The necessity of being nice

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.

Happy New Year! May all your nicest dreams come true in 2010.

9 Replies to “The necessity of being nice”

  1. “Have you ever tried to justify why nice is a trait you look for and appreciate in a colleague, client, author, editor, or agent?”

    Good question, Robin. But no, I haven’t tried to justify. Instead, I find that only those who are nice, are the ones who attract me. I’ve lived long enough to know I deserve what I give out, and find myself walking away from those who have too many issues to BE otherwise. I am a strong proponent of paying it forward–and I’m not interested in paying forward what I don’t want in my life.

    Hope this makes sense.

  2. It makes perfect sense, Sylvia. For one thing, living long enough almost always mellows us. I still struggle with the choice between being right (or simply justified) and being amiable when it seems impossible to be both. It’s not impossible; it only appears to be. Amiable isn’t my default setting.

    Valid criticism ought to provoke reassessment and change, but all of us, no matter how open-minded, occasionally perceive criticism as threatening. We get in the way of each other’s objectives, and courtesy goes out the window if we don’t maintain some empathy.

    I’m rambling when one word would suffice: karma.

  3. “Amiable isn’t my default setting”–funny!

    My default–after years of working on myself and my interaction with others–is relatively close to it.

    That doesn’t mean I can’t let someone jerk me off center… After all, even default settings usually offer other options. LOL

  4. One lesson I’ve learned over the years is that there is no karmic return from good deeds, as well there shouldn’t be. It’s not about getting what you give, it’s about living according to your moral compass. So being kind or nice, helping others, or even giving up your peanut butter sandwich at recess to the girl with none is not about getting anything back. It’s about being true. If you live true, you live happier, not necessarily richer (except in spirit).

  5. This is interesting, and I wish I weren’t so busy on the back channel at the moment. Peek into my private email correspondence and you’ll see these comments:

    “As for networking, we’re discussing karma on my blog today. I’m a firm believer [in karma], but my view is based mostly on the outcome of ethical behavior versus social networking. In other words, I don’t recommend something unless I believe in its value, no matter how ‘connected’ I am to the person who produces it. Seems like a good attitude for a hardnosed agent.”

    You’ll also see, in a message I received from a publisher friend this morning, a link to “Rejection? It’s all good.” A fine example of the “keep smiling” attitude I like.

    Thanks for your perspectives.

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