A Long-Winded and Somewhat Reluctant Do & Don’t List for Newbies Wanting to Reach Out to Authors

by J.T. Ellison

Succinct title, eh?

I’ve been struggling mightily with this post, because it discusses behavior — and as such can be misinterpreted, or twisted, and I don’t want either of those things to happen.

I was put in an awkward situation the other day by a "pre-published" new author. The author introduced  him/herself, then announced that I would be receiving the manuscript for an endorsement, and wanted my agent’s number (right then) so he could be called directly using my name as the in.

Umm… oookaaayyy. When I expressed regret at not being able to do that, it didn’t go over well. I walked away feeling bad for him/her, because he/she overstepped the bounds
by assuming he/she "knew" me, and as thus thought that I would do them a
favor. And by "knew" me, I mean met me for the first time three
minutes earlier. (Honestly, didn’t know who I was until I this appearance.)

It is possible to be too forward, too enthusiastic, and too arrogant. We all make mistakes. I hope that some clarification today can help you avoid the embarrassment I’ve faced. I thought we could talk about what not to do when you’re meeting an
author, both online and in person. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not
preaching, I’m just going to share some of the mistakes I’ve made, and
the ones I’m seeing on a much more regular basis lately.

It’s the Do
and Don’t list that I wish I’d had when I first started out.

There is a lack of formality in our culture now. We immediately call strangers by their first names. We readily share our opinions about politics and religion — two of the topics most people avoid in an opening conversation. We talk about how much money we make, or don’t make. We talk about our sex lives with perfect strangers. People gauge the respect of their peers by the gadgets accumulated, the cars driven, the shoes bought, the clothes worn, instead of actually seeing the real person. Whatever happened to true beauty comes from within? Where has all of our integrity gone?

I see it all the time, these incredibly superficial assumptions that people make, and it drives me mad. We invite ourselves along to events, mooch off our pseudo-friends, cozy up to people uninvited, horn in on conversations and talk on our cellphone while we’re interacting with our service industry. And of course this doesn’t apply to EVERYONE — there are no absolutes in this world. But there’s a large segment of society who don’t pay any attention to the important things anymore.

The world is changing rapidly, and authors are in the cross-fire. I
think it’s in large part due to the Internet, our ability to connect
and actually feel like we KNOW people we’ve never actually met. It
seems like there’s less of a deference out there, and more of a
familiarity, and as such, a sense of entitlement. And this sense of "I
deserve a shortcut to achieve the same things you’ve worked for"
attitude is incredibly scary to me.

I understand that in our less formal world, it’s easier to approach our heroes. Hell, I spent an hour today friending some rather famous people on MySpace whom I greatly admire. So I’m as guilty as the next person.

But there is a fine line between civility and friendship. Just because we’ve met someone, we can’t presume to think that we’re actually friends. The term acquaintance seems to have gone the way of the unicorn. And you don’t presume upon acquaintances to do favors for you. It makes one think that perhaps, just perhaps, one might be being used.

So let’s cover some of the ground rules when approaching your favorite author. Try not to make the number one mistake, the one that I will probably go down in history for. I’ll set the scene — it’s Thrillerfest, in Phoenix. I’ve just gotten my deal (and I mean just — I was three three weeks or so old.) I see one of my favorite authors across the lobby, make a beeline for her, and introduce myself. But I’m so damn excited that I trip up. And by the way, the author in question? Tess Gerristen, our newest ‘Rati member. (This is a perfect example of how life can come full circle.)

Me: Tess? (Notice I’ve already broken cardinal rule number one, I’m using the first name of someone I’ve never spoken to or had any contact with…) I stick out my hand, which she has no choice but to grasp, because if she doesn’t intercept it, I’ll probably break one of her ribs.

Me (again): "Tess, I’m J.T. Ellison!!!" (Cue unintelligible mumbling, as I try to figure out what the hell to say.) "Tess, I, uh… You’re my biggest fan!" I blurt this last part out with obscene enthusiasm — the kind reserved for the rabid fox, or werewolves nearing a full moon.

