Referral-seeking, part IV: asking for pull without pushing

My, but everyone’s been quiet while I’ve been going over the dos and don’ts of approaching authors for referrals to their agents — an unusual state that I choose to attribute to the fact that all of my readers are gentle, polite, super-talented souls who would never dream of imposing unduly upon new acquaintance in order to advance their careers.

Deliberately, anyway. One of the reasons that I like to post from time to time on industry etiquette is that I’m convinced that most of this species of writerly faux pas are more the result of being unfamiliar with the rules of the game than any inherent tendency toward overreaching.

Truth compels me to say, however, that as a group, aspiring writers do have a reputation for being immensely pushy when interacting with agents and editors — if you doubt this, just drop by that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America and listen to the pros complain to one another. Everyone seems to cherish a personal horror story or two.

Since at every conference I have ever attended — and they have been legion — the vast majority of attending writers have tripped over backwards in their eagerness NOT to offend the visiting agents and editors, I have always suspected that the pushy label is the result of the actions of a relatively small percentage of writers. Hey, any large group of people is going to contain an array of personalities, right?

Today’s post is specifically aimed at the more aggressive end of the spectrum.

Which is a nice way of saying: I have been trying to keep this series on approaching the established and the industry insider for recommendations upbeat, I feel it would be remiss not to address some of the faux pas that are less inadvertent. Before I conclude this series, I want to spend a day dealing with…

Well, one hates to use a term as ugly as dishonesty. Let’s just say that these examples are frowned upon in the industry, and leave it at that.

For those of you joining us late, for that past few days, we’ve been discussing the possibility of using an introduction from an established client as a stepping-stone to getting an agent’s attention. Generally speaking, there are two ways in which established writers make such an introduction without excessive trouble to themselves: either they can grant you permission to use their names in your query letter (as in the sterling beginning, Your client Rufus Rudyard recommended that I contact you about my book…), or they can forward your work to their agents themselves, with suitable commentary about how terrific you are.

Either way, the results are potentially very good for you. Such a recommendation usually means that the agent will actually see the query letter, rather than just a screener. At minimum, the query will be taken more seriously; there is considerable anecdotal evidence to indicate that referred manuscripts tend to be read with a slightly kinder eye.

As Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull informed us in the brilliant and hilarious sociological classic, THE PETER PRINCIPLE — which, if I ruled the universe, would be issued gratis to every new employee in every bureaucracy on her first day of work — it is always better to pull than to push.

Nice work if you can get it, in other words — but what such referral typically does NOT mean, as we have seen over the last couple of days, is that the recommender will effectively become the book’s unpaid agent and cheerleader.

Authors tend to have reservations about forwarding other writers’ work themselves, for very good reasons: it’s a lot of responsibility, assuring an agent that the forwarded writer is the next great find; if the agent is slow or hostile in response, the referring author feels he’s let the writer down; if the writer turns out to be hard to work with, unprofessional, or just not very talented, the author’s credibility with his agent may be compromised. Oh, and by introducing his agent to another writer, the author is bringing into the agency someone with whom he will have to compete for the agent’s usually already stretched-thin time.

Given all of those disincentives, it’s not a great surprise that most authors are more than a little reluctant to go this route, is it?

The other, infinitely more common approach is to say, “Sure — this is my agent’s name; go ahead and say that that I recommended you to him.” While this may not at first blush seem like much of a favor, bear in mind that all of the disincentives above still apply – this route is merely less work for the author – so it is still a piece of assistance well worth your gratitude.

Because such recommendations are so valuable, over-eager aspiring writers occasionally fudge just a little in their use, implying more of a recommendation than the author in question was actually offering. The most famous form of this, of course, is the query that begins, “Saul Bellow said my work is the best thing he’s read for the last ten years.”

A recommendation that would be considerably more impressive if Mssr. Bellow had been alive for more of those ten years than he actually was, no?

