Hanging on the Telephone
By Katrin Schumann
I'm in the phonebooth, it's the one across the hall
If you don't answer I'll just ring it off the wall
We all know what it feels like to be waiting for someone to get back to us. We've put ourselves out there, and now we're dying to hear what they think. Over Thanksgiving, I advised my 20-year-old daughter to take the leap and contact a boy she likes rather than waiting around for him to reach out to her. It got me thinking in a broader sense about when to be passive, what tone to strike, how best to get what you want ... and just how awful it is to be waiting by the phone.
For those seeking traditional publication, there are a few times in a writer's life when a phone call is all-important, rather than email: when you are trying to get an agent, and when the agent is submitting to publishers. Even those of us who have been in the industry for a while, this process is nervewracking. It's like blind dating, only the stakes are life or death (this sounds melodramatic, but that's sure what it feels like). Here, I'm going to look at that first critical voice-to-voice exchange: the first time you speak to an agent who's interested in your work.
If s/he liked your manuscript and can see a way to sell it, an agent typically schedules a call before extending an offer of representation. Why? Because the agent wants to feel you out before you go and get engaged.
If you come across as haughty or inflexible or just plain weird, the partnership may not work out. And the agent/writer partnership is incredibly important. It's become popular to decry the need for agents, but I think they're a godsend and can bring out the best in those of us who are introverted creative types.
Let's say the call comes. You're excited, yes, but also nervous. You want to be articulate and intelligent, and not come across as desperate. There are other great resources on the business questions to ask during this call (here and here, for starters) but what I'd like to focus on is what I am also listening for:
- How thoroughly does the agent know my book? I'm impressed (and flattered) if s/he knows, and remembers it, well. This person will be the initial salesforce for the book, and an uninformed salesperson does no one any favors.
- How authentic does the enthusiasm seem? You can usually tell this by tone of voice and vocabulary. If someone is going to be a cheerleader for my work, I want them to be genuniely excited about it. (People can smell fakery a mile away.)
- Does the agent "get" the book? Does s/he really understand what I'm striving for? This is about deeper themes and dreams and understanding what really moves me.
- Does s/he have suggestions for improvement? Personally, I'm suspicious when I get no editorial comments. The likelihood of a submission being perfect is very, very slim. I want to put the best book possible out into the world and so I welcome feedback.
- If the agent is editorial, what's his or her style? While I value feedback, I also want to feel that the agent is respectful of my opinion. If suggestions feel like mandates, that doesn't bode well for a healthy partnership.
- Does this agent seem likeable? This is important to me, though perhaps not to others. My goal is to have a lasting and fruitful relationship, so I definitely want to feel some warmth from--and toward--the person.
- Are we communicating well? In a recent conversation, the offering agent repeated a few times, "Sorry to be so blunt." I said, "You're not being blunt, you're being clear, and I really appreciate that." I could already tell I liked her style, so why mince words?
- Having said that, lack of sensitivity or basic kindness are dealbreakers for me. While I'm not a primadonna I do need someone who respects my feelings.
So, my daughter asked the boy to a formal dance this Friday, and he said yes. She's excited but nervous. My next piece of advice to her: Don't worry about how likeable you are. Worry about whether you enjoy his company, whether you "get" each other.
It's not that different for writers who are waiting for that agent to call. It's good for us to remember that what we think and feel is as important to a good relationship as what the other sides thinks about us.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann