Monday, June 15, 2009

Polite Communication

Back in my younger days as an editorial assistant I quickly learned that one of the best ways to become the best I could be was to watch those around me. I paid attention not just to my bosses and how they did their work, but also to other editors. I learned not just from the good things they did, but from the bad as well, and one of the many things that has always stuck with me was the importance of communication. It always amazed me, even back then, what poor communicators so many people were and still are.

As an editor and now as a literally agent I make it a priority to be as accessible as possible to my clients as well as to editors and other professionals who call or contact me. That means that I return phone calls and emails as quickly as possible and always remind my clients that if I haven’t returned your phone call or email by the next day, or responded in some way, it’s because somewhere along the way the message was misplaced or I lost my mind. In the very first conversation I ever have with a new client this comes up and I always, always tell them to call again, that bugging me isn’t possible and that I’d rather hear from you than have you stewing at home thinking I’m ignoring your calls. The one exception to this rule are unsolicited phone pitches. While my assistant will sometimes return those calls for me I don’t and I won’t. I don’t have time to spend the 20 to 30 minutes on the phone that every unsolicited querier seems to think they are allowed to have with me when a simple letter or, hey, following our submission guidelines would do.

Unfortunately, poor communication is as alive and well today as it was 15 years ago when I started in publishing. It amazes me sometimes how often I’ll have to call or email a single editor to get an answer to one question or how often I wonder if an editor has died and maybe, just maybe no one told me. After all, ten emails and three phone calls should illicit an answer, especially when it’s pertaining to a top author.

What I wonder is how much worse this is going to get. We live in an age when text messaging is more popular than phoning, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed the damage it’s doing. People do not want to have face-to-face or phone-to-phone conversations anymore, they don’t want to actually face things head-on, feeling everything is easier via text or email. Phone skills and verbal communication are declining and, frankly, so is written communication. A text is not the same as a business letter.

I hope that someday schools catch on and start teaching more than just English grammar, but also teach proper verbal communication. Back when I was in junior high, and public schools had money for such things, we were actually required to take a speech class, which meant getting up in front of the class and giving three different speeches for grades. It was great and I think invaluable.



Anonymous said...

A literally agent? I like that- I do take my agent literally ;)

Seriously, this bit sort of reassures me (though I'm also quietly horrified):
"After all, ten emails and three phone calls should illicit an answer, especially when it’s pertaining to a top author."
I was feeling frustrated that my UK agent hasn't answered one of my emails in 7 weeks about a book she was supposedly "thrilled" to take on, and after the book has sold to good publishers in two other territories. I'm no top author by a long stretch, but I thought I might have heard by now- thanks (I think) for showing me this also happens to people way above me in the literary pecking order.

Anonymous said...

PS. Um, I think "illicit" should be "elicit" in the original post too... feel free to delete this!

Rick Daley said...

Well stated, indeed.

My wife works with a 20-something girl who was dumped by her boyfriend via text message.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

well clearly I must have written this post late at night. Thanks for the corrections.


Kimbra Kasch said...

It's true my daughter will send a ton of texts to friends and I'll say, "Why don't you just call them?"

She'll just look at me - like I'm crazy.

I loved speech and drama. But then, most people don't. I know a lot of people who get very nervous about speaking in front of people (and I'm talking a few not an auditorium).

loveskidlit said...

I teach college courses in technical/professional communication, among other things (as an English class, not communication theory). And the professional letter and email etiquette assignment is always a paradigm shift for the students! Tone is such a tricky thing to communicate, and too often in casual email it's left to emoticons to do the job of modulating it (or not!). Surely we can expect professionals who deal with writers to take care with their written communication?

E.D. Walker said...

My college required us to take a public speaking class... of course, I was already a drama kid so I had no problems with public speaking, but it seemed to help the other kids.

joycemocha said...

Even though our middle school work samples require public speaking (as in presentations), you'd be amazed at how many kids try to avoid them.

Or not, as the case may be.

We do try to teach them public speaking, but it doesn't seem to take very well, or at least as well as our teaching of grammar appears to take (I know darn good and well these kids have been taught what nouns and verbs are--our school is a K-8 and I've seen teaching down to the 3rd grade level--they still can't tell you what they are in 7th grade).

AE Rought said...

I am in total agreement. Not just about the professional world--because, come on, it's *professional* and people should behave accordingly--but that communicative skills are fading from our world in general.

