I was over on this entry on Agent Kristin’s blog and was struck by the vehemence of many of the comments. I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since.
Why, oh why, is the dynamic of the agent-author relationship sometimes like this? And is there a way to discuss it without defensiveness or anger?
I am blessed with very understanding clients who realize I can’t always read everything immediately. Or even sometimes as fast as I initially thought I could. They’ve also been very patient with server crashes that lose emails or my own tendency to not respond until I have something to say. They are a wonderful and creative group of talents. And they are professional and patient.
I have also had clients who have unrealistic expectations, don’t realize that I am not psychic, or seem to forget that I represent 40+ other hard-working writers. Can I say that in public? In those cases there have certainly been communication disconnects. This can be unpleasant to deal with and make you feel down-right rotten. So the two of you start mincing around each other, and then what happens is probably self-evident. And regretful. The question is whether it was avoidable….
And when it comes to non-clients, nearly everyone is very professional and VERY patient. I appreciate that. I want that to go on the record right now. But there always seems to be someone here and there who doesn’t understand the pace of publishing (SLOOOOW), who is by nature demanding and full of entitlement, or is just plain anxious and let’s it get away from them. And, like they say, a few rotten apples can ruin the whole barrel. So, once in a while, you feel defensive or prodded or poked when people ask for updates. Especially if they come on a day when everything else seems to be falling on your head. Everyone has those days. So, what do you do when it’s 7pm and you’re craving dinner and feel like you haven’t even spoken to your family in several days, and there are still queries? You go have dinner. Honestly. And that is really what it’s like sometimes. You spend the day on correspondence with clients, phone calls with editors, contract review, royalty statements, etc. and so on. And you do nearly all your reading on nights and weekends. On your own time. I’m not complaining. Not exactly. I love this job. I love working with creative and talented people. I love the journey of each story. This has become part of who I am. But sometimes the workload is intimidating. And sometimes I forget that I’m only human. It’s a flaw.
I realize most writers also have extremely busy lives and steal their writing time from their families and friends, in the van waiting for the soccer team, in doctor’s waiting rooms. And waiting after one has spent all that energy and self on producing the story in the first place must be torturous. I don’t do much better when a book I’ve fallen in love with is out on submission. It can make you crazy. But reacting against those who you hope to team with is a disservice to everyone involved. Maybe the post lost your query. Maybe the mailroom did it. Maybe you forgot the SASE. Maybe the server ate your email. Maybe there was a hard drive failure. Maybe there was a death in the family of the agent’s assistant. Maybe the agent was on vacation (I took one in August and it backed up the queries about two weeks worth extra). Things can fall through the cracks on both sides. I have sent requests for material and never gotten a reply, too.
Part of the issue seems to relate to the old supply and demand aspect. There are a lot of writers who want agents. I get about 130 queries a week, which is almost 7000 a year. And some agents of my acquaintance would tell me that’s a low number. How long would it take you to read and respond to 130 letters that often include sample pages if you were promising yourself that you would carefully consider each one? At five minutes for each one that is almost 11 hours, which is roughly a day and a half of a five-day work week if you’re only working 40 hours (and I know most agents would laugh at the idea of only a 40 hours week). And those that don’t get answered right away might generate additional correspondence. Again, not complaining. This is R&D. I want new clients. I am excited when I find a new story that makes me stay up until 3am. Please send queries for those right away!
But, on the other hand, queries are a little like cold-calls. Not exactly, because we’re asking for them. But somewhat. Do you call back the person trying to sell you something and tell them you got their message and thanks for their time but you’re not interested? I know this is a weak parallel but I am trying to come up with a comparison that works and failing.
In any case, I guess the real question comes back to courtesy. Should agents get back to you in a timely fashion? It sure would be nice if we could always do that. But sometimes we just can’t. And I’m not apologizing for those agents that really are lacking in courtesy, but most agents, like most writers, are professional and really want to work with talented writers and build both their careers. It just seems like all the angst and negativity could be energy redirected to more positive endeavors.
Why, oh why, is the dynamic of the agent-author relationship sometimes like this? And is there a way to discuss it without defensiveness or anger?
From my own pov, I do think a lot of folk forget that writing in general is a business and that it’s not ‘all about me’ but I can easily see why that happens. Most of us write in vacuums. We learn, as aspiring novelists, to wait. Then we get ‘the call’ and then (I’m presuming because I haven’t got it yet.)there’s the excitement. We send off our masterpiece. And then wait, biting the fingernails to the bone in worry over if it’s ‘good enough’. In our little world we ‘forget’ that the agent is human in our anxiety to ‘know’.
