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.”
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