Thursday, October 13, 2011

Show Your Confidence

Whenever I compose an email to an editor I think about every word I type and how it will be perceived. For example, when following up on a submission, I never want to say I'm "just" getting in touch because it sounds like what I'm getting in touch about isn't that important. While certainly overthinking things can be dangerous and I don't want authors spending weeks laboring over each and every word, how we say things and the words we use are important. We already know that because as authors, you already spend weeks crafting the perfect paragraph or sentence in your manuscript, and the professional correspondence about that manuscript shouldn't be any different.

What inspired this post is that lately I've been noticing a real lack of confidence in emails to agents, or at least what I'm chalking up to lack of confidence. Authors aren't using the best word choices when querying, following up on queries, or getting in touch to tell of an offer. The words used are often coming across as either too weak or too strong, almost combative.

Certainly, we all read with our own issues. In other words, how I read something might not be read by someone else the same way, but I think when proofing and revising our letters we can often tell, pretty quickly, when a better word choice is needed. After all, it's our job as writers to understand and look for how what we're writing might be perceived. It's how we check to make sure our characters come across as likable, for example.

As an example, I've had a few authors check on submissions lately (and I'm not that far behind) by saying something along the lines of, "I'm checking on the status of my manuscript. If you are no longer interested please let me know." Why would you assume I'm no longer interested? Should I not be interested? Is this a challenge? Are you angry that it's taken me so long when in fact it hasn't?

The truth is this makes me not want to read more. If you don't think I should be interested, or are going to present yourself in this sort of angry and combative way in our first correspondence, how are you going to operate months down the line when we're working together? If you've done any research at all on me you know I reply to everything, and most definitely requested material, so this sort of tone seems especially unwarranted (especially if I know that I'm still well within my submission response time frame).

In another example, I've always encouraged authors to use an offer of representation to their advantage. Use it to make sure you can find the best agent for you and your work. That being said, when I'm contacted by an author I want to know that I'm actually requesting and reading the work because I'm one of the agents they are interested in hearing from, and not that they are simply contacting everyone because they were told they should.

There have been times when an author gets an offer of representation about the same time I've requested more material, but instead of saying something like, "I am attaching the material you requested. I have just received an offer so am asking to hear from all interested agents by Friday," the author says to me, "I just received an offer of representation and am waiting to hear back from agents who already have the material. Are you still interested?" I don't know. Should I be? It feels like you don't care whether I'm interested or not, like you've already made your decision, which, frankly, is fine. I'd rather that I'm only in the running if I'm really in the running. If you don't care to entertain an offer from me, let me know, if not out of respect for me and my time, then out of respect to your fellow writers, all of those waiting for me to read their material.

Think of it this way. How would you feel if you contacted an agent to tell her of an offer of representation and her response is something along the lines of, "Okay, I suppose you can send it to me." Why bother? Do you really want to send it after that?

What if an agent requested material off a query with something like, "This seems okay. If you think I'm the right agent, send it."

Remember, you have a product agents want. They are looking for new and talented authors, so present yourself that way.



Francesca Zappia said...

Thanks so much for writing this post! I have to write a follow-up email to an agent soon, and this was extremely helpful. The last thing I want to do is sound angry or unconfident.

Phil Hall said...

I believe the lack of confidence you're experiencing is directly related to the knowledge the hopeful author has as to his odds of success. Everyone knows that the odds are about one in one thousand; or to put it another way, there's a 99.999% chance that you (or any agent, really) will pass on their project. This cannot be conducive to any measure of confidence.

They know this, you know it too. And as a result you get what you get.

On top of this, we're being told "don't be too strong in your query--don't come off as arrogant. Also, don't be too weak, or they'll eat you for breakfast."

This leaves the middle-ground of milquetoast queries. Which is what you're left with.

R.S. Bohn said...

@Phil Hall -- I'm not sure what's left is "milquetoast." I think what they want to read is professionalism and politeness, with overtones of confidence and friendliness (general friendliness, not overbearing).

I was about to say, "Just as you would speak to someone in a store," but having worked with the public for 25 years, "polite and professional" is often one-sided, LOL!

Great post. Coincidentally, I've been recently analyzing my letters to editors (I often submit to magazines and e-zines) for these sorts of things. The work doesn't always stand on its own -- they see your "face" first, and first impressions count.

RetroKali said...

