Book marketing 101: dealing with the Grand Silence, part II, or, assumptions, assumptions

In the spirit of the publishing world’s time-honored tradition of August vacations, I am spending a few days re-running former posts on how writers’ and agents’ senses of how long it should take to respond to a submission differ. To put it mildly, their expectations are generally not on the same calendar page.

And I’m talking month-at-a-glance calendar page here. Not a lot is going on in the industry until after Labor Day. (For my international readers, that’s the first Monday in September, when we in the US gather in back yards and beaches to barbeque things, or in malls to buy mattresses. How this communal frivolity celebrates the American worker remains a mystery.)

Of all of the many aspects of submission that are outside the writer’s control, timing is probably the least discussed, because we would all like to think (c’mon, admit it) that our work is so compelling that the instant anyone on the business side of the industry touches it, he will immediately feel compelled to clear his schedule for the rest of the day to give it a good, hard read. By logical extension of this fantasy, when we don’t hear back, something must be dreadfully wrong.

Knowing how turn-around time usually works can help relieve the stress of suspecting that one’s own submission is the only one not being attended to with the speed of an ER staff greeting the inhabitants of an ambulance. Trust me, it’s not just you.

Here is a post that I wrote some months back, showing where giving in to the fantasy can lead. Enjoy!

Yesterday, I broached the seldom-discussed subject of writers’ expectations about how agents will react to their work – specifically, how writers are often surprised and demoralized when they first encounter the legendary slowness of agency turn-around times. There are icebergs that move faster. The temptation, of course, is to correlate slowness of response with the industry’s openness to one’s work, but really, the two are seldom related.

Honestly. If you haven’t heard back, 99% of the time it’s because the agent hasn’t read the submission yet. It’s under those other 49 submissions propping up her file cabinet. How could that possibly be a reflection upon the quality of your work?

Yesterday, I discussed how unrealistic expectations might eat away at a writer’s confidence from the inside. Today, I want to take a look at how they might cause a writer to violate industry etiquette, thus harming the book’s chances for success.

Writer-centered scenario 2: Edgar decides his novel is akin to a bestseller from a couple of years ago, so he very sensibly finds out who represented it. After having looked up the agent, Emmanuel, in one of the standard agency guides, he picks up the phone and calls Emmanuel in New York.

(Hush, those of you who just gasped: I’m making a point here.)

Amazingly, Emmanuel answers his own phone, and Edgar pitches his work. Much to Edgar’s surprise, though, Emmanuel’s response lukewarm; instead of wanting to discuss the project, he gets off the phone as quickly as possible.

Okay, what did Edgar do wrong?

All right, gaspers, go ahead and tell the rest of the class: Edgar called an agent, something every agency guide ever published will tell a writer not to do unless the building in which the agency is housed is on fire.

And maybe not even then. Seriously, they hate it when writers with whom they have no previous relationship call. It’s not quite considered “Hey, you kicked my grandmother!” rude, but it’s definitely black tie party-crashing rude.

Why is cold-calling an agent considered such a HUGE faux pas? Because these are busy, busy people; they don’t have time to talk with every writer in the English-speaking world, and besides, until an agent knows that you can write, isn’t chitchat irrelevant?

There is another reason Edgar’s approach was poor strategy. A writer would never see it like this, of course, but from Emmanuel’s perspective, the expectation that he WOULD have time to take phone calls from writers he’s never met implies that Edgar thinks he’s not very successful.

And that wouldn’t just be paranoia on Emmanuel’s part. Because, practically, only a VERY unsuccessful agent would be sitting around waiting for requested materials to come in — and since agents are notorious for saying in every agency guide and at every conference that prospective clients should not bug them with calls, most of them would assume that a writer who did so is either casting aspersions upon their success rates or entirely new to the industry.

The result: insult. The moral: never call an agent who hasn’t ASKED you to call. And never, ever use a call as a substitute for a query letter.

Writer-centered scenario 3: Gertrude met agent Germaine at a conference. After hearing her pitch, Germaine responded very nicely, asking to see the first few chapters.

Instead of sending it out right away, though, Gertrude, like so writers in her situation, went into a revision frenzy, going over every line with a magnifying glass, tweezers, AND a fine-toothed comb. After a couple of days, it became apparent to Gertrude that this revision was going to for a few weeks, so she sent a page-long e-mail to Germaine, explaining that she was not going to be able to get the pages to her right away.

Germaine did not respond. Stunned not to have heard back, Gertrude concluded that the agent had lost interest altogether, and never sent the pages at all.

Oh, dear, Gertrude has stumbled into several of the most common drop-everything-for-me problems. Any guesses as to what they are? (Hint: the revision panic wasn’t directly involved.)

If you said that Gertrude’s problem was assuming that the request to send materials was only good for as long as the agent remembered her, give yourself a gold star. Agents hear FAR too many pitches – and receive far too many queries – to remember them all indefinitely, or even by the time their planes touch down at La Guardia after the conference.

Yes, even the ones they liked. So you’re going to have to remind the agent in the cover letter that she requested the enclosed pages, anyway. (If you’re not clear on why, please see my earlier posts on SUBMISSION PACKETS, right.)

Gertrude would have been okay, though, had she not put her assumption that she was the only writer in Germaine’s universe in writing. Anyone care to guess why Germaine did not respond?

That’s right – what may have seemed like courtesy from Gertrude’s perspective looked like something else entirely from the agent’s POV: a writerly assumption that the agent had dropped everything, from her 141 clients’ books to screening queries, waiting for Gertrude’s pages. Again, it implies that the agent had nothing else to do.

And we already know how they feel about THAT assumption, right?

Trust me, it’s not as though agents whip out a pencil immediately after they have requested a manuscript and pencil in time to read it. When it arrives, it arrives. If a couple of months has passed since an agent requested your manuscript, you should probably drop a BRIEF, polite note saying when it may be expected, but otherwise, don’t waste their time.

They don’t like it, you see. And the last thing you want to be labeled before an agent reads your work is a client who is going to be bugging them all the time, right?

Gertrude made one more mistake here, and for the sake of her marketing success, it’s a whopper. Anyone? Anyone?

Three gold stars if you caught that Gertrude expected the agent to write back and reassure her before she sent out her pages. From the agent’s POV, Gertrude was asking for the agent to request the pages again – and from a professional perspective, why would anyone need to be asked twice to have a shot at professional success?

I know, I know: it’s not very comfortable, following the trajectories of these industry faux pas, but far better that you read about them here than stumble into them unwarily yourselves, right? I shall sleep better at night, knowing that my readers, at least, will not be emulating Edgar and Gertrude.

Keep up the good work!

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