How to Influence Editors in a Way That 90% of Other Writers Don’t
Guest Blogger: Jane Friedman @JaneFriedman
Editors and agents (EAs) feel guilt all the time. Why? Because it’s never fun or a completely neutral act to reject someone. Sure, we know it’s a business—and we tell writers that over and over again to relieve our guilt—but we’re still human, and we know that rejection stings.
This has been on my mind lately because, after a 2-year hiatus from traditional publishing, I’m getting back into the game by joining the staff of the Virginia Quarterly Review.
What am I least looking forward to?
Disappointing people by saying no to their work.
Even though I’m not yet officially on staff, I’ve had to say “no” to people who’ve sent me their work in a pre-emptive move to reach me before the deluge begins.
I’ve already spent a decade in publishing, so I’m well schooled in the 101 ways of rejecting someone. If you’re curious about the 101 ways, that’s a separate article. But the two most popular ways are (1) silence and (2) “I’m not the right person for this submission.” (See how nicely that sidesteps directly saying no?)
Now: I’ve just told you something vitally important. I’ve told you what I don’t like about my job. I’ve given you insight into an emotion that likely affects all EAs.
One of the most important qualities of successful people I know (regardless of profession) is that they understand what motivates the people around them.
Some authors—even though they are experts in understanding the hearts of their characters—forget to look into the hearts of EAs. Instead, a typical mindset might be, “How can I win this EA over?”
Well, how do you win anyone over?
You start by listening and showing you understand.
Next time you talk to an EA at a conference (when you’re not pitching), instead of thinking about all the things you want from them, or devising clever ways to influence them, simply be curious. Ask questions like, “What’s the most challenging part of your job?” Or, “What do you look for in a partnership with an author?” Or, “What do you wish every author knew before they entered into a partnership with you?”
In response, you’ll gain insight into the life of an EA, what motivates them, and what they look for in an author-partner.
Wait, Are You on Some Kind of Power Trip or Something?
Do I think an EA’s problems and frustrations should be the author’s first order of business? No. Do I think the author is beholden to the EA and must serve that person? No.
What I am advocating is that when you’re not in a position of strategic power—when you want something from someone, but you have nothing proven to offer in return—then it behooves you to learn, listen, and find out how you can be a desirable partner.
I realize that the industry is changing, and it might not be long before authors are rejecting EAs. I can’t wait for that day to arrive—truly. Writers have long overvalued my response to their work. And I think other EAs feel the same way.
And here we’ve reached an essential point. I’ve never enjoyed the laser-eye burden of writer’s hopes. If you, as a writer, see yourself as an equal to the people you’d like to work with, and you treat communications in a way that doesn’t emphasize your “need” to have something, you will help remove the emotional tension (and power struggle) that often enters into these relationships from day one, and make the EA more inclined to be honest, forthright, and open to paths to work together—because the interaction is positive and not an energy drain.
Does your relationship with — or perception of — editors and agents need a shift? If so, what would you do differently? Do you have any networking strategies to share with your fellow writers?
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Jane Friedman is the web editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Her expertise on technology and publishing has been featured on NPR, PBS, and Publishers Weekly, and her social media presence is often cited as a model to follow in the writing community. In the last year, she has served as a grant panelist in literature for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Creative Work Fund in San Francisco. Before joining VQR, Jane was the publisher of Writer’s Digest and spent two years as a full-time professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati. Follow her on Twitter, subscribe on Facebook, or visit her blog.
This post is indebted to my readings of and talks with Michael Ellsberg, who wrote a post over at Forbes that offers valuable advice on a similar topic: Nix Your Neediness Now.