Act Like A Professional

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From Writers Helping Writers:

Now that in-person conferences are back, it’s a good time to review proper etiquette for these gatherings. I’ve been teaching at writers conferences for over twenty years, and I’ve seen a ton of aspiring writers in various stages of disequilibrium. Everyone wants to get a book contract and everyone’s a little scared they never will. They hear stories about the odds and it sends shivers to the tips of their typing fingers. 

In the course of these conference years I’ve seen a number of writers who have gotten that contract and gone on to be published by major houses. I’ve even helped a few get there, which is nice. And while it’s nearly impossible to judge why one manuscript makes it and another—which is comparable or even better—does not, I have made note of one item: The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve seen make it are those who look and act like a professional.

When you meet unpublished writers who act like pros, you form the immediate impression that it’s only a matter of time before they make it. This impression is not lost on agents and editors. 

So what are the marks of a professional? 


Successful writers-in-waiting look professional. They do not come off as slobs or slackers. They dress sharply though unpretentiously. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we do it all the time with people. Don’t shoot down your first impression by looking unkempt or having stink-breath that can kill low flying birds.

Industry Knowledge

Professionals know something about their profession. They spend time reading blogs and books and the trades, though not to the exclusion of their writing.

To the Point

A pro has the ability to focus on what the other person (e.g., an agent) will find valuable and, most important, can deliver that in a concise and persuasive manner. You should be able to tell someone, in 30 seconds or less, what your book is about, in such a way that the person can immediately see its potential. 


Common courtesy goes a long way, especially these days. If you have an appointment with an agent, be there two minutes early. When you’re done, thank them. Follow up with a short and appropriate e-mail.  Don’t call them unless you’ve been invited to. Don’t get angry or petulant, even if there’s a reason for it. Burning bridges is never a good career move.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

PG is certain the author of the OP is knowledgeable and meant well with his suggestions, but, for PG’s PG-ish tendencies, especially in the morning, the OP represented a great many things he dislikes about the traditional book business.

We only deal with the right kind of people.

Fit in or else.

Remember who has the power and who doesn’t.

A little groveling goes a long way.

We don’t need you but you need us.

A great many people PG has dealt with in the traditional publishing establishment think they’re smarter than they are.

He’ll rant on lawyers who work for publishers because, for PG, they represent tendencies he sees in many different areas of the publishing biz.

  1. They’re not very good lawyers. Nobody who graduates from a decent law school with decent grades wants to go to work for a publisher. For one thing, they can make a lot more money working elsewhere and for another, the work they do on a daily basis isn’t very challenging or interesting.
  2. They aren’t very good negotiators (one of the most important talents of a good business/contracts attorney) because they don’t think they have to be. After all, every author needs a publisher more than the publisher needs them.
  3. They spend most of their time dealing with literary agents, not other lawyers. Some agents are intelligent and competent, but anybody can call themselves a literary agent. There are no entry requirements, no classes they have to take, nada. And every agent needs a publisher way, way more than the publisher needs an agent. (There may be a small group of elite agents representing gonzo best-selling authors who are more important, but the gonzo combination is pretty rare.)
  4. Like everyone else in publishing, they secretly know that Amazon has changed the world, but they don’t like to think about that because they’re not sure where else they could find a job.

PG will stop being uncharitable for awhile, but he has always been annoyed by paper-thin establishments that act stupidly.

9 thoughts on “Act Like A Professional”

  1. There’s a world of difference between conventions/conferences where the vendors know there are plenty of attendees there they can treat as replaceable units, vs the ones where the vendors are hoping to sell their own products/services to the big (and little) buyers roaming the aisles.

    As an example of the latter, I think of the dozens of IT-related conventions I have attended, typically (even better) at off-season casinos (where the IT pros who understand statistics spend their nightly $20 for entertainment. (And no more than $20 — they’re no fools)). They have the best tchotchkes and, since you’re the buyer, it hardly matters if you get drunk at the afterparties.

    Attending conventions where you’re the lowly fodder in the human traffic market are a lot less fun, as PV observes. “Ritual humiliation” about sums it up.

