Author-Agent Etiquette

The Write Approach: Author-Agent Etiquette by Barbara Doyen

Article commissioned for the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents 2005

Yesterday two opposite things occurred: I got a scathing e-mail response to the personal advice I generously (and unnecessarily) offered in a rejection letter; and I got a beautiful thank-you card as a result of my handwritten comment added to the bottom of another rejection letter. Who do you think I’m more inclined to consider working with in the future?

There are so many similar examples. Yesterday I also got an e-mail complaint saying I rejected a project too quickly and therefore hadn’t read it (I had!) and a phone complaint because I hadn’t read the author’s 800-page unsolicited manuscript within 24 hours of receiving it. The e-mail was unnecessary and inappropriate, and the phone call interfered with an incoming book offer. Neither author endeared himself or herself as future clients.

Occasionally I get phone calls from wanna-be writers who demand my complete client list, including the books I’ve placed and the amount paid for each. Often they expect this information before they will share any details about their project. They never consider how they’d feel to have their financial information freely revealed to anyone who called their agent.

Some writers get mad if we respond too quickly, and mad if we take too long to reply. Others expect a few words of feedback to help them improve their submissions, yet resent even the most tactful suggestions. Some writers feel entitled to confidential business information. Understandably, this sort of thing results in many agents issuing the blandest of form rejection letters, and it causes some to close their doors to new authors or unpublished writers.

What should an author who wants representation do (and not do!)?

First of all, get an agent directory—this one will do nicely! —and actually read the listings. Select those agents who sound most compatible with your project. Then, approach them exactly the way the listing indicates.

If the listing states, “Queries only,” this means to write a one-page, typed letter, telling the agent something about your book and something about you as the author of this book. Send it via snail mail along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) that you fold and include with the query letter. Does this sound like I’m being terribly specific? Consider some of the mistakes commonly made by would-be clients—even after they tell the agent they got her name from this directory:

  • Mailing the whole manuscript or the proposal when the agent indicated she wants the query letter only, and then will advise you if she wishes to read more.
  • Failing to send along the required SASE or neglecting the postage.
  • Calling to ask if the agent accepts poetry, or children’s books, or action/adventure novels, or whatever. Since the caller has already said they got our number from this directory, where this information is given in detail, this call is unnecessary.
  • Calling to tell the agent about the book. Since you are trying to sell the agent on your writing ability, you should contact her in writing. There are only a few exceptions to this, which I hesitate to mention, because doing so in the past has only caused more authors to violate protocol.
  • Having your spouse, best friend, co-worker, mother, or secretary call to tell the agent about your book. (This happens more often than you might think!) Or having your spouse, best friend, co-worker, mother, or secretary write to get the agent to request your wonderful material, usually using the “too busy” excuse for the writer not doing it himself. Would you send a substitute to fill in for you at a job interview? That’s really what this amounts to.
  • Sending a manuscript reeking of cigarette smoke, or spraying the mailer with perfume can be a big turn-off. So is bad-mouthing your previous publisher or agent. Or outright lying, like saying a celebrity has endorsed your book when they haven’t, or that one of our clients has recommended you when they don’t even know you.

Any of these mistakes can end any agent relationship before it has even begun.

The agent asks to see your work, but what next?

That’s easy—do exactly as the agent’s letter (or e-mail or sometimes even phone call) says. If you have written a novel and the agent requests the first three chapters as a sample, send the first three chapters. Do not send chapters 3, 8, and 25 because you think they are your best. Do not neglect the SASE if you wish the material returned. Do not “forget” to send the requested synopsis just because you don’t know how to write one.

It’s a good idea to include a copy of your query letter with your package because the agent probably won’t take the time to find your initial letter and may not remember just why they were interested in you in the first place. This copy of the query letter should be placed right under your new cover letter for the whole package. The cover letter should not repeat what was in the query letter, but should include additional information about your work. State up front that the agent requested the material—and no, you should never say it was requested if it wasn’t.

