On warmth

What do I owe querying writers?

This is for the new writing/sports blog: Do you, or agents in general, care about your reputation amongst people who are querying? Probably you do not have time. Asking because your "dear author" generated rejections leave everyone cold, according to querytracker. This doesn't stop people from querying, though, so maybe it doesn't matter? With at least 2 Nightmare Agent stories in 2018, we're all just running a little more leery. Thanks!

When I was a little baby I learned a term that has haunted me to this day: “parasocial relationship.” This interesting article defines “parasocial relationship” as a “one-sided relationship, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence.” The way social media flattens out the communication landscape and heightens these parasocial relationship has been written about at length. Celebrities share things on social media; we consume that media, and we think we know them. 

For example, it continually delights me that thanks to the magic of Instagram I have been able to follow Alex Ovechkin’s entire insane postseason nonstop vacation this year. He and his wife Nastya Ovechkina post all the time; they seem to move from one nearly-empty luxury resort to another, playing cards on yachts with various child relatives and dancing with the cat filter on in instagram stories. Theoretically I could @-reply to one of these stories and tell Ovi that I think his legendary goal-scoring prowess is extremely [redacted] and he might see it. He might even reply! 

But whether or not he replies is beside the point. The point is: I think I know him, and his family, because I’ve seen into their lives through the little squares on my screen. I think I know what he is like, but in reality? I know nothing. I know only what he’s chosen to show. (And that he like, really loves Putin, which is a gigantic bummer.) And any thoughts I have about him replying, or what a conversation with him would be like? They’re my mental creations, the gremlin imagines of a parasocial brain that has imagined a connection where there isn’t one. 

Do I care about my reputation amongst querying writers? Often when I receive questions like this, either at conferences or for the podcast, I’m brought back to the idea of the parasocial relationship. I’m a pretty online person (and a pretty, online person, heh). I’m findable and public on several social media, I have a podcast where people can ask me and a colleague questions about the industry, and I’ve started this here newsletter to talk more about the process of writing and navigating the industry in an in-depth way. 

This plethora of online availability has given me a certain reputation as a fun and warm person, I think, which as an ego-driven maniac I deeply appreciate. People have told me that they enjoy me on twitter and on the podcast, and that my online presence was a major reason they sought me out to query me in the first place. So this ask, “do I care about my reputation amongst people who are querying?” Obviously I do. I wouldn’t put all this stuff out there if I didn’t want people to have a sense of who I am and respect for my abilities as an agent. I want people to think I’m nice and warm and funny. 

But I don’t owe anyone querying me anything beyond a response. I don’t owe warmth. I owe a response, and a timely one, and most of the time I can’t even manage the timeliness part. 

This question says “your "dear author" generated rejections leave everyone cold, according to querytracker.” Now, I don’t know if this meant *my* dear author rejections in particular, or dear author rejections in general, and I’m not about to head over to Querytracker to find out. I have enough agita about how behind I am in queries, thank you very much. When I say that I can’t manage the timeliness part I mean that I have 728 “no” responses that I need to send, and that’s WITH the help of an amazing intern this summer. When I say I don’t owe anyone warmth, what I mean is - I owe warmth to my clients. I owe availability and personal attention to my clients. When I offer representation, I’m offering up a chance to form a relationship - a real one, not one based on what people think they’ve learned about me from my instagrams of me going to the gym. 

When people say that they don’t like the dear authors, what they really mean is: this person I thought I knew and liked, who seems funny and open on the internet, must be faking it. They must not really be like that. Because if they were warm and open, they would have replied using my first name or something at the very least. 

None of us can sustain a life where we are 100% open with everyone we interact with on social media. None of us can get through the day sanely if we spent time replying personally to every query we get. I literally wouldn’t be able to do my job. Which is taking care of my clients. And this summer, with my boss on leave and my stable increased from 30 to nearly 80, it’s been more of a job than usual. 

So what does that mean for you, question asker, and you, the reader, who is probably also a writer, trying to navigate the querying trenches? 

First, a form letter is a kindness, according to a colleague. There’s an insane number of people writing books now - which is great! - but the sheer overwhelming numbers of queries we receive have forced many agencies to switch to a “no response means no” model, which says that if you haven’t received a reply in a certain time frame (4-6 weeks, usually,) that the answer is no from the agency and you can move on. So when I send a dear author, what I mean is - I read the work, and it’s not for me. I do often reply with a more personalized rejection when there is something that struck me or that the book worked on one level and not another. And if I requested the whole thing I will try to give as much feedback as I feel would be helpful in why I didn’t connect with it. 

But second, I want to circle back to the last part of this question - “With at least 2 Nightmare Agent stories in 2018, we're all just running a little more leery.” If you’re unfamiliar, there have been two agents this year exposed as either outright liars and frauds or just plain old terrible at being agents. This question seems to equate "exploitative and bad at their job" vs "not super warm & accommodating of non-clients" (as another colleague said when I shared this question with them.) 

This, to me, is the kicker. Finding a dear author reply cold is one thing; equating it with lying about submissions and offers and representing people without their knowledge is quite another. And if the tone of this newsletter is a little defensive at this point, there’s not a whole lot I can do about that. To me, being lumped in with the Danielle Smiths of the world because I send a dear author response is just another offshoot of the “traditional publishing is Bad and Exploitative” movement. In some ways, traditional publishing IS bad and exploitative, but not all ways. Yes, as an agent I do want to make money - but not at the cost of my professional reputation or at the cost of someone else’s career. 

Back to practical advice, if that’s possible. When you’re querying, you’re extending a hand. You’re reaching out to try and make a connection. Sometimes those connections don’t work out. And just because you’re rebuffed by someone with a generic rejection doesn’t mean that person is being rude or trying to hurt your feelings; it means they’re busy, but they wanted you to be able to check them off the list. They wanted you to know you’d been seen. 

If this were a more eloquent newsletter I’d try and work in the quote about submitting to the mortifying ordeal of being known, but I think anything involving Alex Ovechkin’s [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] is too vulgar for eloquence, so I’ll try and wrap it up. 

Agents know that authors are doing their best; authors, I hope, know the same. We’re just people behind screens trying to find books to fall in love with. If, along the way, we aren’t as warm as we could be, it’s not because we don’t like you- it’s because we don’t know you yet. It’s because there might not yet be room for us to know you. But we’re doing the best we can to make room.