17

When three people tell you you’re drunk, sit down

So, I have been thinking about the art of listening, but not only listening – actually hearing what is “said” and acting on what you are hearing.

When I take on a project initially, I am 100 percent sure I can sell it.  I help my client make their proposal or manuscript (if it is a novel) the best it can be, and then I submit it.  I often think that editors turn down material just to do so—they dismiss it without reading it carefully or giving it their full consideration for a variety of reasons.  Needless to say, this pisses me off.  Then there are those projects which elicit rejections from a number of editors for the same reason. When this happens, I begin to listen to what is being said by my colleagues on the publishing side.  Most always,  I share these helpful and constructive comments with my clients who often choose to address them before we go back out to a second round of publishers.

Currently, I have a client who on my advice was more than happy to address those editors’ suggestions she agreed with and I am still hopeful that we will sell her project once the changes are made and the material is back out in the marketplace.

Then there are the clients who don’t listen to my advice or editors’ feedback at all.  They go to their friends and colleagues for opinions, argue with whatever suggestions I make and (sometimes) request that I respond to editors in ways that I think (and let them know) are not appropriate.  I wonder why people like this hire agents at all.  Really.  These authors are paying a commission for me to provide them with advice I have garnered after years of experience.  True, they don’t have to take my advice, but if they are just going to listen to everyone around them and disagree with their agent’s opinion, then why have an agent at all.  In fact, the inability to listen to one’s agent does not bode well for a good working relationship with an editor and publisher.

I have found, over the last many years, that listening and acting on what you hear is an art and something that is very important in moving forward in life and in one’s career.

I wonder if you agree.

17 Responses to When three people tell you you’re drunk, sit down

  1. Giora says:

    Jane, I agree with you that an author should listen to the publisher, editor and the agent if the author wants to have his or her book to be published via the publisher/editor book publishing company. If the author doesn’t want to listen, then he or she should self published the book. An author can’t expect a book publishing company to publish the book without following their suggestion. It’s their publishing company after all.
    Now about the art of listening, people should note that god/nature gave us two ears but only one mouth. That’s the clue that listening is more important than talking.

  2. Love the title to this post :-)

  3. Kim says:

    I really don’t get the resistance to feedback. I guess if there’s something really, really essential to your work that’s being challenged, it’s worth standing up for that, but in most cases, feedback is worth taking very seriously, especially if more than one person says it.

  4. I guess I’m amazed. I enjoy getting feedback from readers and friends – I hope they’ll buy my stuff, after all.

    But the professionals who are trying to market and sell the book have amazingly valuable input. They’re the ones who have the expertise on what can make it in the market. If they say the book opens too slow for the typical reader, but you respond with “My friends all waded through the first 150 pages until the story started,” then you, the author, either need to make everyone your friend before they all buy the book, or you need to change your opening.

    In one sense, when you go to market, it’s not your story any more. It’s now a product, and it needs to fit expectations, especially for a new author. If you’re a musician and you want to include a bottle of smell with your MP3, well, when you’re famous you might be able to work it out. For ordinary musicians you need to fit the model.

    Same for new authors. Get your stuff out there. Make it your best stuff, but make it fit the market. Once you become the Danielle Steele or Tom Clancy or Stephen King of urban fantasy, then you can hassle your editors and agents.

  5. Stephanie says:

    All I know is, that’s the best headline ever. I’ll be working it into my snark arsenal (snarkenal?).

  6. These people should realise that they are lucky to have an agent at all, and that the agent is the expert. That’s kind of the point. A publisher just asked me to revise the ending of a book I submitted. I had several people read through it prior to submission and they were fine with the current ending, but you know, the publisher is the one making the enormous investment and I will do what it takes to get them to issue me that contract. And no, I don’t have an agent, but if I did I bet I would have been asked to revise the ending before it went to the publisher.

  7. Lydia says:

    If you want to be a better writer, listening to the invaluable advice agents/editors/publishers give you is a must. You can then turn around and apply your new-found knowledge to the next manuscript…and the next…and the next. I’d rather learn than produce crap any day; a little listening goes a long way towards that aim.