That’s hypothetical, of course, but I think it might have something to do with it.
It’s odd what sets us off. When I receive a personalized reject I am a happy bunny. Why? Because there’s an affirmation that at least it’s been read. That may sound pathetic to you, but in that vacuum of waiting and wondering all sorts of things go through my mind and a form reject is so impersonal. Of course I understand why agents use them, and, yes, I would rather you spent time on your clients and your reading. Logically I understand. Emotionally, it’s hard.
From the authorial side, I know it’s tough waiting once you’ve sent out the query or even worse, requested material, but I just don’t get people being upset if they don’t get a response ASAP. It’s not like agents and editors hide the fact that they are very busy and have a mountain (sometimes literally) of submissions to get through at any given time. Every agent/editor I’ve ever spoken to at a Con has talked about their love/hate relationship with the slush.
I do think that after a respectable period, the author should absolutely send off a quick note or e-mail asking the agent if they received their material. Earlier this year, I sent a requested manuscript to an agent, and oh, four months went by with nary a word. So I sent her a polite e-mail asking the status of the submission, and she responded saying she’d never received it! Now that is when I almost had a heart attack, mostly because she’d requested material from me, and then never got it! I assured her I had sent it, and I had no idea what had happened to make it go astray in the vast expanses of the internet, but I’d be happy to send it again.
This time, she responded w/a one line e-mail to let me know she’d actually received it, which helped me put my worries at ease and not ask her a month later if she’d ever gotten it…again.
I wonder if we could prozac in the printer paper…
One thing writers lose sight of is the business impact they have. I mean, you’re my agent. You’re also Jim Butcher’s agent. I can do math. I know my work is important to you, but I know you have to make a living, and help all your other clients make a living.
We’re all the most important people in our universes. That’s the human default, the I behind the eyes. Writers are blessed with that extra neurosis that says they’re also literary geniuses whose work will change the world if only the system weren’t biased against them. (I have that problem too, I just keep it well in check.) I’m amazed anyone has the patience and intestinal fortitude to be an agent.
Thank you for that.
I’m amazed anyone has the patience and intestinal fortitude to be an agent.
Well, I eat really well. *g* Last night I made this Cider-Braised Chicken with Apple Sage Compote and Balsamic Reduction that was really yummy.
In any case, I know what you’re saying about trying to remember we are not the center of the universe. We tried to kill someone off for suggesting that, didn’t we?
What exactly is Balsamic Reduction?
Otherwise that sounds rather appetizing. Any chance of a posted recipe for it?
By the way, I think eating well is the key to everything. It is probably why most writers end up being neurotic… we neglect the good food and starve ourselves while trying to perfect that one line that everything hinges on.
The recipe will be going up on my foodblog (link in the sidebar) as soon as I get the chance. But see aforementioned agent being busy. But it is Friday. Balsamic Reduction just means that you add balsamic vinegar while reducing the liquid. I’m a total chowhound at this point in my life so eating good isn’t just an interest, but a necessity.
I sense that the dissatisfaction on the part of the authors isn’t so much related to the time it takes you to read their query as it is to the amount of time they have to spend uncertain about their fate. Maybe there’s a way to help reduce that uncertainty, so that authors aren’t waiting helpless for months to know if their query even arrived.
It may not actually be feasible to do, but maybe the authors would feel a little better if they just knew for sure that their work had been received and what approximate time frame it’d take to look at it? If there were a shift towards them providing two SASEs, for example, one for a form letter that just says “Your stuff arrived, it’s in the pile, and we’ll get to it as soon as there’s time, which at best guess will be in X timeframe” and one for the actual response? Would it be enormously difficult if, each time a query were opened, a pre-signed and folded form letter were tucked into the first SASE and set aside to be mailed at the end of the day? Granted, at thirty seconds per form letter that’s a little over an hour extra each week just stuffing envelopes (not counting writing the letter, getting all those copies made, and signing and folding them), but if it eases the relationship by that much is it worth it? And, afterall, anyone can stuff envelopes with form letters, it doesn’t have to be you personally.
I mean, when you stop to think about it, it is somewhat rude not to answer a question for months. It really kills the momentum of the conversation. If it’s going to take you time to consider said question before you answer it (which no one sane is saying is unreasonable), were this anything but a query situation, you’d just dash off an e-mail or a note or a phone call saying you got the question but needed time to consider your answer. Why not extend that same courtesy to authors, especially if it CAN be done at minimal cost to you, and makes dealing with the authors later a LOT easier?
— the way I see it, many agencies already do this. Most agency guidelines mention a rough time estimate for a response, and suggest that you re-query if you haven’t heard from them within a certain period of time. If you e-mail that you’ve sent X and X requested materials, you’ll often get a response that they’re received, in my experience.
