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

by | Feb 8, 2016

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?