In my experience, The Call, i.e. when a literary agent rings to offer representation, wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it was going to be. After all, by the time an agent gets to the point of The Call she’s already decided she most likely wants an author as a client. The point of The Call, then, is for her to sell her services to you, as well do one final check to make sure you seem like the sort of person she’d be okay working with (yes, agents can and will drop clients who turn out to be douchecanoes, even if the writing is saleable).
That being said, anyone expecting a Call should probably do some research beforehand on the sorts of questions to ask (yes, you should ask questions), as well as general how-should-I-act conduct tips. It does wonders to assuage the screaming, euphoric panic, I can say that much.
This post isn’t about that, though. Because there’s a lot of good guidance out there on how to deal with The Call from agents, but seemingly not nearly as much on how to deal with The Call from editors. Particularly for agented authors. And yes, the sorts of questions you want to ask an editor as an agented author versus unagented are different, because your relationship with your editor is different.
Meaning that, even with my agent in on the concall, I still try and have some of my own questions on hand for prospective editors, if only to make it look like I’ve been paying attention rather than mentally squealing “OMGOMGOMGOMG” over and over. Editor questions for agented authors should, I think, show that you’ve researched the publisher/imprint, had a think about where you “fit” into the market, and have some of your own ideas about your brand and your career… all phrased in nice, softball ways that make editors feel like you’d be a cool person to work with and a generally good investment. Even if you loathe the editor from the first time you hear her voice (not a situation I’ve encountered but, hey, I guess it could happen), remember that the phonecall is essentially a job interview, and to treat it appropriately. Get your agent to decline later if you don’t want the sale.
A non-authoritative list of questions/topics of conversation I’ve used in the past include:
- If you’re on the phone with your editor, as opposed to an editor,1 then ask her ideas for developmental/structural edits to your work. And for the love of the Publishing Gods, chat amicably about them. Even if you think they’re awful, make suggestions about how you’d implement them, and neverever reject them all out-of-hand (yes I know this goes contrary to your every instinct).
- If selling a series, asking the editor what she’d like or expect to see from future books. Make sure it’s in line with yours, to try and avoid upset if you think you’re delivering a hardboiled detective series and she thinks she’s getting cozy romantic mysteries.
- If the imprint/publisher is relatively new or small-ish, ask where things are going over the next few years. Even if you think you don’t care, you do… particularly if the editor can’t answer this question. (“Winging it” is not an appropriate business plan.) Also, don’t push this one if the editor stumbles. Just note it to yourself and move on.
- If the publisher doesn’t already do big trade in your genre, ask whether there are plans to grow the space (e.g. a new imprint for which you’ve been chosen as a launch title) or whether you’re a “one off”.
- Conversely, if your publisher does do big trade, ask where they think you fit into their line-up. Maybe they’re going on an epic fantasy blitz this season, or perhaps there’s a specific element in your work they liked. They’re trying to get you for a reason, so find out what it is.
- Finally, if you’ve got non-editors on The Call with you, a few comments/questions for them won’t go astray either. They took the time to talk to you, so talk to them, too (and yes I know this can be difficult in concalls with lots of voices). If the right people are there, this is the perfect time to slot in a general marketing/publicity question.
One of the beautiful things about publishing is that it’s staffed almost entirely by quiet–and often young–introverts who hate phonecalls as much as you do. But everyone likes an excuse to talk competently about themselves and their work. An experienced editor and agent will do it to you, so being able to return the favour is good practice for your Professional Authorial Career. Remember: you’re trying to build a productive working partnership with these people, so start early!
(And yes, anyone who’s thinking “this all sounds like how to deal with That Question in regular job interviews”, you are, indeed, correct. It’s the same principle.)
The flip side of this is what questions not to ask.
Firstly, I’d keep well away from anything that paints the editor/publisher in a negative light or is otherwise accusatory/controversial/whatever. “I read on the internet you screw over authors in your contracts!” would be a no, then… actually, just avoid “I read on the internet” comments altogether, unless you’re complimenting the publisher on its website/blog/Twitter/whatever. (You should probably compliment them on their website/blog/Twitter/whatever, or at least give some other subtle indication you’ve at least been there.)
Secondly, the editor will probably prompt you to talk a little bit about your own work and expectations; this is the time to appear creative and enthusiastic–remember you are your first fan–not demanding and difficult. Save that for your agent to filter on your behalf later.
Thirdly, (try to) leave the direct business questions to your agent. If you’ve got anything specific you want to know–about royalties, rights, contracts, print runs, release dates, prices, or whatever–sort it out with her beforehand. If anything pops into your mind during the call, note it down to yourself and raise it with your agent later. Remember: you’re the creative force, she’s the business force.
In other words, try not to ask anything that would make your agent want to kick you under the table if you were in the room together.
And that’s about it, really. Summed up and tl;dr it turns into:
- Do some research on the publisher/imprint prior to The Call.
- Know who’s in the conversation with you (your agent should clue you in beforehand; listen to what she says, and bring a notepad to write down names and positions when everyone’s going around doing intros).
- Have a brief list of questions designed to make your publisher feel good about both themselves and the prospect of working with you.
And, most of all: remember to breathe! This is a job, but it’s your passion, too (well, I assume; if not, why on earth would you do it?). So take it seriously, but have fun, and love your words.
You’ll do fine.
- What’s the difference? “Your” editor is the editor you’ll be directly working with on your manuscript prior to it going to print. “An” editor is any other editor, usually someone more senior and responsible for general acquisitions. Sometimes they might be the same person, sometimes you might end up on a call with both, but the point is to know which is which, who you’re talking to, and to tailor your questions appropriately. Your own editor should have more ideas on developmental edits for your work, but might stumble on big-picture organisational stuff. A senior editor is likely to be the opposite. Both will appreciate you showing understanding of the relationship from the outset and, when in doubt, ask your agent.