Your Image on the Telephone
These days, when authors, agents, and editors can be located pretty much anywhere, much of your communication will take place over the telephone. Professionalism — or the lack of it — can come across on the phone as clearly as it does on paper or in person. Tone of voice, language, even distractions like coworkers, children, or pets can affect your image and influence an agent's or editor's impression of you. Knowing when to call and when not to call is important, too. Agents and editors spend much of their business days on the phone, and unnecessary phone calls are both an intrusion and an annoyance.
Any customer service representative will tell you how important proper telephone etiquette is. You need to speak loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that the other person has to yank the phone away from his ear. Smile when you speak; this makes you sound cheerful and interested, and it's impossible to sound bored or irritated when you smile. Never eat or chew gum while you're on the phone. Those noises are amplified through the handset and are incredibly annoying to the person on the other end. Watch your language when you're talking with an agent or editor. A phone call is still a business communication. There is no room for swearing or vulgarity.
Try to avoid distractions while you're on the phone with an agent or editor. Turn off the television or radio. If you have children or pets at home, go into another room and, if possible, close the door during your conversation. Don't try to multitask while you're on the phone; if you're trying to cook dinner or sort the mail or do the laundry, you'll inevitably give the agent or editor the impression that she doesn't have your full attention.
When to Call
Phone calls between authors and agents or authors and editors are relatively rare, especially now that nearly everyone has an e-mail address. There are times when phone calls are appropriate and even preferred. However, e-mail has proven itself a very efficient medium for asking and answering questions, trading information, and clarifying issues. It is also less intrusive than a phone call, and it provides a record for later use if necessary. If you need to call your agent or editor, it's a good idea to first send an e-mail explaining what you want to talk to her about.
If you absolutely must talk directly with your agent or editor, keep your conversation brief and to the point. Especially during business hours, agents and editors rarely have time for chitchat. Since you never know what is on his plate, always ask upfront if he has a few minutes to spare. If he says no, ask when it would be convenient for you to call back. Except in the most dire emergencies — you are being admitted to the hospital for emergency surgery, for instance, and won't be able to meet next Tuesday's deadline — don't insist on talking right now if the agent or editor is busy.
Because their schedules are so full, most agents and editors prefer to set up “phone dates” whenever possible. This lets them schedule a convenient time to talk to you when they aren't rushing off to meetings or working furiously to meet a deadline. Some agents and editors prefer to schedule phone dates for evenings or weekends, when they are less likely to be sidetracked by business-related crises.
Agents and editors might have to break a phone date if something urgent comes up, as it often does in the publishing world. You'll typically get a phone call or an e-mail as soon as possible, explaining why the agent or editor wasn't available at the original time and asking to reschedule. Although it can be frustrating when things don't go as planned, don't take it personally. It's just the nature of the business.
When Not to Call
Some writers make positive pests of themselves on the phone, continually calling their agent or editor to nag about their material, to deliver unnecessary updates on the progress of their manuscripts, or even just to say “hello.” Aspiring authors — those who don't yet have an agent or editor — will sometimes use the pretense of checking names or addresses and, once they have an agent or editor on the line, will seize the opportunity to pitch their project. Rejected authors have been known to call the rejecting agent or editor and either demand an explanation or berate the agent or editor — or both.
It shouldn't need to be said, but this sort of behavior continues, so the caution is warranted. Do not call an agent or editor to make your sales pitch. Do not call an agent or editor to complain about a rejection. Do not call an agent or editor to find out if she has read your proposal.
A good rule of thumb is this: If you aren't sure whether you should call, don't. Use e-mail or snail mail instead. If the agent or editor wants to talk to you, he'll call.