Book marketing 101: what’s that I see across the bookstore? Could it be my agent’s next dream client?

In yesterday’s post, I suggested a surprisingly underused method for finding new agents to query — the straightforward expedient of going to readings of books in your book category and asking the authors who represents them. Immediately thereafter, though, I may have dashed some hopes out there by pointing out several ways in which aspiring writers tend to bungle such approaches, in the hope of helping you avoid them.

How do I know about these faux pas? Because agents, editors, and established authors just LOVE to trade stories about outrageous approaches, that’s how. Believe me, you don’t want to become famous that way.

So to minimize the chances of that happening, I have resurrected a post languishing in my archives and punched it up a bit for current use. (I know, I know: I am really looking forward to the day that I have the physical oomph to write new posts from scratch again, too.)

Unfortunately, open-handed friendliness to aspiring writers is rare; in approaching most contests, as well as most agencies and presses, it helps to be aware that, to put it mildly, an overwhelming desire to smooth the path of the aspiring is most emphatically not the norm. It is usually in the writer’s best interest, then, to assume that contest readers will be uncharitably nit-picky, agents will be in a rush, and editors will want to be wowed by the end of line 2.

Or, to put it another way: it behooves you to make it as easy as humanly possible for people in the industry to help you. And to make that apparent from your very first interaction.

This seems a bit self-evident in theory, but it’s not often put into practice. Especially in the cases I was discussing at the end of last week, where, from the established authors’ perspectives, the writers requesting help might almost have been working overtime to make it difficult to help them.

That, my friends, is not the best way to get someone to help you. Minimizing the effort required to do you a good turn is.

(Hey, you didn’t think that I was talking at such length about the blandishment of established authors because I was advising you never to try it at all, did you? Heck, go for it — but when you do it, I want you to SUCCEED.)

Putting a little advance thought not only into how to ask for help gracefully, but how to render it as simple as possible for your designated helper to give you a leg up. Here are a couple of ways that writers often fumble the approach.

Misguided approach 1: Pablo has approached established writer Pauline a sensible way: he read her work first, was able to give her a sensible, well thought-out compliment on her latest book, and established a cordial relationship before asking for any favors at all. Eventually, Pauline asks to read some of Pablo’s work, and, enthused, sends him an e-mail saying that she is willing to recommend him to her agent, Percy.

“That’s marvelous,” Pablo writes back immediately. “Send Percy the manuscript I gave you, and let me know what he says.”

He is astonished never to hear from Pauline again. Nor, to his shock, does he ever hear from Percy at all.

Okay, what did Pablo do wrong – or, to put it another way, what did he do to render Pauline unlikely to follow through, and Percy doomed never to see his work at all?

Pablo violated the golden rule: he made it apparent that it would be difficult to help him. To be precise, he assumed that because Pauline was willing to help him at all, she would automatically be eager to put in a great deal of leg work on his behalf, too. Suddenly finding herself expected to do a massive favor when she had offered to do a smallish one, Pauline froze and backed off.

Why? Well, what Pauline was offering Pablo was actually a great big helping hand: a personal recommendation to her agent, something few previously unpublished writers ever get. In her mind, this would entail Pablo’s beginning his query letter to Percy with, “Pauline recommended that I contact you about my book…”

That’s it. It may not sound like an immense favor, but as it would place Pablo’s work in a different pile than every other query that came into Percy’s agency, it could potentially have made an enormous difference to Pablo’s querying success. If Pauline felt very enthusiastic indeed, she might also have called or e-mailed Percy, to let him know that Pablo’s work was coming.

But that would be the absolute limit to what an established writer like Pauline would do for a new acquaintance. She could potentially OFFER to do more down the line, but realistically, Pablo should have accepted this much with gratitude and, taking the initiative to promote his own work, followed through himself.