Also, in my opinion as a writer, being asked to send more work is an answer to one question: my work is interesting enough -and hopefully good enough- for more to be seen.
Part of the problem with that suggestion, beyond any concerns about adding another layer of things to do to an agent’s overly full day, is that it assumes a work process in which an agent opens query envelopes and then puts the queries aside for an extended period of time before reading them.
You’re right, that was my assumption, and it’s entirely possible it’s faulty. I think I assumed it just because that’s the way I’d do things (or rather, the way I’d pay my office worker to do them) and I can’t think of any more efficient process for handling a massive influx of mail that I as an agent would personally have to read and deal with. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, just that it hasn’t occurred to me yet. I don’t know what the actual process used is, it’s entirely possible that the queries aren’t even opened until they’re read. My specific solution also isn’t the only possible one… the only important element of it is that authors are immediately notified of the receipt of their work, which could just as easily be accomplished through a variety of other means. My suggestion was intended as just one of many potential ways to start meeting higher standards for agent-to-author communication.
It’s very hard when you have a ton of people and paperwork to try to keep up with. I used to teach this class as part of my duties as a TA when I was a graduate student. I had around fifty-five to sixty students. One time I was passing back papers/take home exams and this one student pointed to the cover sheet on which I write their grade. For one category I had given him a 3.5 out of 4. He pointed to it and asked in an annoyed tone of voice: “What’s this?” I just looked at him and said, “I don’t remember.” I just got done grading a ton of papers, and I couldn’t remember why I took off a few points on his precious paper.
That’s why I liked being a TA in engineering, since my reply was always “because your answer was wrong.” Didn’t stop ’em arguing, of course.
I wish I would have had the presence of mind to have said that. 🙂
Satisfying as it was, it wasn’t much help. I had one student stand there and argue with me for at least five minutes trying to get more points on a wrong answer because “this test is a big portion of the grade.” Kid, you got the same 3 points off as everyone else who screwed up that problem. I’m not going to “do something for [you].”
After I finally got rid of him, my labmates fell out of their chairs laughing.
Oh, that’s hilarious. I had one student who became furious with me when he got 2-something grade out of 4 because his last paper/exam wasn’t that good and because he had a ton of absences. He argued that the fact that he got a bad grade on the last paper/take home reflected badly on the class itself and not on him, whatever that meant. He even had his sister who was a graduate student and his father who was a lawyer get into the act. Thankfully for me, the head of the department backed me up and told him that the grade stood as it was.
Ouch. Glad your department head backed you. It sucks when they waffle. I never had a student do anything but sulk after I informed them their grades stood. Of course, I TAed all quantitative classes, and it’s pretty hard to argue a grade based on an answer that’s physically impossible.
“You…have emissivity equal to 83*.”
“…Emissivity only ranges from 0 to 1.”
*Actual homework answer.
I think that part of the problem shown there is that most writers past a certain level are aware of the fact that the writer/editor relationship is a professional one…but their agent is their advocate and as such they expect a higher level of responsiveness — and if it doesn’t come they think “even my agent hates it/me, oh god…” /keening wail.
And it really does require knowing the people involved, to know how long something should/might take. Jane Newbie might freak over a week’s delay, while Oscar Oft-Published knows his agent takes two weeks to get to A and a month to get to B. Once you’ve gotten your agent’s measure, you should be able to relax a little.
I actually blame blogs, to a certain extent: when you’re operating in a vac, it’s easy to think everyone else is in the same bind. When you know who’s getting what done and when, and it’s faster than your own people are responding, it ups the anxiety level (and hey, speaking of which, why are you posting about other people when you have stuff of MINE to read? Don’t you love me any more? *ducks, cowers from upraised frying pan*)
In my experience, agents warn you of their typical turnaround time VERY CLEARLY. If that time comes and goes, I don’t think an email is so out of line — especially a professional one that acknowledges how busy an agent is. I simply ask to make sure my submission wasn’t lost in the mail and not berate anyone for their lack of response. People have lives!
I believe this is like everything else — If you get incensed, take the 24-hour rule before sending something written, for pete’s sake. Usually by that time, you’ve calmed down and returned to a rational state of mind.
Our books live with us like children, so it’s no wonder people get anxious about them. But distinguishing a “product” from a “labor of love” seems key.
I saw that post and didn’t think much of it… Kirstin’s reply made perfect sense.
But now, when you mentioned it, I went back and read the comments. There were a few things that stood out to me.
