By Laura Zats
Literary agents have a lot of mottos.
Fight for your author, no matter what.
Beer makes everything better.
But the most prevalent, and perhaps the most important motto is this: there’s always another author. There’s always another book.
We use this particular motto to raise our spirits after we end up stepping away from a particular author or book. I, like most agents, hate nothing more than falling in love with a project and then having it slip away from me. Sometimes I feel upset because I really felt like the right representative for the book. Sometimes, I’m glad I dodged a bullet, but am still rankled I put so much effort in to a project I’ll never finish. There are a million reasons why we don’t end up working with someone. Some are out of the author’s control, like not falling in love with the book. Others aren’t, like breaching common courtesy and publishing etiquette.
From a querying writer’s perspective, it might seem like agents are horrible sadists who love nothing more than to get your hopes up and then crush them like a fat mosquito. Like we take pleasure in mocking truly horrible ideas or query letters. That we request partials only to sit on them for months, languishing unread, before we send out a terse rejection. While I will admit that even though I have a folder in my inbox labeled “nutters” that I use for a good laugh every now and then, and am a regular guest of Slush Pile Hell, I really take no pleasure in turning people down. I hate walking away.
Why do I feel bad? Because I’m human.
Most of the agent’s work is on social media and online, where authors are hidden behind the thin veil of a profile picture or an email address. It’s a place where a particular blend of anonymity and opportunity reigns, and writers pour all their hopes and dreams into a 350 word email. It’s also a place where many people, hurt and licking their wounds, feel comfortable behaving poorly to other humans who are similarly disguised behind tech.
As an agent, I do my best to be as helpful and as respectful to everyone I come across in my work, because I don’t want to perpetuate the kind of behavior I so often come across. I’ve been insulted, harassed, and some of my fellow agents have even been stalked due to the fact that they just do their job. Though it is less alarming, others, in their dealings with me, have been snide, passive aggressive, and even so high maintenance and out-of-touch that doing my job is less-than-fun.
This is an industry where emotions rule. It’s easy to lash out, to get a big head, or to even revert to general rudeness because something isn’t going your way. But this is also an industry that gossips. An industry where what you tweet and what you email will be archived forever, impossible to delete. Reputations are everything here (just ask James Frey), and remembering that we’re all people and (generally) well-intentioned, and treating them accordingly, will get you a long way.
It’s true that the way this industry works is wonky sometimes, but understanding those that operate within that system are tied by its conventions (especially those having to do with etiquette) is important. There’s no time to be rude. There’s no time to be a diva. After all, there’s always another book. There’s always another author. If I have to, I’ll just work with them instead of you.