I appreciate your post for its content, but completely disagree with the sentiment. O.k, I realize that we can come off as sounding too weak, OR sounding too dominant, but in this market,like the previous commentor said, our chances of getting published are very slim and we don't want to screw it up.
I am sure ( because I have done it), that when an author writes "just checking in" they are trying to be polite, and not bothersome. They realize that you are super busy, but the suspense is killing them. They realize that possibly after a million submissions, that this might be "the one", and they would email a million times a day if it would speed up the process.Not so much because they have delusions of grandeur, but so they can know whether to throw a party, or slip into the bottle for a few days before they get back up on the horse and try again. When they send an email they want to treat the matter as delicately as possible, AKA,do a little ass-kissing.I can understand dissing the overly confident, cocky queries/emails, and dissing the wimpy " don't want to bother you" emails, but what the hell else does that leave? Please try, just try to realize what boat we are in, K ?

Foolplustime said...

I'll be honest, I'm struggling a bit to work out what's wrong with "If you are no longer interested, please let me know", unless it's coming in at, say, 4 weeks when you quote an 8 week response time.

I suppose in some lights it could come across as a bit passive aggressive, but it would surprise me if it was meant that way. If an agent says they respond in 8 weeks and I've heard nothing after 10, I am going to assume the agent isn't interested. It's not a big deal.

I'd love to see a form "nudge" example I can thieve for my correspondence. One which isn't going to inadvertently accrue me enemies.

Colin Smith said...

@Foolplustime: I think the assumption is, if the agent has requested the material, s/he is interested. If the agent is still within their stated time period for reviewing submissions, then you have every right to assume they're still interested, and a simple "Just checking in to see how you're getting on" is sufficient.

Being in query-mode myself, I understand there is the temptation for us as writers to sound desperate. We just want to see our novel in print! But it's important to remember the flip side of this. Agents have jobs and earn money because we write novels. If we didn't write, agents wouldn't eat. So there is a balance here. Sure, there are far more novels than there are agents, so agents appear to be in the better situation. But given the number of queries agents turn down, they need a large volume among which to search for those few that catch their interest. From that perspective, with appropriate humility and respect, we can afford to query with confidence.

Just my 2c.

S. D. Grimm said...

I enjoy the posts I read from agents reminding me to show confidence in my work.

Honestly, it's a scary business--putting yourself out there to be rejected by most of the people you query--and that lack of confidence can easily creep in because we writers are actually grateful when someone wants to read our work. Especially someone with skills to represent, and someone we want to work with.

Getting an agent is tough, right? So I don't want to mess it up with a misplaced, misspelled, or misconstrued words. I want to put my best foot forward, my words.

I am a naturally humble person, but that doesn't mean I have to lack confidence in my writing. After all, I do want the world to read it, well those interested in falling into fantasy for a while.

Anonymous said...

Let me present this from a writer's perspective.

We used to send out queries knowing the vast majority of responses would be form rejections. Nowadays the form rejections have been dispensed with and the usual response is silence.

So sheer mental health requires not getting our hopes up.

I sent out multiple queries. Several agents requested my manuscript. One offered representation two days later. I looked at my list and saw I'd put a star next to her name. That meant during my research I'd selected her as someone I'd prefer if there were multiple offers.

I had told the agents who were reading the manuscript that there'd been several requests. One of them had immediately said she was no longer interested since she didn't want to "compete".

The agent with a star next to her name offered. I accepted.

A few months later my agent contacted me with an excellent offer she'd received for the manuscript. On the same day, I received a form rejection from one of the agents I'd never heard back from. He hoped I understood that his rejection was subjective, and no doubt other agents would feel differently, etc.

Should I have earlier sent him a second email withdrawing the manuscript? No doubt. But for all I knew he had moved to Mongolia and taken up goat herding.

You wonder why we get a little jaded?

@Phil Hall-- Ix-nay on the odds-ay. This isn't the state lottery. Manuscripts aren't picked at random from a rotating drum. A writer's odds are about as good as the manuscript he or she is sending out. And as R.S. Bohn says, being polite isn't being Milquetoast.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only person that had to look up milquetoast?

Is it a word that is used much more outside of the UK or am I just showing my ignorance?

Suz said...

I've been reading agent commentary regarding query/submissions/time frames for the past 2yrs, and there is an overwhelmingly common theme in all their posts that show writers are simply NOT reading clearly posted guidelines at lit agency websites. Agents have been generous with their limited time sharing their experience and industry tips, and writers MUST to do their own homework before even considering submitting a MS. It's that simple. Thanks for letting me share my subjective 2 cents.

Susan said...

In a business where words are the "product", it is hard not to judge each word, phrase or sentence for hidden or double meanings. This is especially true for an author's first impression to a prospective agent -- the query letter. Advice from my mother years ago still applies: straightforward, respectful requests/questions are never wrong.
I have found this works for me the majority of the time.
Sometimes I do wonder if the sender reads what h/she has written before hitting send...

G. B. Miller said...

While this is a good post and sound advice, I think that an addendum should be added that this advice should apply as well for people who have chosen to query publishers directly (be they large, medium or small).

