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

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!

11 Comment count
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I have a friend who once approached an author at a reading and immediately introduced her to herself. "Why, you're Famous Author."

Because my writing often has a supernatural bent, I have people approach me with (to be kind) rather bent supernatural ideas. One person, toting an obviously very thick manuscript, attempted to convince me that, while following the plot and mystic spells of said manuscript, we would together find the secrets of the pharaohs and perhaps become gods.

I agree about not getting drunk at conferences, but I do engage in judicious libation. It's what the gods advise. 



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I am a fan, Dale. I love that term -- judicious libation. I do the same, of course. I love your friend's intro issue. That's classic.

J.T. Ellison

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Well, since the only remotely famous authors I've ever met have been here on Red Room, I haven't had to cringe too much.  Or perhaps the feedback is so thoroughly filtered that I haven't known whether I should cringe or not.

 In the meantime....could someone here PLEASE make me famous.....NOW!  :)


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Eric... be careful what you wish for... : )

J.T. Ellison

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Huntington is going to include your essay on our "Tips" page


Thank you for spending so much time helping writers get where you are. I really appreciate it. That's a big part of what we're here for...to inspire and help others with our own experiences.

I have numerous stories of me making a fool of myself in front of famous authors (I'll finally call you next week for that interview you wanted and I'll tell you some of them). But then again, I also make a fool of myself in front of all sorts of people I meet, so I wouldn't say it's clearly related.

Ivory Madison
Founder and CEO, redroom.com

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Hi Ivory,

Thanks so much! I'm glad to help -- I wish I'd had some of this advice when I started out. And yes, my gaffes don't seem to be limited to authors, I have a thing for really blowing myself up in front of politicians...

Fabulous news about the interview! I look forward to it!

J.T. Ellison

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So helpful!

Dear Ms. Ellison,

Do you see how much you have taught me already?

Thank you for the wise and thoughtful advice!

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But of course...

I'm so happy it helped! Thanks for stopping by, I appreciate it! And you can call me J.T. : )

J.T. Ellison

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Great post! Thank you

Great post!

Thank you

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J.T. Ellison

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Truly cringe-worthy you say?

Truly cringe-worthy you say?  I will never forget the faux pas of my first writer's conference. Twenty-plus years ago Harlequin/Sillouette was bringing in some of their stable for a Romance Writer's Conference:  Linda Howard, Violet Winsper, and others.  I was barely out of my teens and a starry-eyed romance believer.  I so wanted to meet Ms. Winsper (even then I knew not to address her as Violet).  I chose one of her books in the book room and proceeded to ask her for her signature.  She was graciously polite to me while she wrote a brief note under my name.

Then I looked at it, smiling until I saw she'd written another name.  I asked, "Who's name is that?"  I was so confused, how someone with the name Violet Winsper could be named "Sandy Brown"?  She was so kind, but she must have seen how crestfallen I was:  I went to meet Violet and found Sandy Brown. Everytime I see a Sandra Brown title on the Bestseller lists, I cringe again! 

Older, and hopefully wiser now, your do's and don'ts are still a good reminder, Ms. Ellison.

First Time Red Room Reader found a new home,

Susan K. Jaeger, 2nd VP