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?
* * *
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.
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With havin so much content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright
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Some valuable insights here, that I think play into every relationship in our lives. Relationships built out of a neediness and desperation can never be healthy! I think we have to find a way to offer our best from a position of peace and strength. We have to find an identity from a place more stable than, ahem, the current publishing industry. “Perfect love drives out fear.” I know I’m happier when I’m thinking about the other person and their POV, whomever that person is. When I focus on myself and my own needs, my self-doubt becomes a paralyzing giant. We gain the most when we’re willing to give others consideration first.
Fabulous attitude! Thanks for sharing it here.
Thanks for the great advice. Best of luck on your new job.
Just wondering – as I shop my book around – should I try and find an editor or an agent or should I try and go to a publishing house directly? I’ve always heard agents, agents, agents, but I’m starting to re think that.
I will look around your site for tips.
Thanks for helping the unpublished.
Here’s a post that answers that question in-depth:
Congrats on the new position, Jane. I hope it’s a good fit for you.
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At a conference two years ago, I was in the breakfast buffet line when I realized that the person in front of me was the EA I had an appointment with in an hour. I heard her fret about there being no cream for her coffee.
After she left the line and headed back to EA appoinmtment room, I went and found some cream, took it to the appointment room, and asked one of the “guards” at the entrance to deliver it to her. When I showed up at my appointment, she told me she appreciated the cream. She also asked for a full after I gave my pitch. The EA declined my book in the end, but I still credit my listening in the buffet line as helpful to getting my full request.
This may not be quite what you meant when you talked about listening to EAs. At the same time, a writer needs to show whenever possible that he/she is willing to listen. 🙂
Great story. 🙂 That EA is going to remember you for life.
Hi Jane, I just saw this article on a friend’s page. I agree with all you said. I found sometimes it is the way you do things that gets a response or non-response. I have a good friend and mentor who in quick response to an email I sent him gave me the best advice ever.
I’d often sent two or emails to ask if my submissions were still being considered I waited the recoomended time but they would go something like this.
I am writing to find out if my submission titled,”xxx” is still being considered. It has been 180 days. I didn’t know better, and I didn’t get emails back (Sometimes I’d include 2nd,or 3rd inquiry) He told me, try this…
Dear Mr/Mrs. I am writing regarding my submission titled,”x” submitted on 10/19/72. I am not writing to see if a decision has been made. I know that it takes time to pair the right article with the right issue. I am simply writing to see if it was received. If not I’d be happy to resend it.
Thank you for your time.
He said that puts them at ease and gives them the change to say, we got it, we aren’t going to use, it’s being considered, I didn’t receive it please resend it, ect.
After I tried that I received three responses in the same day. One from one magazine, on from another, then later in the day the first repied because they had went through their files and found something else I’d sent. I’ve learned a lot.
Ps. I was just using x instead of thinking up a title. I have never actually written anything with xxx in the title. 🙂
Excellent, excellent advice and concrete example. You’ve just nailed half the battle, if not more.
It’s been quite a day here in Rachelle-Land!
Thankfully, my Advil has kicked in and I can now form a sentence. Not sure about the coherant thoughts tho…
For most of the last 23 years, I’ve been a SAHM. But that gave me the chance to do and see things that aren’t always ‘important’ in the corporate world.
I was our church librarian for many years and I can tell you who is spewing out books, and who is writing them. I know what my demographic reads, I know what they want and what stays on the shelves. I know how often they beg for (insert name of writer here) and who they think is writing down to them.
Just because a book sells, doesn’t mean that author will sell the next one.
By having to answer for why I spent my church’s money, I had to chose wisely. I definitely know what the market is. And I know I write to market, and I write well. No, I wasn’t told that by my mom, but by my hand picked critique peeps who will tell me the truth.
Now that my MS is done, I must begin the uphill crawl. On broken glass.
Jane, the most difficult thing to to, (for someone who has been told to mind their manners and not brag, and has heard the “you’re just a housewife, what do you know, anyway?” insults) is to turn around, take my blood,sweat and tears, light up like Auntie Mame and SELL! BABY! SELL!!