Tess, her always gracious self, shook my hand and smiled. I then proceeded to rush away, ears burning with the embarrassment of my gaffe. Apparently, Tess was my biggest fan, rather than I hers. I felt like a total dork.

But I took away a lesson. Temper yourself in your dealings, and you’ll be better prepared.

Rewind even further, to the completion of my first manuscript — the one in the drawer. This story is truly cringe worthy. I’m not proud of this, but here you go. I got the name of an author here in Nashville. I had it in my mind that if I called and introduced myself, he’d introduce me to his agent. (Sound familiar at all???) I finagled his home number from a friend, called him up, introduced myself, pitched my situation, and waited, sure that he’d leap upon me like a crow on a junebug and offer to send me to his agent. Ah, hubris.

The highly intelligent writer, recognizing me as an overenthusiastic newbie, murmured niceties at me, made suggestions, legitimate ones — get a copy of Writer’s Market — I’ve already done that! — Get a good query letter together — I’ve already done that! — Make submissions to agents who match your kind of work — I’ve already done that!… After the 4th or 5th suggestion, he finally replied "Well, I don’t think there’s anything else I can do to help you." Of course he couldn’t, because I wanted the unattainable. I want a shortcut.

I didn’t get it, and had to work my butt off to get my deal. And to this day I blush when I see him, praying he hasn’t connected me with the gibbering idiot who was so rude to call him and not listen.

So with that in mind, let’s talk a bit about what is okay and what isn’t when you’re talking to an author.

  • Don’t say, "Hi, it’s great to meet you. I was hoping you’d blurb my book/introduce me to your agent/get my manuscript in front of your editor/endorse my book so I can get an agent."
  • Do say, "It’s nice to meet you. May I email you after the conference with a question?"

Here’s how blurbing works. You get an agent. Your agent sells your book. Your editor tells you who they’d like you to approach. They usually do so by contacting that person’s agent or editor and asking if they’d be willing to read your book for a POSSIBLE endorsement. It’s a difficult and dicey proposition to approach an author directly, in person. It puts us in an untenable position. Most of us are already laden-down with requests from our editors and agents to look at material they’ve suggested. And no one ever wants to disappoint — especially new writers who are trying to break in. You see, we’ve all been there, and we know how hard it is. It’s a terrible let-down to ask for a blurb in person and get a no.

I was absolutely and utterly blessed to be able to get so many wonderful blurbs for my first book. And a few of them I got because I asked directly. I read panic in eyes a few times, and now I understand why. (And may I publicly apologize to Allison Brennan for doing this to her
a couple of years ago??? I am proud as hell to have her blurb on the
front of my next book, but I should never have asked the way I did.)

I’ll repeat it — None of us want to disappoint you. Ever. It’s heartbreaking to have to say no sometimes. But there are so many factors that go into the decision to blurb a book — at least, for me there is. A – I am busier than a one-armed paper hanger with books due every six months for the next eighteen months. Seriously, those are my real life deadlines. B – I am ultra picky. I don’t have any hard and fast rules like some other folks I know, just a commitment to myself that unless I really love something I won’t blurb it. If my agent or my editors want me to look at a book, obviously I’m going to say sure. I’ve turned books down from them, but I’m always willing to take a look.

If you’re going to seek a blurb, do it in a kind and considerate manner. If we’re at a conference together, don’t come to my post-panel signing and announce that you’ll be sending your manuscript to me for an endorsement. Don’t put me on the spot. Have the courtesy to send me an email after the conference. A simple Hi, remember me? I’m so and so, and I’ve written XYZ’s Guide to the Galaxy. You’re one of my favorite authors, you are the most amazing writer to ever grace the planet (ha) … and I see that you like this kind of book (BECAUSE YOU’VE DONE YOUR RESEARCH ABOUT ME, RIGHT???) and I’d like to ask you to give it a look. I understand how busy you are, and so appreciate you taking the time to give me a shot. I’ll be happy to send you a copy of the manuscript.

And that’s it. Don’t grovel, don’t beg. Be confident but not cocky, show respect for my time and yours, and never, ever ask for my home address. Strangers wanting to know where I live freaks me out. And understand that if I say no, 99% of the time it’s simply because I’m out of time.