Anonymous said...

My problem with my query letters is they are soo formal I write the life right out of it.

I also wanted to thank you for responding so quickly to my email regarding the agent letter. I've warned my critique group about this agent and sent them to the sites you suggested.

Your name has a star next to it on my list when I'm ready to send out that revived query letter.


Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this, I think it was a good reminder to reread your query to make sure you aren't coming off in a way you don't want to.

@scifi13 I live in the US and never heard it before. I'm taking a meaning from context...too early to actually look something up lol

@Anonymous I'm genuinely happy for you! Congrats! I'd love for that to be the case when I start querying.

Elissa M said...

I understand a writer's urge to talk about the "odds" of getting published. If you look only at numbers, as in numbers of manuscripts vs. numbers of books published, the odds are indeed long.

But, as Anonymous 10:05 says, editors don't reach into a barrel and draw random manuscripts for publication. If you produce something publishable and properly target it, your "odds" increase dramatically.

It's always a good idea to be professional and courteous in all our communications. However, I'm willing to bet that it's better to err on the side of milquetoast than arrogant SOB no matter how amazing the manuscript.

Take a deep breath. Let it out. Recognize that your manuscript is not you, or your child. It's just a product that you're asking an agent to help you sell. Keeping the proper perspective goes a long way toward dealing with all the rejection in this business.

Rebecca said...

Interesting. Sometimes communication seems so fragile and fraught that it's a wonder anyone ever manages.

I use "just checking in" all the time when I send nudge emails in my own job. It's a bit of verbal padding that seems polite to me. (More so than an unadorned "Did you finish X yet?" anyway.)

I suspect that preemptive "let me know if you're not interested" is intended to come across as a becoming sense of cool. "She hated it and just hasn't gotten around to telling me yet. I will show that I can take the news without flying off the handle."

Anonymous said...

Post started out OK, thought a good message was about to be delivered, but honestly you just sound testy, a bit tired of the profession or perhaps you 'just' need a vacation.

I mean, come on — "I'm checking on the status of my manuscript. If you are no longer interested please let me know." That's combative? Sounds as though the author is merely seeking information, a status update.

Prickliness might not be the best trait in an agent.

Anita M.

Anonymous said...

For me, the bottom line is you have to present yourself and your "product" in the best light. I'm still slogging away on my MS, but if I hadn't heard back from an agent, I wouldn't naturally assume he/she didn't like it. I would politely follow up, say something wonderful about my MS and tell the agent I was looking forward to hearing from them.

I've had to read alot of resumes in my life and it's the positive, confident cover letters that get my attention.

research papers said...

Good post. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Is this another "Thank you for your time" post?

Because "Are you interested?" would be considered polite in many regions of the world. If you're going to take offence to it, then I haven't got the energy to deal with an agent as touchy as you.

Anonymous said...

The OP struck me as a bit arrogant. Sure, we all read between the lines, but it should be done with the understanding that our impressions may be completely wrong, that we're seeing things that aren't there.

We have to have filters, and we will inevitably lose some good stuff, but it has to be done. Getting a good balance is tough.

Maybe the OP wasn't at all 'arrogant', but I took it that way. But I could be wrong. . .

Sara said...

This is a wonderful post. I understand what you’re saying. There’s something about confidence that makes people, and their ideas, more attractive.

The problem for quite a few of us is: constant rejection leaves a person feeling less than attractive, thereby undermining our confidence, which makes us less attractive. A downward spiral that can only be saved with chocolate and a crowd of good friends. (Supportive critique group anyone?)

The trick is to bury the insecurity until the confidence you feel catches up with the confidence you portray. Once you do, you will catch the right someone that will help your confidence maintain that level of radiance.

Sara said...

As far as correct follow-up letter language...I haven't a clue.

I'm coming to a point where I will need to follow up with the agents and editors that have partials and fulls. I would love to know what I should say.

My letters would have said, "I'm following up on the partial manuscript you requested in June. I am still interested in your representation and look forward to hearing from you."

How does that sound??

Miguelito said...

In such a competitive market with so few agents and so many writers (and, frankly, many of which are very good writers), the only confidence we can have is that we won't land an agent. That's based on a simple success rate probably below 10 percent.

Which leaves us with being polite.

And I'd rather be realistic than overconfident.

Anonymous said...

Quite frankly, I'm a bit afraid to query you for fear I would offend without intention. I have a family member or two who read things into emails where no hidden meaning was intended. It has caused more than one family fight.

Lori Rader-Day said...

Great post.

Adele said...

I think you know that writers tend to be the sort of people whose best possible sales pitch is "I don't suppose you want to buy this, do you?" and you're trying to ease us out of that mindset. Nice try. Good post. A lot of people won't get it the first time ... or the tenth. But keep trying. We need to hear it.