I don’t think MY attitude towards agents and editors needs to shift. I’m sure you’re all hard working people who truly do want to help bring great stories to the world.
It’s the gauntlet mentality that takes a creative mind and forces it down the ever narrowing road of opportunity to become, in the end, management.
On one hand, I feel like I’m being told “Take who you are and become someone else. Approach people you don’t know at a conference you can’t afford and curry their favour in 2 minutes or you’re an epic fool and you’ve wasted the vacation money”.
On the other hand it’s “keep trying, you can do it”.
It’s Vegas vs Winnie the Poo!!
I have nothing but good things to say for what I have learned here, and many other industry blogs. But that’s the kicker, isn’t it? “Industry”. I did not sit down and pour my creative efforts into a novel, only to be told, “all right then, you have a paragraph to seal your future”.
I know I’m repeating myself and telling, not showing.
But I think that you know what I mean. I’m sure that you, Jane Friedman, do not get up each day thinking, “who can I crush?” I have learned by reading this short blog, that you care. And you care deeply.
Cream rises. It is your job to observe and nuture those who have *it*. We all want to find the magic formula that lights the beacons and brings Gondor and Rohan. I feel for you, I do. Being a gatekeeper has its own pressures. But I’m not a gatekeeper, I’m storming the gate.
As The Other Stephen King said, “I don’t need this”. I want it, but I don’t need it. So that lessens my emotional investment. But not my efforts.
Thank you for opening yourself up to the dartboard of all these comments. Best wishes on your new job.
Some day, I hope you can see the process as something other than crawling on broken glass, or as a gauntlet. You might try on new analogies for the process (almost like trying on new outfits). Do any others feel better?
After reading this and the Forbes post and scrolling through the above comments, I don’t know if I feel better or not.
I have been to a job interview where I listened to the interveiwer talk about their son’s acceptance to West Point, their support of the armed forces and how I was being given the ‘chance’ to interview because of my service, as if my experience didn’t matter.
I bit my tongue, nodded, smiled, commended them and talked a little of what the job entailed. I still didn’t get the job. The interviewer just wanted to share their son’s acheivements with someone who would understand. Lucky me.
Ms. Majors has a good point that we are spending our hard earned money to go to conferences and meet EAs who aren’t paying. I am in a good place and don’t need a book deal but I would still like to get my work published without wasting time and money boosting egos.
I have read your helpful posts and don’t believe you would do this, but I’m sure there are many EAs out there that do gain a sense of power from scrapping authors work.
Feeling guilt over crushing the hopes of writers with big brown puppy dog eyes and a dream, Jane? Already? So soon?
Harden your heart. Before you reply to a writer, pull a few wings off flies. A mantra could be helpful. Here’s one: “That Wicked Witch of the West? Now that was a nice lady.” Practice an evil cackle.
Then write that writer. And smile.
I recently received a rejection from my first choice agent. She said that my genre, romantic suspense, wasn’t what she was looking to represent at the moment. She was looking for women’s fiction.
Was she just being nice, or do you think there’s a real difference between the two categories?
There is really no way to know. Parsing rejections can drive you insane! Best to move on.
[…] writing to contacts with agents and editors, Jane Friedman (@janefriedman) offers suggestions for How to Influence Editors in a Way That 90% of Other Writers Don’t on Rachelle Gardner’s (@rachellegardner) blog. Ninety percent? Even if that’s […]
I loved this post, Jane. I’m so bad at writing query letters because I feeling like I’m selling myself.
It’s much easier for me to think about a query in terms of the person I’m querying. There’s a reason I’m sending THEM the letter, because they represent authors I love or the genres I’m writing in.
What a great new perspective to view the whole querying/pitching progress. Revolutionary, at least for me. So thanks for that. 🙂
I appreciated this article much more than I appreciated the Forbes article you linked to (I admit I didn’t finish it, though). Something he said kind of bothered me–that when a person radiating neediness approaches, others want to run away. Is that actually true? It seems so wrong, so inhuman to run away from those with needs or anxieties. The process of casting off needs and anxieties is one that involves maturity and experience. The first time I went to a conference and had a meeting with an editor, I froze. I’m not exactly shy, so much as I’m not a great verbal communicator. But I’m sure this neediness emanated from my being. Instead of treating me badly and writing me off, she dealt with it mercifully and helped me by using leading questions. She was a human being! Today, after several conferences and more experience in sending off work, I don’t think I would freeze up the same way. Experience=confidence. At the same time, I don’t think I would ever be the light, positive, radiating type of person he extols as the type one wants to do business with.
