Referral-seeking, part II: et tu, Brute? You want me to recommend you to my agent, too? But I referred Cassius last week!

Yes, yes, I know: I had implied — okay, said that I was going to start running through the rigors of constructing a professional-reading synopsis this weekend. Honestly, I have been thinking about it endlessly, trying to rack my already-taxed brain to come up with something new, scintillating, and enlightening to say on what is arguably most writers’, established and aspiring both, least favorite task ever.

How have I been coming along, you ask? Well, does the fact that I’m running a second post on the dos and don’ts of seeking out referrals from authors to their agents give you a clue?

Actually, I have been wanting to revisit the pitfalls associated with approaching established writers to ask for their assistance in landing an agent for quite some time now, because as the literary market tightens, such referrals skyrocket in value. Not because, as many writers seeking such a recommendation apparently believe, it is an automatic entrée into representation — as the agents themselves like to say, it all depends up on the writing – but because being able to say so-and-so sent me is necessary to get your submission read at all at some agencies.

Basically, garnering recommendations from authors can open some doors that are otherwise hermetically sealed to the average querier — and even at agencies where the doors are relatively easy to open, a good word from an established client can often increase the probability of the agent’s requesting pages.

Obviously, this would be beneficial at any time, but the harder it is for agents to sell books to editors at any given moment — as, for instance, when the big publishers are worried about a recession — the more selective your garden-variety agent will probably be in taking on new clients.

Translation: some doors that usually swing pretty freely have been known to stick a bit of late. Thus, introductions are more in demand.

And trust me, aspiring writers have been demanding them, both directly and indirectly. The results tend to look a little something like this.

Referral-farming scenario 3: after years of polishing her craft, seeking out the Larry, the right agent for her work, and producing several books for Larry to market, Laurentina has just signed a publication contract for her first novel. Thrilled, she lets everyone on her Christmas card list know about her success. Before Valentine’s Day, she’s received half a dozen requests from writer friends to be connected with Larry, since HE’s been so successful.

“If you want to read my manuscript first,” the seventh of these requesters generously offers, “I’d be happy to give you a copy.”

Staring at the six manuscripts already piled on her desk, Laurentina is seriously tempted just to say, “Sure — just say in the first line of your query letter that I sent you.” A second later, she reconsiders: obviously, she’s not going to jeopardize Larry’s good opinion of her by sending him a potential client without finding out first whether that person can write. But in the face of the mountain of revisions her new editor has requested, how is she ever going to find time to read a seventh novel?

“I feel like Millicent,” she grumbles, trying to figure out how to tell #7 that if he wants her help, he’s going to need to wait six months to a year. “Who died and made me Larry’s manuscript screener?”

In a way, Laurentina is lucky: at least the referral-seekers who approached her were already her friends. It’s not at all uncommon for a published (or even just agented) writer to receive similar requests from people she’s never even met. A couple of common examples:

Referral-farming scenario 4: Dario’s second novel has just come out; by dint of tireless travel to every bookstore within driving distance and working word of mouth, he managed to sell almost 4.000 copies his first, a sensitive literary fiction depiction of the relationship between a coal miner’s daughter and the crow who loves her. His publisher hopes that the second, a sensitive literary fiction depiction of the relationship between a salmon fisherman’s daughter and the seagull who loves her, will do at least as well.

Suffice it to say that Dario is pretty eager to charm potential book-buyers.

So when he receives a comment on his blog, THE GIRL-FISH ROMANTIC, asking him for a recommendation to his agent, Darlene, Dario doesn’t hesitate to fire back a long e-mail in her praise.

Within an hour, he hears from the requester again: “No, stupid,” it reads. “I wasn’t asking you to recommend Darlene to ME; I was asking you to recommend ME to HER.”

Don’t like that one much? Understandable. Here’s an even more pervasive one:

Referral-farming scenario 5: established writer Tammy has earned the right to some free time: after years of struggle to find an agent and find a publisher for her hyper-realistic novel, YEARS OF STRUGGLE FINDING AN AGENT, and the subsequent success of her follow-up titles, WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, and WHAT DO YOU MEAN, I HAVE A THREE-BOOK CONTRACT?, she is now finally making enough in royalties that by teaching half-time, she can quit her day job. Well done, Tammy!

