Agent Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

In other news… I feel like it’s time for another round of Agent Manners. Feel free to send questions that have gotten missed in the past. I’ll be working on them over the course of the week (or the next if they go that far). Here’s the “rules” and, like queries, you are more likely to get attention if you are courteous and respect the format:

Welcome to this week’s column hosted by Agent Manners. Today, readers can submit questions regarding etiquette when dealing with agents, whether it be the query process or meeting them face to face at a conference. In the spirit of it, they should be submitted in letter form beginning with “Dear Agent Manners” and signed with such things as “Confused in Alabama.”

Only one letter per person, please. They should be posted in comments on this entry and may be submitted up until 10pm tonight EST. I will attempt to answer as many as my schedule allows (perhaps over the course of several days) but I reserve the right to pick and choose. I do not promise to be as pithy as the original Miss Manners (see below). Sense of humor required.

Dear Miss Manners:
Last night I ran into a classmate of mine whom I haven’t seen in ten years. I know he’s a writer now, but I didn’t feel I could say anything about his new book because I haven’t read it and he would be sure to find that out if I tried to talk about it. And yet I feel I should have said something, if only because he didn’t mention what he was doing and seemed to be waiting for me to acknowledge that I knew, if you know what I mean. What is the right thing to say to an author when you honestly can’t say “I loved your book” ?

Gentle Reader:
Few people, and no writers, have such high standards about compliments as to accept only those that will pass a rigourous test for veracity. Miss Manners experience is that an author will accept with joy any remark except “How many have you sold?” or “Did you know it’s being remaindered now?” or “I’d love to read it–please send me a copy.”

From Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin (Warner Books Trade Paper edition, p. 616)

29 responses to “Agent Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

  1. We authors also cringe slightly at the “when will it be on Oprah?” question, as well as the “when will it be a movie?” option.
    But I agree that most of us are realistic and know that there will be lots of people who won’t read the book, or haven’t yet read it. Acknowledgment that we HAVE a book out there will always make us smile though. *grin*

    • Some folks can be pretty direct when it comes to financial questions. They assume you’re now a millionaire, and wonder why you’re still on the job. They ask how many copies have been sold–if they only knew what fun it is figuring that out.
      I get the movie question a lot.

      • I’ve had people who should know better ask me how much I get paid per book. I tell them I’ll share that info– when they tell me how much they clear a month, paycheck-wise.
        So far, only one person has taken me up on that.
        The idea of “this is my job” doesn’t seem to get through.

        • The idea of “this is my job” doesn’t seem to get through.
          Tell me about it. Even friends and family members don’t always get it, and I’ve been writing for almost twenty years. My mother invariably asks if I’m writing something, as if it’s an optional leisure activity such as knitting. News such as, “Yes, and as a matter of fact, I just signed a two-book deal,” is invariably met with, “That’s nice, dear. I know you like to keep busy.”
          I would be surprised if someone we met at a dinner party asked my husband what type of salary he’s pulling down. Most people would regard such questions as intrusive, tacky, and boorish, yet people ask writers questions of this nature all the time. Again, it’s the whole “not getting that writing is a job” thing at work.

      • Yup. After I explain why I still have a day job (addiction to predictable income stream with 401K & health insurance), the next question is why I haven’t sold the book to Hollywood yet. Usually said in a tone of voice that indicates how foolish I’ve been by not pursuing movie deals, which are presumably laying around on the streets for anyone to pick up.
        As for compliments, books are like babies. You can always find something nice to say–compliment the story, the cover art, the typeface of the author’s name (so bold and recognizable!) or even just the simple fact that it exists at all (How excited you must be!)

    • When we were living in LA for a couple of years, I heard the “any chance of a movie?” question a LOT. Its as if books have no intrisic value, other than being raw material for movies.
      Other cringe-worthy questions are, “Anything I might have read?” and “How long did it take you to churn this one out?” and “I have a great idea for a book, but since I don’t have the time to write it maybe YOU could use it?”

  2. Dear Agent Manners,
    I’m in the best quandary possible. I signed with an agent yesterday. I’ve sent e-mails to everyone who had my materials and told them I’ve accepted other representation. My only question is this: I also have a few people who requested materials off a query, but I hadn’t yet sent anything when I got the initial offer. I didn’t notify those people when I got the offer because I knew I wouldn’t accept representation with them no matter what, and I wouldn’t have wanted to waste their time. Since they have nothing of mine, do I need to say anything? Or is it just polite to respond with a simple note saying, “Thanks, but I won’t be sending the materials”?
    Trying not to Burn Bridges Before They Hatch in Mixed Metaphors

    • I may be missing something blatantly obvious here (it is after all 03:30), but if you knew you wouldn’t accept representation with them (=being represented by them?), why did you send them a query?
      Curious in Clonskeagh

      • It’s not that I wouldn’t have accepted representation ever, just that I would not have accepted representation over the offer I had in hand, and I sent the queries before I had the offer.