Your article, however, seemed more focused on looking at editors and agents as human beings (we’re all humans, here, right?). All people have different motivations, and understanding their motivations is key. Yes, it certainly is. I could be wrong, but I believe many agents look for hardworking and loyal authors who don’t need to be prodded to get their work done. But how in the world do you show that to an A/E w/o having an established relationship?
Jill, I’m so glad that that editor treated you with empathy and gentleness which helped you build your confidence. Like you, I am not “a great verbal communicator,” especially when I feel vulnerable. In regards to being a positive, radiating person, just relax and be yourself. It’s easier said than done, but if you can be comfortable with who you are, other people will feel comfortable with you. Don’t try to be radiant. If you are yourself, your goodness will shine. Blessings!
Jill – Indeed, I am focused on the “we’re humans” angle.
For years I’ve seen how nervous/anxious writers get around EAs and I know it stems from a variety of factors including (1) fear of judgment (2) the pressure of the make it / break it environment (3) high value placed on the EA opinion and what it means for the future.
Think about your day-job/career (the not-writing one). This includes parenting if you take care of children. You would never consider one day on the job to be THE day that the entire future is decided, that an entire life depends on. Instead, it’s a series of small actions, skills, and practices over a long period of time that make a career or a life.
But I think we forget that at pitch/conference events during meetings with EAs. Somehow, EAs, during a 10-minute appointment (or a 2-sentence rejection e-mail) have taken on an outsized importance with their verdict/response.
To directly answer your question: How do you show you’re loyal and hardworking? EAs have good instincts if they’ve been in the business a while. After you meet hundreds, even thousands, of writers, without even knowing it, you pick up on the signs. The nonverbal gestures, the stuff that’s unsaid, the overall energy of the interaction … all of these things give off cues.
I’m sure the EA who helped you didn’t see you as needy, but as someone nervous/anxious in a very stressful environment, and did everything possible to put you at ease. That’s a great human response.
There’s no one way to reassure an EA about your qualities other than to be as much yourself as possible. Of course this takes, as you say, some confidence and experience with these environments. That’s OK. You’re in this for the long haul, and you have many doors that will open to you in the future.
I’ve been running around today, but I wanted to thank you both for your kind and helpful replies. 🙂
You’re welcome. Glad it helped. 🙂
This is such great advice for EVERYONE–no matter your industry or profession. EA’s are people, too! And sometimes they would just like someone to be friendly and treat them as a person–without an agenda or without wanting something from them. Thank you for the good reminder!
This is good advice for all walks of life. It should never be ‘all about me’. You want to build a relationship not an obligation.
Jane, I don’t have networking strategies to offer. Thanks for the insight. I’m a church planter writing my first book. There’s a great parallel with our relationship with God. Maybe he’d say less “nos” to our prayers if we took the time to figure out his desires and what requests we could make that he’d say yes to.
Jane, thank you for this honest post. I’m not normally snippy or snarky and I hope I didn’t come across that way in my response to P.J. Casselman’s comment above. Whether I am interacting with an agent or editor, a fellow writer, a follower on Twitter or one of my writing students, I am always highly aware that I am dealing with a human being and I am genuinely interested in and concerned for that human being. However, I know that some writers don’t treat EAs as people. They treat them as roadblocks and / or objects at which to vent their frustration. I’ve seen it happen to Rachelle on this blog (and to Wendy, Rachel and others). There have been commenters who have lambasted Rachelle with long rants that cast all EAs as the vilest villians known to humanity. Thankfully, those people are rare here. One of the reasons I come here daily, besides the good advice from Rachelle and guest bloggers such as yourself, is because the writing community here is composed of wonderful, empathetic, supportive, insightful people. If you glance through a few of the posts, especially the one from Monday (I think) on what writers don’t know about agents, you’ll find that the writers here responded to Rachelle with an outpouring of appreciation, compassion and support. And those comments were genuine, not some game played in order to get published.
