Avoiding the faux pas, part I, in which I reveal to my readers the astonishing fact that contrary to popular belief, agents tend to be competitive people.

Practically all of the writers I know – and they are legion – have been on edge lately. Including yours truly, a humble scribe who just sent off a NF book proposal to her agent Monday midnight. Considering that I was polishing this inherently annoying project – what writer wants to produce 35 pages of marketing copy on a book that has yet to be written? – during a pre-contest period when, by conservative estimate, I was receiving at least three panic-stricken e-mails per hour, asking for interpretations of contest rules and standard format, it’s perhaps understandable that I would be a little peevish.

My apologies to those of you at whom I snapped. Truth compels me to say, though, that by the last few days of proposal-writing, I was snarling at anything that came near my writing space.

I was under a lot of stress – in addition to the proposal and the contest deadline, I have a novel making its way through a publisher’s committee reading list AND a memoir being held up by another publisher — and it honestly is about equally time-consuming to answer questions one by one and to post each on the blog as comments so everyone can see the answers. Really, it’s better for us all in the long run for the questions to be posted as comments originally, and skip the middleman.

Signed, sincerely, the middleman.

So that’s my reason for being a trifle grumbly these days – but what is everyone else’s excuse? It’s more than just the February blahs. Contest season always leaves tempers a bit frayed; it’s the season, too, where the last of the New Year’s resolution queriers are finding SASEs in their mailboxes.

I’m not just asking out of idle curiosity, you know. For some reason, this February seems to be spurring a lot of writers out there to test the limits of the usual industry etiquette, or even to disregard it altogether. And in most cases, they seem to be doing it inadvertently.

All month, I’ve been hearing story after story from (and about; the professional writing world isn’t all that big, and notoriously gossipy) writers who have crossed boundaries that make those of us who have been in the biz a long time cross ourselves quickly and murmur, “Mon dieu!” under our breaths.

Because I have been, as I said, preoccupied, it took me a couple of weeks to figure out why. No, not why it should be happening in February – that’s anyone’s guess. I mean why writers, who in all other months of the year bend over backwards to avoid offending agents and editors, would be violating the industry standards for politeness all of a sudden. Care to hear my theory?

It’s because the writers don’t know about these standards.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time might not find this insight all that startling. “Humph,” I hear you mutter, “so what else is new? There are plenty of things a writer learns only through experience or because someone like Anne mentions it.”

Ah, but here’s the recent difference: in years past, writers learned industry etiquette at conferences, through writers’ groups, via the advice in the printed agency guides, by hearing horror stories, etc. Now, more and more writers are gleaning their information online – and thus are not necessarily in a position to have an industry insider take them aside and murmur, “Whatever you do, NEVER phone an agent who hasn’t called you first!” or “A conversation with an agent or editor at a conference is NOT a friendship – don’t e-mail afterward just to chat!” or “Never promise an exclusive for more than three weeks.”

For anybody who landed an agent more than five years ago, not knowing these things seems downright odd. But there you have it, the result of web-based community. Not all progress is progressive.

Which means, I guess, that it’s up to me to fill you in on some of these imperatives. Otherwise, I can’t really complain that you don’t know about them. And this way, you can in turn pass them along to other writers of your acquaintance, just as folks have traditionally done on the conference circuit, and none of my readers will ever end up being the one who insults the agent of his dreams.

I have nightmares about that, you know. I worry about you people.

Rather than just presenting you with a list, though, and to make this more interesting for those of you who have spent some time on the conference circuit, I’m going to spend the next few days running through a number of hypothetical situations. In each, I’m going to ask you what the fictional writer did wrong, and why. And to ease the transition from the contest tips of recent weeks, each of today’s scenarios is going to be about a contest winner.

So happy February, everybody. It’s time to get polite.

Scenario 1: Abigail has just won the Adult Genre Fiction category, and her head is still spinning from all of the congratulations. Agent Ashley, to whom Abigail had pitched earlier in the conference, tugs on her sleeve and reminds her that Ashley’s agency is already interested, upping her request for pages from the first 50 to the entire manuscript.

Flattered, Ashley agrees. But when Agent Andrew from her dream agency buttonholes her next and asks for pages, Abigail says that she can’t send them until after she’s heard back from Ashley. Andrew shrugs and walks away without giving her his business card.

What did Abigail do wrong here?

If you said that Abigail fell into that very common writer’s trap, being so enthralled by an agent’s – any agent’s – attention that she just said yes to everything she was asked without first thinking about her own strategic interests, give yourself partial credit. Ditto if you said that Abby acted as though she already had a firm representation commitment from Ashley before Andrew showed up.

Not every agent is the right fit for every book; Abigail should have been keeping her options as open as possible here. And as those of you who have pitched at conferences already know, agents ask to read hundreds of manuscripts that they don’t end up representing. Ashley’s interest, while flattering, is just that: interest, not a commitment.

If you said that Abigail’s mistake was to act as though SHE had already committed herself to Ashley, give yourself full marks with a cherry on top. This is known in the biz as giving an unrequested exclusive: Ashley does not expect Abby NOT to show the book too anyone else; Abby has just assumed that’s the expectation.

She’s wrong. And it’s certainly not in Abby’s interest for her to grant an exclusive without being asked specifically to do it. Until that agency contract is signed, the writer is a free agent, so to speak: binding commitments are expected from her, and none are implied.

