Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Question of the Month, Part 1

Each month BookEnds agents will answer one of the many questions we often get from writers. To start things off we decided to focus on pet peeves—a subject writers never seem to tire of hearing about.

To have your question considered, please feel free to ask it in the comments section.

What are your pet peeves?

There are so many pet peeves to talk about. The one that I'm going to focus on can be summed up in three words: lack of professionalism. Typically, writing is something most of us do as a hobby. It's even listed as a hobby on those warranty cards you should all be filling out for your new computers and iPods. Unfortunately, though, publishing is a business. Therefore, while you tell your warranty holders, friends, and family that your favorite hobby is writing, once you decide it's time to get an agent or try to publish your work, you have entered into the business world, and it's imperative that you not only know that, but act like it, which means acting professionally.

While there's a whole slew of unprofessional acts (some of which Jacky and Kim are addressing), the one that I'm going to focus on is what to do once you actually get that call—the one from an agent, not a publisher—and how authors screw it up. To do this I'm going to need to start out talking about the exclusive (because that's a pet peeve that ties into all of this).

Exclusives are when an agent asks to read your material on an exclusive basis, meaning that for the time you grant the exclusive (6 weeks, 6 months, whatever), you cannot submit to anyone else. (Keep in mind that while we would sometimes like to, BookEnds agents will never ask for an exclusive). Do you want to know what's irritating? When you receive an e-query and respond within a day, asking to see the material, only to be told it's out on exclusive submission. You're assured, however, that if the author is rejected she'll send it your way. First of all, if it's already been rejected, what makes you think I want to see it? If another agent thinks it's crap, why do you think I want your crap? And secondly, why did you just waste my time? Sure, you probably don't think it takes a lot of time to read a letter, but when I have 50 other e-queries in my inbox from that day only, you have wasted my time.

My own self-absorbed reasons aside, I hate exclusives because they are unfair to the author (and here is where it starts to tie into my original pet peeve about professionalism). If you grant an exclusive and get an offer, what are you going to do? As far as I can see, you have two choices—the first is to take the offer no matter what you feel about the agent or how she feels about your project, because it really is the only offer you have. The second is to reject the offer and hope and pray that someone you like better (an agent, presumably) will take you on. Kind of puts you in a tight spot. Do you know that getting an offer is your first chance at having an upper hand over agents—it's your first chance to actually do the rejecting? Why would you miss out on that? Why wouldn't you send your material to as many agents as possible and then, when an offer comes in, why wouldn't you use it to your advantage? Why wouldn't you act in the same professional manner as agents when it comes to your submission? Aaaah, professional. Here we go. . . .

When an agent submits material she most likely submits to as many publishers as possible (and yes, they do know that), and when an offer comes in she calls all those other publishers in order to get the best deal possible. Well, guess what? Any professional author can do the same. When you get that call it's perfectly professional to call every other agent reviewing your material (or at least the agents you think you really want to work with) to let them know you have an offer and give them a timeframe to get back to you by. Just be professional, don't let things drag for weeks and weeks. Everyone's time is limited. If you told the first agent you would get back to her by Friday, then by all means do so.

Sometimes, though, you're really lucky. You get that first call from an agent you know is perfect. You've read her blog, you've met her clients, and you just know from one short phone call that she's the gal for you. So now you sign on the dotted line and sit back and relax, right? No! You unprofessional schmuck! You get on that phone or behind that keyboard and let every other agent who is reviewing your material—whether it's a short proposal or the entire manuscript—know that you've signed with another agent. Don't brag, don't stick your tongue out and taunt them for being slow. Simply thank them all for their time and move on. Publishing is a strange business and you never know when you'll be back on the streets begging for the attention of another agent, so don't burn your bridges by acting unprofessionally. Build up your safety nets and make friends. It's certainly a lot easier to go back to an agent, query letter in hand, if you haven't ended up in her "author beware" file (and yes, I have one).

Now I know a few of you are going to ask me why you need to be so nice to someone who has been sitting on your material for six months. Well, let me tell you. Because you are a smart cookie and you know that this business is small and names are remembered. Wouldn't you rather be remembered for being the one that got away rather than the one who's manuscript I spent all night reading only to be told on the phone the next day that the work has been under contract for three weeks? And keep in mind, whether or not you are ever looking for an agent again, you never know who might end up being your editor one day. . . .


Check in Thursday for Jacky's pet peeve.


Cindy Procter-King said...

Great, you ranted! Good rant.

I once queried an agent who wanted an exclusive, and when I explained that I couldn't give her one, she asked for the material, anyway. Yes, I did some buttering up that led to the request. Okay, *I* suggested she look at it, anyway, and she agreed.

I'm not comfortable with exclusives. However, if I'd already spoken to the agent on previous occasions, interviewed his or her clients, and was as reasonably satisfied as one can ever be without actually signing and living the relationship, I would grant a short (max 6-week) exclusive. The agent would have to be one of my top three choices, though, or no go.


Karen said...

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on this subject. Very enlightening...

Anonymous said...

Jessica, I appreciate hearing your take on why authors should avoid exclusives. It makes sense to me that, psychologically, an agent would be less excited about a project that another agent had turned down.

When I was querying, one of my top choices requested an exclusive. I couldn't grant it because my material was out to other agents--plus, I didn't want to tie up my ms for a whole month. The agent read the full, anyway, and offered representation.

I've heard too many sad stories about writers who granted 6-week exclusives (which the agent stretched to 7 or 8 weeks), and then received the "not right for us" rejection. It ain't worth it, IMO.

Hoyt Peterson said...

I am truly grateful to agents like you and the commenters who post on your site. I can't believe how much I have learned since delving into the world of art and publishing. Each tidbit is gold. Thanks so much.