One day, taking a break from working on her fourth novel, MY AGENT SAYS I HAVE IT IN ME, Tammy opens her e-mail and finds a message from Tina, the girlfriend of a former coworker. “Tom said you wouldn’t mind,” the e-mail gushes. “I’ve written a mystery novel, and I want to know how to get it published. Can you help me?”

Tammy glances at the shelf full of books, articles, conference brochures, and weekend workshops she had to plow through in order to figure out how to break into the business. Where, she wonders, could she even start to answer Tina’s overly-broad question? How can she even inquire how much homework Tina has already done on the subject? And what on earth does Tom think that she writes, to have sent her a mystery novelist.

I’ll get you for this, Tom, she thinks, searching her schedule for a day when she can have lunch with Tina.

Yet when she tries to explain the process over lunch, Tina looks at her with the eyes of the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. “Oh, that sounds like a whole lot of work,” she cries, dismayed. “Isn’t there another way? Maybe you could just ask your agent about it?”

What would I say? Tina thinks, reaching for the check. Hey, Teresa, here’s someone who thinks being a professional writer isn’t hard work?

Didn’t like that one any better? Okay, try this on for size:

Referral-farming scenario 6: Editor Pablo’s old college friend Pierre doesn’t keep in touch very much, but when he does, Pablo always enjoys chatting with him. After all, Pierre’s a funny guy: on an ordinary day, Pablo likes to save his e-mails for last, as a treat; on a bad day, he reads them first, as a boost.

Today, however, Pierre’s message proves to be neither: “Hey, Pablo — I’ve just met this guy, Peter, who wants to be a writer. I think he’s been working on a memoir. He wants to find an agent — can you help him?”

Naturally, this places Pablo in a quandary: he spends the next half an hour trying to come up with a funny way to say that he cannot possibly assess his ability to assist someone about whose talent he knows nothing in placing a book about which he knows nothing.

In the end, he gives up. “Gee, I’d love to help out,” he writes hurriedly, “but I’m afraid I’m just swamped.”

Have you flung your hands over your eyes in horror yet? No? Okay, let me reward you for your bravery by showing you an example of how someone who HAS done his homework about the biz might unwittingly push the boundaries of request-reasonableness:

Referral-farming scenario 7: Barry has been querying his memoir, 47 THINGS I DID TO HERONS, for a couple of years now. He’s gotten a couple of nibbles from agents who have asked to see his book proposal (and, in one case, the first 50 pages), but for some reason, the quotidian plight of a boy raised by waterfowl doesn’t seem to strike any of them as particularly marketable.

Worried that he lacks the necessary perspective to revise his work for the 151rst time, Barry joins an already-established writers’ group, one where the participants take the responsibilities of critique very seriously indeed. A few sessions in, a fellow memoir-writer, Barbara, mentions something her agent had said about building the dramatic arc in a memoir. “Just because it actually happened,” she quotes, “doesn’t mean it will necessarily work on the page. Cull, cull, cull.”

Barry feels as though he has been hit by the proverbial stroke of lightning: could he have been providing too many details in his memoir? He’s reluctant to believe that his story could be told in under 1,015 pages, but hey, if that’s what the pros want, it’s worth a try.

Two months and 600 pages of cuts later, Barry appears at critique group, beaming. “I took your agent’s advice,” he announces to a startled Barbara. “When can you get him my manuscript?”

See the problem here? Barbara never actually offered to put Barry in touch with her agent; because his request is so abrupt, he has placed her in the awkward position of having to decide on the spot (a) whether she likes Barry’s writing enough to recommend him, (b) whether she thinks Barry will handle himself professionally enough after such a recommendation not to embarrass her, (c) whether, based upon what she knows of her agent’s tastes, he’s at all likely to be interested in Barry’s work, (d) whether Barry is going to hold her responsible if he doesn’t, and thus (e) whether doing this favor may result in her having to find another writers’ group.

Do I hear some huffing out there from those who identify with Barry more than Barbara? “Oh, come on, Anne,” some of you point out, “isn’t Barbara being a little paranoid here? All Barry is asking her to do is put in a good word for him with her agent — after all, it’s up to the agent whether to accept or reject Barry. She may have qualms, but she’s just being a dog in the manger if she says no.”

