September 10th, 2007


Agent Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

Welcome to this week's column hosted by Agent Manners. Today, readers can submit questions regarding etiquette when dealing with agents, whether it be the query process or meeting them face to face at a conference. In the spirit of it, they should be submitted in letter form beginning with "Dear Agent Manners" and signed with such things as "Confused in Alabama."

Only one letter per person, please. They should be posted in comments and may be submitted up until 10pm tonight EST. I will attempt to answer as many as my schedule allows (perhaps over the course of several days) but I reserve the right to pick and choose. I do not promise to be as pithy as the original Miss Manners (see below). Sense of humor required.

Dear Miss Manners:
Last night I ran into a classmate of mine whom I haven't seen in ten years. I know he's a writer now, but I didn't feel I could say anything about his new book because I haven't read it and he would be sure to find that out if I tried to talk about it. And yet I feel I should have said something, if only because he didn't mention what he was doing and seemed to be waiting for me to acknowledge that I knew, if you know what I mean. What is the right thing to say to an author when you honestly can't say "I loved your book" ?

Gentle Reader:
Few people, and no writers, have such high standards about compliments as to accept only those that will pass a rigourous test for veracity. Miss Manners experience is that an author will accept with joy any remark except "How many have you sold?" or "Did you know it's being remaindered now?" or "I'd love to read it--please send me a copy."

From Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin (Warner Books Trade Paper edition, p. 616)
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from Agent Manners files

Dear Agent Manners:

I've recently acquired an agent with whom I am happy. This agent was not my first choice but is working hard to sell my book. My first choice agent came very close to accepting my manuscript and was very complimentary to my work but ultimately decided to pass.

My question is this: I'm planning to attend a conference where this "first choice" agent will be attending. I'd like to thank the agent for the very encouraging words and support offered to me at the time I was searching for an agent. Do I go up to that agent and say "Hi, don't know if you remember me but you were very encouraging about my manuscript and I just wanted to thank you in person for your kind words." Or do I leave it? Since I'm no longer looking for an agent - and the agent will be busy enough at the conference, I'm sure - is it better for me not to acknowledge that brief 'close but no cigar offer' at all?

Wanting to do the right thing


Dear Wanting:

First, congratulations on finding an agent that is making you happy. May you enjoy a long and fruitful career together.

Like writers, and indeed, anyone else, agents love to hear when they have done a good job or made a positive contribution. While it might feel slightly awkward to you, I think an agent would appreciate a friendly face and kind words at a conference (those can be so exhausting). The way you've phrased your intended dialogue above is about the best one might expect. Naturally, do try to make sure your timing is convenient for all involved. And keep it professional.

Best of luck.

from Agent Manners files

Dear Agent Manners:

I know that agents prefer a writer with along list of publications in their biography. So many of us don't have that. What is the best way to present this? Some writers-help pieces say, "If you've nothing to list, skip this part." Others say, acknowledge it straight away, "I've nothing to list here of significance but I have written this, this and this and am in the submission process." And one site, whose advice I most certainly wil lnot be following said, "Make something up. Everybody does." I prefer to think that is untrue.

What is it that an agent really wants to see in that bio line or seperate biography, if a writer doesn't have a list of publications or awards? I know we all have to start somewhere. So how do I communicate that I'm a serious writer, as committed to selling the books as I am to writing them?

Thanks for any advice you can give.


Dear Limited Bio:

Credits are certainly nice. Every beginning agent would love to have a string of sales to shore up their resume. But, as you say, one has to start somewhere. I would certainly never recommend lying. Who wants to begin any relationship with falsehoods? (Rhetorical question.) My recommendation if you've nothing to list is to go right into the pitch that will hook your reader (AKA the agent) into the story and let the writing do the work for you. If you have any relevant life experience to personalize it, include that too. But remember that, in the end, you're a writer and the writing is the thing. And, between you and me, if you've actually managed to finish a manuscript and submit, that already shows you've made a commitment.