Derrick Camardo said...

How do you feel about cheesy jokes after an agent requests a partial off a query?

I've always wanted to say something like, "You must perceive as I do that 250-ft hamsters are the next vampires." Or something like that. But I always chicken out and say something like, "Please find xyz attached. Thank you for your time and consideration... blah blah blah..."

Anonymous said...

Here, here, anonymous. I said much the same thing, but she deleted MY comment!

Anonymous said...

I understand the feeling that if we don't have confidence in our work, why should you? What I don't understand is if you are offended by a straight-forward "please let me know," what would you prefer to hear?

It seems I make my living writing business correspondence and this is a reasonably concise request for information. You didn't mention if this came in 48 hours after submission or if a reasonable amount of time, such as approaching your guidance deadlines, has occurred. In my office, it would not be unheard of to follow up as a deadline is approaching -- in fact, it would be prudent. I understand however, that this is your game, so your rules.

I find considerable value in your blog and enjoy reading it. But, as long as we're speaking of things you don't wish to convey, what stuck out in this post was that "if one more person asks me if I'm 'not interested' I'll scream and hit delete," which really just sounds like you've had a hard week and need to get a call in to the travel agent.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Thanks for all of your comments. Let me clarify a few things.

I get why people have the lack of confidence. What I'm trying to do here is encourage you to be proud of what you've written and let that shine through. I've said this repeatedly before, agents should be honored that you're querying them and excited for the find. If they've requested something they are. Grab hold of that feeling and remind yourself of it.

Anon 9:42 It's really quite difficult to offend me, but if you're afraid of me there are many other great BookEnds agents you might be more comfortable querying.

Anon 10:52: Thanks for the psych analysis, but that's not the case. I simply want authors to stand by their work with confidence. You should. Finishing a book is a great achievement, querying it is another, and getting requests is yet another. Be proud of what you have and convey that to agents. It's not complicated, just a small twist in your wording.


I have nothing against an author saying "let me know of your interest" or "looking forward to hearing of your interest" or something like that. But "let me know if you're not interested" skews negative to me. It says to me that you already think I'm not interested so you're giving me an out. Why give an agent an out? Make her work for that rejection if that's what you're expecting. Don't tell her you're expecting it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. It's hard to find the middle ground of not being overbearing or meek. I struggle with that in real life and it's something I'm working daily to combat.

Sara said...

I see what you mean about skewing negative. Like asking:

do you think I look pritty?
vs asking
do you think I look ugly?

Either way the question is being asked. How you ask the question reveals what you think of yourself.

Anonymous said...

As always, I love your posts. Thank you!

But now on to the reason I'm writing. I teach college writing--research writing, teen lit, creative writing...and business writing. I agree with you that people have poor word choice and can come across as weak or, worse, combative.

However, I think your last example of asking if an agent's still interested feels more peevish than helpful. In fact, the first example (with "Are you still interested?") is the proper way to ask the question, since it has "you attitude" in it--in other words, the author of the missive is asking your opinion, not must saying "If one is interested, I will entertain offers until Friday."

As I said, I think your posts and this message is spot-on. However, I think the last bit has become a peeve that may not be grounded in proper business etiquette.

Very best,
An avid reader and fan

Nicole said...

I just thought I'd toss this into the pot:

I think part of the reason people write, "Let me know if you're not interested" is due to the number of agents out there that never respond at all. It sort of falls back on the tired, endless query rounds with the author in a state of, "Please just tell me already so I can move on."

Perhaps it does skew negative and we do need to get away from that, but it probably tends to happen because of all the rejections we writers get. It's not hard to fall into that mindset.

As for thinking that agents are "honored" to receive queries from writers, while I applaud you for thinking in such a manner, I'm not so sure other agents do. Granted, I don't know every agent on the planet, but for those that we have access to...well it doesn't always appear that way. ;)

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but I found it for googling as I sit and ponder what to do about an agent who has had my full for 10+ weeks. A writer wants to recommend it to his own agent, and it feels underhanded to do this without communicating to agent 1 first. I do agree with this post, but it would be helpful to have some alternative phrases, rather than just examples of what not to do. Unagented novelists are gingery when writing to agents because we are vulnerable. You've only to look at twitter or Miss Snark to see how much we exasperate agents, and how many of them regard us with scorn; they do seem an easily offendable lot! (Present company not included!)

Anonymous said...

I wanted to add, also, that people are rarely at their most natural and confident when trying to communicate with someone who has power over them, when the interaction is far from equal, and when rejection is by far the most likely outcome. To be in such a position can make even the best of us, and the best of writers, absurd seeming and odd in their address.