Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Cost of Acting Unprofessionally

I often talk to authors about the need to act professionally and what you can gain by doing so, or lose by not doing so. I often think that very few authors believe what I say, however, or understand the power of what I mean. So here's an example that should give you a better understanding of how important professionalism is.

I recently received a book proposal I loved. The concept was brilliant and the author's platform was perfect; the proposal, however, was not. Instead of simply rejecting with a form letter, I chose to write the author a very detailed rejection letter, giving her all the reasons I thought the book wouldn't sell, and making suggestions as to what I thought she could do to make it stronger. About six weeks later, the proposal was resubmitted to me.

I immediately took the material, logged it in, and placed it in my “must read" pile, and then I got to work on more pressing matters—I negotiated a few contracts, answered anxious client e-mails, and followed up on overdue checks and submission responses. Two weeks later (which only feels like two hours in my world), I had read the proposal and discussed it in our weekly meeting. Both Jacky and Kim agreed that it was fantastic. Immediately upon returning to the office, I called the author to offer representation. She was thrilled that I called and went on and on about how my letter and my comments had changed her proposal. That I was completely right and that it made it a much stronger and better project. She was sorry, however, because another agent had called just a week ago and offered representation. She had never thought to call me and had accepted. She had already signed with someone else.

Relaying this story now still makes me furious. In the grand scheme of things it isn't that big of a deal to me, but I still wasted quite a bit of time reading, researching, and presenting this proposal to my colleagues. Time I could have spent reading other submissions. What really infuriated me, though, is that this author actually had the gall to say that she wished I had called earlier because she would definitely have signed with me.

This is why I can never stress enough that when an offer comes through, you are in the driver's seat. This is your opportunity to contact all the agents reviewing your work, and, if more than one offers, interviewing them to find the one agent you feel is best for you and your work. The one who shares your vision and enthusiasm and the one that you feel you can work the best with.

By choosing the first agent that called, and burning her bridges by not at least telling other agents that she was pulling her work from submission, this author made more than one mistake. Six months later I received a phone call. The author's agent had been unable to sell her work and she now feared (six months too late) that she had made a mistake. She asked that I give her another chance. After reviewing the list of houses her work was sent to, I realized there was nothing left that I could do (and truthfully, I just didn't want to work with someone who had already wasted so much of my time). The agent she was working with had submitted to all of the houses I would have submitted to, but all of the wrong editors. I can't guarantee that I would have been able to sell the work, but I can guarantee that I would have at least had it reviewed by the right people.

I can't promise this would have been published, and that's not really my point. The point of my story is to let you know, as the author, that finding an agent you like, one that has the same vision as you, and contacts within publishing that are looking for the type of work you write is, as Mastercard says, priceless.

Oh, and never, ever assume that you won't be looking for an agent again. Keeping those doors open can make your life a whole lot easier down the road.

—Jessica

4 comments:

L. Faye Hughes said...

Excellent advice, Jessica.

What a lot of new writers often fail to realize is that this is a small community. The editorial assistant you're snotty with today may become the editorial director of your dream publisher tomorrow...or your new dream agent. :) Never burn bridges and always act professionally.

Bernita said...

Comes down basically to courtesy and good manners, does it not?

BookEnds, LLC said...

It does, but I do think that where a lot of people really miss the boat is knowing that this is a business and acting such. Courtesy is definitely important, but it's also good to know when you have some negotiating power. It doesn't always feel like it, but there are plenty of times when you can actually choose your agent.

Anonymous said...

I think people should realize that time really is money in this business and act accordingly. For some reason because it's "art" many people assume they can act unprofessionally and chalk it up to being "artiste".