Congratulations on your new position. I wish you many blessings as you venture into it. Just know that many of us writers realize that yours is a difficult and often thankless job and we respect and appreciate what you do.
One last note: I appreciate your attempt to be kind by remaining silent rather than sending a rejection slip to an author. Speaking for myself, however, I would much prefer to be rejected honestly than to be ignored.
Community. Genuine. Not just some game played to get published. Those things are huge.
The thing I hated most about the advice to ask friendly questions and get to know the EA, is that it – along with games played to get published – sounds kin to relationship or friendship evangelism. I detest that. So manipulative.
I want people to read my books, blogs and articles because I have something to say that will help them understand what makes other people tick; and therefore they will enjoy life more. Getting your work and insights out there should not be reduced to the glitziest, trickiest marketing techniques.
The thing I liked about the advice to get to know the EAs and be interested in the fact that they are a real people with real lives too, is that it IS all about relationships. People everywhere need people, love is a two way street and all that.
Thank you, Cherry. Exactly. Relationships are what life and being human are all about. As you said, genuine community, not just game-playing, that’s huge. And again, that’s what I love about this community. And you are one of the reasons I love being a part of it.
Thanks so much for the comments here!
I should clarify that I don’t practice the “non-response” strategy myself, though I know many who do (making it one of the popular rejection methods).
Thank you for the clarification. I commend you for not taking the easy non-response way out.
It definitely helps to remember you’re dealing with actual people, and to treat them as such 🙂
Congratulations at your job at VQR. That’s exciting. 🙂 I hope the transition to your position is a smooth one.
I appreciate your post here today. As a writer who hasn’t yet had the privilege of meeting agents and editors, I appreciate you sharing what it looks like from your side of the desk. I think the thing that impacted me the most was remembering to view EA’s as equals. This is a shift in my mindset since I tend to look up to you folks. You are influencers.
I guess in thinking about the relationship between a writer and an EA as a business relationship it’s easier to consider both as equals. Thank you, Jane. 🙂
In a voice only reminiscent of the prince of darkness, “NO! Ha ha ha ha!” said the agent grinning with evil malice.
This is the perception I have when I get a rejection. This is why I would not want to send Rachelle a query about my novel. ;^)
I think the real kicker is *caring* to understand what motivates the people around us. I feel as though so many people are afraid to care, afraid to reach out. I’m entirely thankful I have an innate risk-taking quality. I risk caring. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an editor, my agent, my neighbor, or the vet I just had a hysterical conversation with, I’m going to care about you. I’m going to be interested in what’s going on with you.
My goal is to have people walking away from an interaction with me either laughing, thinking, or feeling uplifted in some way. No clenched teeth or exhausted exhales.
In order to achieve this I often have to shift to an outward focus, placing emphasis on the other person, demonstrating empathy and interest in connecting. I have to show I care.
Jane, all this leads me to wonder on the flip side of most challenging, what do you consider the most rewarding part of your job?
Great, thought-provoking post!
Great question, Wendy.
The most rewarding part of my job is yet to be seen, but I’ve always loved content creation and connecting readers with writers. It’s fun to build a community around shared values and provocative ideas.
A most interesting and enlightening article…so I’m guessing the same things that make for a good social relationship (respect, understanding and the willingness to listen) also make for a good author-EA relationship. Never really thought of it that way before. Thanks.
Those of us in the rank & file of unpublished writers are always looking “tricks” and “how to get ahead” tips on snatching that brass ring…the often-elusive publishing contract. Books and articles are written and published, and greedily devoured by hungry (starving?) writers with the hopes of finding that one piece of advice that could change their luck and get them published.
(Story idea…desperate writer holds high-powered NY pub agent hostage in a vain attempt to make the agent read their manuscript. Scratch that…probably already been done!)
Perhaps the “secret” is as simple as taking the advice of the ancients: “walk a mile in their moccasins” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Who’da thunk it!