  3. Dear Miss Manners,
    An acquaintance from college with whom I am no longer in close contact is an assistant editor at an imprint that publishes the kind of books I wish to publish. I would love to send her a copy of my manuscript, but am unsure if this is a good idea, or how best to do so. Do you have any advice on how best to leverage this stroke of good fortune?
    Hopeful in New York

  4. Dear Agent Manners:
    I am breaking up with my old agent and looking for new representation. Just not a good fit. I have a book coming out in 2009 from a major publisher and my contract has an option for a second book. With a new agent, how would the option thing work? Am I still required to have the first agent shop my second book? And what do I need to let prospective agents know about my situation while they’re considering me for their client list?
    Moving On

  5. Dear Agent Manners,
    I will be attending a conference soon where I have the opportunity to pitch my work to an agent. However, my manuscript is only in the second draft, so I don’t feel comfortable pitching it as I’ve heard agents want to hear about books that are more complete. I do have several questions I would like to ask an agent about this genre so that when the manuscript is ready, I will be properly prepared. Are most agents open to this, or is it viewed as a waste of their time?
    Thank you,
    Questioning in Texas

  6. Dear Agent Manners:
    I am completing my first (publishable) novel (commercial fiction). I wish to become a professional novelist, not merely an amateur (which I have happily been for many years). My question: do I need to attend conferences in order to push my career to this level? Agents go to them, writers go to them, there are pitch sessions, there are shmoozings at the bar, etc. etc. etc. I live in Europe and could pull together the money to attend one if it benefits my career, but if it’s an amusing vacation then I can’t really justify it.
    I guess my real question is: how much should I expect conference attendance to help my career?
    I am pleased to remain, yr most humble and obedient servant,
    Clueless Almost-Novelist

  7. Dear Miss Manners,
    How do you feel about a published author (debuting next year from one of the ‘big six’) querying with a proposal only? A large parcial + full synopsis. With only one book contracted/sold, you’re not exactly Nora Roberts. Is it okay to query with partials to get the new agent or do we need to go back to “Must be finished”?

  8. Dear Agent Manners,
    This is in regard to the bio portion of a query. I know that if you don’t have prior publications you should just say “this is my first novel”, but what if it’s actually your fourth, it’s just the first thing you’re submitting for publication? Should you say something to that effect so the agent knows you’re serious and this isn’t really the first thing you’ve written (and therefore, that you can do it again!). It never occurred to me how many people really do shop the very first novel they write, and so I previously assumed that agents understood the “this is my first novel” to be “for which I am seeking representation, after writing practice novels to learn craft and get myself to a point where I think I truly having something worth selling,” but now I’m not sure. Does it matter? Thanks.
    Finally Past the Shoebox-Under-Bed Novels

  9. Dear Miss Manners:
    At the beginning of the year, an agent (Agent 1) requested some edits based on a partial. I was delighted by her suggestions and made the edits gladly, then sent her the full as requested. Months go by, I keep querying and get another full request. Agent 2 reads the full and likes it, but not enough for representation. However, she suggests some substantial edits with the promise that, if I make them, she’ll give the book another look. She has some really good ideas, so I make the changes, and the resulting book is much better than the book I’d thought I’d finished.
    Here’s where the problem comes in. Agent 1 still hasn’t gotten back to me on the full I sent her almost six months ago. I did check up on her and she said she hadn’t gotten to it yet, but would shortly. Thanks to Agent 2’s edits, this version of the book is much better than the one Agent 1 has, would it be beyond rude for me to send her the new version? As of yesterday, she still hasn’t started my book and she’s ok with getting an updated version, but would it be right for me to give her what is essentially the fruit of Agent 2’s labor? Even though I did the writing, Agent 2 gave me her valuable time, experience, and attention knowing full well that neither of us might ever profit off it, and I deeply appreciate it. But at the same time, there’s no offers on the table and I don’t want to blow my chances with Agent 1 just because she’s reading something that’s no longer my best work (especially considering it was her suggested edits way back in January that helped me get Agent 2’s attention in the first place).
    Good feedback is so rare, I really don’t want to offend either of the women who’ve given it to me. Please, Miss Manners, can you help me move this gun away from my foot?
    Yours sincerely,

  10. Re-querying
    Dear Agent Manners,
    I am fairly new to the query scene, having written the first words of my novel in October. My novel is now through its sixth revision and ready for pitching.
    My query letter has also undergone several complete overhauls, naturally. After attending Kristin Nelson’s workshop at the Chicago North RWA last month, I think I have finally hit on the right pitch. The seven letters I sent out before my latest query revision generated no requests; the three I’ve sent out since have resulted in three requests for partials.
    A couple of the first agents have stated they are open to re-queries. Since my first letters went out, I have completely changed my title, my pitch, and my opening pages. I’ve made some minor revisions to my synopsis as well.
    Would you advise stating that a submission is a re-query? Not mentioning that fact might cause a subconscious sense that “this concept isn’t fresh,” but pointing out that the project was previously rejected by the agent in question also seems unwise.
    You’ve mentioned personally being willing to consider re-queries. Has a re-query ever resulted in representation with you in the past?
    Thanks for your thoughts,
    Ruminating on Requeries