Instead – and herein lay his biggest mistake– he misunderstood what Pauline was offering. Brushing aside her actual offer in a way that inadvertently came across as dismissive, he pushed 100% of the follow-up responsibility onto Pauline, essentially expecting her to be his unpaid agent, pitching his work to her agent.

Think about this from Pauline’s point of view: why on earth would she do this? Even if Pablo is a brilliant writer, the utmost personal benefit she could possibly derive from the transaction is the glow of having done a good deed and Pablo’s gratitude. Perhaps a line on a future acknowledgement page. But if Pablo begins the process by appearing ungrateful, why should she lift single well-manicured finger to help him at all, much less put herself on the line to promote his work?

It’s hard to know how seriously to judge Pablo, isn’t it? He botched an opportunity for which many another aspiring writer would gladly have given his pinkie toes. On the other hand, from a writer’s point of view, he really made only one small slip, and that inadvertent.

While we could debate from now until Doomsday whether the punishment fit the crime here, the overall message is clear: when you want someone to do you a favor, your best strategy is to minimize, not maximize, the amount of effort your patron will need to invest to assist you. Don’t simply assume it’s understood – ask questions about how you can make it easier to help you.

When in doubt, you can always fall back on the most basic, most welcome question of all: “What can I do to make helping me easier for you?”

That’s a bit counter-intuitive, I know: ostensibly, this process is about others helping you, not you helping others. But trust me on this one: the easier you make it to help you, the more likely you are to receive help. Pablo’s response to Pauline’s offer should have been all about her, not him: “That’s fabulous, Pauline; thank you so much. What do you want me to do?”

Adopting that attitude toward helping hands, I promise you, will make you more welcome in virtually any industry gathering, both now and in years to come. Why? Because it will make you a better addition to the professional writers’ community.

When I dealt with this topic before, I gave many, many examples, since I was in the midst of an extensive series on common faux pas those new to the industry tend to make. For our purposes now, however, I think it’s safe to skip a few. (But if you’re interested, they’re all under the INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category at right.)

So let’s just indulge in one last example, then let the subject drop for the time being.

Misguided approach 2: Tanya met agented author Tremaine through networking; he’s the friend of a friend. Because she seemed to be nice and was complimentary about his work, Tremaine was happy to answer a few of Tanya’s questions via e-mail. Lately, however, he’s been deliberately slowing his responses, because she’s starting to e-mail him every day.

Clearly, he thinks, Tanya is thinking of this as a friendship, rather than what it actually is, an author being nice to a reader.

One sunny Tuesday, Tremaine sees yet another e-mail from Tanya in his inbox. Sighing, he leaves it to answer another day. On Friday, he opens it, and is startled to find a cheerful missive from Tanya, telling him she has already sent a query to his agent, Trevor, using Tremaine’s name as a reference. Would Tremaine mind following up with Trevor, to confirm the recommendation and try to speed up the process?

Oh, dear.

Tanya’s put Tremaine in a tough situation here, hasn’t she? On one level, she has used his name without his permission, and he would be well within his rights to pick up the phone and tell Trevor so, killing her submission’s chances.

On the other hand, doing so would make him look bad in the eyes of his agent: if he confesses to having been used, the next time Tremaine actually does want to recommend an aspiring writer, he will have to pass the manuscript along to Trevor personally, to avoid the possibility of another misappropriation of his name.

Which, as we have seen, will be a whole lot of work for him.

It was Tanya’s responsibility to ASK Tremaine for permission to use his name, not tell him about it afterward. And while it is possible that she DID ask, but Tremaine overlooked her question because of the sheer volume of her e-mails, it is never legitimate to assume that silence equals consent.

A good rule of thumb in any context, actually.

What happened to Tremaine happens to famous writers ALL the time, incidentally: unfortunately, there are plenty of aspiring writers out there who have mistaken professional kindness to a fan for the beginning of a lifetime friendship. And friends help one another, right?