  • Here’s another tip. DO NOT, under any circumstances, ask for a shortcut.

Asking how we got our agent, how our first sale was made, absolutely. But you can’t expect to be formally educated about how the publishing industry works, how to get an agent, how to get a deal, how to write a query letter, how to write a synopsis… few of us had that. We went out and looked for it. The vast majority of published authors did their homework, learned through trial and error, and most importantly, did it themselves.

AND… everyone’s path is different. There isn’t a silver bullet, one right way up this mountain. There are many, many, many ways into the industry. Ask forty different authors and you’ll get forty different stories. You need to find what’s right for YOU and YOUR book.

  • Don’t seek out blurbs for books that aren’t agented. Period. Yes, some people have, and yes, they’ve gotten picked up. But don’t. (This refers to submitting to agents.)
  • Do treat yourself with respect, and expect others to treat you with respect as well. Pre-published and newly published does not equal laden with thermonuclear cooties.
  • Don’t put yourself or your work down. Especially if you’re pitching. Self-deprecation is fine, but your work is your art. If it seems like you don’t take it seriously, how can anyone else?
  • Don’t assume that now that you’ve shaken hands with an author, you’ve been given the secret handshake and are on the in. I’ve got a secret for you. There IS no secret handshake in the publishing world. Alex covered this in her incredibly insightful post last week.
  • Do be kind and generous in your compliments to authors.
  • Don’t use. And you know what I mean. Sycophants get places, but they don’t get far.
  • Do join every network you can find in your genre. You will meet tons of other authors, new and established, who can steer you in the right direction. But even there, show temperance. Don’t launch in on the first day looking for handouts. Give it at least two weeks. Then introduce yourself. Then go away and watch some more. Then join the fray, constructively. Give before you  ask to receive.
  • DON’T GET DRUNK AT THE CONFERENCES. This should go for everyone, new, pre- and established authors. It’s just so not cool to be a self-indulgent idiot when you’re trying to work. And conferences, despite all the opinions to the contrary, are a work event. You don’t want to be the one everyone goes home and talks about to their other friends. Mystery conferences are not Vegas. What happens at a conference gets broadcast to the rest of the community so quickly it sometimes makes me think there are hidden cameras.
  • Listen to what Zoë said yesterday about not butting into private conversations.
  • Last but not least, the most important DON’T of all. Don’t forget to say thank you.

This has already gone on way too long. Suffice it to say that it’s always better to remember your manners when dealing with established authors. And it wouldn’t hurt to use them in all your dealings.

Any super cringe-worthy moments y’all would like to share???

Wine of the week:  2003 Benedetta Chianti

And a big P.S. to all the Daddys out there, most especially mine. HAPPY FATHER’S DAY, and thanks for making us. Love you, Daddy!

40 thoughts on “A Long-Winded and Somewhat Reluctant Do & Don’t List for Newbies Wanting to Reach Out to Authors

  1. JDRhoades

    Actually, I’ve done the “you’re my biggest fan” line as a joke once or twice. It’s all in the delivery.

    And knowing Tess, I’ll bet she laughed. Gently, not mockingly, ’cause Tess is awesome that way.

    “Don’t use” : this, to me, is the key. I’d rather make a long term friend than get a one-book blurb any day. Of course, if you can do both, there’s much happiness all around.

    Reply
  2. billie

    JT, great post. I’ll add an additional scenario that I think is equally awkward. When someone you know gets an agent and his/her manuscript is suddenly in the whirlwind of submission, etc. don’t assume this newly-agented writer is going to run around to the back door and let you in, too. It just doesn’t work that way.

    At one point with my first ms on submission I stopped revealing my agent’s name b/c I had people querying him saying I recommended them when I hadn’t. It was embarrassing – at that point nothing “real” had happened with my book and he didn’t need me recommending all my friends and acquaintances. And he wasn’t the right agent for their books, but it was so hard to explain that to a few people. That they’d be far better off doing the research and finding the agent who really WANTED their book than relying on me to push it to my agent.

    I did eventually make a few referrals, and if I hear of good nonfiction books I’ll email my first agent and ask, then tell the writer of said books to query him directly.

