Interview with THE editor — part 2: correspondence

We’re back with Robbie Mayes, the editor who gave me my first encouragement, but ultimately never signed up any of the three books I sent him, including one I rewrote for him and one I actually wrote for him.

What went wrong? Well, we covered a lot of that in the last post when Robbie gamely answered my questions about the inner workings of his publishing house. (FSG, which he left three years ago.)

This time, Robbie answers my questions about the various ways we did (and did not) communicate during our 1 1/2 year correspondence. I hope it will help you in your dealings with editors…

SAM: You were the first editor I ever queried and one of the few who ever responded positively. Yet, my query letter was the sort of gimmicky thing editors are supposed to hate — the synopsis was illustrated and way over-the-top. Are the experts wrong when they tell us to be “businesslike” about our queries? Is standing-out good?

RM: The ‘experts’ are probably on the money when they caution against unorthodox pitches. So many times when writers try to conjure up a gimmick to attract the attention of an editor, it is a misfire. Therefore a traditional approach to submission is often the safest way to go. But if something smart and different came across my desk, I wouldn’t penalize it for breaking some rules.

On the other hand, I was an editor who actually hunted out good cover letters, whereas a number of editors I met over the years confessed to ignoring them almost completely. I felt a well-written, personality-ingrained letter helped me to form an early picture of what kind of writer I had on my hands. Sometimes the letter even trumped the manuscript in terms of whether I thought it a potentially worthwhile investment to offer encouragement and (hopefully) useful criticism.

It must bear mentioning that I generally liked the oddball stuff the best, and while I was able to acquire some defiantly quirky projects, many I wanted to do did not pass muster with my superiors. I can’t blame them, really. Even though an editor feels the whole world ought to love what he loves, it doesn’t work out that way a lot of the time, and one must be mindful of making money, unfortunately.

Once you had my manuscript(s), would it have helped if I had bugged you more often, say with once-a-month reminders? Or would that have hurt my chances?

It would not have hurt you, and probably would not have benefitted you either. Yes, I might have gotten a periodic e-mail from you, and if I was feeling impatient along the same lines, I might have sent a nudge over to whoever had it, telling him the author is inquiring about the status of his manuscript. But I am talking about you here. In this case, we had been in touch, I was interested in your talents, and you had established yourself as a funny, interesting human being whom I wanted to know and work with, so of course I wouldn’t mind hearing from you, particularly if the solicitation was impatience flavored by good nature.

If one is dealing with an editor with whom he has not set up any such affinity, I would advise against bugging unless it’s of the most professional kind. Three months is a perfectly reasonable time to ask where an editor is at with a project that he has requested. Six months, you should be telling that editor in the most nonthreatening way that even though you still want him to publish your book the most, you’re going to show it to a few more people in the meanwhile because he’s taking so long.

The last time I ever communicated with you was when I made an uninvited phone call. Was that a coincidence or do uninvited phone calls cross a line and make a writer persona non grata?

Not at all. Frequent phone calls, maybe. Probably. But it is acceptable to occasionally pick up the phone and ask to speak to someone who has shown an interest in you.

I’ll hold onto Robbie’s final Q&A until I finally write my big post about small stories in the big post-Potter world….

Many, many thanks to Robbie Mayes for answering these questions. As I tried to make clear in the previous post, it’s not his fault I had insanely high expectations…