Thursday, 24 May 2012

How Not To Approach An Agent

Once there was a man called Mark who was looking for an agent for his novel. He told his friend, Joe Bloggs, who suggested Mark could try his friend Ginny who was a literary agent.
So Mark rang Ginny up.
'Hi, Ginny,' he started. 'I'm a friend of -'
'My name is Virginia,' she cut in, and put the phone down.

Who do you think was rude - Mark or Virginia/Ginny?

Consider these points:

1.  To Mark, his book is important.  In fact, it's been the central feature of his life for some years.  He's thrilled to have finished it.  
2.  Ginny is deluged with manuscripts every day, and has been for years.  She already has all the clients she can cope with. 
3.  Mark has just retired and has time on his hands - that's in part why he wrote a novel.
4.  Ginny is in the middle of a busy working day.  She's waiting to get a call from an editor about an existing client's manuscript.
5.  Cold calling is annoying.
6.  Cold calling is especially annoying when they get your name wrong.

Mark didn't think what it was like to be Ginny.  He forgot that publishing is a business.  If asked, he might have imagined her day to be like something from an Ealing film - a large empty office with a leather Chesterfield sofa, an assistant called Emma or Felicity, the morning spent pottering around before a long boozy lunch and a book launch in the evening.   It really isn't like that any more, if it ever was.  Publishing is a meaner, leaner machine and no one has time to potter.  

So who was rude? In a lot of ways, questions of rudeness aren't really the issue here.  What I think Mark showed was ignorance, and in his ignorance he put his foot in it. He forgot that, although his novel was terribly important to him, it wasn't important at all to Ginny.  

What Mark should have done was a bit of research (via The Writers and Artists Yearbook or The Writers Handbook) and found out what Ginny's professional name was.  Then he could have contacted Ginny by mail or email and done it properly:

Dear Virginia Smith,
Our mutual friend, Joe Bloggs, suggested I contact you....

Publishing is a business, and the people who work in it take it as seriously as anybody else who takes their day job seriously.  I think we writers get so caught up in our stories that we sometimes forget that.  


Paul Sampson said...

Ginny is wronger.

I think they're both a little inconsiderate. Mark shouldn't even have used a forename, but a Ms and her surname. It's a first-time business call. He should know better. A child would know that.

But Mark can always find another agent. Ginny - as I shall continue to name her just to annoy her - has lost Mark for good. Which may not matter, but she's supposed to be a professional whereas Mark is not.

Clair Humphries said...

Great advice as ever, Sarah. I think, unless you know someone well, phone calls can always be tricky - judging the tone, how to sound polite/professional/passionate about your work etc. is so easy to get wrong, especially under pressure. Much safer to write everything in an email or letter when you've got time to sit and think properly!

Sarah Duncan said...

Paul, I agree with you that both of them are inconsiderate and that by most standards Ginny is pretty rude. But you're wrong about who loses out - Mark can only approach relatively few agents and the odds are not good that they would want to represent his book, whereas Ginny can choose from thousands of would be authors.

Clair, I'd always suggest writing a) because of your reasons and b) because after all you're supposed to be a writer, so it's another chance to showcase your skills. Hopefully...

Jeff Faria said...

Though you may be quite right in this instance, it's also worth remembering that most lit agents aren't worth spit. Want a for-instance? Thought you'd never ask! (Note that of all the agent contacts this author cites, only ONE was professional and sincere.)

Sarah Duncan said...

Jeff, thanks for that link. It's ironic - many of the faults the agents displayed are those that they complain of in writers...

It's worth noting the outcome - the person who behaved in a professional manner (taking the work seriously, approaching the other person in a business-like but respectful way etc) succeeded. True for agents and writers alike (and probably publishers, and just about anybody).