I Can’t Tell You That, Says the Agent

Cynthia Ruchti

Blogger: Cynthia Ruchti

Agents and editors sometimes–okay, often–either think or say, “I can’t tell you that.” It has nothing to do with secret, clandestine, coded attempts to frustrate authors. Momma–and God–always have reasons behind what they say or expect of those they love and serve. But they don’t or can’t share the reasons.

telling phoneThese are the facts of life in the writing world:

I can’t tell you that.

I can’t tell you that NOW.

I can’t tell you why.

I can’t tell you why not.

I can’t tell you when.

If mommas, God, agents, and editors have reasons, why don’t they tell their authors?

Some information needs to stay proprietary for the agency or the publishing house.

Sometimes it’s inappropriate to tell that information, like how many books another author sold or how much money an individual author made. It’s considered bad form to openly discuss specifics of anyone else’s contract but your own.

The information an author seeks might be unknown or unknowable. How many books do I have to sell to become a bestseller? Despite parameters established by bestseller lists, beneath the surface are tangled algorithms of sales sources, purchaser demographics, the origination of bulk orders (Did your mother spend her nest egg to buy a warehouse of your books?), notoriety, seasons, sales quarters, and whim. tell business

An editor or agent doesn’t tell you the answer you seek because all they can offer is their best guess, and a best guess is a quick path to unrealistic expectations.

What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Ugh. A tough one. Good and thoughtful editors and agents weigh their and an author’s mental health when deciding how much they will share. Authors say, “Give it to me straight. I can take it. Be ruthless. Be brutal. I need to know. Is this any good?” An author is by nature a creative which means said author feels all the feels. Emotes all the emotions, although introversion may keep those emotions invisible to the outside world. An agent or editor is compelled to be truthful, but most prefer not to let their responses become weapons of mass destruction.

As in other business endeavors, behind the scenes of the front office is a vast, ever-changing sea of information that is not-yet-fully-formed, waiting on word from another source, jury-still-out, experimental-stage-only, beta-testing, or truly confidential at the moment.

tell trustIf your editor or agent isn’t as forthcoming as you’d like, or as you think you need, consider this. What do you do about the paradoxes of faith? God is good, but evil is rampant. Heaven awaits, but life is hard. The good die young. God is both good and holy, both compassionate and jealous, both Truth and Mystery.

You accept paradoxes and trust the Trustworthy One.

Choosing a trustworthy agent and editor includes (big, deep sigh) living with the paradoxes that sometimes the answer to your question is, “I don’t know,” or “I can’t tell you that, can’t tell you now, why, or why not.”

Allow for the presence of unknowns.

It’s how we successfully navigate life. And the writing life.

Jettison second-guessing.

It’s crazy-making. Trust the one who has your best interests at heart.

Wait longer than you think you should have to.

My husband has the quirkiest habit of calling me on my cell phone to find out where I am when I’m a few feet from turning into the driveway. It’s happened so many times, we laugh about it. So we came to an agreement. When he’s starting to wonder how much longer I’ll be in town, he waits five more minutes. “Honey, I’m home” replaces the phone call that I can’t answer anyway because I’m…driving! Five minutes might translate into five more days, weeks, or months. But you may find it comforting to resist the urge to fire off another email and wait just a little longer. (No need to report your horror story of waiting 14 months to hear back from an editor only to discover she never received the manuscript. It happens.)

I sat with an editor recently who said, “You need a blog idea? How about this one. Sometimes I want to say, ‘Can I be frank with you?’ But I can’t. What I want to tell the author is information I’m not at liberty to tell. Or it wouldn’t be kind. Or it’s against company policy. Or it would put me at a disadvantage in negotiations, or risk other authors’ contract negotiations. I wish authors knew that as much as they want details, as much as they think a piece of information will help them, I can’t always be frank.”

Reminded of an old comedy routine, I was tempted to add, “If I can’t be Frank, can I be Ernest?”

Absolutely.

In what other arenas of life do we have to cope with not having access to all the answers we seek? And needing to learn how to live with that? (I have a feeling your answer will be, “Most of them.”)