What I’ve always believed (and how I’ve tried to raise my kids) is that you are always better served by being less self-absorbed and more focused on others and their needs. Sure, you may get stepped on by others trying to “get ahead” of you, and you may hear more than your share of “nice guys finish last”, but it just might make you a better person and a writer that agents WANT to work with.
Call me crazy, but I’d rather have a few footprints on my back than be that “prima donna” writer that no agent wants to represent!
Great post, Jane The best policy is to think of others, and the rest will take care of itself.
Awesome advice as always. If we always look for ways to serve others FIRST, what we want has a way of eventually showing up. Thanks, Rachelle for such a fantastic and useful guest post.
It’s a business. That’s how I look at this process.
It is similar to dating. I like that comparison.
A partnership of this type should be viewed as beneficial to both the agent/editor and writer.
The work has to stand alone. It shouldn’t be treated like a baby, even though it may feel like it’s your baby.
It is a work of art. Agents, like people, may or may not be attracted to certain works of art.
Jane, I come at this a bit differently, I suppose, because of my experiences in medicine. When I first went into practice and encountered well-known specialists in my field at meetings, some of them were always looking over my shoulder, searching for someone more important. The ones who became my friends were those who fully engaged with me, not because I had something to offer (although later I did) but because I was a colleague in the profession.
I’ve tried to carry that over into writing, and have made some great friends–authors, editors, agents–along the way.
Thanks so much for sharing.
Love that analogy! Thanks, Richard.
Interesting post, Ms. Friedman. Wish you much success in your new endeavor.
I don’t know that we wanted to hear what Jane said, but we NEED to hear it. I wonder how EAs keep their heads up with so much apparent drivel coming across the transom. I guess they’re treasure hunters at heart.
What would I do differently? In all of life, in all relationships, it would be great to apply; “…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.”
Honest, forthright, open to paths to work together – I think I need to click over to the Michael Ellsberg post and learn how to nix my neediness, because I need that type of relationship.
Cherry, it’s an interesting correlation between today’s post, your comment, and my blog post yesterday. I slightly modified Carnegie-
Whenever you go out the door, draw your chin in, carry the crown of your head high, and fill your lungs to the utmost. Drink in the sunshine. Greet your friends with a smile and put soul into every handshake. Do not fear being misunderstood and do not waste a minute thinking about your enemies. Try to fix firmly in your mind what you would like to accomplish. Then, without veering off direction, you will move straight to the goal. Keep your mind on the great and honorable things you would like to do. Then, as the days go gliding away, you will find yourself unconsciously seizing upon the opportunities that are required for the fulfillment of your hopes.
Thank you, P.J. Casselman (such an author-like name). Those are inspiring words. Now, how exactly do I get to your blog?
When I clicked over to the linked post by Michael Ellsberg, I discovered that his post was a reminder similar to what I had determined earlier this year: to live each day as though I had been given only a year to live (December 31, 2011 einefeistyberg.wordpress.com).
Cherry, my picture should link to my blog. It’s a WordPress site. I switched there a while back based on recommendations made here. If it’s not working, then try this- http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/
I think I remember that post. I read Eine Feisty Berg. Since I did three years of my undergraduate work in Germany, it stood out! (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott :-D)
Oh, hey, I am not as needy as I thought. I found your encouraging wordpress blog by simply googling your name:)
I noticed VQR is at http://www.vqronline.org/ not .com
Way back when I was growing up, cigarettes didn’t have the stigma associated with them that they do today. We kids could run down to the corner store and buy candy cigarettes–and we did–and then pretend to be really cool with the white sticks of candy with little red ends poking out of our mouths. Only issue I recall was that the candy cigarettes didn’t really taste like candy. Didn’t taste like much of anything, really–just little sticks of sugar. They looked good, but had no flavor.
I kind of feel that way after reading this post. I now know what Jane least likes about her job, which tells me–what, that to help her out I should give her as few chances to say “no” to my work as possible? But what does she like most about the position? Is it something I can use when I shape my proposal to make it more appealing? And is it really generalizable to all/most editors, or do I need to try to chat up every editor to whom I wish to submit my work?
