Have you ever tried to justify why nice is a trait you look for and appreciate in a colleague, client, author, editor, or agent?
Inevitably someone will argue that talent and genius supersede courtesy, citing as proof a famously bullheaded, and possibly even dead, bestselling celebrity author who was also a capable book critic. It’s probably safe to say that most people can stop being nice, honest, honorable, and friendly when their foremost concerns are the constant demands of excessive wealth and fame. The rest of us, however, are stuck on the underside trying to make a living at this crazy wonderful business we love. Being able to accept criticism graciously and relinquish the defense of our fragile egos and cooperate with people who have vastly differing ideas—and just, you know, continue smiling about it all—is what’s going to help. That, and the license to use sloppy grammar for dramatic effect. And kittens.
Every agent I know is selective about working with writers who are nice. This makes perfect sense to me. If we’re competent at our jobs as screeners in the great airport-security circus that is trade publishing, we won’t pass a deluded writer with a short fuse along to a publisher’s defenseless, overburdened staff.
Sure, literary agents can serve as buffers by throwing ourselves on the suicide bombers who are undeniably passionate about the undiscovered literary merits of their illustrated upmarket nonlinear transgressive historical suspense thrillers with semi-autobiographical overtones of political satire, but then what will happen to our quiet, nice clients?
The pressure to detect the infinitesimally small percentage of zealots intent on self-destruction is what drives us to the bottle under the box of manila envelopes in the back of the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.
Reading and responding to queries from prospective clients is somewhat time-consuming, more than a little disheartening, and fundamentally necessary, but most of the time devoted to screening is spent reading manuscripts. I have a queue of promising ones that will take me through April to evaluate. The writers whose work I’ve asked to see will hear from me before I resume taking queries. It’s not very nice to keep them on tenterhooks for three or four months. Which is why I’m going to stop taking queries at the stroke of midnight on the last day of 2009.
In 2010, I’ll be accepting queries during a single month—June—immediately following BookExpo America. Writers who are seeking representation can find detailed query guidelines, as well as alternate ways to find a literary agent, on my website.
During the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to acquire a handful of especially creative and talented clients who are passionate about the book business. They’re patient, thoughtful, funny, articulate, courageous—and above all, a pleasure to work with.
Now, each time I consider representing a new writer, I think long and hard about the effect on my workload. The clients I have are already depending on me to be readily available, supportive, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and nice. This year they have, precisely because they are such splendid writers and lovely people, raised the bar.