Monday, June 28, 2010

Lessons Learned While Walking in an Agent's Shoes

Don’t judge a person, the old adage advises, until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. Or her heels.

I recently experienced, on a small scale, what was very close to a mile in an agent’s life. I confess my eyes were opened to nuances in the submission process that escaped me while walking in my regular Writer’s Shoes. It’s amazing how quickly one learns what makes a submission stand out, what rubs one the wrong way, and what is clearly a waste of everyone’s time when the shoe is on the other foot.

Walk with me, if you will, and I’ll share the lessons I recently learned.

Lesson 1: My Loyalties Lie With Those I Know

Before beginning the jaunt, a bit of backstory is warranted.

For the past two years I have been involved in creating a Major Project for a Major Client. This is the client who has kept food on my table and gas in my car. The client who kept me from wearing a “Will Write For Food” sign while lurking around Wal-Mart. The client is classy, solvent, and at the top of its field.

Because of my work on this project, I have been fortunate to work with absolute legends in my client’s industry. My client has been very happy with the work I’ve done thus far on the project. I will do everything in my power to keep the joy alive.

The completed project is a 200K word document chock-full of educational material for several stages of an industry-wide certification process. The client wants it indexed. Since this is patently NOT my specialty, I began the Great Indexer Search. I mentioned on Twitter that I was looking for experienced indexers. A freelance writer friend posted a short ad for me on a professional writer’s site. I asked the managing editor of a publisher I’ve worked with for recommendations.

Throughout the entire process, though I was looking for a great indexer – one who could do the job and do it well – my loyalties were firmly in the client’s camp. My client pays the bills. My client has the need. My client is my priority.

If I happen to find a brilliant indexer and we hit it off; great. But my first concern is not in building a long-term relationship with an indexer or in furthering an indexer’s career. It’s keeping my client happy.

This is akin to the agent who has spent years forging strong working relationships with editors and publishers. The first priority is in sending the publishing professionals material they can use: salable, marketable projects. Finding new authors is part of the job. But the loyalties must lie with those who pay the bills. New people will only enter the mix if they can contribute in a significant way to the success of those with whom the agent already has a history or an obligation.

Lesson 2: Square Pegs Don’t Fill Round Holes

The submissions came rolling in.

Most were professional and, to some degree, addressed my indexing need. A few of those bidding mentioned that they also offered other services: editing, proofreading & the like. This was fine, but it didn’t elevate them above those who only indexed. I didn’t need other services. I wasn’t looking for other services. I didn’t ask for other services. So I didn’t care about other services. I only cared about providing the service my client needed.

One submission, however, was clearly inappropriate. And the job-hunter knew it. “I know you said you needed an indexer,” the query letter began, ”but if you need (insert completely different and unrelated service here), please consider me.”

It took time to write that e-mail. It took time for me to read it. It took time for me to write back (nicely, of course), “Thanks, but no thanks.” Wasted time.

This person could have been the best (insert unrelated service provider) in the world. But that doesn’t help me or my client. So it does none of us any good.

The analogy is obvious. If an agent says he wants YA or MG books, don’t fill up his in-box with adult sci-fi. You can be the next Isaac Asimov. If he only has working relationships with YA & kidlit publishers, he won’t be able to sell your stuff. Brilliant writing will get you nowhere if the agent doesn’t rep that genre.

Lesson 3: Make It Easy For Me To Do My Job

Within an hour of posting the opening, I had over 15 submissions.

• Some were so generic that they quickly got lumped in the “adequate” pile.

• A few included links to websites or work samples. This worked in people’s favor IF the links were to relevant materials. It worked against them, however, if the links took me to sites that were clunky, cluttered, vague, unprofessional, or (there’s that word again) generic.

• One attached a 3 page “information sheet” that was intended, I assume, to help bid out the project more accurately. However, no one else included such a thing. Filling out the sheet would take a good ½ hour – and I’m not convinced that would be a great use of my time. Especially since other indexers were able to estimate both time and $$ bids based on the information I provided to all.

• A few asked for specific additional information in order to give a more accurate estimate. In each case, I was able to comply. In no case did the request for more specifics or for clarification negatively influence my opinion of the job seeker.

I want to find a great fit for my client’s needs, but I don’t have hours and days to do it. The submissions who stand out are the ones who clearly show that they know what I need and are capable of filling it. Those who apologize for their inexperience, point me to irrelevant work samples, or ask me to invest significant amounts of my time up front to determine whether or not we’re a good match don’t leave me with a Happy Tingles of Joy. It’s more like Irksome Grumps of Annoyance.

Lesson 4: Brevity Trumps All

Most of the people responding to my job post had no experience whatsoever in the rather rarified industry that my client rules. That’s fine. Expertise within the field was not a pre-requisite.

One person, however, had some personal experience in the area. She mentioned it in passing – 5 words politely embedded at the end of her submission. Had she included several paragraphs of her background, it would have worked against her. However, the few words that let me know “Hey, I know a bit about this!” made her stand out among the others and moved her near the top of the Strongly Consider list.

Keep submission letters short. Sweet. And relevant. That is all.

It took me quite some time to read (and weed) through the submissions. The ones that caught and kept my attention, that made me want to take a chance on recommending them for consideration, were professional, succinct, and on target. They made it EASY for me to recommend them.

As I put my own writer’s shoes back on and tie the laces tight, I’m seeing my own submissions to agents in a whole new light.

1 comment:

Morgan Ives said...

Thanks for posting this! It's very helpful to see things from the "other side" and realize why agents do what they do.