Or is the primary message to not come across as needy? Maybe I should start my proposals and queries with “Hey, I don’t really need this, but….”? Fact is, though, many writers do need it. Sure, there’s the few who can afford to say no to an editor, and then there are the writers like me who have a perfectly good day job and mostly just write for pleasure, fun, and fortu–*cough* *cough*, but I’ve met plenty who need to continue putting food on the table. How do you not need what you need?
Perhaps it’s like the days of dating. “Don’t let your fear paralyze you. Talk about the girl/guy.”
We can hardly as an EA about their spouse and kids, but they want to feel like we’re asking them to agent and not #7 on the list.
Of course, the part that is really frustrating is that we learn who they are, follow their blog, read their tweets, research their writers, name one of the kittens after them and either get no response or a form rejection letter. After a bunch of agents do that, the next one becomes #13.
Yet, if I treat #13 like that, it’s going to fail, sooooo. (humms as he dribbles lips with finger)
Yeah, that’s my point pretty much exactly. I’m not saying that what Jane says is wrong or bad, I’m just wanting a bit more meat with my happy fluff, I guess.
I can tell from personal experience that the first four or five queries you send out are painstakingly crafted after thorough investigation of the agent’s site, blog, and personal life (you know that fine line between “research” and “stalking”? I’m sure I crossed it a few times). Queries six through eighteen or nineteen receive a little less work (though, to be frank after looking back, they ended up much better written). After a while, though, they just get modified and sent. “Dear Ms. Gardner” becomes “Dear Ms. Agent Who’s Nearly Guaranteed To Ignore Me Regardless of What I Say” in my own mind.
As I said before, I don’t NEED this. I can only imagine how much more intense it must be for those who do.
At the James River Writers Conference last year I met an awesome guy who used to be an editor, and we chatted a great deal. I’m just not sure I can extrapolate anything from that conversation–which did, in fact, center on him and his experiences–to a useful thing to say on a proposal. “I know you’re way overworked, but read this…” isn’t it. Neither is “I know you hate rejecting writers, so here’s one you’ll say yes to.”
All that said, yes, I get it–empathy mixed with professionalism go a long, long way in the world. But not sucking at writing goes a lot farther in this business, I think.
Excellent point, P.J. I think many of us spend a great deal of time trying to get to know agents as people, trying to forge a personal relationship, albeit with an eye towards a business relationship. Then to receive a form rejection slip or worse–silence–doesn’t reinforce the view that EAs see us as people, let alone equals. I guess it’s a paradox–treating agents as humans-who-are-not-just-EAs while holding in mind that their rejection is nothing personal. It’s just business. While a part of me feels that Jane’s advice is healthy both for the EAs and the writers, another part feels that she wants writers to have their cake and eat it too.
This is a very interesting discussion …
Certainly I’ve written countless posts that are about the “meat” of attracting editors/agents. The tips, the rules, the secrets, the principles, etc.
Over time, though, I think there’s a limit to what hard advice can give you. So the subtext here is: (1) Knowing how to influence (or sell) people is just as important as what you have to sell (2) The process is far more psychological than we like to admit. This is why I believe the most popular writing advice books have nothing to do with hard advice and more to do with personality (e.g., BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott is an attitude mor than an advice book; THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield is about the mental battles, too). (3) Finally, having what Ira Glass calls a “terrible personality” is going to hurt your attempts to get published. No two ways about it.
There are some writers I reject, but end up working with anyway because I know it’s going to be a fabulous relationship if we can only figure out the right project at the right time. What qualities define such people? They take a broad view, and aren’t in need of anything from me. Yes, they queried/proposed, just as we might engage anyone during the course of a day. They’re exploring possibilities and opportunities. If one path isn’t open, they know there are others.
We can all tell when people have this kind of attitude, and when their needs are so demanding that we can never, ever satisfy what dreams they’ve built in their mind.
Great comment. I’d like to share a couple of quotes from James Scott Bell’s THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS:
The heading for chapter eleven:
“To keep from turning off those who can publish you, you must not be desperate.”
