Authors’ Checklist of Dos and Don’ts


Another of my Agent Anonymous articles originally published in the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) Bulletin:

Authors’ Checklist of Dos and Don’ts

You may be right; I may be crazy.

Absolute props to Billy Joel for…well, his entire opus of work, but I can tell you right now that it’s definitely not a lunatic we’re looking for in publishing.  What we really want are people as professional as they are talented, who understand about business, time management, promotion and communication.  So, I’m going to hit hard on some dos and don’ts, because what seems obvious to some is not to others.  And it’s always better to spot and avoid the pitfalls rather than stepping into them.

Let’s begin at the beginning (at least of the business end of publishing): submissions. 

Don’t: Rush your work out the door.  Whether you’re a beginning writer or a publishing pro, there’s a lot of competition out there on the market, and good enough just, well, isn’t.  You really want to practice your pitch, work on your taglines and polish your material to a fine gloss.  Even long-established writers are discovering that though they may have sold on a pitch in the past, they’re now having to provide longer synopses or detailed outlines, maybe along with sample chapters or a full manuscript, particularly if they’re changing genres.  Also, editors are paying more attention to those proposals and partials, trying to catch any potential plot holes or pacing problems early on, so an author may be asked for a revision even before an offer is made.  Sometimes problems mean that the material is passed on rather than requested in revised form.  Because you may only get one shot (especially likely if you don’t have an established relationship at the publishing house), you’ve really got to put your best foot forward.  The times, if they ever existed, when publishing professionals could nurture a diamond in the rough are long gone.  As in many businesses right now, publishing people are overworked.  The less work and more excitement you inspire, the better your chances of getting an offer, whether it be of representation from an agent or publication from a major house.

Don’t:  Try to circumvent an agent or editor’s submission guidelines, thinking they don’t apply to you.  Don’t query them via Facebook or Twitter or their personal e-mail address, if you can find it.  Do look up their guidelines on-line (most have them on their websites) and follow the directions.  Otherwise, you’ve already answered a very important question about your level of professionalism, which helps us answer the question of whether or not we’d like to work with you. 

If you’re a published author, you can probably just pick up the phone and circumvent the query process altogether…almost.  The agent or editor will probably tell you in what format they’d prefer to review work and what specific material they’d like to evaluate.  If you can put together the package requested, so much the better.  When we look at your work, we’re curious about compatibility as well as our interest in your material.

Don’t: compare yourself to other writers, though, of course, if you’re reaching out for the same audience as Author Delta or Gamma, it’s worth a mention in case the agent or editor waffles about where you’d fit onto the bookstore shelves.  But leave off the part about you being the second coming of Stephen King, even if it’s true.

Don’t: be a diva.  Working with your publisher is in.  Behaving as though your publisher works for you is right out.  Every relationship, whether it be personal or professional will have its ups and downs.  NONE will be perfect.  What matters at the end of the day is whether you’ve handled things in such a way as to improve the working relationship or do it irreparable harm.

So, recapping the don’ts: you will post no query before it’s time; you will not decide that rules do not apply to you but will instead do your research and follow guidelines; you will not go crazy comparing yourself to others or behave like a diva, even if you do have absolutely the perfect feathered boa for the role.  So what do you do?

Do: always be professional.  Have you ever heard the expression that “you’ll catch more flies with honey.”  Words to live by.  Try being pleasant, courteous, polite but firm.  If you have an issue with your agent, communicate.  See if you can talk it out, but approach it like a problem to be solved, not blame to be placed.  The same goes with your editor or anyone else at your publishing house, though there you can always put the burden on your agent and let him or her handle it for you.  Part of what your representative is there for is to raise any questions or concerns that you might have in the manner best suited to accomplish your goals.  This does not necessarily mean that we harangue your editor on a daily basis about unanswered questions.  Sometimes the really squeaky wheel just gets replaced.  It means that we use our best judgment and phrase things in ways that illustrate how conceding our points might benefit all involved.  This also means that you don’t go around your agent to nag your editor, who might become understandably cranky if she’s getting grief from all sides.  Also, never blog or tweet or Facebook issues that should be between you and your publishing partner.  Think of it this way: if it would get you fired in an office setting, it could get you dropped in the publishing world. 

Do: pick your battles.  Yes, there are some battles that need more of the stick than the carrot (or the honey, to use the analogy above).  But not all battles need to be fought or to be fought with equal ferocity.  It’s a good idea to have someone (like an agent) on your side to help you know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, to borrow from yet another iconic musician from another field, Kenny Rogers. 

