We’re in the communications business…or are we?
Not too long ago we received a rather hostile e-mail from someone who said he’d been waiting two years for a response to his query and was appalled that he hadn’t heard from us. Well, I’d be pissed off too if I’d waited two years for a letter or call that never came, but the funny thing is that, in all that time, while stewing about our lack of response and thinking evil thoughts about the publishing industry in general and DGLM in particular, it never occurred to this author to get in touch with us to find out whether we had even received his query in the first place. Now, it’s always possible that we misplaced his letter or that it somehow fell through the cracks (we try ridiculously hard to get back to everyone in a timely manner but it would be silly to pretend that we have a 100% track record in this area; we probably get about 150 unsolicited queries a day via e-mail or the USPS) but common sense would dictate picking up the phone or dashing off a note to confirm receipt of one’s material if one hadn’t heard back in, say, a month or two. So, you’d think this was an unusual occurrence, but our business, which is all about communicating, is full of lousy communicators, those who are unwilling or psychologically unable to pick up a phone or send an e-mail even when careers and money are on the line.
On one side of the communication chasm are the authors who either feel that their agents/editors/p.r. people should be mind-readers and are dumbfounded and aggrieved when they realize that the power of brainwaves alone isn’t enough to get their needs and desires across, or those people who subscribe to the “squeaky wheel” approach and who think that the only way to be taken care of is to browbeat, nag, and generally make nuisances of themselves because they don’t trust that the professionals they deal with are, well, professional. On the other side are the agents and publishers who seem to be allergic to authors even though they are the heart and soul of the book biz. The stories abound of authors whose agents refuse to take their calls, don’t provide information about where their projects have been and generally act martyred on those rare occasions when they have to speak to the very people who enable them to send their kids to expensive school and take exotic vacations.
Of course, there are internecine communication breakdowns as well. As agents, we spend a huge amount of time trying to get certain people on the phone on behalf of our authors. There are editors who we know exist but only because we had lunch with them once a couple of years ago. We haven’t heard from them since. Their voice mail is always full and they sit on projects we send them for six months or until a new assistant comes in and cleans house. By that time, of course, the project is already on its way to publication by another publisher. These same editors, by the way, are apt to call when they hear of a nice sale to complain that they weren’t on the submission list only to be told that if they had responded to the last 60 messages we left, they might have been included.
It’s tough, this communication thing. E-mail has made things harder. We spend so much time in those endless e-mail loops – you know, you get an e-mail and respond and before you move on to the next missive, your inbox is chiming with the reply and so you reply again and s/he replies to your reply and then you reply…see what I mean? – that we have little of it left to pick up the phone.
Then there are the psychological barriers to making the call. No one wants to speak with someone who is going to whine or yell or tell you how disappointed they are about what you’ve been able to do (or not do) for them. Being the bearer of bad news is no more appealing today than in the days when they literally killed the messenger. And, agents and editors are often the bearers of bad news.
In fact, despite the foregoing, most publishing people are hardworking types who genuinely care about what they do. We give up time with our family, hobbies, and a healthy social life to read, edit, and make books happen. But it’s a numbers game: a lot more authors than agents or editors and not enough hours in the day, week, month. So, as you rush from meeting to meeting thinking “I’m going to get killed with e-mails when I get back to the office,” or find yourself prioritizing projects because, after all, this is a business, or are in the midst of a particularly vicious contract negotiation, it’s easy to say, I’ll get back to so and so tomorrow.
The point is that we all have to get better about being in touch. Sometimes, all anyone needs is to be told that they’re on your radar screen. They may not want to wait two years for an answer but if you let them know you’re working on it, they will be more patient. For our part, occasionally we need a nudge (or a gentle shove) to be reminded that there’s something in the queue that requires attention. As Samuel Johnson says, “people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” The key is to be courteous, professional and persistent, not belligerent, angry and disrespectful. Make the call, take the call. Easy, right?