We taught our kids phone etiquette early in life, taught them to introduce themselves, etc. It amazes me the number of teens who call here and lack those rudimentary skills. The number of polite, proper calls are utterly outweighed by the, "Hey, can I talk to Kat?" calls. I'm a mother, an adult and you hooligans should show some respect. *waggles finger*

In this shrinking global environment, too often we call instead of talking face to face. Too often we write instead of call. And, too often, we text short hand instead of writing a full length message. Have people forgotten the power of the human voice? how intonation can color a phrase a thousand ways? Give me the old days where you walked around the corner and sat on your neighbor's porch with iced tea and the bug light zapping skeeter while you chatted--without IM screens and chat rooms!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. You've touched on one of my pet peeves. Unfortunately, unprofessionalism abounds. I used to be paranoid and wonder why businesses didn't return my calls within a reasonable period. I had to be doing something wrong; perhaps a hint of desperation in my voice? In a bad economy, businesses and individuals should do everything possible to maintain a good reputation. Customers and clients always appreciate the prompt return of calls.

the other side of pretty said...

Another question raised by the original post. I read recently a comment that the sound of chilly silence (ie. the absence of any response) IS a response, and those of us (im)patiently waiting for a reply that will never come should see closure in that very silence. Now, I've only done one wait so far, but if I followed up with ten emails and three phone calls I'd be 1) stalking an agent and 2) blacklisted! To follow up (once? twice??) or not to follow up?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


I think you definitely have to follow-up. The difference is I have a relationship with these editors I'm hounding and presumably you don't have a relationship with the agents. Question though, if the agent is not responding do you really care if you burn that particular bridge? If not, go ahead and hound. The trick is being respectful of time. Typically agent response time on partials/fulls is 3-4 months. Wait for months before checking in. At that point, check in every four weeks or so until you get a response.

You aren't going to get blacklisted across the community because an agent didn't response. However, yes, there is a bit of the no response means no that at some point you're probably just better off moving on to other, more responsive agents and letting that one go.


Haste yee back ;-) said...

In 5-10 years... books written in text message language will be quite popular... language like the people using it is alive and ever changing!

Haste yee back ;-)

Maria Zannini said...


I'm just as guilty at times though. I average 60-75 emails on a slow day. If I don't answer the important ones immediately they tend to drift to the bottom of my consciousness.

Spy Scribbler said...

I'm seeing this in other areas, too. In piano teaching, when I used to send out an email of important things about their child's piano lessons for the next month or two, people would respond. I'd usually have at least two or three email conversations going.

Now? Gosh. People don't read the emails, no matter how short I keep them. If there's an issue, not only will they not read or respond to the issue, but they won't come in for a parent-teacher meeting even if I BEG them. It's a little crazy.

And even if I send a calendar at the beginning of the year, a snail mail reminder, three email reminders, and remind their child about an event every week for a month, they'll still come up to me after they missed it and ask for "more communication" from me.

We're all just overwhelmed with communication, and everything except Must-Deal-With-Now gets filtered out.

the other side of pretty said...

Thanks for the feedback! I'm new to the lengthy timeline and just need to reset my timer, I think.

Kimber Li said...

Parents need to take charge of their children's education, because the sad fact is most public schools don't have time. The teachers are overwhelmed teaching things the parents always taught the children in the past and to overcrowded classrooms besides.

If you can't afford tutors, special classes, charter schools, private schools, or having a parent home educate, you can always educate your children at night or on weekends using free materials which can be found on the Internet or your local library. Start here- Or, you can educate yourself if you were one of these deprived children, by starting here-

Like I tell everyone who complains about the state of the uneducated, you can also *volunteer* or *donate* to literacy programs, including giving your old Romance novels to women's shelters and reading out loud to children in homeless shelters. Give the gift of hope.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Yep, time for the Art of
Communication pendulum to swing back!

Laura Martone said...

This is an excellent post - so timely and universal. The sad fact is that poor communication pervades every industry these days - not just education and publishing. And perhaps you're right - our reliance on emailing and texting, and our aversion to public speaking (even one-on-one via the phone) has greatly hampered our ability to communicate effectively. I say "our," but, of course, not all of us are poor communicators. And, even when we are - and don't return someone's phone call or email right away - it's amazing how effective an "I'm sorry" can be.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I always find it ironic when people blog to complain about modern communication techniques.
Most emails I send out nowadays include a link to my blog, FB and Twitter. It's just the times we live in.

s.w. vaughn said...

Oh, my. I feel your pain. I have soooo many clients that are non-responsive (dozens of e-mails and phone calls, and not a word in response - I start thinking either they're on vacation or dead). It drives me crazy!

