"Publishing is a small
and if you tick off an editor at one publishing house, and he/she moves
to another house, you now have a bad reputation at two houses..."
upon a time there was a very nice agent. She devoted a good bit of her
time to attending conferences to help fledgling writers and scouting
potential new talent. After one particularly long day of teaching
workshops, sitting on panels, handling fifteen-minute appointments, and
generally “doing the agent thing,” nature called.
As she settled in for
the first private moment she’d had to herself all day, she
voice from the next stall.
“I sure am glad I
you. Your appointment list was full,
and I’ve got this novel I want you to take a look
at.” Not two seconds
later, a large manila envelope skidded across the tile and came to rest
on her brand-new Franco Sarto slingbacks.
This tale would be hilarious if
it wasn’t true. Unfortunately, some
agents reading this column right now are shaking their heads and
reliving a similar moment from their pasts.
It’s not uncommon for
writers to make the leap from friendly conference attendee to
goggle-eyed lunatic at the mention of the words agent or acquisitions
editor. From outlandish claims about their writing projects
be the next Left Behind”) to downright bribery (I have seen
and $20 bills clipped to query letters), something about an encounter
with an editor or agent brings the oddball gene out of its dormant
state in even the most level-headed people.
Equally frightening are the
writers who run headlong into reality and
don’t know how to deal with it. These are the folks who meet
or agent for the first time and expect a line edit and an in-depth
discussion about a manuscript they brought with them; or they come in
with a piece of really bad writing and the editor kindly tells them
that their masterpiece may need a little more work, which makes said
writer a little cranky—sometimes cranky enough to tell the
editor exactly what they can do with their red pen.
And while such an
attitude certainly makes a lasting impression, it is not the one you
want to make. Publishing is a small universe, and if you tick off an
editor at one publishing house, and he/she moves to another house, you
now have a bad reputation at two houses.
Also, be warned: A one-on-one
meeting is not the only way to breach the boundaries of good
agent/editor etiquette. A well-placed query letter or proposal can do
the same thing. Take for example a query that opens something like this:
“Dear editor, God
told me to
write this story, and He also said I should send it to you and you
should publish it . . .” Okay, with a show of hands, how many
out there have a similar letter in your files? Um-hum, I thought so.
One editor, having seen the
story from God letter one too many times, evidentially said:
“Dear Writer: While I thank you for thinking of our
we will not be able to use your story. Since God wrote the best-selling
book of all time, I can only assume He can spell better than what was
evident in you manuscript . . .”
how does the average writer
get into an editor or agent’s good graces?
It’s not as difficult
as you may
First, be respectful. Remember
the magic words please and thank you. And don’t forget the
by every card-carrying mother on the planet: mind your manners.
Don’t call editors and
their first name unless invited to do so. For example, “Ms.
may I speak with you for a minute or two about the project
on?” will make a more favorable impression than,
“Hey, Kelly, hang on a
minute and take a look at this proposal while I go get some
Second: Don’t worry
carrying a full book-length manuscript around with you to your meeting.
Most agents and editors don’t want to carry a stack of
them on the plane. If they are interested in your project,
you to mail or e-mail it to them.
When communicating via mail or
e-mail, keep the letterhead simple, professional, and error-free . No
garish colors of fancy fonts.
When dealing with these nice
folks in person, bring a clean, well-edited manuscript, proposal, or
whatever is requested. Make sure it is formatted properly and meets
their criteria (number of pages, etc.).
Think about what you want to say
before you arrive at the conference, or before you write that query
letter. Have a clear image of the heart of your story in mind before
you make the pitch. Doing otherwise could very well scuttle your
project in a matter of seconds. A seasoned editor or agent will know in
less than a minute how much thought you have put into your idea.
When dealing with writing
professionals, having a polite, professional
bearing can carry you a long way. Accept criticism graciously, and
always thank the other person for her/his time. In short, act like a
professional, even if you aren’t one . . . yet. You see, bad
can be fixed, but a bad first impression is hard to overcome.
That being said, Ms. Mortimer,
may I speak with you for a minute or two
about the project I’m working on . . .