“An agent I know was once at a large writer’s conference, hosting a table at dinner. The table was one of dozens, and each table was full. He was right in the middle of saying something to one of the conferees when he felt a tug on his sleeve. A woman was literally on her knees, saying, ‘I beg you to be my agent. I beg you to be my agent.’
He did not become her agent.” He didn’t mention if the agent helped the woman to her feet or not. Hell of a story though.
Bell continues in the same vein: “A well-known editor with a big publishing house reported the following: ‘During the cesarean section birth of my daughter twelve years ago, I sat perched on a stool, gloved and gowned, next to a chatty anesthesiologist. As the operation got underway she asked about my job. Once she heard, she didn’t to pitch a picture-book idea at me. I still remember that it involved some multimedia musical and that it went on for a while. It was midnight and we had been in the hospital for twelve hours already, and I was too frazzled and freaked out to shut her down.’
That’s desperation.” Yes indeed.
He goes on about weird times and places writers pitch editors. This one is hilarious in a demented kind of way:
“The slipped-under-the-bathroom-stall gambit that has happened more than once. I have an editor friend who is prepared for this. He says he will simply remove the first page and slip the manuscript back with this note scribbled on it: Thank you. Your manuscript has met my needs at this time.” Although funny, in a sick kind of way, that response is not the one that one would expect from a professional editor especially when you read the conclusion of this short chapter where Bell advises:
“Editors and agents want to deal with professionals. A professional is someone who knows the proper pitch and submission process. Act like a professional, and then you may become one.” That is really what it’s all about.
In the end if you are not professional enough to follow an agent or editor’s submission guidelines to the letter, then you will never get anywhere in this business. Of the thousands of books published each year only 20 percent of them are fiction. Yet 90 percent of the thousands upon thousands of queries to agents and editors are for novels. You can bet the ranch that the 20 percent of fiction writers who are published were professional enough to follow the rules. If I’m an agent or editor who receives over a thousand submissions a month I’m going to 86 any and all that don’t follow my guidelines. Agents and editors have lives too.
If your submission is professional you will never come across as needy. The agent or editor may still pass on your work, but they will really appreciate your professionalism.
Thank you for a great and thought-provoking post, Jane.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible editors and have turned down larger advances to stay with an editor I love and trust. However, neediness seems to have appended itself to my psyche when I first decided to write for publication. I appreciate your commonsense tips on how important it is to keep that particular beast at bay!
This reminds me, in a positive way, of how many interview job aides recommend the interviewee be prepared to ask questions that display an interest in not just what the interviewee wants from the job, but interest in the company, interest in how the position they’re applying for will be a benefit to department or overall company goals. That displaying such interest is appealing to interviewers and leaves a lasting impression when it comes to decision time.
So I can see how this would also be a good thing when it comes to agents and editors as well. Thank you for pointing this out and hoping your return to the “Erm, no, that’s not for me” game is enjoyable, well, beyond the rejections, that is 🙂
Yes, totally the same theory / attitude when it comes to job interviews! Great comparison.
[…] an editor at Virginia Quarterly Review, has a guest post at agent Rachelle Gardner’s site on How To Influence Editors in a Way That 90% of Other Writers Don’t. Editors and agents (EAs) feel guilt all the time. Why? Because it’s never fun or a completely […]
I think as writers most of us are still looking to be “discovered,” waiting for that Hollywood moment when an editor of agent will recognize us and our career will take off. After more years in the business than I care to mention, I’m still waiting. Meantime I’ve been doing the writing I can do, publishing a lot but still not the blockbuster. Today, with the ease of self-publishing, there is no excuse not to be a published writer.
Writing is a journey, not a destination.
I agree—most writers await that dream of being discovered. What I notice is that the writers who work the hardest and are the most disciplined tend to get discovered more often.
I wish this was as “common sense” as it should be. People have forgotten how to work with others. Very sad.
Now, the part of this that eludes me is how to gain a similar understanding of the person you want to try and work with when it is impossible (or at least highly unlikely) that you will have an opportunity to meet them face-to-face?
I can try to research an agent (or editor) all day but without being able to ask questions, how does that work? (E.g. – they do not blog or maintain/answer Twitter/FB accounts.) I certainly don’t want to waste their time emailing them. Or do I?
