Image and Attitude
Most agents and editors consider an unknown, unpublished writer to be a liability. They generally have to spend more time with new writers, explaining procedures, making suggestions for improving a manuscript, and, sometimes, offering encouragement and hand-holding when writers succumb to feelings of inadequacy. This time investment may not seem worthwhile when the agent or editor doesn't even know whether the writer is capable of delivering quality material on time, which is why so many of them — especially at larger agencies and publishing houses — deal exclusively with established writers. Because of this, your image and attitude are key elements in determining how successful you'll be in breaking into new markets.
No matter where you are in your writing career, your image can help or hinder your progress. If you come across as professional in all your communications with agents and editors, they will be more inclined to work with you when you submit something that meets their needs. If you come across as unprofessional, chances are you'll sabotage any potential working relationship, even if your material is exactly what the agent or editor is looking for.
Your professional image starts on paper. As discussed earlier, presentation and packaging help reinforce your image. The following elements also play a role in defining your image on paper:
Contact information. Include your name and address (including zip code), as well as your telephone number (including area code) and e-mail address on all correspondence.
Recipient's name and address. Double-check name spellings and titles and use courtesy titles (Mr. or Ms.) in all correspondence. If you don't know the gender of the recipient, use the full name (e.g., Dear J.C. Smith).
Proofreading. A query or proposal dotted with errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar project an amateur image. Use the spell-check function on your computer and give all material a final read-through before you send it.
Margins. Every page should have one-inch margins all around. The first page of a manuscript and the first page of a new chapter each should have a three-inch top margin.
SASE. This is essential if you want a reply. Always affix the correct postage and make sure the SASE is addressed to you, with the agent's or editor's name and address in the upper left corner.
Be open to working with the editor at your local newspaper. Especially if you have no formal journalism training, you might have much to learn about how newspaper stories are constructed. A good working relationship with your editor is more likely to lead to additional assignments, as well as a more impressive clip file.
Neatness counts in publishing, if only because of the enormous volume of submissions agents and editors have to deal with every day. A professional-looking submission is only the beginning — your material still has to be appropriate for the market — but it does help create a favorable impression in the mind of the reader.
Professionalism is more than getting paid for what you write. It involves your general comportment in dealing with agents and editors. Your attitude — how you respond to criticism, how you handle rejection, and how well you respect an agent's or editor's time and expertise — is an integral part of your image as a professional writer.
You don't have to agree with or implement every suggestion an agent or editor makes. However, remember that the agent or editor has, most likely, years of experience in the field, and knows what the market demands. Make an effort to see the issue from the other's point of view.
When you receive criticism on your writing, it almost always is intended to help you improve the piece and make it more salable. Agents offer criticisms based on their knowledge and experience with the book markets, and editors offer criticisms based on what their readers want and need. Writers who argue with even the most constructive suggestions earn themselves black marks with publishing pros. Whether you decide to act on the suggestions or not — and that is always your decision — it behooves you to learn how to listen to and weigh criticism as objectively as you can. (See Chapter 11 for more on coping with criticism.)
In addition, you must develop a professional attitude toward rejection. No writer likes rejection, but everyone who submits his material is bound to run into it sooner or later. (See Chapter 9 for more on handling rejection.) Arguing with a rejection is not only futile, it is the act of an amateur. Don't kid yourself into thinking that an angry note or phone call to the agent or editor who rejected your work will fade into dim memory. Like bad smells, unprofessional responses can linger for a very long time, contaminating your chances of getting a yes in the future.
Professionalism also means respecting the agent's or editor's time. When you're submitting queries, expect to wait at least the time listed in the market directories for a response, and don't pressure an agent or editor for a more rapid reply. When you're working on an assignment, limit phone calls and e-mails to essential communications, and keep them as short as possible. Do not expect an agent or editor to be at your beck and call; she has dozens of other claims on her attention, and your particular issue may be far down on the list of her priorities. If you have something urgent to discuss, send a brief e-mail and, if necessary, ask to set up a time for a phone call.