Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Traveling to the Pacific Northwest
Disclaimer: These observations are based largely on my own practices and those I’ve observed from the many agents I know and admire. But each agent is different (just like each writer) and has different strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to your experience with agents YMMV. (Your mileage may vary.)
Today I’ll tackle the problem raised in yesterday’s blog by one of my clients. Again, here’s what she wrote:
“As I’ve observed and visited with many unpublished authors who attend conferences, I find that the trend increasingly leans toward an editor and/or agent asking them to send their mss or additional work for review. No matter what else they may be told during that appointment, they hear NOTHING but the fact that someone has asked for their manuscript and they believe they are now going to be published.”
“Weeks, months, and sometimes more than a year will pass and they hear nothing. They don’t know whether to send to someone else, ‘bother’ the agent/editor they’ve sent it to for they fear that will anger them, or continue to pray and believe it’s going to all happen in God’s time.”
“During my earlier years at conferences, editors and agents frequently sat people down and said, ‘You show some promise, but you need more work.’ Or ‘Your writing skills aren’t quite up to snuff—how about considering some additional classes and mentoring.’ Anyway, you get the idea—they took it as their responsibility to tell these hopeful authors the truth. And, believe me, I know that’s a hard thing to say to someone. But is it not better to speak the truth in love than to let these folks sit for months on end thinking they’ve just been given a golden ticket?”
Yesterday I addressed what it means when an agent requests material based on a written, mailed or emailed query. Strangely enough, it can mean something different than when an agent requests material from a writer at a conference. The reason? A query sent “over the transom” is generally faceless. The agent considers the proposed project based almost entirely on the merits of the query– unemotionally. That can be a good thing or a bad thing.
When an agent meets a writer at a conference, it can be much more complex. Let me offer you some context.When an agent agrees to attend a writer’s conference, he is usually agreeing to be available to look at manuscripts. The unspoken agreement is that he is also open to considering new clients. Conferences depend on this possibility to be able to offer perceived value. Writers often evaluate which conference to attend based on how many acquiring agents and editors will attend. Conference planners don’t necessarily mean for this to happen, but this puts implicit pressure on agents and editors to request material. We are all so aware that writers need to justify the expense of a conference. That’s not to say that when an agent or editor requests a manuscript he is not interested–he is, or he wouldn’t request it–but he may not be as realistic about the amount of work he is heaping on his plate as he would when at his desk reading faceless queries.
This is one of the reasons I often attend a conference as an attendee, not as a faculty member. Then I have the luxury of interacting with writers sans any expectations. I can watch the writers I’ve had an eye on, and I can sit at a table and meet new ones. It often takes me many interactions over time to decide I want to pursue a certain writer.
But, back to our main question. . . what does it mean when an agent meets with you at a conference and says “send the proposal,” or even “send the whole manuscript”? Each agent (and editor) is different. Personally, I’ve become more sensitive toward giving false hope over the last couple of years, and I’m now very stingy about offering to receive more material. I have a very full practice and, while I always make room for someone exciting, I need to find ways at a conference to encourage good writers and still say no. Do I regret this? You bet I do. I see writers all over the industry whose work I once turned down or writers to whom I never responded in time. I’m now part of their fan base. I read their fabulous published books, and I regret not being part of their team. But my first responsibility is to my contracted clients. It wouldn’t be fair to brush them off while courting new writers. So when I request further material at a writer’s conference, I have every intention of evaluating that material and getting back to the writer in a timely fashion. In the words of the poet, Robert Burns (1785), however:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
But each agent (and editor) is different. If, as a writer, I received a request for my proposal or the full manuscript at a writer’s conference, here’s how I would decode that request:
- It’s most likely a serious request based on liking the initial pitch and being interested in the writer. Whether the agent is being realistic about his ability to manage the additional work he is agreeing to evaluate is the unknown element here.
- Or it could just be the general giddiness and I-can-do-it-all feeling that comes from letting an overworked agent out of the office. At a writer’s conference we are predisposed to falling in love with ideas and writers. We’re talking with colleagues and brainstorming possibilities. Heady stuff.
- It can mean the agent has been meeting with writer after writer in fifteen-minute blocks all day long and has finally admitted he is braindead and cannot evaluate anything and the best thing is to just see the work and evaluate later.The danger here is that he knows he is loading himself up with work, not taking into consideration the already critically backed-up workload at the office.
- It might mean the agent knows he can’t evaluate fiction based on a query. He has to evaluate the writing. Some agents and editors ask to see anything that may hold promise based on the pitch. (Sadly some writers pitch like big leaguers while their writing isn’t even ready for the farm team.)
- It might mean the agent is drawn to the writer himself and, regardless of the writing, wants to continue to explore. This is the power of meeting in person. These are the not-quite-ready writers that agents sometimes decide to sign, even earlier than normal, in order to mentor them. It’s one of the values of a writing conference–the inexplicable connection that sometimes happens.
So what should a writer assume when an agent requests further material? The obvious–that he or she is interested in seeing more. And that’s a very good thing. In a perfect world, were the agent actively searching for a number of new clients, it would be a highly positive sign. In the real world, it means that you’ve risen above the vast majority of not-yet-published writers. You’re attracting attention. No guarantees, but it could be a very good sign.
And what should a writer do if he doesn’t hear back? That’s something you might ask in person when the agent requests your material. “When should I expect to hear something?” When the agent crosses that self-imposed deadline, it is perfectly appropriate to write a personable note nudging him. And repeat it every couple of months. Yes, I said months. (I want to be realistic here.) I confess that I am holding material over a year old. It’s the reality of my workload. And I’ve received some of the most gracious, charming nudges. Believe me, those writers make an impression.
How often is too often to nudge? “I don’t want to bother the agent,” you may say. Rethink this. Yes, you don’t want to nudge too soon or too often– high maintenance is a huge turn-off– but your time and expectations are as valuable as the agent’s. I don’t know a single agent who brushes off writers as unimportant or expendable. It’s just that, day-to-day, we can’t control the fires that need to be extinguished or the issues that require immediate attention. Contact the agent when it seems appropriate. If that agent reacts badly, you’ve learned something very important. If that agent ignores your nudge, you know how overwhelmed he is and you can decide to wait and nudge again or simply write him off. Never, NEVER, stop pitching your book to other agents or editors while waiting to hear from someone who requested your manuscript. We all understand you will continue marketing your work and we run the risk of losing you as we delay.
An important thing to remember: It is easy to get to the no. It takes only a couple of minutes for an agent to know something’s not going to work. It takes a long time, however, to evaluate the maybes.
So sound off: If you were an agent at a conference how would you handle this? Should agents and editors “speak the truth in love” as my client suggested? Further questions? Vents?