Sunday 8 March 2009


I'm assuming, of course, that you've already written a wonderful book, perfectly pitched in terms of what the market wants (supposing the market knows what it wants), and that it has a fabulous "hook" which will engage the attention of the most slushed-out editor or agent. I'm assuming, too, that your covering letter is honed, your synopsis crystalline, and that you have diligently researched the best publishers or agents to approach. Oh, and that you are an expert in your genre, and can reel off a dozen current authors whom you admire in that genre. I know I can rely on you ...

At this point, you might understandably be saying, "What?? Isn't my great submission enough? I've got to be NICE too?? What the hell has being nice ever had to do with being an author? I know horrible ones, dirty ones, drunk ones, boring and arrogant ones. God, I even know one so objectionable that no half-decent book festival wants to invite him EVER again." (I do, by the way, but if I tell you I will have to kill you.)

Yes, patently, not all authors are nice. However, they will have pretended to be until they signed the contract and if you are not nice then I recommend you disguise yourself until then.

But "really nice and publishable" is different from being merely nice, which sounds a bit boring. On the other hand, I'm a sucker for nice people and do tend to think they're under-rated. I'm even quite nice myself, not that you'd know it. But I digress.

Here are my almost fail-safe rules for being "really nice and publishable":
  1. Do not include any little extras in your submission: no toffees (see here), no photographs (even or especially of you naked, as poor Jane Smith has had to experience) or any of the weird items mentioned on Editorial Anonymous. These things do not amuse the recipient - trust me. They mark you out as an idiot, albeit possibly a nice one, but an idiot all the same. Many idiots are published, I admit, but it's not a good strategy.
  2. Follow the submission guidelines of each publisher or agent. If they say they want 5,000 words, don't send 10,000. If they want you to hang upside-down for half an hour before breakfast, do it - don't ask why: there will be a reason. It's like your parents saying "because we say so." Reprehensible but the real world.
  3. Don't phone a self-employed person at the weekend or evening, "because I thought I'd catch you." I prefer not to phone strangers, and I certainly prefer not to be phoned by one. If you phone, do ask if this is a convenient time to call. And if it isn't, piss politely off.
  4. Always assume that those you are contacting will think you are the least important and most irritating thing that has happened all year. You may ultimately turn out to be the most wonderful author ever but you cannot force them to believe this yet. Essentially, you have interrupted them doing something which probably IS bringing an income and you must understand that, even if you are brilliant, they are more used to being contacted by idiots / nasty people / useless ignoramuses and they just think you are another one.
  5. Do not argue. Ever. The unpublished author is, unlike "the customer", always wrong, until published, and from that point on is still very often wrong but can afford more chocolate to compensate. Humility is the only answer. That and secretly sticking pins in wax models of everyone who has rejected you, given you a negative review or otherwise destroyed your self-esteem.
  6. And on that subject, don't be rude. This may seem obvious but I don't know an agent who has not been nastily abused by someone wishing to be taken on as a client. One was recently told to "rot in hell". It's not the way to get them to say yes.
  7. Be professional at all times: do what you say you will when you say you will. Unless it's illegal.
  8. Understand the publishing process, by reading expert blogs (many of which are listed to the right). Your understanding will shine through, and it will be noticed. Publishers and agents prefer to deal with people who understand what's going on. They're too busy to educate you.
  9. Ignore the gushing praise of your friends and family. Store it in a cosy bit of your brain and do not a) tell your prospective agent / publisher or b) believe it unreservedly. I'm so drained by the way that some people only listen to the many people blindly praising them and don't listen to the rare people giving constructive criticism, that I'm planning a post on "dealing with positivity".
  10. Be realistic. In the UK alone there are around 120,000 books published every year; granted that some of these are maps or re-issues of long dead books, or series of home learning workbooks that take about 3 hours to write (I'm not exaggerating - I've written them), but that's a hell of a lot of books that publishers and agents are working on. Yes, working on. So the time they have for reading submissions from agents, let alone the slush-pile, is small. And there are vast numbers of unsolicited MSS landing on their desks all the time. If they can't get round to reading your book within a few weeks or months, it's hardly surprising. You can't condemn them for this but you can offer your work to other publishers while you're waiting for Godot; so do.
  11. Understand why books are rejected - it's not necessarily that your book is rubbish. (It might be rubbish, and my agent and publisher friends say that the majority of what they get IS appalling drivel. And badly written drivel at that. But of course, there are gems in there, including very possibly by you and other readers of this blog.) I've talked before about why books are rejected, and will do so again, but meanwhile see a previous post here and also Lynn Price's post here. There's so much more to it than being a good writer - it's got to be the right book at the right time and sent to the right publisher. Which reminds me of an early post on this blog, which I suggest you read if you haven't already.
More about niceness
I haven't talked nearly enough about niceness, other than telling you not to be nasty and rude. Which is a start. But niceness is more important than you think and it's not as fluffy and vapid and boring as it sounds. (Would I be fluffy and vapid and boring?) Humans are social creatures; we react to chemistry; we need to get along. When we work together (as agent / author / publisher) the ability to get along is crucial and can affect the end product. So cultivate a kind of professional niceness, a human integrity and decency, and an understanding of the business you want to enter and of the people within it (including your future readers). Open your mind to the possibility that the way you conduct yourself and interact with people will make a difference to your future, your success and your happiness.

Crikey - at this rate I'll be writing a self-help book. I'd call it "Professional niceness - your journey to personal success." No one would publish it, but so what's new? Which just goes to show that being a really nice and publishable author (which I like to hope that I usually am) is not enough: you've still got to write the right book. And that's the hard bit.


Sarah said...