1) Some of the people mis-read the post, and then got really angry that Kirsten would say that 3 YEARS is a reasonable time period… when she only said 3 WEEKS. I don’t have much to say to that… I guess people don’t read blog posts any better than they read submission guidelines. LOL!
2) There also seemed to be some people addressing this question as though it was a query letter response that was being waited on, and others as though this person had already signed an agent agreement with the agent. I’m not clear which was the case in Kirsten’s post… but am I right in assuming that the level of response would/should be different? I mean… a query doesn’t require any level of service, although a reply of any sort is polite. Once the agent asks for a partial, I would think that a personal response, rather than a form letter, might be expected, but beyond that, there still hasn’t been any contract, so there is no “relationship.” Once the agent has taken the author on, however, THEN I agree with those who say that a short note saying “I got it,” as well as occasional updates, should be expected.
Am I wrong here?
Kristin was talking about an author with an already established relationship, but, yes, some of the comments go into the query submission or the requested submission. IMO, queries I answer as promptly as agent-ly possible, with an aim towards 3 weeks from receipt. Requested partials tend to take me a month or more and I always write a personal letter. Requested manuscripts — time varies wildly depending on what else gets delivered by clients, etc, etc. but again I always write a personal letter.
I encourage clients to check in if they need something because my juggling of projects doesn’t always have me remembering to do one-off emails.
I think you’re wrong. Querying, in and of itself, establishes the beginning of a conversation. With all due respect to agents who are very busy, they’ve still invited that conversation by accepting queries in the first place, and that imposes a certain obligation upon them. I feel that professionalism, even beyond simple manners, dictates that when you’ve invited people to begin business correspondence with you, and they are dependent upon your response to move forward, you owe them at the very least a prompt response indicating that you have received what they have to say, even if you need more time before you can give them a more considered response.
Three weeks may be considered prompt in publishing, but it is not prompt in the real world (especially with e-mail), where these “conversations” are actually taking place and affecting people’s actions. It is not an acceptable amount of down time between initial contact and initial response, because the conversation loses its momentum.
Worse than that, by establishing long lead times as standard, you have failed in your first obligation to communicate… if for example your “standard” time is three weeks, and a query gets lost, the author must wait three weeks or more before the initiative to communicate (by checking on their query) is returned to them. Then they have to ask you if it got there, which can take a couple weeks as well. Then they must send it again and wait some more for a response that it even arrived. When all is said and done, you forced the potential client who is corresponding with you to wait months for a response and by extension denied them the initiative and information they needed to act, not to mention causing them considerable personal anguish, all because you couldn’t be bothered to establish a system whereby they will know promptly if their initial communication was received. This is not considerate, communicative, or professional on the part of the agent, and by no means should it be tolerated or propagated as the standard.
Bottom line is, agents invited this mess when they decided to accept queries. They took on the obligation not only to respond, but to respond promptly lest they prove a detriment to the development of the writer’s career by not responding promptly. If an agent is unable to meet this obligation, then that agent has no business taking it on in the first place.
Wow. By your measure, I should probably close my office to queries.
I’d like to ask two questions of you though:
1. If agents did not “invite” queries, how would prospective clients contact them?
2. How many queries would you be prepared to read and respond to per day in addition to your regular workload for current clients?
As for 3 weeks being prompt, I recently applied for a health care package and had to wait 3 weeks for a response as to whether I would be approved or not. In that time period I had to wonder whether I was going to be covered in the future or would have to find some other resource. So, I’m not sure I agree with you that 3 weeks is an unusual time period for review.
And… how long did you have to wait to find out which college you were accepted by after submitting the application?
If a person wants to know if their query has been received, they can choose to send it with delivery confirmation, which is what I did with my application package. The onus doesn’t need to be purely on the agent’s side. The writer is, in essence, applying for something – a position on the agent’s list. So, it could be considered their initiative, not the agent’s in that case.
I seem to have unexpectedly given this particular issue a lot of thought, and have a good long response as a result. It may or may not be satisfactory, but here it is: http://dulcimeoww.livejournal.com/194735.html
I think there’s several issues in question here, and I’m not sure I did a good enough job of identifying them and separating them in my response. Sorry about that, more time would not have improved my coherence much and I wanted to give you a real answer fairly promptly. Also, please know that my extremely opinionated approach to this isn’t actually meant to be personal or offensive or half so hardlined as I’ve made it sound, I just haven’t yet learned to express nebulous people-related patterns well. It was still important to try because these issues are clearly generating so much anger. My apologies for any of my varied failures to communicate clearly.
I wish I could read that ntry, it’s f-locked.
I’m sorry, I make a habit of f-locking pretty much all but my most inane posts because there’s a few people that I’d prefer didn’t have access to me.
