What writers really wish you knew

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Attention Icon.
English: Attention Icon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fun life being a writer, which is why so many people are lining up, still, to do it.

I just spent a fun/tiring eight hours in Manhattan at a freelancers’ conference. But if you make your living at it, (and or dream of it), some frustrations become routine.

Here are a few things writers really wish you knew:

— It’s not a hobby. We attend conferences and take classes, (or teach them), and network and spend time and money and attention improving our skills. Assuming it’s something cute we do “just for fun” is ignorant and disrespectful.

— Working alone at home can be really lonely and isolating. Come meet us for coffee or a drink!

— We need feedback on our material, especially works-in-progress, aka WIPs. If we get up the nerve to ask you to read or review it, that’s a big gesture of trust on our part. Please say yes, please offer specific feedback and please do it.

— We need blurbs for our books. If you have a connection to A Big Name who might help us, please make the call or send the email. Asking for blurbs can be one of the hardest parts of writing and publishing a book.

— If you ask me for help, do not blow off the phone call I booked time for. Let alone twice.

— If you ask me for help, be classy enough to offer me some as well, if not today, then down the road.

— Don’t ask me to hand over the names and contacts of my editors. If I feel like that’s the right choice, I’ll offer.

— Don’t ask me for an introduction to my agent. I may not think you’re ready for prime time. I may not think you are a good fit for their list or their personality. Don’t put me on the spot. If I think it’s right, I’ll offer.

— Don’t ask to “pick my brain.” It’s annoying and presumptuous.

— Don’t ask me how much my advance was. It’s really annoying. I don’t ask your salary!

— Don’t whine about how hard/lonely/difficult/poorly-paid it can be, especially at the beginning. I know. Go do something else…like retail or fast-food work. That’s misery, kids. Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon; a messy, necessary part of every working day. Get used it or don’t be a writer.

— We’re insecure. Did you really like that story/pitch/book/screenplay? Say so!

— Repeat business is the sweetest. When you find a writer whose work you like and you enjoy working with, throw them as much work as they can handle. You’ll win our loyalty.

— If you’re a client, and we bill by the hour, don’t cheap out and ask us for a 30-minute consultation. It can take that much time to even read your two-page material thoughtfully, let alone formulate helpful ways to improve it.

— If you’re an editor, and like what we’ve done, say so! We’re hungry for praise and enthusiasm, no matter how experienced we are. The check is what we work for. A thank-you or other additional thumbs-up is what we hope for.

— Just like you, we’re all juggling multiple projects every day, some competing for the same time you think you’ve bought exclusively. Don’t demand immediate replies, revisions or turn-arounds on a moment’s notice. If you need our undivided attention, say so, explain when — and pay properly enough that we’re willing to back-burner other things for you. Snapping your fingers at us just means we’ll never work for you again.

— Pay us promptly with no excuses! There is nothing more irritating than meeting every deadline, even beating it, then waiting weeks or months for payment. You got paid. The lights are still on in your office. The office rent got paid. Our turn!

— Make the time to get to know us, even a little bit. We, too, have kids and hobbies and new puppies. The more we know, like and trust one another, the better our working relationship is likely to be. We’re not robots. We don’t want to be treated like one.

— Let us get to know you a bit as well. We don’t need or want to be your BFFs, but people work best with those they like and respect. You can’t like and respect a cipher. I recently found out all the jobs one of my editors is expected to do. Jesus, no wonder she sounds so stressed and tired!

— Follow up. If we’ve pitched you an idea after a meeting or phone chat, or we’ve been introduced to you by your boss or someone you trust, don’t ignore us. It’s rude! These weren’t cold calls. We’ve done our due diligence to get a good referral. You’re dissing them and us.

— Be explicit about what you need, expect and in what order. If your publication normally expects three revisions, say so at the outset and we’ll budget that time, or not work with you. But insatiably grabbing more unpaid time on a set fee is greedy.

— If you’re my agent, and we’ve agreed to work together, please answer my phone calls and emails promptly. I won’t drive you mad, but I expect you to pay attention; you’ll be claiming 15% of every check I earn from our books together, so I expect you to earn it.

— If you wish to sever our working relationship, do so. Don’t be passive aggressive and neglectful. Just get it over with.

Here’s a great post, from Freshly Pressed, (which inspired this post), by a theater veteran about what actors really feel but are often afraid to say out loud about their working conditions.

My tribe

By Caitlin Kelly

I spent yesterday at the annual conference in New York City of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 1,400-member group founded in 1947. There were writers there with Pulitzer prizes and best-selling books and HBO series and made-for-TV movies and options and…

A girl could feel mighty small in that crowd!

The New Yorker
The New Yorker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not to mention editors from publications like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic and the New Yorker, four of the — arguably — most desirable markets for magazine writers in the U.S. (Only one of whom, from VF, was female.)

