Since most of the faux pas writers tend to make at conferences are simple matters of not being aware of the unwritten rules of the industry, this weekend I have been taking break from my ongoing series on pitching and querying to re-run excerpts from some conference-related older posts on how not to run afoul of agents and editors.
Okay, so I’ve punched them up a little. Also, these little homilies may be a touch on the depressing side, since my fictional exemplars do EVERYTHING wrong, but hey, better them than you, right?
Today’s drama concerns that ubiquitious conference misapprehension: not being versed enough in the ways of publishing folk to tell the difference between a nice conversation at a conference, an offer of help, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Sometimes, they can look awfully similar. But as the international relations folks say, where you stand depends on where you sit.
Enjoy! Tomorrow, we’ll dive into the meaty subject of what to do if a real, live agent or editor asks you to send materials — other than celebrate, of course.
Yesterday, as part of my ongoing series on how to recognize and avoid common faux pas writers make in their initial encounters with agents, I introduced exemplar Lorenzo, an intrepid soul who believed that arguing with the agent who rejected him would cause her to change her mind and take him on as a client. Instead, he merely impressed her as an ill-mannered boor and unprofessional writer who could not deal with rejection well.
Um, bad idea.
In an industry where even ultimately very successful books are often rejected dozens of times before being picked up by an editor or publishing house, that latter quality is NOT one any agent is likely to be eager to embrace in a client. Because, contrary to common expectation amongst the pre-agented, those of us lucky enough to have signed with someone terrific tend to spend a LOT of time gnawing on our nails, waiting for the phone to ring.
(Yes, it IS a lot like dating in high school. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.)
A writer does not necessarily need to go over the top to bug an agent with over-persistence. Sometimes, the trick is knowing when to stop following up. Take, for example, the case of Mina:
Blurry boundary scenario 3: After several years of unsuccessful querying, Mina goes to her first writers’ conference. There, her learning curve is sharp: much to her astonishment, she learns that the ostensibly tried-and-true querying and submission techniques she had been using are seriously out of date; as a result, her submissions may not even have been read for more than a paragraph or two before being rejected.
“What?!?” she scrawls all over the conference program. “Why didn’t anyone mention this possibility before? I had thought that they were reading every syllable twice before rejecting me!
Like many writers when first faced with an accurate realization of just how hard it is to land an agent, Mina reacts with depression. Fortunately, she has made friends with a couple of more experienced writers at the conference, one of whom introduces her over drinks to Simon & Schuster editor Maxine.
After having spent many, many years trolling for clients at conferences, Maxine instantly recognizes the source of Mina’s despair, and takes the time to speak to her encouragingly. At the end of their chat, seeing that Mina is still a little blue, Maxine hands her a card and tells her to go ahead and send the first chapter of her novel.
For the rest of the conference, Mina chatters excitedly about her new friend Maxine. (To Lorenzo, as it happens, but he is too busy talking about Loretta to hear her.) Since they clicked so well, Mina reasons, there doesn’t seem to be all that much point in pitching to anyone else, but hey, she paid for those appointments, so she goes ahead and pitches to a couple of agents and an editor. Two of the three ask for pages.
Mina is feeling terrific about herself and her work — but as soon as the conference is over, when she sits down again to pull together her post-pitching packets, her former depression returns, even more strongly. Why even try, she wonders, when she now knows that it’s so easy to get rejected?
So she seeks out the help that worked before: she sends a friendly, chatty e-mail to her new buddy. Maxine never replies. Wondering what went wrong, Mina tries again — and again, no response.
Mina is shattered, deciding that since Maxine’s friendliness had obviously been a sham, she must also have been utterly insincere in her request for pages. But wait — since Maxine was so much nicer than everybody else, and she turned out not to want the pages, doesn’t that mean that the other agents and editors who requested submissions wanted it even less? Why bother?
Having talked herself out of the possibility of ever succeeding, Mina ultimately never sends out any packets at all.
Okay, what did Mina do wrong?
She made that oh-so-common conference mistake: like Lauren and Lorenzo, she did not understand that a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference, not necessarily the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Nor was a lack of effusiveness an indication that the other agents were not going to read her work carefully — the behavior of one person, however well connected in the industry, is just the behavior of one person.
Yet, like about 40% of writers asked at conferences to submit materials, Mina managed to convince herself that she shouldn’t bother to place her ego on the line further: it was easier to decide instead that all of these people were too mean, too self-centered, too hostile to writers, etc.
But this train of thought (which is a common one, unfortunately) followed Maxine’s non-response, rather than prompted it. So what was Mina’s INITIAL mistake?
If you shouted out that it was not knowing Simon & Schuster’s policy on picking up unagented authors, give yourself partial marks: being aware of that would have helped her here. But Mina’s primary mistake was not so much a professional lapse in judgment as an interpersonal one: she mistook someone in the industry’s being nice to her as an invitation to take advantage of similar kindness in the future.