One would think that if one paid $800 for an ad, one might want to actually communicate with one's copywriter. Sheesh!

Of course, if I were just allowed to do my job without having to get permission for every single word from the client - some of whom are real prima donnas - but that's another rant, for another day. :-)

Anita said...

My children attend a public elementary school (The da Vinci Academy in CO Spgs), in which getting up and speaking in front of an audience is a regular part of the day. This has been SUCH an asset to the kids. The school also has Life Guidelines which teach children (and parents) how to communicate with each other respectfully. In my own writing career, the example set by the school has kept me from flying off the handle. Yay, schools!

Anonymous said...

Talking? In person? On porches? Where does this phenomenon exist, of which you speak?

Seriously, I recently attended an established writing group for a sit-down dinner that lasted three hours. I tend to be shy, and as the newbie felt painfully self-conscious. How foolish of me. Of the twelve people who attended, only three introduced themselves, and of them, only one knew what to do when I extended my hand for a shake.

Oy! I'm a dinosaur.

Gina Black said...

In my 30+ year career in television, I've often been struck by what poor communicators those in the heart of the communications industry can be. Too often people seem to assume there is some sort of telepathy at work. Ummmm no.

Central Content Publisher said...

I don't know for how long I've been at the mercy of my captor. I crave his every kindness even while it mocks the reality of my imprisonment.

He taunts me with only the briefest of opportunities for escape. No sooner do I move toward those little hopes, than he snaps them shut with a gentle, even sympathetic, interruption. Sometimes he even apologizes. It's agony.

My body screams for liberty. "Why", it asks, "why couldn't you have done this in email?" I have to hang up. One day. One day, freedom.

Anonymous said...

"People do not want to have face-to-face or phone-to-phone conversations anymore, they don’t want to actually face things head-on, feeling everything is easier via text or email."

This is at least partly because it's nice to have a record of all communication. Phone calls are quickly forgotten. E-mail is forever. I can analyze the communication patterns of all my contacts, figure out the best time to e-mail, etc.

In fact, my incoming voicemail msg says "If youare leaving important info such as a phone # or address or dates, please e-mail it to me at..."

Anything else and you're taking a chance.

Anonymous said...

Concur with the above anon. Only time I want to see my agent in person is at the celebration dinner after we option the movie rights. Until then...don't need to see ya, don't need to hear ya--everyhting on record, please, and get back to work.

Elyssa Papa said...

I taught high school English in both inner city and suburban settings, and teachers are definitely teaching writing and presentation skills (i.e., public speaking). But I've definitely noticed when I was a teacher just how different kids are today---it's not like I'm that old either---they don't think of the reprecussions of using unprofessional language, etc.

It always baffles me when anyone chooses to act in a disrespectful manner.

And I always wondered about if it's okay to check up with potential agents. I don't want to bother them, or make them think: ugh, I so don't want to work with her. do recommend to contact an agent who's had full after so many months??

green_knight said...

I am currently working (part time) in Customer Service, and if you don't get a prompt reply from me then I'm probably answering someone else. The budget for this job has just been slashed, but I'm getting extra responsibilities, and procedures have been changed at corporate level that have created extra communication... so more work, in fewer hours. Add to that two people standing at each side of me like the proverbial devil and, well, devil over my shoulder saying 'do this job urgently, first, now' and, well, if you left a message on the corporate answerphone and don't pick up immediately, chances are I won't get around to you until some time next week, and if I'm not on the ball and keep the list of forty urgent tasks at the forefront of my mind, you might never receive that call.

I would not be overly surprised if the editors who don't get back to you are the same - they started out working flat out, and have had extra responsibilities dumped on them, and there's no budget for overtime/interns/assistants/secretaries, and no time to devise a system that works for them, so people drop off the radar.

My word verification is the rather ominous 'skingeld.' Beware...

Ailsa said...

In Scotland, to get your Standard Grade English (exam you take when you're 15/16), then part of your overall grade comes from talking. Part of that is from doing a solo talk in front of the class, and part from the teacher giving a topic to each table and then moving round surreptitiously listening to the resulting debates.
I think having it taught in schools would be a good thing.

Deborah Niemann said...

Public speaking classes are alive and well in colleges. In Illinois, it is required for a college degree. I teach speech, and the colleges around here are putting more into the curriculum about interpersonal and group communication -- and I talk about all the problems that can occur when we rely too much on texting and email. Last semester, I gave students my cell number and told them they could text me. Not sure if I'll do that again, since it became their #1 preferred method of communicating with me outside of class. And it's really ridiculous when they're asking for suggestions to improve the speech they're writing -- seriously!