Actually, Barry gave Barbara a pretty good reason to hesitate: instead of asking for a referral, he assumed that not only would she be willing to help him, but that she would be happy to take on the responsibility of conveying the manuscript as well.

Essentially, he’s making the case that because she was kind enough to give him advice before — actually, in this case, to pass along second-hand advice from her agent — that she should continue to help him. Like many a referral-seeker before him, Barry hasn’t paused to consider the gravity of the favor he’s asking; apparently, he’s only thought about Barbara’s assistance in terms of what it could mean to HIM.

Does this assumption strike you as a wee bit familiar? It should: all of today’s examplars have suffered from it.

This is an oversight to which frustrated agent-seekers are especially prone: the notion that people in the publishing industry OWE assistance to up-and-coming writers — or, if not to all of them equally, at least to oneself.

It’s an understandable feeling, of course. When marketing one’s first book to agents and editors, it is all too easy to forget that EVERY writer with whom they have contact loves his or her book, too, longing for its success with all of the fierce passion that each of us devotes to ours.

In the face of literally millions of similarly passionate hopers, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that agents and editors tend to get a bit jaded by the sight of writerly excitement.

This is why, to pull out one of my favorite broken records again, the tactic of querying or pitching by saying, “This is the best book you’ll ever read!” literally never works. This kind of hyperbolic praise rings in the industry’s ears as hollow, as if they had just asked a group of doting parents watching their third-graders in an aesthetically God-awful elementary school production of THE WIZARD OF OZ which kid currently mangling the choreography is destined for stardom.

The invariable answer: “Why, my child, of course.”

The problem of the overenthusiastic writer who assumes that everyone who stands between himself and publication can (and what’s more, should) drop whatever they’re doing in order to help him (and, one assumes, only him) is not discussed much on the conference circuit — or rather, it’s not discussed much in front of contest attendees. It IS discussed by agents, editors, and authors backstage at conferences all the time, I assure you, and in outraged tones.

Why? Because while the majority of aspiring writers are polite in their approaches, a predictably large minority, bless their warm and impetuous hearts, overstep the bounds of common courtesy pretty regularly. Ss I can tell you from direct personal experience, it’s not easy being the first personal contact a writer has with the industry: one tends to be treated less as a person than as a door or a ladder.

And no one, however famous or powerful, likes that. Case in point — and this time, I warn you, there is going to be a quiz at the end, so do pay attention:

Referral-farming scenario 8: at a writers’ conference, Karl meets Krishnan, a writer who has recently acquired an agent. The two men genuinely have a great deal in common: they live in the same greater metropolitan area, write for the same target market, and they share a love of the plays of Edward Albee. (Don’t ask me why; they just do.) So after hanging out together in the bar that is never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference venue, it seems perfectly natural for Karl to e-mail Krishnan and ask him to have coffee the following week.

When Krishnan arrives at the coffee shop, however, he is dismayed when Karl pulls a hefty manuscript box out of his backpack. “Here,” Karl says. “I want to know what you think before I send it to the agents who requested it at the conference. And after you read it, you can send it on to your agent.”

Krishnan just sits there, open-mouthed. As soon as his cell phone rings, he feigns a forgotten appointment and flees.

Okay, what did Karl do wrong here?

Partially, he succumbed a more advanced case of the plague of galloping assumption that afflicted our friends above: he just assumed that by merely being friendly, Krishnan was volunteering to help him land an agent.

However, there are a LOT of reasons that industry professionals are nice to aspiring writers at conferences, including the following, listed in descending order of probability:

*Krishnan might have just been being polite — which will no doubt thrill his mother.

*Krishnan might have regarded Karl as a potential buyer of his books, and as such, did not want to alienate a future fan — which will no doubt thrill his future editor.

*Krishnan might have been teaching a class at the conference, or hoping to do so in future, and wanted to make a good impression — which will no doubt thrill…well, probably nobody, but it was intended to thrill Karl.

*Krishnan is lonely — writing is a lonely craft, by definition, right? — and is looking for other writers with whom to commune, which could potentially cause them to thrill one another.

