Before You Pitch Literary Agents, Watch Out For This One Dangerous Trait

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As a young undergraduate in Dublin, I once eavesdropped on a barroom conversation among some off-duty prison officers.

These uniformed men one-upped each other with war stories about the prisoners they were paid to guard or serve. I recall lots of beer-fueled guffaws and anecdotes that skirted or violated privacy laws. Clearly, these men no longer saw the incarcerated as individuals.

Instead, around that bar stood a pack of male Marie Antoinettes who regarded the people in their care as the faceless peasantry begging to storm the castle gates.

Recently, I encountered a small-press publisher whose online blog posts about submitting writers instantly reminded me of those tipsy, irritated prison officers.

I’d love to be able to say that this publisher is an anomaly. But I fear that a “You dumb authors out there” posture is becoming a trend.

Take for instance a Twitter pitch-a-thon that acted like a virtual open house, during which agents invited new authors to pitch their books. Sounds very gallant and democratic, right?

Except for the one agent who tweeted his rejections, plus a set of sneering remarks about his submitting authors’ works. Now, in any other industry, using social media to publicly grouse about — or insult — that industry’s customers would instantly get him fired.

Thinking the two examples I cite here are extreme and rogue? Please tell me this is the case.

Why checking up on potential agents and editors matters

In the rest of the world, in other businesses, success and reputation are driven by how we  conduct ourselves in public, online and behind the boardroom doors. Sadly, a handful of practitioners assume that the publishing world is exempt from otherwise standard business practices.

In and beyond the writing and publishing industry, the way someone uses social media is often a window into that person’s work attitude and style, and a signpost as to how a potential working relationship will evolve.

Trust me when I tell you that the “You dumb authors” stance is not one you will want to work with for short- or long-term projects.

Do yourself a favor. As a writer querying your next agent or publisher, watch for those Marie Antoinettes who regard you as yet another dang and dumb author trying to storm the publishing gates.

This attitude is not always detectable via a Publisher’s Marketplace search or any of the other ways in which we pre-check and vet a target editor or agent, but you can and should do your own due diligence.

How to spot red flags before you query an agent or editor

Here are four tips for avoiding unkind or cruel members of the publishing community.

1. Evaluate public submission requirements

Read through the list of submission or pitching requirements, to which you should of course strictly adhere. As you review, pay particular attention to the tone and tenor of how the outfit speaks of its authors.

You’re a writer. Your specialties are tone and word choice. Use these skills to weed out the amateurs.

2. Scope out social media accounts

Check the editor or agent’s social media presence and postings, including blogs. Again, pay close attention to what gets said about prospective or rejected authors and how it’s being written.

Take a pass on anyone who seems to get a thrill — like those prison officers — out of using recently considered authors as Exhibit A in how put-upon and barraged her editorial life is.

3. Industry blog? Or personal diary?

There’s nothing more civic and civil than someone who maintains an industry blog with information, statistics, tips and commentary on the industry as a whole. Alan Rinzler’s “The Book Deal” is one gold-standard example, but there are lots more.

Then there are those that read like a teenage diary rant. These are not industry blogs.

At best, they speak for one outfit and its editorial preferences. At worst, they’re just digital spew or someone’s after-work rant session.

4. Listen to your gut

Search for online interviews or writing conference videos that feature your target agent.

Watch this person’s delivery and demeanor. Forget how desperate you are to be published. Forget the skewed power dynamic. Forget a so-called downsized publishing world.

Apply the same standards you use when choosing any other business partner.

The bottom line: Especially for book-length projects, the road from contract to editing to publication can be a long one — too long to walk with someone who will never treat you as an equal or worthy project partner.

Have you ever discovered the hard way that a publisher or editor was a terrible fit? How did you react?

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Aine Greaney is an Irish-born writer living in Massachusetts. In addition to four books, she has published essays in outlets such as The Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Writers Digest Magazine and NPR Boston.... .

