Entr’acte: expectation vs. reality

Hello, Sunday readers:

Last Sunday, I took a break from my ongoing series on marketing to re-run a conference-related older post on industry etiquette, on the theory that most of the faux pas writers tend to make at conferences are simple matters of not being aware of the rules of the game. Better that my fictional exemplars make these mistakes than my readers, I say.

Think of it as educational soap opera.

Today’s little dramas are excerpted from two of my earlier posts, combined because both deal with the differential between what writers often expect to happen at a literary contest (meet the perfect agent instantly, get signed within the hour, sell the book within the week, Oprah and literary luncheons within the year), and what actually occurs.

The moral, if you’ll forgive my springing it in advance: it is ALWAYS in a writer’s best interest to pitch or query to more than one agent at a time. Always, always, always.

Enjoy! More practical advice on marketing follows tomorrow.

I’ve been writing for the last couple of weeks about the ways in which writers often overstep the bounds of what the publishing industry considers courtesy, and for the most part, I’ve been concentrating on simple differentials of expectation: the pro expects one standard of behavior, and the hopeful petitioner another. Sometimes, though, the depth of the writer’s desire to be published leads to a total disregard of boundaries – which, in turn, leads the industry professional the writer is pursuing to back away quickly.

Much of the time, the boundary-blurred writer does not overstep; she merely assumes that her project is of greater importance to the pro than is actually the case. If she doesn’t transgress the expected norms of behavior, this mistaken belief will harms the writer only emotionally, not professionally, as in the case of Lauren:

Blurry boundary scenario 1: After working tirelessly on her novel to make sure it was ready for conference season, Lauren lugs it to a conference. During the agents’ forum, she is delighted to hear Loretta, the agent to whom she has been assigned for a pitch appointment, wax poetic about her great love of writers and good writing. In fact, of the agents on the panel, she sounds like the only one who regards her job as the promotion of art, rather than finding marketable work and selling it. This, Lauren decides, is the perfect agent for her book.

Since she has only pitched a couple of times before, Lauren takes advantage of the Pitch Practicing Palace, where she works on her pitch with someone who looks suspiciously like yours truly. After having worked the major kinks out of her pitch, my doppelganger asks to whom Lauren intends to pitch it.

“Oh,” Lauren says happily, “I have an appointment with Loretta.”

My apparent twin frowns briefly. “Are you planning to pitch to anyone else? As far as I know, she has not picked up any clients at this conference in years, and she very seldom represents first-time writers. She writes really supportive rejection letters, though.”

Lauren shrugs and walks off to her appointment with Loretta. Her pitch goes well; the agent seems genuinely interested in her work, saying many encouraging things about the novel. Even better, she seems genuinely interested in Lauren as a writer and as a person; they seem to click, and are soon chatting away like old friends. Loretta asks to see the first 50 pages of the novel.

Walking on air, Lauren decides that since she’s made such a good personal connection with Loretta, she does not need to pitch to anyone else. Obviously, she thinks, the agent would not have been so encouraging unless she were already more or less decided to take on the book.

The second she returns home, Lauren prints up and ships off her first 50, along with an effusively thankful cover letter. Three weeks later, her SASE returns in the mail, accompanied by a very supportive rejection letter from Loretta.

What did Lauren do wrong?

Actually, not much: she merely responded to her meeting with Loretta based upon her hopes, not upon solid research. Lauren should have checked before making the appointment (or asked Loretta during the agents’ forum) how many debut novels she had sold lately (in this case, none), and how recently she had picked up a new writer at a conference. Even if she did not have the time to do the necessary background research, since the Pitch Practicing Palace lady had raised the issue, Lauren should have asked around at the conference.

If she had, she might have learned that Loretta had been attending the conference for years without picking up any new clients at all. Unfortunately, there are agents – and prominent ones — who attend conferences regularly, being charming and supportive to every writer they meet, but without seriously intending to sign anyone at all.

Unless, of course, the next DA VINCI CODE falls into their laps. Then, they might make an exception.

While this attitude is not in itself an actionable offense – I would be the last to decry any agent’s being nice to any aspiring writer – it has roughly the same effect on the hooking-up expectations of conference attendees as a mysterious young man’s walking into a Jane Austen novel without mentioning that he is secretly engaged: the local maidens may well fall in love with him without knowing that he is attached.

And who can blame Lauren for falling in love with Loretta? The absolute demands of the industry can be so overwhelming at the agent-seeking stage that when that slammed door opens even a chink, it is tempting to fling oneself bodily at it, clinging to any agent, editor, or author who so much as tosses a kindly smile in the direction of the struggling.