  11. Withdrawing a submission
    Dear Miss Manners:
    Thank you for your generosity in providing this question and answer session.
    I recently sent a query to an agent who had rejected a previous manuscript a year ago but invited me to submit any future work. I’d met a NY editor at a small conference and she requested the first 100 pages of my new story, then asked for the complete manuscript. I was flying high.
    I contacted the agent and told her. She asked for a partial. The editor passed on the full. I contacted the agent again and told her what the editor had said in the rejection and withdrew the submission with the intention of improving it. She thanked me for the heads-up and said re-submit whenever you’re ready.
    My big question is, does this make me look like a flake? Was the agent just being nice and do I have a big stinky red-flag next to my name that warns her that I’m one of the bothersome ones?
    Thanks again.
    Red-faced in California.

  12. Dear Agent Manners:
    Is it beneficial for a writer to attend a conference and possibly meet their dream agent if their WIP is currently being revised and possibly rewritten from scratch? Is said dream agents requests material, then nothing is ready.
    ~Muddled in Revision Hades

  13. Dear Miss Agent Manners:
    There is an agent I am particularly interested in. She is going to be at a local conference for a genre that I do not write in. Should I attend the conference mainly to meet her? Can I pitch a book that is not in the same genre as the conference?

  14. Re: Networking
    Dear Miss Manners:
    I have finished my first novel, and am working on selling it. This summer I am going to the World SF Convention. Where is a good place to meet agents? What kinds of questions do agents like to hear from new authors, and what questions do you dread?
    Thank you,
    Networking Nitwit

  15. Dear Agent Manners,
    I’m preparing to send out my novel, which is complete, and I also have a query letter I’m pleased with. My problem, however, is the summary. I’m having difficulty writing a summary I’m happy with that is both contained on one page and also includes all of the pertinant information.
    I’m wondering how crucial the summary is when an agent is considering a project. How much weight does it carry? Should I spend a lot of time on it and delay sending out the project? Or should I go with what I have or skip it altogether?
    Thanks so much for your time.
    Stuck on the Summary

  16. Dear Agent Manners,
    This isn’t really an Agent Manners question, as it deals with existing clients rather than putative ones. But out of curiosity: when you submit books to publishers, and they reject them, do you usually forward these rejections (and the associated comments/rationales) on to the authors in question, or do you refrain from doing so except on authorial request?

  17. Dear Agent Manners:
    I have been researching agents and their preferences with intent to submit and have found a situation that puzzles me. I have found that while agents may list that they represent or are looking for certain genres (picture books, for example) the company will list that they are NOT looking for the genre. In this case, what is the proper procedure? And when they say the represent a genre (that is not listed by the agency) does this mean that they will consider them, or you need to wait until they list it as something they are looking for?
    I do not wish to offend an agent by sending something they and their agency are not looking for, thus wasting their time, but the inconsistency in the two sites causes me pause.
    Thank you for your help.
    Perplexingly Polite (I hope) in The North

    • Dear Agent Manners,
      When it comes to your clients across the pond, how generally do you shop that manuscript to publishers? Is it via the publishers in the author’s country of origin first, or are the publishing rights in said author’s own country considered to be forgein rights in this arrangement?
      And so, if the book is published in the US but the author lives in say, Australia, does this have much of an impact on the author’s ability to hit the streets and market their work, or does it not seem to make much of a difference either way?
      Inquisitive in Aussieland

    • Oops! Sorry ’bout that, I hit the wrong reply button D: My bad!

  18. Dear Agent Manners,
    This has been addressed multiple times by multiple people, but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. When it comes to word count, do agents prefer to see the actual word count as determined by the word processing program or the typesetting word count in query letters and/or manuscripts as calculated following SMF?

  19. Dear Agent Manners,
    To piggy-back on some of the Writer’s Conference questions.
    I would like to attend a my first Writer’s Conference this summer. My two concerns are 1) I won’t know anyone, and 2) I feel somewhat uncomfortable talking about myself. I am neither shy nor gregarious and I’ve always enjoyed attending conferences but I worry it will be a lot of writers there with their buddies, and agents schmoozing with each other.
    Are Writer’s Conferences like sororities (fraternities)? Or, can the serious, unpublished writer benefit from such an event as a social outcast?
    Any suggestions on how to maneuver through one’s very first conference would be appreciated.
    Thanks for your time,
    Trying to Make it Work in the PNW

  20. Dear Ms. Manners,
    If an agent notes a specific length for a synopsis along with a sample chapter, is it okay to send them something a page or two over the limit? For instance if they want a 1-3 page synopsis, but yours is 4 or pages, or they say 5 pages, but yours is 6 or 7?

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