Monday, April 6, 2015

Professionalism (or, Don't Shoot Yourself in the Foot)

For those of you who don't know, I used to work in the accounting department of a literary agency. My job was to process royalty statements, but I'd often make the rounds to chat with agents and assistants. The mountains of unsolicited manuscripts the agents had to read was staggering. Stacks and stacks of paper would cover every available surface, bookshelves, and occasionally the floor (this, clearly, was before the age of electronic submissions). And every day the mail carrier would bring more. The assistants' jobs were to separate the wheat from the chaff. If the assistant liked a particular manuscript they'd write up a report about it and then pass it on to the agent. It's a wonder they ever had time to do anything else.

One time I remember chatting with an agent who was bemoaning the fact that she was interested in a particular manuscript, but found the writer to be difficult to deal with on a personal level. "He calls every a day to see if I've finished reading it and then I can't get off the phone with him," she said. "I can tell he would be a difficult client." After a lot of careful thought--and one too many calls from the author--she decided to pass.

It was so unfortunate that this talented author shot himself in the foot. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but I've seen it happen time and time again. While good manners won't make up for a manuscript that's lacking, bad manners can definitely tip the scales against you. There are simply too many talented writers out there and too many choices for agents. They have the luxury of being extremely selective.

I'll admit that the submission process seems a little backwards. You are submitting your work to gain the approval of someone who is ultimately going to work for you. It's like going to an audition before hiring an attorney. Since agents work on your behalf, some authors feel they have the right to be aggressive or intrusive during the submission process. Also, publishing is a competitive field and our culture rewards ambition. But really, the author-agent relationship is more of a collaboration and the submission process ought to be looked upon like a job interview. You apply for a job at a company that interests you and the employer decides if you're the right fit for the company. Likewise, you have chosen to submit your manuscript to a particular agent because you like their reputation and area of expertise, and now it's agent's turn to decide if they want to be in a partnership with you. If ever there was a time to be on your best behavior, this is it.

During the course of their careers, writers develop reputations based not only on their writing ability but also on their level of professionalism. We've all heard stories of famous writers who act like divas and I can't help but think that their lack of manners close doors on occasion. Likewise, those authors who are a joy to work with are revered within the industry. Agents and editors move around a lot in publishing. Whether you choose to build bridges or burn them, your past actions will likely affect you at some point in the future.

So what does it mean to act like a professional? Much of this is obvious and falls under basic manners.

Respect Other People's Time. Be on time for meetings, functions, appearances, scheduled phone calls. Honor deadlines. If you think you can't make a deadline, contact the person as soon as possible so they can plan around it. During phone calls a little small talk is appropriate, but keep in mind that the person you're speaking with has a lot of work and other authors to attend to. Read social cues. Keep it short and to the point.

Be Kind to Assistants. Sure, assistants are usually fresh out of college, but they are also the ones who picked your manuscript out of the slush pile. Most are sharp, friendly, and eager to please. They are also the ones who get things done. Treat them like the ally that they are.

Show Your Appreciation. Hand-written thank-you notes are rare and classy. So are gift baskets. When someone goes above and beyond for you, let them know how much you appreciate them. Kind words are free and always welcome.

Don't Talk Trash About Others. Not just editors and agents, but other authors as well. The publishing world is small and fluid. Snarky comments will come back to haunt you, guaranteed.

Be Humble. There are thousands of talented writers in this world-- remember that you are one of many. Nothing will alienate your colleagues faster than thinking you're God's gift to the literary world.

Respectfully Disagree. When the inevitable dispute arises, state your case calmly, clearly, and respectfully. As in any business partnership, being honest while carefully choosing your words to express yourself will get you much closer to your goal than failing to keep your anger in check.


Unknown said...

An excellent point, Stephanie. I copy edit books for several agents, and have had the fortunate experience of working with some pretty fabulous authors who are grateful for all my work.

Do I have your permission to post a link to this post on Eschler Editing's Facebook page?

Stephanie Doyon said...

Of course. Thanks for your comment.