Monday, October 23, 2006

Miriam Goderich talks about how "we're in the communications business...or are we?"

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?


  1. I was on a forum the other day with a bunch of writers talking about how they're terrified to contact their agents and editors with regular concerns or staying in touch because they don't know the etiquette. Is there a happy middle ground between expecting mindreading and "browbeating"? What does that look like? We only ever hear about the horror stories and extremes.

  2. Well, when I go to conferences and am asked these questions, I tell people it's like dating. You want to make sure the other person knows you're available and interested but you don't want to come off as a stalker. Same general principle. Polite persistence is the way to go -- at least initially. If you don't get a response within a few days to either your call or e-mail, try again. If the person you're contacting refuses to respond, then you should let them know that you expect to be treated with courtesy and professionalism and that you deserve an answer to your queries. Some people, of course, are resistant to your best efforts at communicating but most will respond when their better nature is appealed to. Does this help?

  3. Awesome floodgate-opening post, Miriam. :-) Richelle, you are so right about the horror stories proliferating about agent/editor/author communication. It's so important for new writers to be able to shut off all that noise and focus on the work of a) writing; b) finding the best agent; and c) letting that agent do his/her job. I love the dating analogy.

  4. You know, what's difficult about email loops is that there's no 'talk to you later', 'okay, goodbye' thing going on for those of us who are obsessed with the 'polite' gene.

    What would be helpful, maybe, is a final 'goodbye for now' tag line on an e-mail from an agent. After all, you guys are the ones in the know, right? So you need to queue us writers as to when the conversation is over.

    A simple, "I'll speak with you again next week" or "I'll get back to you when I have something new to report -- certainly within the month" is wonderful -- it lets the writer know what to expect, and it tells us you have us in your brains.

    Remember, we don't know your personalities very well, just like you don't know ours. Establishing your mode of communication upfront is terrific. Of course, that doesn't help with the query letter sent 2 years ago, lol. :) All I know is that when I sent out e-queries, I assumed a no after 2-3 months, and went on to re-query with the next book, no hard feelings. Worked for me. :)

    Great post, Miriam!

  5. I think that this may be the only business out there where clients have to audition for people who they hire to represent them. :-) ((This is a cute smiley face; picture me typing very cutely.))

    You know what? Being an author is damn scary. You've written a book. You used to think it was The Book -- you know, the one that will be the Great American Novel (GAN -- I'm going to pattent that acronym) and then, triple-digit form-letter rejections later, you slowly realize that your work isn't the terrific thing you thought it was. Depression sets in. You get over it.

    Slowly, you figure it out. You write a better book -- maybe this one is really a contender. And you even figure out a better query letter. This time, you get only double-digit rejection letters. Oh, and requests for partials and fulls. But no offers of representation. Nope; you're still not there yet.

    So you do it again. Why? Because damn it all, you want to write stories for a living. You've got the bug, and you've got to do this. It's in your soul. And this time, THIS TIME, you know in your heart that you did it right. And this time, your query kicks ass. And this get an offer.

    You have an agent.

    And learn first-hand about the business of publishing. Gone are the idealistic thouhts of you happily penning the next book while your fabulous agent quickly sells your first one. Now it's all about being on submission. And the first rejection comes in.

    Oh my God, you suck all over again.

    Then you get sold -- huzzah! And you start asking (begging) for blurbs, and you start getting some pre-orders. And soon, you get your first reviews. The good ones make you cry with joy. And the negative ones just make you cry.

    Because look at that: you still suck.

    Yeah, some of us authors are nervous. Some are clingy. Some (like me) are borderline neurotic. I freak out at least once a day about my writing career. (It's part of my daily routine at this point.) Some are uber cool and take it all with a grain of salt. Umn, no, wait, I don't know any authors who completely roll with everything.

    Why aren't we authors less nervous? Why don't we trust our agents?

    We do trust our agents. Really. We're just scared that we suck.

    The key is to be courteous, professional and persistent, not belligerent, angry and disrespectful.

    Of course! No matter how anxious we are, this is still a business relationship. We authors absolutely need to be professional. So why the heck do we authors freak out so damn much?

    We're still scared that we suck.

    We know the agents are in our corner. We know our agents want our work, and us, to succeed. We know this, absolutely. We'll try not to nag too much.

    And if we do nag too much, let us know that we need to take a deep breath and start the next project and eat some chocolate.

    (Read all the "we"s up there as code for me. I'm scared that I suck. I threw the "we" in there because I'm also scared that I'm alone. Remember that cute smile at the start of the post? It's here too. :-)

  6. Ugh, typos. The bane of my existence. I need more coffee...

  7. Jackie,

    I have to say that was an excellent comment!


  8. Jackie said...
    I think that this may be the only business out there where clients have to audition for people who they hire to represent them. :-)

    Ahhh, no, Jackie, there is another business where clients must audition for representation .... ENTERTAINMENT! After 25 years in musical theater, trust me, it ain't pretty in this field either. At least a literary agent won't say, "Lose 10 pounds and then we'll talk."

  9. Interesting blog. This goes against most of what Miss Snark preaches on her "know it all" blog. It's nice to know that all agents won't bite off your head and instantly stamp a "No Thanks" on your query if you use common sense and a politeness.

    What I've always suspected is that all agents and agencies are different.