I have friended you so that you can see it.
I started out life as an actress. In a book I read once on the biz of acting, the writer/actress reminded the would-be actor that while an agent works for you, they only get 10-15%. That might sound like a ton to a starving actor (or writer) but most of the time it’s not much for the amount of work an agent does. It’s the cumulative effect that allows an agent to make a living.
So… let’s say you’re a writer of YA and your agent sells your first book and you get say…$20,000 (a lot more than most YAs and less than some, but bear with me). So…how much does the agent make? The handy calculator says that’s three grand, right? For the year. How many clients do you think an agent has to have to cover expenses and live decently if their share is three grand from a sale? Yeah, I know…there are bigger sales. But there are plenty that are a lot smaller. Still a lot of work though.
You gotta figure that queries are going to take a back seat to clients and that new manuscripts and proposals are going to take a back seat to submissions the agent’s working on and submissions are going to take a back seat to deals an agents negotiating. It takes time.
I just think people get awfully worked up about the wait. I mean, yeah, I want it to go faster too. My manuscripts are out on submission. Don’t you think I jump when the phone rings? Yeah, of course I do. But the business is slooooowwww for so many reasons and you’re not really going to be able to change it so why not just go with the flow?
From the “free advice, take it for what it’s worth” category:
How about do the classic bureaucratic solution for form tracking? Tell your potential submitters to submitted a SASpostcard with their letter. Stamp/assign a unique sequential number* on the submission & postcard. Post on your website/blog what numbers you are working on.
That could get anxious authors off your back, right? They’ll see their number is #2856 and you’re still on #982. Plus they might send you cases of red bull to keep you awake so you can get through the queue faster. Sleep, who needs sleep…
(Or even simpler, just stamp the date received and track by that.)
Sounds like a new task to give to an intern.
Like so many people, I’m a fledgling writer. But I’m replying to your email in the spirit of someone who knows how much you work. I am a professor and a program coordinator at a community college. I want you to know how much your post struck a chord with me.
It seems that the United States has become a society that demands everything NOW. At the same time, work places have increasingly continued to demand more from employees, keeping the amount of time to do your job the same, but upping the workload of that job.
My job is not that dissimilar to yours in terms of workload. What I do is I teach 4 classes of English, and then I receive one class’ worth of time to manage an English Language Acquisition program. I supervise 15 teachers and 100 students a semester. Whenever there is a student or teacher problem, I am the go to person. I also do curriculum planning, book orders, communications, meetings, represent the ELA program in the community, oversee the building of a new language lab, and several thousand other things I can’t think of right now. 🙂 Well, maybe a hundred.
When I naively started this position in 2005, I tried to keep up. I thought if I worked hard that eventually I would reach the end of the stack of work. I realized eventually that the stack was constantly self-replenishing, not unlike receiving many new queries each day.
Then I asked for more time, but was given more money. This was better than a poke in the eye. Since I was already working much more than the release time I was given, it was nice to be paid for it. But there are only so many hours in the day, and in order to survive, I had to come up with a different strategy. Now, the job and I have an uneasy truce. It goes like this:
I give coodinator work my time at work when I’m not teaching. I do my teacher prep work in the evenings and one day on the weekend. In what remains of my freetime I try to not be my job. That’s generally about 2-3 evenings a week and Saturdays. Every night, regardless of what’s left, I quit at 9 pm. I need that me time to be me.
And so do you. It sounds like there will always be queries. It sounds like you work through them as fast as you can. It sounds like you realize you need to do other things as well. Bravo. Writers can wait. They’ve got to learn sometime to wait, else they will not be very good writers when they enter the industry. Heck, they might not even wait out the time it will take them to get published or find them an agent. Perhaps you’re doing them a service, teaching them to be patient.
I think it’s hard for anyone to find time to seek balance in our work force, and this isn’t improving. It’s our new social pathology. To my way of thinking, balance and self preservation should be anyone’s first priority. You keep at it.
As a one day hope to be published writer, but whose day job is supporting a group of IT professionals, I’ve found I often have to make comparisons for them to understand I cannot clone myself. I don’t know why people have the perception that agents are any different, but I hope your very careful and clear discussion on how your daily life works help. And for what it’s worth, you were very timely and polite when you responded to me!
I think most of the commenters were talking about the relationship between agent and client. In that case, I think an author who has emailed a new proposal should be entitled to have her agent at least send a “got it, thanks” response. Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of writers who aren’t getting that courtesy. Thank goodness I’m not one of them, but I do know many who have been left waiting for a simple and quick “Roger that, I’ll get back to you.” And that’s when the bad feelings start.