    A lot of the self-publishing industry talks as if writers casually choose between traditional publishing and self-publishing on a strictly logical basis. Personally, I don’t do ritual humiliation very well, though I do understand how to play the game. I would never have gone into traditional publishing — it took self-publishing which not only played to my technical strengths but rewarded me with salvation from conventions and the decisions of gate-keepers to make me start writing novels, a mix I’m very happy with. I can’t be the only one…

  2. Isn’t it supposed to be about the work?

    The things PG objects to:
    We only deal with the right kind of people.
    Fit in or else.
    Remember who has the power and who doesn’t.
    A little groveling goes a long way.
    We don’t need you but you need us.

    are all excellent reasons to self-publish, especially since the traditional publishing window of opportunity is down to the size of one on a doll house.

    They need a few new people every year, and a few blockbusters to pay the bills, and they have lots to choose from. It gives the gatekeepers way too much power.

    I want it to be about the work. For any given audience, some books are far better than others.

  3. We don’t need you but you need us.

    Don’t you love institutional thinking?

    This is gaslighting. There was a thread on one of the forums in which an author asked if it was the usual practice to sign away your character rights to a publisher.

    (Short answer: Hell no!)

    The OP wants you to believe that you have no power, when in reality, you have the power to walk away, once you realize that signing a bad contract to get published is worse than turning them down.

  4. PG’s opinion of inhouse counsel across the entertainment industry is substantially more favorable than mine. Far, far too many times that counsel has been ignorant* of directly on-point technology, litigation, and statutory changes, often from decades ago. The author’s right to buy the “plates” upon termination or out-of-print, which haven’t been available for noncolor US publishers (not just printers, the publishers) since about 1992; ipso facto clauses (“bankruptcy filing causes immediate return of all rights”), outlawed in 1978 by 11 U.S.C. § 362; life-of-contract noncompete clauses outlawed in New York in the 1980s; work-made-for-hire clauses in contracts outside the lawful scope of works made for hire (1978), without a valid — or, often, any — fallback clause; warranties inconsistent with the SPEECH Act (2010); requirement of a “guaranty” of personal services from individual authors when those authors are signing through a business entity and the subject of the contract is property, not personal services; pending patent litigation originating in the Southern District of New York that would completely destroy part of the business model, and not necessarily because it was a “business methods patent”; I won’t go on.

    And those are the easy ones to spot, the ones that can be definitively prevented going forward by just reading material not already in one’s inbox. Or, all too often, material that is in one’s inbox.

    * And not just because they say they didn’t know about it as a negotiating device, which is a problem in itself; because their actions reflected that ignorance.

  5. You took the words out of my mouth PG.

    It didn’t take 100 words of the article before my head was shaking.

    If nothing else, this is a masterclass in How NOT To Negotiate. Neediness in a person is like blood to sharks.

  6. PG wrote: “They’re not very good lawyers. Nobody who graduates from a decent law school with decent grades wants to go to work for a publisher. ”

    Reading this reminded me of an incident about a dozen years ago where my attorney (I had ceased working with literary agents a few years earlier) was negotiating my contract with a publisher I’d never dealt with before. After we reviewed the contract, she showed me (and then, with my authorization, sent them) a list of the items we wanted changed in the contract.

    Something like two months passed wherein nothing happened. My lawyer nudged them every couple of weeks, and they’d send a vague “will get back to you soon” reply. And this just went on and on and on.

    FINALLY, they said most of the delay was because we’d made a request (I don’t remember the specifics now—it was something to do with revising the indemnity clause)… and their legal department, while not objecting in principle to our request, had no idea how to write the clause, couldn’t figure out what phrasing to use.

    They’d held up the contract for nearly TWO MONTHS… because their lawyers didn’t know how to write a clause. We were dumbfounded.

    So I told my lawyer, write the clause, send it to them. She did, and the contract was resolved and signed within about 48 hours.

    The publisher’s legal department didn’t know how to write… a fairly ordinary legal clause.

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