*Krishnan is looking for local writers with whom to form a critique group — which, again, might cause them to thrill one another, but probably will be less than thrilling to everyone concerned’s SOs.

*Krishnan’s agent might have asked him to be on the lookout for new writers at the conference (rare, but it does happen occasionally), which would have been precisely the thrill Karl was seeking, had he played his cards right.

Of these possibilities, only the last two would dictate ANY willingness on Krishnan’s part to read Karl’s work — and the next to last one definitely implies that reading would be exchanged, not one-way. However, if either of the last two had been Krishnan’s intent, it would have been polite for Karl to wait to be ASKED.

Ditto with Karl’s request that Krishnan pass the manuscript on to his agent. Even with a super-open agent, an agented author cannot recommend others indiscriminately. If Krishnan recommends Karl, and Karl turns out to be a bad writer, a constant nuisance, or just plain nuts, that recommendation will seriously compromise his ability to recommend writers in future.

Unpleasant but true: writers like Karl, while usually well-meaning in and of themselves, collectively make it harder for everyone else to get this kind of recommendation.

There’s another reason Krishnan would be inclined to run from such an approach: underlying resentment. Not of Karl’s rather inconsiderate assumptions that he would automatically be willing to help someone he’s just met, but of Karl’s attempt to cut into a line in which Krishnan stood for quite some time.

Just as it is relatively safe to presume that the more recently a writer landed an agent, the more difficult and time-consuming the agent-finding process was — because, by everyone’s admission, in this market, it’s harder than it was ten or even five years ago to wow an agent — it is a fair bet that an agent who has been signed but has not yet sold a book will be lugging around quite a bit of residual resentment about the process, or even about his agent.

If an agented writer’s hauling a monumental chip on his shoulder about his agent seems a little strange to you, I can only conclude that your experience listening to those whose first or second books are currently being marketed by their agents is not vast. Almost universally, a writer’s life gets harder, not easier, in the initial months after being signed: as exemplar Laurentina would be happy to tell you, practically any agent on earth will ask for manuscript revisions of even a manuscript she loves, in order to make it more marketable, and no one, but no one, on the writer’s end of the game is ever happy about the speed of submission.

Even if Krishnan’s agent is a saint and habitually works at a speed that would make John Henry gasp, Karl was unwise to assume that Krishnan would be eager to speed up the agent-finding process for anyone else. For all Karl knows, Krishnan struggled for YEARS to land his agent — and, unhappily, human nature does not always wish to shorten the road for those who come after.

Just ask anyone who has been through a medical residency. Or a Ph.D. program.

Note, please, that all of the above applies EVEN IF Krishnan actually has time to read the manuscript in question. Which, as the vast majority of agented-but-not-published writers hold full-time jobs and have to struggle to carve out writing time — as do many of the published writers I know; not a lot of people make a living solely from writing novels — is NOT a foregone conclusion.

The best rule of thumb: establish an honest-to-goodness friendship before you ask for favors.

It may well have turned out that Karl had a skill — computer repair, eagle-eyed proofreading, compassionate dog-walking — that Krishnan would be pleased to receive in exchange for feedback on Karl’s book. Krishnan might even have asked Karl to join his critique group, where such feedback would have been routine. But Karl will never know, because he jumped the gun, assuming that because Krishnan had an agent, the normal rules of favor-asking did not apply to him.

The same rule applies, by the way, to any acquaintance whose professional acumen you would like to tap unofficially. If I want to get medical information from my doctor about a condition that is plaguing a character in my novel, I expect to pay for her time.

Nor, outside of a formal conference context, would I expect a professional editor to read my work, an agent to give me feedback on my pitch, or an editor to explain the current behind-the-scenes at Random House to me unless we either already had a close friendship or I was paying for their time, either monetarily or by exchange.

Be very aware that you are asking a favor, and a big one, when you ask an author to help you reach his agent. Not only are you asking the author to invest time and energy in helping a relative stranger – you are also expecting him or her to put credibility on the line. And that, dear readers, is something that most authors – and most human beings – do not do very often for relative strangers.

No, not even if Tom or Pierre ask it on someone else’s behalf. Go figure.

Tread lightly — and keep up the good work!

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