    It’s hard to be in that very exciting but somewhat tenuous position of “newly agented” and have folks demanding agent’s name.

    I have asked people before “do you know if your agent is taking new clients?” which I think gives them the “out” if they want it, or gives them the opening to reveal the name.

    Reply
  3. N

    “Don’t get drunk at conferences”??

    Um…

    How about “EVERYBODY get drunk at conferences”? That way, we’ll all be on equal ground and won’t remember our slip ups anyway?

    Ha ha… (Regretful sigh).

    P.S. – “Mystery conferences are not Vegas”. Except when they are, like Bouchercon in 03. We stayed up til dawn and roamed the strip.

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I would say that a good rule of thumb is – if you haven’t read and genuinely loved an authors’ books – and I do mean more than one – then you don’t know them well enough to ask for a favor.

    It is absolutely stupefying to me how many people ask me for agent referrals or blurbs on a first meeting. Even at my greenest I would never have done that. Never.

    Reply
  5. JDRhoades

    We can amend the rule to say “if you do get drunk at conferences, get drunk with Anthony Neil Smith, because you’ll look sober in comparison.”

    Reply
  6. Wilfred Bereswill

    J.T.

    Nice post.

    “DON’T GET DRUNK AT THE CONFERENCES.” It’s the equivalent at getting drunk at office parties.

    Being a bit older and growing up when respect for one another seemed much more prevalent than today, I agree with what you’re saying.

    Having a small press I had to go searching for blurbs myself. Being a first timer, it ain’t easy. I agonized over asking for blurbs. I’d say ALWAYS put yourself in their place before asking a favor.

    Reply
  7. Allison Brennan

    OMG, I embarrassed myself with Tess (whoops, Ms. Gerritsen!) when I met her for the first time at Thrillerfest, too! I tripped over my words. Had a major fan girl moment.

    She’s not the only one. Basically, any of my favorite authors I tend to get tongue-tied around and say that most asinine things.

    PS No need to apologize! (I’d probably forgotten how I ended up with your manuscript, anyway!)

    Reply
  8. Stacey Cochran

    I’ve discovered something about human behavior: Selflessness isn’t innate; it’s gotta be learned.

    I would only add to your excellent post, JT, this…. Create a platform that causes you to help other writers.

    So many aspiring writers want something from others, but we don’t even think about what we can do to help someone else. Instead of immediately thinking, “How can I get a blurb from so-and-so famous writer?” it might be better to think, “How can I help so-and-so famous author?”

    Or so-and-so aspiring author, for that matter.

    And if your platform can help established as well as aspiring authors (like this excellent blog, JT [which must be a ton of work on your part]) all the better.

    Great post today!

    Made me think.

    Reply
  9. Louise Ure

    Amen, Sister.

    And the only other “Don’t” I’d add to your list: If an author declines to endorse your book, or doesn’t get that endorsement in on time (which means she hated the book and didn’t want to blurb it), do not remind said author of this on each subsequent meeting. As in, “Hi, remember me? I asked you to blurb my book last year and you turned me down.”

    Reply
  10. JMH

    “Don’t seek out blurbs for books that aren’t agented. Period.”

    That translates to, “If your self-published, you’re not worthy of a blurb, so don’t even ask.”

    I disagree and so do a lot of authors. In fact, over a dozen authors blurbed my first book, for no other reason that I asked them.

    Many thanks to them, always. They are the true champions of the literary world.

    Reply
  11. JT Ellison

    JMH,

    Let me clarify that statement “Don’t seek out blurbs for books that aren’t agented. Period.”

    What I mean is… don’t try to get a blurb so you can then submit to an agent. Blurb are for books that are sold — or self-sold, not to get an agent. Sorry if there was any confusion.

    Reply
  12. JT Ellison

    Louise, merci. And yes, there’s nothing worse than the old — aha! moment at a conference. Trying to make people feel bad or guilty is never a good idea. Even if you don’t mean to, it sometimes comes out that way.

    Stacey, thanks! Yes, you’re right. Always thinking about other writers is a good thing. That’s what we were trying to do with Killer Year, value-added marketing and advertising. It benefited us, ITW and many others.