Instead, it was a terrific day of fierce hugs and nostalgia and excited shrieks over new books, and books currently being looked at by Major Publishers, and awards and pregnancies and a friend’s daughter accepted to a good (if costly!) college.

English: proportion of MRSA human blood isolat...
English: proportion of MRSA human blood isolates from participating countries in 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was Greg, who writes great stuff about nature and the outdoors, and Maryn, whose book Superbug, about MRSA (flesh eating bacteria) is absolutely riveting and terrifying, and Dan, with his new book about endangered wildlife of Vietnam.

In the hallway, I bumped into a woman with a suitcase and recognized Helaine Olen, whose fantastic book about how we’ve all been conned by the financial services industry I gave a rave review a few months ago in The New York Times.

Helaine Olen
Helaine Olen (Photo credit: New America Foundation)

I served on the ASJA board for six years and still volunteer as a trustee of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can write a check of up to $4,000 — a grant — to a needy non-fiction writer within a week. (If you can ever spare even $20 for the cause of decent journalism and the freelancers who produce so much of it, I’d be thrilled if you’d donate to WEAF.)

So I know lots of people through that, and have given back some of my time and talents to the industry I’ve been working in since 1978.

I went out for dinner that night with Maryn and three new-to-me women writers, all crazy accomplished and of course the conversation quickly turned to — female serial killers. That’s what happens when you get a bunch of newshounds at the same table; four of us had worked for major dailies and all miss the adrenaline rush of working a Big Story. So we do it now for magazines and books and newspapers and websites.

It was, in the most satisfying and nurturing way, a gathering of the tribe — people who had come from Geneva and Paris and San Diego and Toronto and Atlanta and Minneapolis and Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine, all hungry to be in some small, crowded stuffy meeting rooms to talk about what it is we do and how to do it better.

We write. We tell stories. We wake up bursting to share the cool, moving, sad, powerful, holy-shit-can-you-believe-it? richness of the world, all the untold tales that surround us every day, just there, waiting for us to capture, pitch, sell and tell them.

That’s my tribe.

What’s yours?

Hoping for Best-Sellerdom? J-Day's Q and A With Two Veteran Agents

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

This week’s installment of J-Day offers two New York City-based veteran agents, Kathleen Anderson and Joe Spieler, both of whom I know personally and have worked with on my own proposals. They’re very different people, but both bring a tough-minded, battle-scarred perspective to the brutal business of book publishing. No matter what form a new book arrives in, someone has to find it, prepare it, sell it, advocate for it and negotiate every possible profit for its author, from audio to foreign-language rights.

Being a terrific agent demands the diplomacy of an ambassador, the speed and agility of a prize-fighter, the protective instincts of a momma grizzly and the tenacity of a pit-bull.

I met Kathleen through one of her assistants, who found me. I met Joe Spieler when he, literally, pitched to me first — playing in the same co-ed softball group for the past eight years. Kathleen blends great sensitivity with a steel spine; Joe’s a gruff, tough guy with a deep love of excellence, the agent for Thomas’ Frank’s 2004 best-seller “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”

Kathleen Anderson is an award-winning editor and agent who has been working in the publishing business since 1977 — first as an editor at W.W. Norton where she published DEAR AMERICA: Letters Home From Vietnam, which became an Emmy award-winning documentary, then as a senior editor at Poseidon, formerly a division of Simon & Schuster, where she published and edited Mary Gaitskill and Ursula Hegi. She is a recipient of the Tony Godwin Award, given to an outstanding American editor under 35 who is then sent to England to learn about British publishing.  She was a founding partner of Anderson Grinberg Literary Management, Inc., then formed her own firm in 2006. She specializes in adult and young adult literary and commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, American and European history, literary journalism, nature and travel writing, memoir, and biography. She is a member of PEN and the AAR (Association of Author’s Representatives).

Where did you attend college and what did you study?
KA: I attended Hampshire College because it’s an experimental college with no grades or credits.  It allows you to progress through college by individual evaluations by professors. It was perfect for me because I needed a more creative education that allowed me to design my own education while providing me with the opportunity to take courses at any of the other colleges in the valley: Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, U.Mass.
JS: I studied comparative literature (I don’t know why, except that I spoke a few languages, all of them miserably), taking a degree from City College in the Pleistocene.

When, how and why did you become an agent?