Website | @ainegreaney

Aine Greaney
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Comments

  1. I sometimes summarize my work as a freelance editor thus: “People pay me to tell them that their baby is ugly, but in a nice way.” I have to walk the line between frankly pointing out areas where a manuscript can be improved and remembering that this text has been brought into being by hard, often painful labor. The author is deeply invested in it, or they wouldn’t have sent it for editing. The more they want help making it the best it can be, the more vulnerable they may be during the process.

    It’s true that the right editor (or agent) for one person may not be right for another, and an author needs to find the one whose style is right for him or her. However, I tend to suspect that someone who takes satisfaction in tearing down rather than in building up is probably not right for anyone, and is just in the wrong job.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services and Writers’ Resources
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  2. Wow. This is incredibly helpful. I”m writing my first novel now and trying to get back into the following and surveying the industry landscape. Thank you for this!

  3. This reminds me of when some agents (including ones with good reputations) were having “inbox races” on Twitter, seeing who could clear out their slush pile the fastest.

    Authors called them out on it, noting they encouraged potential clients to follow them, and then cheerfully showed how little attention they were paying to each submission right in their public timeline.

    • Kat, Yikes. I hadn’t heard of the inbox race. Again, horrid business practice that wouldn’t fly in any other industry. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Jessica Salmonson (darkocean) says:

        Is it any wonder why many writers are self publishing now a days? It’s hard enough mustering up the courage to send a finished manuscript in. Then to find out some editers/agents acting like rhis. I’m just plain scared to death now!

  4. Aine
    I find this a comfort. As my book nears completion, anxiety builds. I will take this advice to heart. Thank you.

  5. It’s sad that there is so much slime in the publishing industry. But for every bad one, I’m sure there are many, many more good ones. The trick is to avoid the bad ones and never let them or their poor attitude get you down.

    • Jason, thanks for stopping by. There are, indeed, lots of good ones. And it’s important to remember that it’s a business. We do our part of creating; they do theirs of placing the book and selling. It should be a pretty polite and professional set-up. Happily, most of the time it is.

  6. BonniePressHarrison says:

    It’s good to read “good articles” that remind us the word Agent can mean different things. In some ways, finding an agent you can work with is somewhat like trying on shoes. They may look good, be expensive, but not comfortable enough for the long walk. Authors can get dazzled by promotions, promises & predators. Some agents serve the author while others are self serving and charge too much for too little, often nothing! When you write that last line and say “the end” it should be the beginning. At this most vulnerable time, it’s a time for writers to be the most careful. Having an agent to just have an agent can be a hazard to your literary health and your image. No agent is better than a bad agent.

  7. Pamela Woods-Jackson says:

    In 2011 I published my first romance novel with what I thought was a reputable small publisher. Turns out they had very shady business practices. My assigned editor “forgot” to do edits on my book, and I was berated by the publisher for not completing the work on time. Consequently I did my own editing, which was ignored by the publisher and resulted in a finished product riddled with errors. The cover art indicated that no one had actually read the story because it had little or nothing to do with the book. And lastly, their roster of authors reached into the hundreds, meaning most of their book sales were to the authors themselves or the authors’ friends and family. It was a poor man’s self-publishing company.