Do: your best to hit your due dates and let your agent and editor know of any issues that arise, like drastic departures from your synopsis or deadline delays.  Timing and content issues may interfere with schedules, covers or copy already written.  The sooner your agent and editor know, the better they can compensate. 

Do: get involved with your own promotion. It’s true that there’s not a lot of marketing money to go around these days.  In a tough economy, a lot of houses are scaling back, particularly on print ads, and focusing more on co-op placement and on-line promotion.  I’ve seen a lot of very successful grassroots sorts of promotion from authors, everything from recruiting street teams to building a community of readers through social media sites.  Whether you hire an independent publicist, virtual assistant or brand marketing specialist or deal directly, it’s a good idea to coordinate with your publishing house so that no one steps on anyone else’s toes and promotions feed on rather than interfere with each other.  Also, in many cases, your publishing house is willing to design and provide files for various things like bookmarks and banner ads even if they don’t cover the cost. 

So, to recap the dos: behave professionally, especially when picking your battles and your words.  Make sure to communicate any changes that might affect your publication, like deadline delays and characters that develop minds of their own.  Do what you can to contribute to your own success, particularly with sound promotional strategies.

Publishing is a business.  Not too sound too Pollyanna: it functions best when we all work together smoothly—when the left hand knows what the right hand is doing and they work in concert.   To quote Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler again, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right.”



18 comments to Authors’ Checklist of Dos and Don’ts

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting this, Lucienne. It was very informative, especially the “Do” section.

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  • The Mathelete

    Lucienne, thanks for a great post. I’m shocked at how much of it could easily apply to many fields by simply replacing agent/editor with customer/client or author/agent with developer/tester. I guess professional behavior is professional behavior, no matter the setting, to some extent.

    I do find it interesting though how much marketing comes into play in the profession of writing, from queries to synopses to pitches to social media and promotions. I’m just a hobbyist, so even though I write and read about writing a lot, I don’t plan to go through the hassle of trying to get published(at least not anytime soon). In my true profession, the one that pays my bills and indulges my hobby a few nights a week and one weekend day, these things are separated — developers write the software and marketing people sell it. I can’t say that way is necessarily better since marketing types often sell things we can’t possibly deliver or mischaracterize what we have created, but trying to imagine what developers would come up with as far as sales pitches also seems pretty scary. It seems to me that to write for a living as opposed to my recreational status, you really have to be a master of many trades, not just writing or storytelling. Truly thought provoking for a hump day morning. Thank you!

  • Mathelete, you’re so right. Both authors and agents need to be tireless and well-informed on so many things. I remember being asked back when I was one what a “literary assistant” did, and answered that I was a contracts, editorial, promotions, and administrative assistant all rolled into one. Authors these days need to be savvy about the way they present themselves, about branding at the very least, even if they hire others or count on their publishers for publicity and marketing. In truth, authors can be their own best advocates or worst enemies.

  • Polite. Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of not that. I’ve seen fans and writers be rude to authors, agents, editors, publishers (this is at cons) and watched as a wide circle of space formed around the rude person as the rest of the folks struggled to get out of the line of sight so they wouldn’t be associated with whatever horror was going on. It’s scary to watch. I was told I was stupid and that the press I’m an editor for is worthless because I rejected two stories from someone (politely, I might add!). Eventually the head of the press (small press) stepped in (after a truly funny tirade of insults directed at me) and told the author that the author’s behavior was unacceptable, and it was stupid to behave that way given the small world of publishing. That person’s never getting into that press. Ever. And if I ever run across them again, I’m not getting anywhere near them, period.

    Perhaps with the exception of the first rule (I can see folks thinking sooner is better than later), these are all obvious, common sense things. It’s great post, though, because I think they need to be said.

  • Pea Faerie, absolutely (about behavior and fall-out). Agree also about it all seeming obvious. Unfortunately, the number of people who’ve tried to circumvent guidelines, pitch to me on social media and snark about the fact that there’s a process leads me to believe that sometimes clue-by-fours are in order to bring the points home. I keep hoping that the pen (or keyboard) truly is mightier than the sword and that I’ll be able to go my whole life without having to actually smite anyone.

  • Great article, Lucienne. Thanks for the reminders. I’ve said before (re. submission GLs, but it really applies to all of this stuff) that editors and agents are always pressed for time, they are always meeting people who want something of them. A writer who is rude and unprofessional offers people a ready excuse to dismiss him or her, and thus reduce by one the number of people they need to deal with. By behaving professionally, by presenting our work in a professional manner, we ensure that our work will be considered on its own terms. That may not guarantee acceptance or representation, but at least we’re not shooting ourselves in our collective feet before our work has been considered.