    Neil — I’ve never seen you drunk at a con, so there. And did the adage hold true — did what happened in Vegas stay in Vegas?

    Allison, I’m starting to think Tess has a force field around her that makes lesser mortals stumble. She’s just too damn good at what she does.

    Reply
  13. JT Ellison

    Alex, I know what you mean. It’s uncomfortable at best, and when the author obviously knows nothing about me, why would they want a blurb from me in the first place??? Seek your heroes, so at least you can find common ground among their titles.

    Billie, I had the same thing happen. My agent actually teased me about it. We have an understanding — when I’m sending someone to him, I do it directly. People use my name all the time, and that’s fine, but he knows if it’s an actual referral.

    I had the same kind of thing happen when I first started my abbreviated reviewing career. My very first day I had a new author who demanded I review her book. I wasn’t in a position to tell her I could, and she got very upset with me. I’ve always felt bad about that, but I was working for someone else…

    Dusty, you could pull it off. You can pull anything off. Happy vacationing!

    Reply
  14. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Hansen -I could be wrong, and would not presume to speak for someone else, but what I got from Ms. Ellison saying that was more about a newbie writer who had literally JUST! FINISHED! THEIR! MANUSCRIPT! and in that heated celebration went out and asked fifty authors before said newbie had bothered to edit, or even re-read. But again, that’s just what I got, and I could certainly be wrong (happens a lot, according to my wife).

    Reply
  15. JT Ellison

    Jake, you made me smile though… I’ve added a note to that so people who don’t read the comments don’t misinterpret. : )

    Will, yes, you’re absolutely right. I’ve been to plenty of office shindigs where the boor of the office got drunk, made off-color comments, and in general alienated everyone around them. WHY would anyone do this? I understand having one drink too much and being silly tipsy, we’ve all done that. I’m talking about the serious, hard-core get bombed kind of stuff. Not cool.

    Reply
  16. Chuck

    Wow! Excellent content today–some that made my ears burn a bit. Shortcut? Me? (Wish you could see my ears now.) I think today’s entry should be required reading by every aspiring writer, prior to sending out Query #1, attending a conference, or bulling one’s way to a blurb. Excellent stuff, JT!

    Reply
  17. Kaye Barley

    Hi JT!I’m not a writer, as you know.As I was reading this and thinking how much it all sounded like good common sense,and/or common courtesy, it dawned on me that although it might seem that way to me, obviously, its not that apparent to everyone. Sooooo. In light of all that, perhaps you, or one of your companion Murderati-ites, or even as a collective effort, would consider putting together “A Long-Winded and Somewhat Reluctant Do & Don’t List for Reader Fan-Girl & Fan-Boy Wanting to Reach Out to Authors.” Especially when it comes to cons.What do you think?

    Reply
  18. JT Ellison

    May I just say for the record that Chuck apparently already knew all of this, and as such we’ve started a lovely friendship build on mutual respect??? Don’t let your ears burn a bit, my friend. You are the shining light example of what’s right to do.

    Kaye — there is only one way for a fan and author to meet. And that’s the author saying THANK YOU to the fan. And you know what? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one who didn’t. We LURVE our readers. : ) And we’re all just big teddy bears in person anyway. Well, most of us ; ) I can be a bit of a rattlesnake when roused. Kidding!!!

    Reply
  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Excellent post – but then, they always are ;-]

    Several things sprang to mind. One, as a non-voluntary teetotaller, it really bugs me that people get totally out of their skulls and make unpleasant idiots of themselves with the excuse the following day that they were drunk and therefore not responsible for their actions. People, if you know you behave like a pratt when you’ve had a few too many, it’s a conscious choice.

    I’m sometimes asked to blurb a book, and I always try to do so if I can. I’ve had some fabulous blurbs from authors I worship, and I love the whole pay-it-forwards ideal.

    But, like most of us, I’m stacked out with work and have had a couple of ‘interesting’ experiences, so I’ve devised a system for this. Anyone who asks, I say fine, please send me your typescript. Not an electronic file, which is hard on the eyes to read, but real paper. I’ll confirm receipt so there’s no worrying about whether it’s been eaten by the mail carrier. I will then do my best to have a response to the book inside two weeks. If I need more time, I’ll email, but if you haven’t heard from me in a fortnight, then for whatever reason it’s slipped through the cracks. That way, I don’t keep people hanging on forever, which simply isn’t fair, but I’m being as honest with everyone – myself included – as I can.