In fact, Abigail’s manuscript probably would have gotten a quicker read from both Ashley and Andrew had she told them both other agents were interested. Why? Well, publishing is a super-competitive game. To a Manhattanite agent, a book over which there is competition is inherently more valuable than one that only he wants.

Yes, regardless of the quality of the writing.

I know: it’s counterintuitive, and assumes that writers are pitching and querying hundreds of times. But accepting that they think this way makes the publishing industry’s logic much less opaque, I promise.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: what should Abigail have done instead?

Trickier, isn’t it? She should have told both agents that she was collecting as many requests for submissions as possible, and then sent her winning entry out to them all. Amongst agents, this is considered perfectly reasonable, and often even increases any given agent’s interest in the work. (See earlier comment about Manhattanite logic.)

Are you getting the hang of this? Let’s move on to a new case.

Scenario 2: Billy has just won first place in the Mainstream Novel category. Bertold, the hungry young representative of the Bob Baass Agency (Bob’s of Estonian extraction), immediately asks Billy for an exclusive look at his book. Since the Baass Agency has picked up contest winners at this conference in the past, Billy agrees, and does not pitch his work to any other agent.

Two months later, Bertold rejects the manuscript with a form letter saying that he does not represent this type of book, and Billy has to start querying again from scratch.

What did Billy do wrong?

A whole lot, actually. First, he granted an exclusive immediately after a contest win. As a former major category winner myself, I can assure you, the temptation to do this is vast: when you’re getting so much attention, often after so many years of fruitless querying, the notion that you could just hand your manuscript to the first agent who asks for it and never think about querying again is HUGELY appealing.

Yielding to this temptation lead to Billy’s second mistake: not continuing to pitch his work. As those readers who have already been with me through a conference season already know, I think it’s always a mistake to stop pitching after even the ideal agent has asked to see your work. The more requests for material you can garner at a conference, the more likely you are to end conference season with a contract in hand.

(See comment above about Manhattanite competitiveness. It honestly does explain so much.)

Billy’s third mistake was almost inevitable, after he had made the first two: he waited to hear back from Bertold before he followed up on other leads. A poor choice that probably stemmed from his fourth mistake, not having researched Bertold’s sales record prior to the conference, so he would know whether Bertold and/or the Baass Agency was a good fit for his work.

“But wait!” I hear some of you out there wailing. “You’re missing the point. Why on earth did Bertold ask for an exclusive on a book in a category he doesn’t represent? Why ask for it at all?”

Very, very good questions – and while they could both easily be answered by assuming that Bertold is a sadist who likes to make good writers cry, that’s almost certainly not the reason he did it.

Anyone care to take a guess? Anyone? Here’s a hint: does the Baass Agency send a representative every year?

If you know what’s going on here, you’ve probably been to quite a few conferences, or at least know other writers who have. The Baass Agency doesn’t want to miss out on the next bestseller. Bertold’s boss probably told him to nab as many of the major category winners as he could; the request was automatic.

With an exclusive, the Baass Agency can pass the winners’ work around internally amongst its member agents. In Billy’s case, no one bit.

Okay, what should Billy have done instead, other than run screaming from Bertold because he knew the Baass Agency did not represent his kind of book?

First off, Billy should not have granted an exclusive – he should have pitched to as many agents as possible at the conference, and sent submissions out to them all simultaneously. Telling them all that other agents (no need to name them) are looking at it, of course.

Not only does this prevent hard feelings down the line, it also tends to speed up the reading process at the agencies. If I hadn’t mentioned it before, agents tend to be competitive people. As those modern philosophers the Bee Gees informed us: “We can try/to understand/New York time’s effect on man.”

“But wait!” I hear some of you protest, stung to the heart at the audacity of saying no to any agent anywhere, anytime. “Wouldn’t Billy have offended Bertold by saying no?

Well, maybe, but it’s less likely than you might think. There’s only one reason that an agent ever asks for an exclusive: because he’s afraid that another agent will snap up the author before he can. I’ve never even heard of an agent’s changing his mind about wanting to see pages after an author has said no to an exclusive, in fact. But then, it very seldom happens.

If you don’t believe me, eavesdrop sometime on an agent who has just learned that a contest winner has granted an exclusive to ANOTHER agent; it’s not as though they regard it as a sacred covenant. As I said, these folks are a MITE competitive.

If Billy feared that he felt that he would lose Bertold’s interest by saying no, he should have set an end date to the exclusive right away. The polite way of doing this is to say, “I’d be happy to let you have an exclusive look for three weeks.” That’s a perfectly reasonable amount of time, and if Bertold finds he needs more, trust me, he’ll call Billy and ask for an extension.

After establishing the deadline, Billy should have pitched up a storm, to have a stack of business cards ready for his next round of queries. At 12:01 am on the day after the exclusive expired, Billy should have sent out a submission to every other agent to whom he pitched. THEN he could send a polite e-mail or letter to Bertold, telling him other agents were now looking at his work.

As you may see, what is and isn’t considered cricket within the publishing world is not always self-evident. Fortunately for me, by the time I won a major contest, I had attended enough conferences to avoid Abigail’s mistake; even luckier, I had enough friends who had won contests in the past that I knew to say, unlike Billy, to everyone who asked, “I’m not giving any exclusives, but I would be happy to send you the first 50 pages.”

It’s all about socialization, my friends: as a writer entering the world of agents and editors, you are going to need to assimilate to a new culture. Being aware of that can help you avoid giving gratuitous offense – and help you protect your own interests.

Keep up the good work!

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