*nod* I realize that most of the comments were about the agented author’s situation. But a couple of them veered off into more general submission practices. So, I was taking a side-step into speaking about queries and non-client submissions because it’s a corresponding issue that I am constantly hearing about.
I think this whole auto-response thing is actually a newer development. I never used to have clients that expected it, or even so much as suggested they wanted it. So, getting used to that just means learning to train myself. Or having a client ask me to acknowledge receipt so they can be sure it got here. I certainly have no problem with that.
Trying this again, because I can’t seem to type today…
Yeah, email seems to have trained us to expect instant responses. When I’m at work work, I feel compelled to respond to all client communications, even if if it’s just, “Yep, thanks!” I suppose it’s more intense when the writer wants to make sure the project that *could* (if the stars align and she wins the publishing lottery) deliver her from having to work work got there. 😉
I think the ‘yep, got it’ from an agent to an established client – not an anonyous inhabitant of the slushpile – is good working practice – it keeps lines open and it means that clients _don’t_ worry.
My ISP recently installed a spam policy that translates to ‘we will filter out some e-mails that you’ll never get to see, but we won’t tell you which rules we use, and you’ll never know what you lost.’
Until I *realised* that I was losing mail because someone contacted me again in a different manner, I could not even begin to follow the trail of everything that might have been lost – and I still don’t know, although I have been able to apologise to a couple of people for not answering things I honestly never saw.
The absence of reply would be a good hint that communications had broken down somewhere. It’s relatively easy to misfile e-mail, hit the delete button once too often, or have other mishaps with it – and I would prefer a quick ‘did you get? oh, fine’ to the pouting and ‘you never answered’ months later. Sort it quick, and it won’t cause bad blood.
I come from the TV industry and am currently marketing a YA novel and I find the agents I’ve corresponded with to be extremely cordial and prompt — or, at least on time.
I read through Miss Snark’s blog before sending out queries and I’ve read Kristen’s and this one… Nephele’s… Nathan Bransford… and I can sort of see how each has some peculiar things that irritate them. I’ve tried to steer away from that and my experience has been great.
My mantra and what I would say to other authors in my position (manuscripts have been requested and are being read) is to just relax and trust the process.
As someone who is extremely impatient, I definitely know how hard it is. I do try to be professional when dealing with agents and editors who are reading my stuff. I hope I succeed. My blog friends know how impatient I am, however — but I lock those posts. Perhaps it’s the imagination of all writers…we can see the possibilities, and despite our better judgment, we can put all our eggs in one basket — and woe for that basket, I suppose. We get over it.
For an aspiring, unpublished writer, sending a story to a literary agent or publisher can feel a bit like taking your child or a loved one to a doctor and sitting in the waiting room for about five hours. You know intellectually the doctor is busy, that he/she has lots of other patients, one’s with ailments far more pressing than yours – but…this is someone precious to your heart and damn it! you’d appreciate it if he/she wouldn’t treat the person like just another file or name in a long list of names and files. You also feel a bit of envy for those favored patients who have been with the doctor for several years and get first dibs, often twenty minutes with the doc instead of your five or ten squeezed in.
Even in the doctor’s office we are in competion – for someone’s attention. Look at me, look at my loved one. I’m important. It’s very human I think and can be very frustrating to the doctor.
I dread going to the doctor’s office for much the same reason I dread sending my work to agents or publishers. As an aspiring and currently unpublished writer (who is dragging her feet on sending out query letters for a finished novel) – I can tell you that writing the book is pretty easy, even fun, I love doing that bit – it’s sending it to the agents and publishers that I dread. I think I’d rather go to the dentist to be honest.
Why? Ah. Well it’s like waiting in that doctor’s office for your loved one. Will he/she give you good news? Or horrendous news? Is your baby going to get published? Do they love it too pieces? OR do they hate it and are trying to find a way of telling you that without breaking your heart in the process?
My Dad – who gave up on the whole publishing industry a while back and now with the aid of a professional editor and an online print on demand service – self-publishes his books – tells me that writers have to have really thick skin. And most of the criticism you get – is subjective. You have no control over how someone will react to what you’ve written. Heck – sometimes it all depends on the mood they are in when they receive it, how much work is on their desk, whether or not they have time, and well what is happening in their lives at the time. All of which have zip to do with the book you’ve written and poured your soul, time, and heart into.
When you hand that book off to an agent or publisher or editor – it is not unlike handing a child to a doctor for a checkup or sending that child to school for the very first time. You dread the critique. You don’t want to change your book. You don’t want to change the characters or story. You don’t want anyone to meddle with your work of art. But…you know if you don’t send that book out, no one will read it, you won’t be able to share your words with others. And it will gather dust.