  • Like Mathelete, my day job is in that strange, fast paced world of computers. The roles of folk in the story business definitely have analogues in the world. Writers are developers. Editors are QA engineers. Beta readers are beta users. Agents are product managers (at least for me). Publishers seem to be deployment engineers, with QA and some marketing thrown in.

    In larger companies, these roles are well defined. In startups, well, things get a bit more interesting. People wear multiple hats. Developers need to do some QA, but may step into product management and even marketing for example. Makes sense.

    Book publishing really has that startup flavor, from what I can tell. So few people are involved. Ya gotta wear multiple hats. Heck, even the large publishing houses only have a handful of people.

    Personally, I prefer the startup world. I love the diversity of activity.

    Anyway, some of the things I’ve learned from the technocorporate world…

    Never…Burn…Bridges. You’d be surprised how small the software world is, even in Seattle, base of Microsoft and Adobe. You run across the same people again and again. If you have a ‘messy divorce’ from the wrong business associate, you can get blacklisted.

    Respect your customers. Walk in their shoes. Do that, and you’ll produce something that brings them joy, and they’ll buy more of your crap.

    Make your stuff easy to sell. It’ll make the job of marketing much easier and they’ll love you for it (and buy you pizza, coffee, whatever)

  • Roxanne, all great advice! Publishing is just as small a world as software…probably even smaller.

  • Thank you for this post, Lucienne. All of these are great points, and all seem to get at a broader theme of etiquette, plain and simple.

    Politeness stands out for me, too. As much as I joke about it being a Canadian stereotype, being polite matters to me, and it’s a major part of how I try to conduct myself professionally. I can’t begin to comprehend some of the horror stories I’ve heard. Why put out bad vibes like that?

    I think gratitude matters as well. Maybe that’s just a part of being polite, but saying thank you when it’s due never hurts.

  • Laura, saying thank you is a wonderful thing and far too rare. We’ve been talking in the comments about how this post is applicable to any business model, and it’s so true. My work-out partner is a physical therapist. Last week she commented that often when she sees private patients she’ll spend an hour or even two teaching them the exercises, stretches and everything that will help them recover and not find themselves with the same reoccurring problems, and then she never hears from them again. She wonders how they’re doing, whether everything worked or whether the advice was ignored and has no way to know. One woman recently called her again and she discovered that all of her techniques worked =so= well that the woman hadn’t had need of her until then (years later) when the problem finally came back and she’d forgotten how to do the original exercises. It was so validating for her. To apply to publishing: I don’t give as many detailed, helpful rejection letters as I used to, partly because I don’t have the time, but also because I’d get arguments or silence but rarely thanks. I wasn’t looking for it, necessarily, but when the negative reinforcement outweighs the positive…. Yet, I’ll have people argue at writers conferences (there’s one in almost every bunch) that we owe it to them. These are the same people, I’m fairly sure, who would argue with any such critique. But more than that, our job is to manage the careers of clients to whom we’ve committed, not to offer critiques and editorial comment to those with whom we’ve no working relationship. There are freelance editors and book doctors who specialize in that and, rightly, charge for those services. That said, I do the best I can to point things out if I have something to say that it would benefit the author to know.

  • Weirdly, these give me hope. They are important rules, especially the one about not being a Loon, but it seems to me they should also be really obvious rules that any semi-functional adult could follow. Now, we’ve all seen evidence that they’re not; in my own job I’ve seen people cry hysterically at meetings, get called out for rudeness by their boss, and enrage entire departments by not following formatting rules. Like Emily said, I’ve also seen the circle of people widen around the offender as we all tried to quietly get away from the crazy. But still, these rules are all completely doable. There’s nothing arcane or idiosyncratic about them.

    On that, I’m off to polish my own work so it’s submission ready. (Actually, grading and lesson plans first. But I’ll be polishing later.)

  • “Clue-by-fours.” *Snerk*

    Lucienne, great post and the comments have been enlightening and entertaining. It seems I’m checking off the do’s and don’ts in the right columns. That’s reassuring. Those people who query via twitter and are rude to publishing professionals are just weeding themselves out. Too bad you have to deal with them at all.

    Now, I’ll just go spit-shine my work until it gleams like the top of the Chrysler building. Have a good night.


  • […] Lucienne Diver on Authors’ Checklist of Dos and Don’ts. […]

  • […] to pull you back into the work and the business of writing, then I highly recommend you check out Authors’ Checklist of Dos and Don’ts by Lucienne Diver. The article was originally published in the SFWA Bulletin which is published by […]

  • A new post over on my blog for a snapshot into an agent’s world: Why Your Work is Never Read as Quickly as You Want it to –

  • I like the list. And props on the use of Billy Joel lyrics.

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