Anonymous said...

It has to do with the permanent record factor. If there's a disagreement down the line, you want to be able to go, "Nuh-uh-uh! Looky-here, that's not what you said."

If I were still in school, I'd never call a prof. Cuz later, if there's a disagreement about when something was due or what the content was or anything, it's your word against theirs.

Same goes now in business. You want to be able to go back and look at the history of the entire exchange between you and any entity.

Speech doesn't allow that (unless you record all your ohone calls and convo's, but that's a huge hassle, and they're not easily searchable.

Also, as writers, using the written word to further our work makes inherent sense. That doesn't mean adopting e-sp3ak & shthnd, it just means using the written word in conjunction with technology to communicate.

Anonymous said...

True, manners haves slipped but the important thing is to COMMUNICATE, not leave people hanging or in the dark. Give me some response, please--preferably by e-mail, unless it's THE CALL.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 7:09 and a few others:

You're making the assumption that the only reason to communicate, ever, is confrontation. I think that phone or face-to-face communication can be, at times, more effective then the written word and of course there's always the option of a follow-up email.

The truth is that all of these methods of communication--email, text, letter, and verbal are important and pretending that we don't need one or are never going to use it, is only hindering you. There are just times when the back and forth of verbal communication is more effective and there are other times when email is the easiest route.


Dara said...

I agree that face-to-face or phone conversations are more effective in many ways. I mean, you can hear the tone of voice and see body language (in person); that's lost through email and texting. Many times things are misconstrued because the tone of voice doesn't come through an email or text.

I also think there needs to be a course in manners :P Not that it would change much, but maybe people would have act a little more polite...

Too many people lack manners, and I saw the incredible disregard for rules and respect at my sister-in-law's graduation a few weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

" there are other times when email is the easiest route."

I never do what's easiest. I do what's best.

Anonymous said...

"Many times things are misconstrued..."

For you, maybe. I am rarely miscontsrued, because I know how to phrase things to avoid ambiguity.

If you're a writer, you should be able to write without being misconstrued.

Janet said...

This post just about brought me to tears. I just parted ways with my agent over just this issue. His silence was so complete, I seriously thought he was dead, or at least comatose. When I found out he wasn't, that was the end. I just can see no way of justifying ignoring phone calls and emails when he said he'd be ready to discuss things by a certain date. He's done this to me several times now. Only once was he sick. Enough is enough.

I still can't figure out why he jumped at me so eagerly to treat me so badly afterwards.

Matthew said...

Definitely agree.

The education system should go back to basics: reading and following instructions, letter writing, map reading, and grammar. How did those subjects get lost?

Liza said...

Being that I work in schools, I can answer Matthew's question easily.

High stakes testing and more importantly funding. Without funding things like speech, music, drama are the first things cut from the budget. And when your school's budget depends on X amount of people passing a state mandated test, some schools focus on that. There are laws, funding, and other issues at risk, that most people don't realize.

There are good teachers that teach those things, but what most people fail to see is that these subjects get lost, because our kids are burnt out from the testing.

I had to add in my two cents about the school system, before everyone blamed the teachers. (Which, I've noticed become quick and easy scapegoats.)

Jenny Bent said...

Jessica, now that I'm negotiating my own contracts (as opposed to having it done for at Trident), I'm appalled by certain contracts people who don't answer phone calls or repeated e-mails. I find that they're not particularly apologetic about it either.

Erika Robuck said...


Anonymous said...

I find it frustrating that people are too busy for polite communication.

I can't imagine what an agent has to go through to get a response from seemingly ignored calls, etc. (shudder!)

Let's say an editor requests a full from your agent. Ten months go by and nudges are ignored. Should the agent pull the submission?

I think not responding is so rude.

Vacuum Queen said...

I worry so much for kids in the future with all of the texting and email and lack of face-to-face contact. Mainly, I worry about it in a relationship sort of way. How can anyone work through problems if they can't talk it through and LISTEN? If they're used to the quick fix and text...I worry about them all.

I'm sort of glad we live in the country with a slower life. So far, we all manage to communicate with people we know and recognize. Maybe that will help an eensy bit.

Etiquette Bitch said...

there's not a lot here i can say that someone hasn't short, i agree with you. i teach communication skills -- and it amazes me how most people tend to forget about the recipient of the message.

last night i had dinner with another family, and their 13 yr old sat at the table texting and scowling. i was appalled. Rude!