Deterioate and be forgotten. Knowing that doesn’t make it easier though.
I’m told once you get a few books published it does get easier – at least for some writers. But not all. Harper Lee struggled mightily to get another book written after To Kill A Mockingbird and never quite did. She hungered for it. It takes a lot of time to write – and unless you are sucessful at it or have another source of income (ie. inheritance, spouse, parents, trust fund, lottery) or don’t mind starving – you are working hard at something else usually something time consuming and stealing time to write. It is stealing time by the way. Often time from sleep, your job hoping your employer doesn’t catch you at it, from friends, social life, loved ones, the gym. Writing is a greedy mistress. This just makes it even harder to deal with the pain of the rejection when it comes, and it will for most of us. John Grisham had over 100 rejection letters for Time to Kill, he’s first book, which he put aside, wrote The Firm – got it picked up, then published Time to Kill later. I don’t know many writers who don’t have rejection letters papering their walls. And fewer still who don’t ache every time they get one. Sometimes I wish I could just magically get a book published and skip the whole bit in between. I think that’s why a lot of people write fanfic or post their stories on the internet or self-publish, to skip the painful part – the part that for a writer can feel like being skinned alive.
Work expands to fill the hours alloted — and closets will be filled with stuff you don’t really want to keep (this goes with the law of about nature abhoring a vacuum, but nothing is said about vacuum cleaners).
Writers will obsess–it’s what we do best, it’s what allows us to write 300 to 400 pages (no obsession means no work really gets done).
Writers who obsess about the book that’s done need to get cracking on the next — they’ll either learn to do that, or they’ll grow up and get a life that isn’t on paper or in the computer or in their heads (and may God spare me from that hell).
Agents and editors who lack courtesy are good for character building–not the kind that goes onto paper, but we all need more life experience. And it’s good fuel to keep the fire to get published and show the bastards they were wrong, damnit.
If someone is that worried about a story, there’s a reason–the stuff you send out should be so good you know it deep in your bones. (Yes, arrogance can be your best friend.) Selling is icing, not cake. We’d all be happier writers if we knew this, but then happiness sometimes does not produce the best work–(sigh).
Which leads to all this worry may be a way of keeping an edge going–or it just may be back to point one and filling hours and closets. Or it may be pure habbit–my mom’s seventy, retired, has income, all bases covered and still worries about anything and everything (also sigh).
Of all the above, I’m going for habit.
As always, well put.
You know, from what I hear from a lot of agented friends, it seems nowadays many agents have more clients than they can handle, and many authors have more contracts and deadlines than they can handle.
Perhaps it’s because the profit is so small, one has to get it from several sources, perhaps it’s overconfidence. But more and more often it seems that an average agent has so many clients – contracted, established clients – that the amount of time she is able to give each of them is shrinking rapidly.
Same for the authors – an average author is paid so little, she is forced to have a day job, so the amount of time she is able to devote to her projects (and her writing business) is not at all generous.
Personally, I wonder if that’s why so many business relationships in this area turn out to mutual dissatisfaction and frustration.
I’m hard pressed to name an occupation where an established professional always has to take on extras and work overtime merely to be able to earn an average living.
The cliche of them all working in restaurants until they get their big break.
Not that it wouldn’t be great if every writer could earn a living wage from their writing alone (and there are ways to do that that involve additional freelancing and so on).
I bet there are other professions that didn’t immediately occur to me.
Ah, but it doesn’t have to be a big break equal to #1 on NY Times Bestseller list. 🙂 Say, if you play a secondary character in a solidly established TV show, it’s a normal living. No Hollywood glamor, of course, no stardust, but it’s acceptable. How many midlist authors writing for big publishers can say the same?
Although I see your point–many creative occupations have a huge gap between different levels of experience, position and profit. But it still sort of… well, bugs me. I come across as horribly whiny, eh? 🙂 It’s like you only have a right to have a creative occupation if you are a big star. Yet you don’t have to be a scientific genius to earn a living as a lab assistant, you don’t have to be a brilliant accountant to earn a salary, you don’t have to be a famous dentist to earn your living that way. Librarians, doctors, drivers, cashiers, teachers, sale assistants–they don’t have to be the best of the best, they can be simply competent and they still get to have a decent job.
But if you want to earn your living writing, simply being good at it and working a lot (as in: midlist) isn’t good enough, you either have to be the cream of the crop, the talk of the town, or work like mad, having extra obligations all over the place. Anything less than that–and please get yourself a “real job.”