When sending the package to the agent, do not send your materials piecemeal—the sample chapters in one package, the synopsis in another. Some people realize they forgot to include their return mailer after the fact, and it arrives in yet another package a few days later. Why should this matter? Just imagine receiving dozens and dozens of author submissions. Would you like to sort through the pile to find several packages that should have been sent together?

And don’t call the agent to see how she liked your work. The agent will respond. Remember, existing clients get top priority. If several weeks have gone by, snail mail a polite letter asking about the status of your submission.

The agent is considering representing you, now what?

You’ve followed submission etiquette, and now the agent loves your work and is thinking of offering representation. Often the next step will be a phone call from the agent, to get to know you, and to tell you something about the agency and how it operates. Things to keep in mind:

Don’t take over the conversation. The agent has a specific agenda, and if you don’t allow her to cover her agenda, she may decide not to represent you after all. The agent believes your writing has potential, now she needs to determine if you are the kind of person with whom she wants to work. You will probably have a chance to ask questions, but initially let the discussion unfold her way.

Don’t demand information. At this point you are entitled to know more about the agency, but ask questions politely. And use discretion. For instance, even if you know the names of some of the agent’s clients, don’t ask about their income or current projects. Client information is confidential and most agents consider it unethical to reveal these details.

Do speak freely. My previous advice is not an indication that you should hold back, or give only short answers to questions. This is a conversation and it should have give and take so that both you and the agent feel comfortable with each other.

Be a good communicator. You should feel welcome to contact your agent, but don’t abuse the privilege. This means you do not call or e-mail your agent over trivial things, making a pest of yourself. Do contact your agent whenever needed, and you can reasonably expect the agent to get back to you in a day or two, especially if you use e-mail, which makes it so easy to keep in touch.

Frequent phone calls are a breach of etiquette, particularly during business hours when the agent should be calling editors about your great work, or getting phone calls from editors about your great work. This can’t happen when clients monopolize the agent’s time. If a call is warranted, it’s best to request a phone date via e-mail, and let the agent call you when her schedule permits. When planning a phone conversation, it is helpful to give your agent a range of convenient times to call.

Understand that it can be quite difficult to make and keep a phone appointment, because just as the agent is preparing to dial your number, an incoming call might announce a big offer from a publisher. Naturally, the agent is going to give this conversation a high priority. For this reason, some agents are willing to speak with the client during nonbusiness hours.

Have appropriate expectations. Many agents provide the client with the submission history for their book once marketing is complete—if this is your agent’s practice, don’t ask for premature reports. If your agent periodically updates her authors with a list of publishers contacted, and it has been a while since you’ve been filled in, do e-mail your request for an update. Then, give the agent time to respond, knowing how busy she is, and understanding that she’d prefer to be spending the time calling new editors on your behalf.

We e-mail the author each time a rejection comes in, sharing any particulars, saving us the need to do periodic updates. The author is not automatically entitled to photocopies of rejection letters because they may contain confidential information, perhaps pertaining to other clients. Understand that there may not even be a rejection letter, as editors often call or e-mail a response to an agent.

Maintain a positive outlook. A great attitude goes a long way toward ensuring a long-lasting author-agent relationship, which is in both the author’s and the agent’s best interest. Although it is common in some circles to believe the author “hires” an agent, you do not. You are partnering with the agent, who becomes your guide through the publishing process. Understand that if you are an unknown, the agent is doing you a big favor by taking you on, demonstrating a lot of faith in your future. Be thoughtful and courteous every time you contact your agent, and your attitude will motivate her to work even harder for you.

Writers need to know that it’s a buyer’s market and there is a seemingly unlimited supply of talented authors available in a declining market. Successful agents—and that’s the kind you want to get—are extremely busy people. Most of us already have a great list of clients. Yet many agents remain approachable if you follow our established protocol. Dreams of finding a fabulous new writer keep us motivated to tackle the submissions pile, which agents must do beyond office hours and without pay. Simple etiquette and common sense will indicate professionalism and distinguish a promising writer from the crowd—and get you the representation you seek.

Copyright 2003 by Barbara Doyen. All rights reserved.

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