Networking for writers

Today’s inbox yields another question inspired by the article I wrote for the March/April 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest, “Lessons Learned from a Writer Turned Agent.”

In the comments section of my last post, Constance writes, I’ve been reading your great article in the latest WD and came upon something I wanted to ask you about. You say “…there’s no reason you can’t get to know whatever people you need to get to know…”   I write and illustrate children’s books, belong to the SCBWI and am about to attend my third SCBWI conference. So I know conferences are one way to get to know editors, but what else do you recommend? I sometimes friend editors on Facebook, though I do wonder if this is considered intrusive. I always read “no phone calls!” on web guidelines and other places, but do you recommend going against this advice? 

Most of us don’t start off knowing anyone who can help us get published.  We read books and blogs, join writers’ groups, attend conferences, and somehow eventually connect with the people who can make a difference in our careers.   What I mean when I say you can get to know the people you need to know is just that: with attention and effort, you can connect with that editor who likes your style or that agent who falls in love with your novel. 

But what does “with attention and effort” mean, exactly?

First, yes, I recommend against calling up editors and agents unless you already have an established relationship with them.  There is nothing more intrusive than a phone call (unless it’s someone showing up on your doorstep) and you can’t really establish a good rapport with an editor or agent you’ve just annoyed.  Plus, many agents and editors simply don’t answer their phones if they don’t recognize the name of the person who is calling (every one of us has had the off-putting experience of being ambushed by someone who just wants to ask us how they can get published).  If it’s hard to establish a good rapport with someone you’ve just annoyed, it’s impossible to establish one with their voice mail.

Personally, I am not a fan of Facebook, and don’t do much with it.  I know a lot of people prefer to keep their FB information and updates available strictly for their friends and family.  I’m on LinkedIn, which is where I connect with anyone I know professionally, and I would suggest that may be a less intrusive way to connect via these kinds of social media networks.  But friending editors and agents on FB or LinkedIn isn’t exactly what I’m getting at when I encourage writers to get to know the people they need to know to be successful in this business.

What I’m getting at is this: use the opportunities that arise in your life and your work to connect with members of the community of writers, editors and agents.  That’s all.

One of the simplest ways to do this is by pitch (query) letter.   I sold something like my first 17 books to publishers without having an agent.  All of the editors I sold to had never heard of me before.  (Once they’d acquired one of my books, though, we had a relationship, and they were more easily persuaded to publish another of my books.)  The publishing world has changed since I started writing books fifteen years ago, but the mundane pitch letter is still worth a lot more than most writers realize.  The pitch letter is the cornerstone of a lot of relationships. 

If your pitch letter ends up yielding a request for pages and eventually an offer, yay you.  More often, though, you get a form rejection, which is just discouraging.  But sometimes you spark an editor’s (or agent’s) interest, it’s just that this book isn’t the one.   That is a tremendous opportunity for you.  An editor who says, “not this book but maybe the next one” is one you need to treasure — and to send the next book to.  The agent who says, “this doesn’t quite work for me, but if you revise, I will look again,” is a treasure, too.  Don’t underestimate these kinds of exchanges.  Editors and agents don’t say these things lightly. It’s way easier to say, “thanks, but no thanks” and then not have any further hassle.  So I’m always amazed at the number of people I make encouraging noises at who then fall off the face of the earth.  

Now, not everyone who queries me is going to want to sign with me even if I make an offer,  and not everyone is going to want to revise the way I think their work needs to be revised, and so on.  But here’s the thing:  Someone who is interested in your work is a colleague to be cultivated, not ignored.  So don’t ignore signs of interest.  Build on them.

Like this writer.

Conferences, which Constance mentions in her question, are a good way of meeting editors and agents face-to-face, though it’s important to realize that most of the time you’re not going to get a publishing or representation offer from one of these events.  I also like good, professional writers’ groups (which may be more affordable than flying off to conferences), especially local chapters of well-established organizations.  You’re not necessarily going to meet an editor this way, but you’ll meet other writers, and maybe they’ll connect you with their editors, or let you know that a certain agent they know is looking for new clients, or what have you.  I met my current agent through a writer friend. 

Some of these groups are online, and that makes them even easier to join and “attend.”  Many of my clients are members of an online writers’ organization.  We got to know each other as colleagues and when I made the move to the Salkind Agency, several of them signed on with me.  The world of publishing is really fluid this way: editors become agents, writers become editors, etc.  You never know what the next step of someone’s career will be.  Being friendly and helpful with colleagues pays off not only in a warm fuzzy feeling, but it may actually boost your career.

Just as important as any of that, though, is being out there in the world, hanging out with writers and other creative types.  If you’re on Twitter, follow editors and agents.  Comment on agent’s blogs.  (I’m more likely to recognize Constance’s name now if it comes on a query letter, and that will probably translate to “oh, right, she had the good question on my blog; she is not an idiot” which is a good impression for me to have when I start reading a pitch letter.)  Start a blog of your own.  Have a website.  Make it easy for people to find out about you.

How have you connected with the important people in your writing career?