Well, guess we’ll have to put up with the risks. 🙂
It seems to me that it would be easy for agents to limit their workload and thereby make it reasonable for themselves to respond to queries/authors’ questions in real-world-professional timeframes. All you’d have to do was include in your submission guidelines that you only accept queries postmarked on the first week of every month. Or something like that.
But of course agents want to maximise the number of queries they read, so they can catch the maximum number of potential winners… Which means writers waiting for responses to queries and questions will continue to suffer. Is it not reasonable for a writer to expect his agent to carve out time for him? Is it not reasonable for a writer to expect a promt response to his query? Should writers always be at the mercy of an agent’s priorities, which puts them last, and reading more! more! more! queries first?
I guess that’s the way it works in this industry. Don’t agents think it needs to change?
See the comment previous to yours… There is one big flaw with not maximizing the number of submissions that yield saleable projects — agents have mortgages too. *wry look*
As for limiting the workload — part of the issue is that the workload varies wildly. Contracts seem to come in all at the same time. Client manuscripts, too. And so you have to play triage. Doesn’t everyone do that in their jobs?
Of course, writers deserve responses. The only thing I’m suggesting is a realistic time scale for the work received and I don’t think three weeks is an unreasonable amount of time. If this is causing the writers to suffer, I have to wonder how they live with other anxieties. This current society promotes immediate satisfaction, but so few seem to get it in any area.
All of these suggestions about limiting the times for accepting queries and so forth won’t work because, to be honest, people just send them anyway. It very clearly says on our website that I don’t handle children’s picture books, but I still get queries for those. I still have to open it, realize it, and send a response to it.
I think agents have done a lot to streamline the process and to be as responsive as they can considering the volume of submissions.
I know this doesn’t make me very popular with writers, but just write while you wait. I wrote TWO novels over the year I searched for an agent while I waited for them to get back to me and guess what? Those two manuscripts are the ones that not only hooked me an agent (the one I’d started querying with had gotten their interest, but no takers) and they are the ones my agent is now shopping around together. If I’d worried that year away, I’d not only be agentless, but I wouldn’t have two great projects done. Just write. Don’t wait.
It’s kind of like when you travel to Europe. You can do the exchange rate math in your head and drive yourself crazy with worry and fear over how much everything is costing you, or you can exchange your money and say, “This is how much I have and so I’m going to enjoy myself.” You’ve sent your stuff out, you know how slow publishing is, so write, live, walk the dog, make love to your spouse, cook for your kids, go on vacation, write some more…live your life.
Re: just write
I realize I’m coming into this conversation late, but I just had to comment anyway. I completely agree with Need to Read. I finished my first novel and sent out my first batch of query letters in late July. I’m as neurotic as the next writer (I realized I’ve developed a rather odd relationship with my mailbox when I caught myself scowling at it one day) but I’m also realistic. I don’t think 3 weeks is unreasonable at all. Compared to what other agents say their wait time is, 3 weeks is down-right speedy. And honestly, if I received 100 letters a week, ON TOP OF everything else I had to do, I’d want a lot longer than 3 weeks to get to them. I’m a little embarrassed by the (very few) writers on here demanding “courtesy” from agents as if they aren’t already getting it. Yes, it’s hard to wait, but complain to your friends who know you’re normal most of the time and won’t hold it against you. Don’t demand immediate responses from people when the submission guidelines alone inform you that it’s common practice for responses to take time. While I’m at it, who is going to make sure that the world financially supports your creativity because that feels more fair to you? The world is what it is. I get to chose what books I pay money for and so does everyone else. If that fact doesn’t end up working out so well for me as a writer, well, that would suck, but not because someone’s done me some sort of injury. Or because the system is against me. Every occupation has its hazards. Despite the insanely competitive nature of this business, I chose to be a writer because there is nothing I would rather do more. So, I wait, I worry, I scowl at my mailbox, but most of all I write. My second novel is in progress and when I’m done (published or not), I’ll move on to the third. Out of all that work, I’m hoping (read: desperately praying) publishing will be a bonus. But if it’s not, I’ll look to myself and my book to try to figure out why. And I’ll try to improve. And I’ll keep right on writing.
If you’re doing your best work, and you are sincere in your efforts, you have earned the right to disregard any and all negative feedback. Everyone, in all walks of life, and in all endeavors, will eventually tick someone off. I was crushed by my first complaintive client. If it happened today, now that my hair is gray and my skin is thick, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. When you get in bed and turn off the light, you become fully aware of those things you should regret. Fix those things if you can, and move on. Keep busy, seek out the people who really want to spend time with you (someone somewhere is waiting for your hug), and never turn down a home-cooked meal. Nothing else matters.