Sometimes, though, recommendation blurring of reality is unintentional — the aspiring writer merely misunderstood how much of a leg up the author was actually offering:

Referral-farming scenario 10: at a book signing, Rachel meets Rapunzel, a writer she has admired for years. Rachel, being a polite writer, approaches Rapunzel with respect: she arrives at the reading well-versed in Rapunzel’s work, including her latest novel, LIFE AFTER HAIR; she asks intelligent questions during the reading; she brings a book to have Rapunzel sign, and buys another for her mother, and she gushes at Rapunzel long enough after the signing that the author spontaneously asks her what she writes.

So far, so good, right?

In fact, they hit it off so well that Rapunzel gives Rachel her e-mail address. After a reasonable exchange of not-very-time-consuming questions and answers, the author tells Rachel that she may use the valuable Rapunzel name as a reference in approaching her agent, Rafaela.

Rachel is thrilled — and promptly sends her entire manuscript off to Rafaela, saying that Rapunzel had told her to send it. She is astonished to see her manuscript returned within a week with a form- letter rejection.

This may seem like an odd question, under the circumstances, but what did Rachel do wrong?

She misunderstood, quite innocently, what Rapunzel was offering her: the opportunity to use her as a reference in a query letter, period. If she had pursued this less aggressive route, Rafaela probably would have asked to see the manuscript. By sending her manuscript before Rafaela asked for it, however, Rachel just sent an unsolicited submission. As such, Rafaela may not even have read any of it.

Yes, even with a valid recommendation from her favorite client, Rapunzel.

Here again, we see that asking follow-up questions could have saved the writer a lot of grief. But to be fair, it’s hard to hold Rachel very responsible for the outcome: she simply did not know enough about how agencies worked to realize how much unsolicited submissions are despised.

Not all referral mistakes are this innocent, however.

Referral-farming scenario 11: Samuel met agented writer Samantha at a writers’ conference a few years ago. They have been cordial ever since whenever they met, and occasionally e-mail about their respective publishing progress. Having heard so much about Samantha’s agent, Sydney, Samuel feels as though he knows her.

One rainy Monday morning, Samantha is startled to see an e-mail from Sydney in her in-box. (At work: since she has only sold a couple of mid-list books, Samantha still can’t afford to quit her secretarial job; starting to notice a pattern here?)

“Can you tell me something about this writer you recommended?” Sydney writes. “I’ve been thinking about getting into representing this kind of book, but his bio was really sketchy. Can you fill me in about why you thought he might be a good fit for my list?”

Huh? Samantha thinks.

A few days later, Samuel receives his manuscript and a form-letter rejection with an angry scrawl in the margins. “Our client didn’t recommend you,” it reads, “and we do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.”

What did Samuel do wrong? Without seeing his query, it’s a trifle hard to tell, precisely, but we can certainly make some educated guesses.

At best, Samuel seems to have fudged his initial query, turning an acquaintance into a recommendation. Perhaps, if asked, he would respond that since Samantha had spoken so often and so glowingly of Sydney, he thought she was making a recommendation.

But regardless of why he did it, or if he intended to misleading, he’s blown his chance with Sydney — and his friendship with Samantha — forever: evidently, it didn’t occur to him that the agent might check.

Word to the wise: they do. Habitually.

If you harbor even the slightest doubt about whether an agented author is offering a recommendation — and you should, unless the author has actually produced the words, “Tell my agent I sent you” — for heaven’s sake, ASK.

Rather than wasting our energies upon trying to figure out what Samuel could have been thinking, let’s look at another version of the misused recommendation. This one is hard to read as anything but manipulative, but at least the exemplar in this instance is clever enough to be cautious about the possibility of the agent’s checking up on her:

Referral-farming scenario 12: Tanya met agented author Tremaine through networking; he’s the friend of a friend. Because she seemed to be a pleasant, well-read person 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.

Why? Well, she’s started 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. So instead of answering right away, he waits three days, then a week, mentioning in each response just how busy he is. When she still doesn’t take the hint, he begins responding to only every third or fourth message — and then only very tersely.

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, informing 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? Thanks so much!

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 that she used his name without his permission, 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.

Of course, it was Tanya’s responsibility to ASK Tremaine for permission to use his name, not merely to impose upon his good nature and 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: 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 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 little old 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 contact the agent in question.

The overarching moral of all of the examples across 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!

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