him to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her.
In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience. As Glenda’s subsequent behavior showed, she had no more intention of reading Gilberto’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.
Okay, here is a pop quiz to see how much those of you who have been following the Book Marketing 101 series have learned: why did she ask him to overnight it at all?
Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. As I mentioned earlier in the series, agents tend to be competitive people who value book projects in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in them? This is one way it manifests — and the primary reason that it is ALWAYS in a writer’s best interest to make simultaneous submissions and queries.
Pause and consider the ramifications of this attitude toward other agents for a moment. Let them ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until… OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?
Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages doesn’t get back to you for two months, doesn’t it? While the average agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, the converse is also true: she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.
This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.
I heard that thought go through some of your minds: I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to speed up the agent’s sense of urgency. Ooh, that would be too strategic, clever, and unscrupulous. Sneaky writer; no cookie.
Okay, here’s the extra credit question: in the scenario above, Glenda already knows that other agents are interested in Gilberto’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?
Give up? Well, Glenda’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Gilberto, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.
Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”
It honestly does make sense, when you consider the competition amongst agents. Glenda is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Gilberto to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write up a storm. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.
And she’s met enough writers to be aware that it is distinctly possible that Gilberto’s response to his big win will be to spend the next eight months going over his manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, perfecting it before showing it to anyone at all. She would like to see it before he does that, if at all possible. To beat the Christmas rush, as it were.
Even if she doesn’t get an advance peek, Glenda is setting up a situation where Gilberto will automatically tell her if any other agent makes an offer. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that he will regard her as a top prospect. Even if he gets an offer from another agent, he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else.
If she gets such a call, Glenda’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.
What’s the rush, from her perspective?
From the agent’s POV, asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.
So what should Gilberto have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m booked up for the next few days. I can get it to you by the end of the week, though.”
And then he should have sat down, read it IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch any glaring mistakes, and Priority Mailed it a few days later.
Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: in the industry, the party who wants a manuscript overnighted is generally the one who pays for it. After a publisher acquires your book, the house will be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you. So by asking the writer to pay the costs, the agent is actually stepping outside the norms of the biz.
More submission tips, and faux pas avoidance strategies, follow tomorrow. Keep up the good work!
P.S.: For those of you who are in the process of sending out packets: if you have follow-up questions on the subject, PLEASE post them here as comments, rather than e-mailing them to me directly. That way, everyone can benefit from the responses, and I can use my time more efficiently. I thank you; my agent thanks you; my editor thanks you; my kith and kin thank you.