    And I love the comment about cellphones. We saw a wonderful sign in a sandwich shop recently, the gist of which was they wouldn’t serve people who were talking on their cellphones. Works for me ;-]

    Reply
  20. JT Ellison

    Somewhat off-topic, but I’d like to send my deepest condolences to the family of Tim Russert. He was an incredibly classy guy — another example of all that’s good and right in the world. He is irreplaceable, and he will be sorely missed.

    Reply
  21. JT Ellison

    Zoe — you are amazing. That’s a great system. I shoot for no more than a month, remembering the stress and tension I felt when mine was out for endorsement reads.

    I wish we’d all put the phones away in public. Man, I’m a grump today.

    Reply
  22. JT Ellison

    Another tiny bit off-topic…

    My mentor, the incredible Lee Child, has just hit #1 on the lists this week with his newest novel, NOTHING TO LOSE. Congratulations, Lee!!!

    Reply
  23. toni

    But we can still stalk people, right? (Because I draw the line if I can’t stalk Dusty. Rules schmules.)

    (Excellent post, JT.)(Um, I did the same thing to Allison. She deserves beaucoup good Karma coming back at her.)

    Reply
  24. Pari Noskin Taichert

    JT,I just got back from a research trip — no computer access alas.

    Great post!

    RE: blurbsDon’t tell the established author that blurbing you is a “tremendous marketing opportunity.” I had that happen a month ago.

    Reply
  25. toni

    LSU was the SEC *and* the BCS national champion.

    That is a Hell. And a Yes. 😉

    (of course, now that we have lost our quarterbacks, including the idiot one who was still eligible, I am probably going to spend this entire fall season crying and needing to be distracted, so stalking works for me.)

    Reply
  26. Becky Hutchison

    Thanks for a great blog. It’s sad that some people need a Do and Don’t list when meeting published authors, particularly when asking for blurbs. What happened to being polite and having good manners?

    But in the spirit of your post, I have another ‘Don’t’ to add (one that can be used in any field):

    Please don’t keep talking to speakers at confs., meetings, etc., when they nicely say they have another session/appointment/meeting to attend. Although speakers may appreciate the interest in their talk, they may not be thrilled if they’re late to the next event.

    BTW, it’s a relief to learn that I’m not the only one to sound like a bumbling idiot when meeting a favorite author.

    Reply
  27. JT Ellison

    Becky, excellent advice. Yes, when we’re scrambling to hit the signing table, just ask if you can walk with us. That makes me feel cool anyway ; )

    Pari — the world would be a poorer place without your sense of humor. Really. Hope you had a super productive day!!!

    Toni, you can stalk me anytime. And we still need to do something about Sakey’s hair.

    Dusty, Corona. Need I say more???

    Reply
  28. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Ellison, I’m glad I made you smile.

    With respect to cell phones in public/around the service industry, there is a local comic here in NC named John Reap who has a great bit about it. He says next time you see someone on their cell phone in a public place, walk real close to them, then stop and lean in like you’re listening to their conversation. When they inevitably turn and say, “Hey, can I have a little privacy here?” you smile and say, “No. Because you’re not in private. You’re in public. In fact, your privacy, is disturbing our public. CAN WE GET A LITTLE PUBLIC AROUND HERE???”

    I try not to step on my own feet around anyone I might have to deal with later in life, but there’s a small part of me that desperately wants to do that one….

    Reply
  29. JT Ellison

    Jake, I rooted for Reep all through the LAST COMIC STANDING. He sooo deserved to win! Very funny guy, and I’ve seen that cell phone bit. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    Reply
  30. Toni Kelner

    Awesome post, JT. Something to send to the world, and if y’all do that guide, sign me up for copies.

    I blogged on a similar vein recently, pointing out that if you meet an author at a signing and want him her to give you all their knowledge about publishing, you should buy a copy of the author’s book!

    Reply

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