  10. Communication is the key word. The best thing I ever did was have lunch with my agent. We got to talk about 'stuff' and get to know each other. It took the raw edge off our new relationship and put things in perspective. (I'm really shy, so it helped that my mom, step-brother, daughter, and Her boyfriend were with us, lol)
    It also helped me see her as a person and not just as a voice on the phone or a bunch of e-mail messages. It made it much easier to sit back and wait while she does her work and I do mine.

    So the best advice I have is this - when you get an agent, try your hardest to meet in person for at least a lunchdate. I think we're both more comfortable with each other now.

  11. Thank you all for your responses. It is helpful to those of us on this side of the business to be reminded that being a writer is a difficult and lonely process and that it's important for us to take the time to let authors know we're doing our best, if nothing else.

    The point I was trying to make is that we're all occasionally guilty of poor communication, and that we all need to make a concerted effort to be more responsive and courteous in our dealings with each other. To paraphrase Sam, agents are people too. We try and sometimes we fail, but we do try.

  12. 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.

    LOL -- somehow I get the feeling there may be a touch of sarcasm to this statement. I can't see many agents taking exotic vacations; their e-mail boxes might explode while they're away. :-)

    Thanks for starting this blog. The one good thing we can say about the age of communication is that it's enabled us writers to learn more about the publishing business than ever. Good for us, good for you--when we're informed, we can make your jobs easier!

    (BTW, I didn't know D&G took e-queries. Last time I visited your website it was snail mail only. :-)

  13. Jackie: Hooray, we all suck! I knew it couldn't all be paranoia. Least we're willing to go back to the drawing board (over and over and over and over...)

    The drawing board is your friend.

  14. Jackie, I loved your post. Mainly because I did a plot map of my WIP today and alas....I suck LOL.

    Thanks for a delightful post!


  15. Neither did I, Carrie! Very cool.

    Jackie that was an amazing should be a writer. ;)

  16. I've a time-saving suggestion which is not aimed at presuming I know your business, I'm sure you do. But if agents would ask for page one of the book and read that, it would tell you everything you need to know about the quality, content, and marketability of the book.

    Books are not a marvellously written query or synopsis. But one should be able to tell from the first sentence or paragraph if this is a book they want to continue with.

    Yet we have books, symposiums, and web sites all devoted to "how to write the perfect query letter." I can imagine an author who writes marvellous query letters but terrible books; but I can't imagine how an agent could know whether to accept a book or not based on a query.

  17. >if agents would ask for page one of the book and read that, it would tell you everything you need to know about the quality, content, and marketability of the book.

    Would it? I wonder. When The Da Vinci Code came out, I looked at the first page, thought it wasn't very well written, and decided, "This thing'll never sell!"

  18. By and far what we've read are agent complaints about when a writer is zealous in contacting the agent about their query. We never think of those who send you their work, then never contact you once an acceptable amont of time has passed. I can imagine with your volume of mail, things do slip through the cracks once in awhile. It happens in all offices, no matter what field.

    I agree w/ Jackie. Writing isn't something that most people understand. It's a solo act written for an audience that you can only imagine. Most people will say they've always wanted to write a novel. A lot of them start, but far more quit than stay with it. It's really hard work, and often the work far exceeds the pay.

    Fortunately those of us who are lucky enough to have other friends who are writers, blow stuff by them. Without them, I can't imagine staying with it for so long.

  19. I'm truly amazed at how accessible and "user-friendly" Dystel & Goderich seems to be--although I haven't approached a lot of agents so far, I've always been under the impression that, as with so many other things that so many people want so badly, the process of getting published is somehow SUPPOSED to be as frustrating and mysterious as possible. Both your website and your blog have been enormously helpful. Thanks!

  20. Miriam,

    Forgive the lateness in replying to this post, but I just discovered your agency's blog.

    Thank you for your post on this subject. It is nice to hear your perspective. Several years ago I presented a paper at an international conference of historians of science and I approached the assistant to an editor at a major university publishing house. She was interested in my subject and encouraged me to send a CV and book proposal.

    It took me awhile to get the book proposal vetted and polished, and so it was not as timely a follow up as it could have been to the conference. However, I included references to the conference and the assistant's name in my cover letter.

    Ironically, the letter was dated September 10, 2001. I waited, and waited. Two months passed and I hadn't heard anything. It was getting near Christmas, and I thought the holiday season might be a bad time to annoy them by calling.

    In January, I sent an email asking politely if they had received my book proposal. No reply.

    I waited a week or so and then left a voice mail, asking politely if they had received my book proposal.

    No reply. And I never received the proposal back in its SASE.

    I wound up just writing it off as their passive rejection. But it would have been nice if they had responded to me, either by phone or by email.

    Now, I use "track and confirm" from the U.S. Postal Service. For about 35 cents I can, from the convenience of my own home, see if a package was delivered. Of course it doesn't guarantee it won't get lost in the mail room or on someone's desk, but at least I'll know it got in the front door.

    And I wholeheartedly agree that if you wish to be treated with professional respect, you should treat people with professional respect.

    Thank you again for sharing your perspective,


  21. I've really enjoyed reading this blog. Thank God for other writers who make me feel almost sane.

    I think the dating analogy sums it up perfectly. We want our writing to look fun, but sane; entertaining, but down-to-earth; flawlessly perfect, but human; warm and friendly, but self-assured and not obsessed by what others think of it. And of course, once we have sent it off we are DESPERATE to know what you think of it, but we dare not contact you too often for fear of looking too eager.

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