Long before Twitter made the under-140-character limit de rigueur for quotable quotes, someone said “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”
This is good advice. What it means in practical terms is that if I greet my new boss with “I sure hope you’re not the same as the old boss – she was a real witch, and I don’t mean witch but I’m trying to be polite by replacing the letter ‘b’ with a more acceptable letter” or “Is it okay if I drink heavily on the job? Because I can only work drunk since this place really sucks” I’ll probably miss out on that promotion I was hoping for.
First impressions matter.
This is especially true in publishing, where you’re competing for headspace and shelfspace with a squillion other writers. In publishing, you don’t have just one first impression to make. You have a bunch. Here are some to consider (and a tip or two on how to make your impression memorable for all the right reasons).
The elevator pitch. Strike up a conversation when it’s appropriate and be concise when you talk about your book. Don’t pitch to an agent who looks especially burned-out. Don’t pitch to an agent who is snarfing her lunch while standing at a deli counter between conference appointments. And even if she invites conversation by asking if your stall has any toilet paper, do not pitch an agent in the bathroom. Oh, and be yourself. Practicing your pitch is good for learning what’s important about your book – but use your own voice when talking with an agent.
The conference appointment. Arrive on time. Get to the point. Don’t stay late. And somehow, yeah, be yourself.
The query. Study the agent’s guidelines and, without losing your writer’s voice, tailor your query accordingly. Also, don’t query agents who don’t rep your genre.
The sample chapter. If your best writing begins in chapter four, you’re not ready to query agents. Keep editing until your first three chapters are brilliant. Seriously. If you don’t capture readers with the first chapters, you’ll never capture an agent either.
The publishing industry googler. Tweet a hundred times a day. Update your Facebook status hourly if you so choose. Blog every day and comment all you want on other people’s publishing-related blogs. But never forget that an agent (or editor) who decides to google you [why does that phrase always come across as creepily sexual?] could run across any of your words. If the first words she reads are “agents are stupid” you just made a bad impression. Unless you’re referring to secret agents. But why would you do that? That would be stupid. Secret agents are the epitome of cool. Stop badmouthing secret agents, okay? Thanks.
The editor. So you get lucky and land a publishing contract. Good for you. Now, make nice with your editor. She’s not just someone with a red pen, she’s your collaborator. You don’t want your collaborator to hate you. Not right away, anyway.
The marketing and sales staff. Be enthusiastic about your role in the marketing and sales process. If you give the impression that you’re expecting them to do all the work, you’re shooting yourself in the [book] spine. Announce your availability and willingness to do whatever it takes during your very first conversation with these fine, under-appreciated folks.
The reader. Some readers will love your words. They’ll fill Amazon’s review section with high praise and high fives. But some will hate you for wasting a few hours of their lives. Resist the urge to slap back at these people. Just smile and say “thank you” to all who comment. And learn what you can from both the fanatic fans and the determined detractors.
The booksigning visitor. Unless you’re intentionally going for that “lives in a dumpster” look, make a tiny bit of effort to look good for the masses who will hover at your table, eager to meet a successful writer in 3-D. And bring breath mints. Lots of them.