This, I assure you, happens ALL the time, not only to agents and editors, but to anyone who speaks at conferences, teaches writing classes, publishes a book, or even — I must say it — writes a reasonably informative blog.
Doubt this? Okay, the next time you’re at a conference, wander into the bar that’s never more than 100 yards away, stand on a chair, and offer to buy a drink for anyone in the industry who will tell you about the time that some aspiring writer mistook friendliness for a commitment. You may well go bankrupt before you run out of takers.
The sad part is, from the writer’s perspective, it almost always begins fairly innocuously: after an initial contact, a writer will e-mail or call with a question. Then e-mail or call again — and again, and again, until soon, it starts to look to the industry professional as though the writer is inventing excuses for contact, for precisely the same reason Mina did: to try to evoke a human response from an industry that from the outside appears monolithic, cold, and hostile to new writers.
That’s nonsense, of course: the industy’s not monolithic; it’s polychromatically cold and hostile.
From the encroaching writer’s POV, of course, the progression of contact doesn’t look out of line at all, right? Mina just thinks that she has a friend on the inside who can help her retain hope; most of the time, writers who e-mail or call speakers at conferences have legitimate questions.
But it’s a slippery slope: there’s a big difference between calling on a resource person who is happy to help out with the occasional quick question, starting to regard that person as one’s FIRST stop for any publishing-related question — and e-mailing four times a day simply because one enjoys having contact with someone in the industry.
All of the above are real examples, by the way, and all have happened many times to every conference speaker I know.
By all means, seek expert advice, but tread lightly: remember, by definition, people involved in the publishing industry are trying to make a living at it — and as my agent keeps hinting, no one has ever made a living dispensing free advice.
Except Dear Abby.
“Wait just a minute!” a protesting cry emerges from cyberspace. “Maxine gave Mina her card! Why would she do that, if not to encourage future contact?”
For precisely the reason Maxine said: so Mina could send the first chapter to her.
While handing over a card may well have seemed like the heavens opening and St. Peter reaching out his staff to a writer who has been buffeted for a long time by rejection, it was actually a fairly low-commitment (and certainly low-effort) thing for Maxine to do. Simon & Schuster, like all of the major US publishers, has an absolute policy against picking up unagented writers: even if Maxine fell in love with Mina’s work at the first paragraph, the best assistance she could have offered would be a recommendation to an agent, not a publication contract.
In that case, what was so wrong with Mina dropping a friendly line?
Well, as I hope any long-time reader of this blog now parrots in her sleep, there is NOTHING that people in the industry hate more than having a nanosecond of their time wasted. So extraneous e-mails, letters (beyond queries, cover letters for requested materials, and perhaps a simple thank-you note), and virtually any phone call that is not initiated by the agent are all regarded as symptoms of unprofessionalism in a writer.
Why is that a bad thing, in a writer marketing a first book? Well, agents are pretty tenacious of their time, and a neophyte, by definition, is going to have a lot of questions to ask.
That’s fine, if they’re intelligent, thoughtful questions — but the next time you’re at a conference, ask any agent you happen to meet for a definition of their nightmare client, and I can assure you that it will include a shuddering reference to someone who contacts them so often that they can’t get on with their work.
Is it unfair for Maxine to assume that Mina is one of these fearsome types based upon a single chatty e-mail? Probably. But Mina made one other mistake: she sent the e-mail INSTEAD of mailing (or e-mailing) off the chapter Maxine requested.
Even if she requested it only to be nice (as seems probable here), a professional request is a professional request; by not complying with it, Mina announced to Maxine as effectively as if she had used it as the subject line of her e-mail that she’s not industry-savvy enough to be likely to break into the industry very soon. So, professionally speaking, Maxine would lose nothing by brushing her off.
Beggars, the old adage goes, can’t be choosers, and aspiring writers, as we all know to our cost, cannot set the terms of engagement with prospective agents. Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, these terms are unfair; certainly, agents have set the rules to their own advantage.
Which means, perversely, that there is a fail-safe fallback rule governing your interactions with them: let the agent determine the level of intimacy between you.
Within reason, of course. Obviously, it makes sense for you to take the initiative to pitch and query your work; equally obviously, it is to your advantage to send out your work promptly after it is requested.
Perhaps less obviously, it behooves you to follow up if an agent has sat on a project of yours too long without responding.
Beyond that, however, let the agent set the pace of your progressing relationship. Save the chatty e-mails for after she has started to send them to you; call only after she has established that she welcomes your calls. And keep the contact professionally courteous until you have solid, ongoing evidence that your agent regards you as a friend as well.
Trust me on this one: agents are not typically shy people; habitual reticence would be a serious professional impediment. If an agent has decided to make you a lifelong friend, she’s going to let you know about it.
Keep your chins up, everybody, and keep up the good work!