Before you use a recommender’s name, make ABSOLUTELY sure that you have the recommender’s permission to do so; you may make an honest mistake, but because some unscrupulous folks have used this leg-up technique on purpose, the knee-jerk assumption on the agent’s end is almost certainly going to be that there was no misunderstanding at all. Just misappropriation.

It’s just not worth the risk.

A graceful way to confirm: if you are meeting in person, ask the recommender to write the agent’s name on a handy piece of paper for you. Then ask, “And it’s really okay for me to say that you sent me?” If said in a pleased, wondering tone, this will be perceived as a compliment — “Wow — YOU’re willing to recommend me?” — rather than doubting the author’s word.

Via e-mail, it’s even easier: if the language of the offer has been at all ambiguous, e-mail the recommender, saying that you are going to contact the agent. But make sure, unlike Tanya, you do it BEFORE you, well, contact the agent in question.

The overarching moral of all of the examples from the last few days: it is ALWAYS better to ask a follow-up question or two than to assume that someone intends to help you more than his words have stated specifically. If the recommender is indeed offering to help, the question is merely considerate; if not, it’s far better you know about it before you act, right?

And regardless of the outcome: remember to express gratitude for the help you did get. As well as, of course, keeping up the good work!

Reading this post again — or rather, these posts, as the above is a composite of a couple — I feel compelled to add that quite apart from the reasons I gave here, there is a very good strategic reason that you will want to bend over backwards to be easy to help: the publishing world is, as some of you may have already noticed, an arena where a poor reputation gets one talked about far more than a good one. As I mentioned above, you really, really do not want to be the subject of the hilarious story an established writer — or, still worse, an agent — is telling at cocktail parties this month.

But that does not mean you should be shaking in your boots, terrified that you will inadvertently say the wrong thing. The truly good stories tend not to be about aspiring writers who breach minor points of etiquette unawares, but those who come up with real whoppers.

Like the person who told a certain male agent of my acquaintance during a pitch meeting that he couldn’t possibly understand women’s fiction well enough to represent it. When he tried to tell her that he does, in fact, sell women’s fiction all the time, she implied that he was lying. And then she was astonished when he said, “Then maybe you should not be pitching to me.”

Now that’s a good cocktail party story.

Seriously, when an author recommends a writer to her agent, she isn’t just recommending the writing, but the person as well. As with any recommendation, the recommendee’s poor behavior tends to reflect poorly upon the recommender. And even if it didn’t, no one wants to be the client of whom the agent says at parties, “Oh, you would not believe what the writer she sent me did!”

Building a reputation for being easy to work with — the standard euphemism for being cooperative, following directions well, not prone to gratuitous temper tantrums, and knowing a bit about how the industry works going into a relationship with an agent or editor — carries legitimate commercial value in this industry. Cultivate it. You really do want your agent to be able to say with a clear conscience, “Oh, she’s a peach. You’ll love working with her.”

I look forward to hearing that about you at a cocktail party, in fact. Keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Book marketing 101: what’s that I see across the bookstore? Could it be my agent’s next dream client?”

  1. Thanks for this post. It’s just what so many authors need.

    Agents primary motivation is NOT to help authors, and you remind us to of this.

    In approaching an agent, or anyone for that matter, I like the advice I heard interviewing Robert Cialdini, best selling author and influence/persuasion researcher.

    “Instead of trying to get people to like you.. learn to like people” That is, find out what they want and what will help them.

    You’ll be better received if you ask for something after doing a favor. In fact, you’ll likely find that they offer without you asking.

    Warren Whitlock

    1. Thanks, Warren. In the throes of the querying process, it’s SO easy to forget that agents (and established authors, and editors, and…) are individuals out to make a living, rather than either single-stop representatives of what the industry is and isn’t accepting these days or public servants devoted to bringing good writing to the public regardless of marketability. And that just because someone is in a position to help an aspiring writer doesn’t mean that s/he has an obligation to do so.

      Yet, as you say, when approached politely, authors often will spontaneously offer to help, the dears.

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