  8. In 2009 I had a religious book published by Trafford in Victoria B.C.
    They did an excellent Job (How awesome this Place).
    No sooner was the book ready for Publication Trafford sold out to “Author Solutions”.
    The next thing that happened was that my Book got lost for three months and nobody could find it.
    Then it mysteriously reappeared to be slated by “Author Solutions” for great success although I was warned to be “patient”. The highly accredited Company is located in Bloomington Indiana – or are they?
    After a “Google” I called another occupant of 1663 Liberty St., Only to find out that there is NOBODY there. Where are they?
    They are in the Philippines, I was told by a giggling Lady.
    Now, not that there is anything wrong with working out of a Banana Republic, but
    the Problem with an Oversees Country is the clouded out of reach Accountability.
    All Fees however are US Dollars, of which there are many, many, many.
    To be exact over $ 23,000.– US, so far with zero result.
    Yes, you heard me (1 Book sold in 7 Years) right. Last week, I got weak again and followed professional advise and send another $ 5,030.–US to make this work.
    No sooner did the Money clear, I was advised to have a Book review done at, and yes you guessed it, more Money.
    At this point I realized how incredibly stupid I have been to follow up on someones clever Scheme to make me believe I had a viable Book to bring on the apparently over saturated Market.
    The whole process is very much still an ongoing process, just as the Story of creation is still an ongoing process.
    I am the eternal Optimist – yes I am. Perhaps, just perhaps, the 2nd Book will sell this time around. If NOT, the Readers will be the Looser, wont they. After all my job is done. I wrote the Book and paid the Money. Now things are out of my Hand – WHO is to BLAME? Who has the answer?
    Who understands the complex world of Publishing?
    What else can the Writer Do?

    • If you’re working with a reputable, traditional publisher, money should always flow to the writer. You should not be paying them to publish you, promote you, edit your book, etc. It sounds like you got caught up in a vanity press or a scam. Before spending any further money, I encourage you to check out a writing community (e.g. http://www.absolutewrite.com) and gather info and advice there. The forums there have tons of advice and can help you avoid situations like this.

      Best of luck in the future,

      Kevin

  9. Kabelo Mabona says:

    I wrote two books, one motivational and the other is a bible book. But the problem is one, I am still a student and not financially stable and I’m wondering if there isn’t a way of publishing them, thereafter the royalties will cover the debts (publishing process)? Thanking in advance

    • Kabelo,

      What you are describing is basically the way traditional publishing works: The publishing house pays the upfront costs of publication, such as editing, typesetting, printing, binding, marketing and shipping. They pay you a royalty percentage from each book sold, and the rest goes to them, hopefully enough to cover their costs and make a profit.

      Of course, because they are paying out money before any books have been sold, they are taking a risk, and businesses don’t like risk. They want to be sure there is a reasonable likelihood that enough books will sell to recover their costs and make a profit. That’s why they are very selective about which books they agree to publish. If your book is of very good quality and fits well into a marketable niche, then it is quite possible to be published by this route, in which you are paid for your book rather than paying for its publication.

      If you cannot find a traditional publisher to accept your book and are thinking of self-publication, no, no one is going to pay the costs for you. The whole point of self-publication is that you are bypassing the “gatekeepers” involved in traditional publishing and choosing to take your own chance on it, regardless of whatever anyone else in the publishing industry thinks of its likelihood of success. One reason self-publication is not right for everyone is because not everyone can afford it.

      If self-publication is not right for you, sometimes a better route is to invest the time in polishing your writing skills and learning about publication trends so that you can write a book with the best possible chance of finding a home with a publisher. This can take time, and there is a certain loss of creative freedom if you choose what book to write based on what publishers think will sell, rather than on what YOU think will sell (or just what you want to say, whether it sells or not). On the other hand, if your book is accepted for publication, you can take pride in being a “published author,” because someone with enough experience to have a pretty good idea of what will sell has chosen your book from among the many manuscripts they have been sent. Only you can decide what tradeoffs you are willing to make.

      I hope this helps. For more information, you may want to check out my YouTube videos on business models in publication. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5SBOP4AuRNiiLznigrar67OADnaVEUvi

      Best of luck with your writing!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Freelance Editorial Services
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  10. Wow, this was really helpful! I especially like your closing notes and the sentence “Apply the same standards you use when choosing any other business partner.”. I think this is what it should be all about. A mutual respect and equal treatment for both partners – never mind that the dynamics usually aren’t but that does not allow a pass for people who take advantage of that. Thank you for this article!

    • AnneMarie, thank you for visiting. You sum it up well and sometimes I think we have become over accustomed to the leaner and meaner version of business. I’m glad you found it useful.

  11. thanks Aine.

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