That being said, though, a nice conversation at a conference does NOT a commitment make. A writer is a free agent until a representation contract is signed, and there are agents out there who feel it’s their duty to be nice to aspiring writers. It’s very, very common for writers to interpret this as something more than it is.

So what should Lauren have done differently? Even if she hadn’t done her background research, she should have kept on pitching her book to others. Even if Loretta HAD actually wanted to sign her on the spot, no reputable agent is going to made a decision about representation without reading the book in question. Lauren should not have relied so heavily upon her – as it turned out, false – first impressions of her. Nice interpersonal contact may help nudge an agent toward offering a likeable writer a contract, but ultimately, no experienced agent would make such an offer upon a conversation, or even a verbal pitch, alone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: no matter what pitching experts, including myself, tell you, a pitch alone is NEVER enough to sell a book to an agent or editor, no matter how good it is. The writing always needs to fulfill the promise of the pitch; the pitch merely opens the door to a favorable reading.

And, realistically, Loretta did not expect exclusivity from Lauren, so there is no chance whatsoever that she would have been offended had Lauren pitched to every agent at the conference. Long-time readers, chant with me now: if an agent wants an exclusive, she will ask for it.

Learn from Lauren’s example: it should take more than a few kind words to make you lose your heart – and your valuable pitching opportunities – to an agent. Don’t act as if you are going steady until your signature has dried upon a representation contract.

To give Lauren her props: she was awfully well-behaved about it all, and thus did not offend agent Loretta with her misconceptions. For the sake of argument, let’s meet another of Loretta’s pitch appointments, Lauren’s twin brother Lorenzo, to see how someone less knowledgeable about industry norms might have responded to the same situation:

Blurry boundary scenario 2: Lorenzo attends the same conference as his sister, and like Lauren, has an almost unbelievably positive pitch meeting with agent Loretta. Pleased, he too stops pitching, boasting in the bar that is inevitably located no more than 100 yards from ground zero at any writers’ conference that he has found the agent of his dreams. From here on in, he has it made.

So, naturally, Lorenzo goes home, spends the usual panicked week or two frantically revising his novel, and sends it off to Loretta. Like Lauren, he too receives a beautifully sympathetic rejection letter a few weeks later, detailing what Loretta feels are the weaknesses of the manuscript.

Unlike Lauren, however, Lorenzo unwisely picked conference week in order to go off his anti-anxiety medication. His self-confidence suffers a serious meltdown, and in order to save his ego from sinking altogether, he is inspired to fight back. So he sits down and writes Loretta a lengthy e-mail, arguing with her about the merits of his manuscript.

Much to his surprise, she does not respond.

He sends it again, suitably embellished with reproaches for not having replied to his last, and attaching an article about how the publishing industry rejected some major bestseller 27 times before it was picked up.

Still no answer.

Perplexed and angry, Lorenzo alters his first 50 pages as Loretta advised, scrawls REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the envelope, as he had the first time, and sends it off.

Within days, the manuscript is returned to him, accompanied by a curt note stating that it is the practice of Loretta’s agency not to accept unrequested submissions from previously unpublished authors. If Lorenzo would like to query…

Okay, what did Lorenzo do wrong? Where do we even start?

Let’s run through this chronologically, shall we? First, he made all of the same mistakes as Lauren did: he did not check Loretta’s track record for taking on previously unpublished writers, assumed that a nice conference conversation automatically meant a lasting connection, and did not keep pitching. Had he stopped there, he would have been a much happier camper.

But no, our Lorenzo pressed ahead: he decided to contest with Loretta’s decision, adopting the always people-pleasing strategy of questioning her literary judgment. In order to insult her knowledge of the book-buying public more thoroughly, his follow-up included an article implying that no one in the industry knew a book from the proverbial hole in the ground.

Bad move, L. Arguing with an agent’s decision, unless you are already signed with that agent, is always a bad idea. Even if you’re right. Perhaps even especially if you’re right, because agents’ egos tend to get bruised easily.

More to the point, arguing with rejection is not going to turn it into acceptance. Ever. At the agent-seeking stage, this strategy has literally never worked. All it does is impress the agent (or, more likely, her screeners) with the fact that the writer in question is not professional enough to handle rejection well.

And that, my friends, is not an impression at all likely to engender a sympathetic re-read.

I’m sure, however, that you’re all too savvy to follow in Lorenzo’s footsteps, aren’t you? You would never be so blunt, I’m sure, nor would you ever be so dishonest as to write REQUESTED MATERIALS on materials that had not, in fact, been requested. (Since Loretta had not asked Lorenzo to revise and resubmit, her request ended when she stuffed his initial 50 pages into his SASE.)

However, a writer does not necessarily need to go over the top right away to bug an agent with over-persistence. Tomorrow, I shall show you how.

And, of course, keep up the good work!

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