Face-to-Face with an Agent

You've got an agent. You've got a deal. Is it worth it to fly to New York—on your own dime—for some face time? Here’s one writer’s advice. by Elizabeth Sims
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An aspiring novelist was talking to me recently about his quest to get published. "Once I get an agent, I'll be happy," he said confidently.

I laughed in his face.

Having toiled long years writing and trying to score representation, I understood where he was coming from.

However, impressing an agent enough to hear the melodic sentence, "I believe I can sell your manuscript and I'd like to help you build a career," is but the bowsprit of the magnificent vessel that will be your writing life. Once you're with that agent, you've got to sweat out getting a deal, and then you've got to produce another book even better than the first. And work like hell to help them sell. Then write another even better.

You'll make key alliances along the way. How do you foster relationships that will be mutually beneficial, cordial and enduring?

My agent, Cameron McClure, of the Donald Maass Agency, lives and works in New York City, as does Kelley Ragland, executive editor for St. Martin's Minotaur. I live on the West Coast.

Cameron and I established our relationship by e-mail and telephone. Working with her on my novel The Actress, discussing submission strategy, dealing with editors' responses, all the way through the two-book hardcover-to-mass-market-paperback deal she engineered with Kelley at St. Martin's—all by telephone and e-mail. Beginning to work with Kelley on revisions—the same.

One day I decided this didn't cut it.

These early months working with Cameron and Kelley were pivotal to me. I had written and sold four novels to a small publisher, but I'd long been aiming for the big time, and this was my chance. How would my future as a mainline suspense novelist unfold? Much would depend on these two vital individuals.

I wanted to get to know them better. And I wanted them to get to know me.

I wanted, I realized, a lunch meeting in New York.

Does a face-to-face matter to agents and editors?

"It's not critical, but I do think it's important,” McClure says. It fosters a sense of 'we care about you, you care about us.' Getting to know this new person's quirks and idiosyncrasies, seeing their facial expressions, it's very helpful. I really like the lunch meeting—you can get a lot done. The phone is good, but it's almost impossible to detect a person's tone in e-mail. So in person is the best.

"It's very satisfying to sell a book, for obvious reasons. And then it's so much fun to have that first lunch together: author, agent, and editor. It's a victory celebration."

"I really enjoy meeting authors face to face,” Ragland says. It's not vital to a good working relationship, but it's always great to meet someone in person and have a chance to get to know each other. The relationship between an editor and an author is a strange mix of business and personal; after all, for many writers, the act of writing is a very personal thing, and their books are something they feel passionate about."

When it's your turn to plan for such an occasion, I suggest you do what I did.

Months in advance, I nailed down a day that worked with all three of us, in order to score a cheap airline ticket. Plan your meeting on Wednesday or Thursday, to avoid the more stressful workdays of Monday and Tuesday. Leave Friday open in case something goes wrong and you have to reschedule. Then buy theater tickets for the weekend. (Happily for me, my sister, who lives in upstate New York, promised to come in and join me.)

The week before my lunch date, I roughed out an agenda. Having endured many an aimless business lunch in a former life, I wanted to make the most of this one.

I got into New York late the night before, a little close for comfort, but still all right.

What about wardrobe? Dress for success used to mean a skirted suit and a floppy bow on your blouse.

In this situation, I wanted simply to fit into the New York scene. I'm not the work jean type, but I'm not the Vogue type either. In Manhattan, you can't go wrong with black. But an all-black outfit would be overkill, I thought. I decided on black slacks and a fine-gauge scoop-neck jersey in midnight blue. Since the month was July, I went for short sleeves.

Shoes are important, always. I bought a pair of sleek slip-ons in summer tan, and wore them sockless for a touch of self-assured cool.

I met Cameron at the Maass Agency's offices. "You're so tall!" she said.

"Thank you!" I answered idiotically. So much for cool.

She and I met briefly with Maass. Good to have face time with him. McClure also introduced me to a colleague who, when he learned where we were going, said earnestly, "Order an appetizer and drinks, not just wine, and get the most expensive entrée. Have dessert and brandy, too,” he said. "St. Martin's can afford it!"

Kelley had reserved a table for us at the Blue Water Grill in Union Square. Going against advice, I ordered a modest meal and no alcohol, as did my companions.

After some convivial talk, we got right going on the topics I wanted to focus on.

Given that we're launching a series, I asked McClure and Ragland their thoughts on my main character, Rita's, personality: I was curious to know what they considered her signal traits. I listened. I shared with them my ideas for Rita's future, and gauged their reactions.

Since I'd discussed with McClure a basic plot for the next book, she sketched the bones of it for Ragland while I ate my tuna steak.

Knowing that new authors don't usually get much of a publicity budget, I didn't waste time asking for a book tour. Nor did I whine about the size of my advance, or how hard it is to write, or jet lag, or anything else.

I sought their opinions on what makes a book successful. What makes a series successful? I wanted to know what I could do to make their jobs easier. Both put down their forks and said, "Write great books."

Both women impressed me with their smarts and savvy. They possessed broad knowledge of writing and publishing, and neither seemed afraid to challenge me.

The fun part was sharing desserts over coffee. We quit talking business and moved on to general conversation, which devolved to gossip, which nourishes friendships like nothing else.

After paying, Ragland took us to St. Martin's offices in the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue. "All the cool parts of this building are on the outside," she remarked. It was true; the stonework on the historic angular skyscraper was gorgeous, while St. Martin's interiors were strikingly spartan.

The views do make up for it. Kelley, showing us the brooding afternoon cityscape from her corner office, downplayed it. "If this were Friday, the big shots would be off to the Hamptons and we could hang out in their offices, which have the truly great views."

Back on the street, McClure worked a ninja-worthy move on a gaggle of losers who tried to steal the taxi she'd hailed, and we jumped in for the ride back to her office.

She told me, "I liked that you were so well prepared. I liked that you asked both of us questions about Rita, and we had all these strong opinions about her. It was like talking about a mutual friend. The fact that you came in with an agenda forced us to talk about your book more analytically, and I really enjoyed that.

"When these lunches go well, I feel I've done my job well—because I've fostered a good beginning, in essence a whole new career for the author.

"I've been to some lunches where it was painfully clear to everyone at the table that the only thing anybody had in common was the book. Those are painful. It's not that common, but it does happen."

Afterward, Ragland confirmed, "Meeting face to face for an hour or two—to talk business but also to just generally get acquainted—can make that relationship stronger and more helpful to both sides. In particular, our meeting was great—it was great that Cameron could be there too, and I felt like we accomplished some business goals of yours in addition to just seeing eye to eye for awhile."

Maybe superstar authors get their publishers to pay their travel expenses to a two-hour business meeting, but for me, this trip was merely tax-deductible. It cost me money, all right: Plane tickets. Hotel. New shoes. All for a free lunch. Was it worth it?

You bet.

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