KA: I became an agent in 1995.  Previously I had been working as a senior editor for an imprint called Poseidon, a division of Simon & Schuster, where I published a lot of serious nonfiction and literary fiction writers such as Mary Gaitskill and Ursula Hegi.  The imprint was terminated so I found myself without a job, so took a few years off to travel and regroup.  In the process, I metamorphosed into an agent, which was a rarity in those days for editors to jump the fence and become an agent.  (It’s very common now.)  But it wasn’t a big leap for me because I was always an author advocate in-house as an editor, always trying to get the author more money, better book jackets, always fighting with the powers-that-be on behalf of my authors.  I somehow never realized that I was supposed to be representing the house and not the author.  So when I became an agent, it made perfect sense and gave me much more flexibility — now I can work with all the publishing houses and I’m no longer restricted to one house’s point of view on a manuscript or proposal  What my former employers reject, I can sell elsewhere.

JS: I became an agent in 1981, when a close friend, a Marine lieutenant who had seen and endured much in the Vietnam War, asked me to help him publish a series of linked short stories of his experience there. I did and the book was “Cooks and Bakers”, by Robert A. Anderson. I never looked back.

What are the top three skills an agent needs to succeed?
KA: Patience, perserverence, and literary acumen.

JS: Perhaps a weaving of cultural passion, deep reading in the agent’s areas of interest, and a concern for others. Of course, I know hugely successful agents who show no sign of these traits.

Who’s the ideal client, i.e. what skills or aptitudes do they bring?
KA: Patience, perserverence, and literary acumen.

JS: I have no ideal client. I want somebody who can write, who has something to say that hasn’t been said, and the mental/psychological conditioning of a saint, or who has come into a healthy financial inheritance.

Who’s the nightmare client? How can a writer who hopes to find an agent avoid being that nightmare?
KA: Authors who treat an agent like their employee.  Being an agent is a service profession, but it’s a profession nonetheless.  Mutual respect of each other’s expertise and a general feeling of trust is paramount in the relationship. Once that goes, the whole relationship is a nightmare.

JS: There are no qualifications for being a nightmare client: if the writer is a nightmare to others in his life, the odds are he’ll be a nightmare to his agent. Sane, wonderful writers can become nightmare clients overnight — who knows why. The process generally doesn’t go in reverse.

What’s the most useful preparation a non-fiction author can do before coming to you?
KA: Find out what other nonfiction authors I publish so you have a sense of the scope of what I have done. Write a proposal before coming to me — and the proposal needs to present a narrative overview of the book as a whole. It is expected that in order to promote your work, you have a website and hopefully participate in blogs, whether your own or someone else’s.

JS: Write it and rewrite it until you can’t go further. Put it aside from anywhere from a week to a year. Then rewrite it again. Then call me.

What is the most challenging aspect of selling non-fiction these days?
KA: PLATFORM.  This is what you most often hear from publishers — what is the author’s PLATFORM? I’ve never cared much about an author’s PLATFORM.  I’ve always cared more about the writing.

JS: The same challenge it’s always been: to get editors–and their higher-highers–to see past their nose. Some can, and are encouraged to by their houses (probably less than a dozen senior such editors now in trade publishing); most can’t.

How has publishing changed in recent years and what are you, and your clients doing to adapt?
KA: Publishers have become much more selective — they only want to publish books that can sell at least 25,000 copies. There are many successful authors who sell way less than that — and I’m sure Herta Muller, the woman who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature today, is one of them.  So clients have to do one of two things to adapt:  (1) they keep writing whatever they want, regardless of potential sales, and adjust their expectations accordingly — it would be more important to find a good home with the right editor in that case than strive for an unrealistic advance; (2) clients discuss with their agent different ideas for books and make a strategic decision about which book would have the best chance of furthering their careers or getting the highest advance (not necessarily the same thing). For my part, I edit the proposals and try to make them the best they can be before they are sent to an editor so they have the best chance of getting bought.

JS: Books have lost their cultural primacy, though they won’t disappear. Other forms have taken huge bites out of the printed word. What am I doing about it? I’m waiting for further developments. The horse did not give way to the car overnight.

What’s the greatest pleasure of being an agent?
KA: Relationships with authors and what I learn from them.

JS: Drinking and going to sleep.

The greatest challenge?
KA: Relationships with authors and what I don’t learn from them.

JS: The whole damn thing’s a challenge, like preparing yourself for root canal.

Anything you’d like to add?

KA: Remember that if your book is rejected fifteen times, it doesn’t mean anything.  The proposal could have been sent to the wrong people, or the editors are too conventional to understand what’s in front of them. If you and your agent believe in the book, then you have to keep trying.

JS: The exception to all this–and it’s a big one — is books for children. For some reason, the dumbing down is at a minimum, and for most houses there remains an ethical strand in their books for the young-uns. That will probably disappear after the next generation of tiny-tot readers. Then again, so might the whole mammalian endeavor.

Next week’s final installment, a Q and A with non-fiction authors Ulrich Boser, whose 2009 best-seller is “The Gardner Heist” and Kelsey Timmerman, author of “Where Am I Wearing?”, a look at how our clothing is cheaply made overseas.