After waiting tables for much longer than I wanted to, I could easily believe all the agent/ editor horror stories.

I'm sure all your readers are amazingly decent, but it's helpful to know specific ways to be considerate in the writing/publishing industry. Thanks!

Solvang Sherrie said...

You always make me laugh! You COULD write a self-help book for writers -- in addition to being funny, you always offer useful information. Thanks!

Vanessa said...

And are you going to write a post on how to be a the kind of author that booksellers love? Because we do get together and praise the lovely ones and bitch about the rude ones! And often we ignore the books by the latter group inasmuch as is possible...

Nicola Morgan said...

S and SS - thanks to you too!

Vanessa - ah. a) I think you already have b) yes, good idea c) first things first - we're aiming at publication before SALES d) you might like to know that authors also get together and bitch about rude /crass / thoughtless / dim booksellers too! But I've never met one in your fabulous short-listed shop, of course.

Rod H said...

Your advice is excellent.

I have been wondering where humour fits in with category. If a work of 'general fiction' contains humour is it necessary to redefine it?

(BTW heard you speak at the last Edinburgh Book Festival.)

behlerblog said...

Lynn falls to the ground and weeps uncontrollably. "Finally!" she says in between great heaving sobs, "someone understands the importance of nice; of civility; of having a brain with firing synapses! Praise be to reviewing submissions guidelines. Bless this wonderful woman. Praise her, and pass the gin."

Great post, Nicola.

Nicola Morgan said...

Rod - do you mean when you describe it in your covering letter? I think that the para (in the letter) describing what sort of book you are offering should show the tone of the book, so if it is "general fiction" but with humour, then you should get this across in your covering letter, simply by the way you describe it. (The blurb on the back of a book would have the same effect.) Of course, it will also be apparent from your synopsis. So, I think defining/pigeon-holing it is not the issue or a problem, in the sense that you don't have to say where in the bookshop it would fit. On the other hand, it helps for YOU to have a sense of where it would fit - ie would it be in the humour section or the fiction section? One useful thing is to identify a book / some books which it is vaguely like. Have I totally missed the point of your question?? If so, sorry! Glad you came to Edinburgh last year - do introduce yourself if you come again. Good luck with your writing and do come back to me with any questions.

Lynn, what can I say? Mine's a pinot noir? You and Jane Smith and I really should start that band.

DanielB said...

I heard nightmare stories from the reps when I went out and about with them (back when publishers actually used to do that)! Lecherous authors pawing the reps and demanding sexual favours, demanding authors asking for particular kinds of water which they then didn't touch, writers having hissy fits... Some of them obviously think they are Guns'n'Roses!! I just don't get it - it doesn't take any trouble to be nice and I always try to be. Maybe "nice" authors get walked over and end up being taken advantage of? Surely not?

Nicola Morgan said...

Blimey - authors allowed to go out with reps: you're showing your ... er ... longevitudinous experience, daniel! But gosh, the demanding ones asking for certain types of water (AFTER publication - you'd never get away with it before) is certainly still going on. I agree: it takes no trouble to be nice. And you could be right about nice ones being walked over, but I think we have to reserve a bit of iron for the times when the soft velvet glove needs to come off ...

Nancy Coffelt said...

Many years ago, I waited in a gallery that sold my artwork as the poor girl working there was enduring a tirade from another artist over the phone. After she hung up, I jokingly said, "Maybe I should try that."

Without missing a beat, she replied, "There are many ways to spit in your food and let air out of your tires."

I never forgot that. Think about it. The ability to be cordial is a highly evolved skill. As cave-people we just lumbered about bashing others over the head with our cave-people clubs. Some people still cling to a version of that method, but unless they have something to offer that tremendously supersedes pleasantness - then they're toast.

A little bit of empathy goes a long way with a BUSY editor or agent. Simply asking when it would be convenient to send them your fantastic, sure to be best-seller will earn you many, many bonus points. Plus - you stand a better chance at getting their (almost) undivided attention if they're not rushed, or worse - resentful.

Scobberlotcher said...

More and more, I am understanding my writing professor's statement - Many people are talented writers, but not all have the temperament to make a career of it. Good post!

Rod H said...

Nicola, thanks a lot for your reply to my comment. It was very helpful.

If I see you at the next event I shall say hello if you're not too busy. Like you, I live in Edinburgh.

Sarah Hilary said...

I'm coming to this late, but wanted to say Thank You, Nicola, for such an incisive post. Contained all the biggies and some I'd not thought of before, so very stimulating and useful.

Can I add a tiny thing from my own experience? Maybe this falls under the category of "The exception that proves the rule"? I'd always assumed that a rejection from an agent was final, no negotiation. Be humble, be polite, don't push. BUT. When I received my first (long) rejection from a major agent for an ms they liked but not enough, I dropped an email thanking her (we'd be in contact by email before so I knew this medium was OK) and asking, tentatively, whether she'd be interested in seeing a rewrite based on her suggestions. She replied immediately, very positively, 'Yes!' even though her letter had ended by saying 'No.' This same agent - different editor - is still engaging with me, requsting full mss, sending long rejections, encouraging. So I guess what I learnt was No doesn't always mean No. And I'd been prepared to simply cross them off my list and move on. I might still have to do that, ultimately, and maybe I'm reading too much into the continuing dialogue, but anyway. Thought it worth throwing into the mix.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sarah - I do agree. I think, though, that you'd actually followed all the rules of being nice and publishable. After all, you'd analysed that email would be ok, you were very polite and humble, and you'd correctly identified that your work was not (yet) quite good enough but that the agent had given you hope of improvement. You'd shown understanding, commitment and common sense. In short, you WERE being "nice and publishable"!