Brandon – You raise a very good point. Most EAs aren’t going to appreciate being e-mailed/phoned by a stranger to chit-chat over your questions.
The good news is that many EAs have the same kinds of challenges and desires. Even if you connect with just a handful via blogs/Twitter/FB (like you do here with Rachelle), you’ll gain valuable insight that can apply to just about any interaction with EAs.
That confidence and awareness will help you regardless of who you’re trying to partner with.
Thanks, Jane. That is very helpful.
It does make perfect sense that most (or many, at least) will be looking for the same types of things. Never really thought about that.
Thank you for responding. Now, back to researching! 🙂
Very Insightful. Great post. Thanks
Congratulations on your new job.
I’ve been writing and studying the craft for about three years now, and I’m heading to my first conference in September. I’ve begun to query a few agents without any luck.
I appreciate what you shared today. Hopefully that will help me go to conference more relaxed and confident.
Thanks, and I hope you enjoy your new job!
Congratulations on your new job at the Virginia Quarterly Review. Love your blog. You offer another insight into EA’s. I look forward to working with them someday and want it to be profitable for all of us. And I totally understand when my book does not wow them. I just wish they’d say no thank you instead of leaving me hanging.
Agreed—I don’t admire the trend of the non-response.
Hi Jane,one of the great benefits of blogs like Rachelle’s and yours is that you constantly remind us that agents and editors are people, too. Great to break down the mystique,remind us to be ourselves, and show the same curiosity we would in meeting anyone else for the first time.
I agree, Carol. Rachelle’s blog and the blogs by the other Books and Such agents allow us to get to know them as people, not just gatekeepers.
My shift was realizing that my book’s a product – it’s not me, and there’s nothing of ‘me’ in it. There’s just a story, floating around in the ether, and I’m putting it to paper.
That paradigm shift allowed the pain of rejection to melt away, and it’s made writing a LOT more fun.
Jane, that was a very uplifting post. I also enjoyed Michael Ellsberg’s article in Forbes. Thank you for referring me to it. It’s so strange. In ministry, I can talk to anyone on the street, sing and preach in front of thousands of people and walk into a hospital room to help a hurting family. Put me behind a keyboard and ask me to write a query letter and I feel like I’m sixteen and about to ask a girl out on my first date! Thank you for reminding me to calm down. Moreover, you hit the nail on the head. When I do the ministry things, I’m not nervous because I am concentrating on THEM. When I write the query, I focus on ME. Perhaps a re-read of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is in order.
Jane, this makes sense. It’s a bit like dating: when you’re desperate, you turn men off, when you’re confident, but not arrogant, you become more interesting. Your comment, “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.” This might make life easier for EA’s when they’re not interested, but what if they love the author’s work? Then the power struggle changes sides.
Well, I’ve certainly been there—I’ve been rejected by authors who I wanted to work with because I didn’t have enough money or prestige to buy them off.
I’ve never taken it personally, and I also realize: Nobody benefits if I have to resort to begging and pleading. I want someone who’s just as excited as I am about a potential partnership. Otherwise, we’re all wasting our time.
Jane, you have said it here. I too have been rejected by authors. The right connecting, partnership, and alignment really does matter in an author-editor relation (or author-agent). Thank you for saying that! Also, great article.
Such sound advice Jane. Thanks for sharing it. Before going to pitch book ideas at a conference, I asked my former acquisition editor and he shared similar advice: ask editors what they’ve been thinking about and looking for. Talking to editors at conferences has been such a help in understanding how to improve my book pitches. I wish I’d gone to conferences and just talked to editors without anything on the line first before working on a book proposal.
As to writers dealing with rejection, I had to realize that even a bad day in publishing is better than most good days in any other job I could do. I’ve observed that the early years in an author’s career can be fragile because he/she is still learning to judge his/her own work. Rejection can be crushing then. However, as my confidence has grown, I’ve learned that rejection is a small annoyance on par with folding laundry or ironing that has little impact on my short or long term plans.
Words to live by:
Appeal to people’s self interest, never to their mercy or gratitude”- Robert Greene