  8. Catherine Whitney says:

    Totally agree, and love the headline. However, I’ve noticed that people who require 3 people to tell them they’re drunk are usually past listening.

  9. I don’t tell my plumber how to fix the pipes. I don’t tell my mechanic how to fix my car’s engine. Why would I tell my agent how to do his or her job?

    When I signed with Michael, I had several agents to chose from. The thing that sold me on him, and DGLM is that he was very open to two-way conversations. He told me how he saw things and asked how I saw them.

    What has worked great for me is asking lots of questions, not being afraid to explain my vision, and then listening to a professional tell me what he is seeing in the market and how we can work together to make us both successful. If you are going to go to all the trouble of getting a great agent, you need to take advantage of their expertise. It seems like the authors I hear not wanting to take their agent’s advice are almost always newer to the publishing world.

  10. Kurt Hartwig says:

    I worked as a grip on a small studio film with Bernie Mac maybe 8 years ago – for the rest of the crew, it was their umpteenth show. The guys from Wilmington, NC (disparagingly called Wilmy-Wood by its detractors) all said that the actors to watch out for weren’t the A-listers, people who were secure in their status. It wasn’t Bernie Mac, who’d worked his way through the ranks and had a smile and a hello for everyone on the crew and for every extra within hand-shaking distance. It was the B-listers, the people who wanted more – they were were ones who were tetchy and angry and unpleasant to be around.

    As an unsigned author – let me re-phrase – as a writer who hasn’t even started querying yet, it seems pretty clear that I should be grateful to have an agent, having jumped through one difficult hoop. I should listen. I should be reasonable.

    It’s also pretty easy to imagine that, having achieved that first goal, that the insecurities well up and I hunker down around my baby – I mean, my book – and lash out at anyone who dares imply that I haven’t done a good job bringing it up. We hear what we want to hear usually. I keep seeing psych studies that demonstrate how proof that an individual holds an incorrect position only strengthens their belief in that position (e.g. from last year https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128490874).

    Don’t get me wrong – 3 people saying you’re drunk, by all means, sit down and shut up. I do think, though, that it’s a pretty easy scenario to imagine (and fall into).

    • Very much agreed, and I hadn’t even thought of it in terms of A- and B-listers before. The trick if you (generic “you”) ever find yourself in this situation, though, is to breathe. How many times have we reacted to something as if it were the end of the world, only for it not to seem so big a deal after a while? Sure, there may be drastic suggestions once in a while that totally undermine your vision, and then you should speak up and search for some consensus (note: “consensus” implies being willing to work with someone or something, not demanding your own way or else!). But most of the time, the suggestions will probably be pretty on-target and meant to help your story reach its fullest potential.

  11. Lisa Borja says:

    So then … people are generally the same PITAs to deal with, no matter what your occupation. I feel similarly every day, when my clientele repeatedly ask me for help or advice but do what they want anyway (usually in direct opposition to what is advisable). The people who have the highest expectations of others to listen to them, are the worst listeners themselves.

    So to actually answer your question (yes, I was listening): I agree. Why get an agent if you don’t trust their expertise or want the help they are there to give.

  12. DBurks says:

    You must have been abused by publishers lately considering your other posts. I can’t say I am surprised that they value their gatekeeper power in part because it is Power. Still, you are the provider of profitable new product for them, so it is silly of them to annoy you since you can just as easily take the next megabook to someone else. In fact, it seems likely that you have editors and publishers you prefer precisely because they listen to you before saying no. DGLM has a long record of success so an editor should listen carefully: A book you represent has a high probablity of success.

    You are correct that listening is an art, but it is also a skill. It is not hard to learn, but it takes discipline. Most people never even try. I once worked for an old physician who told me that he had learned the secret of diagnosis from an old doctor in his youth: If you listen patiently without interrupting every patient will tell you exactly what is wrong with them. I have spent a long career doing just that, and I can testify that it works. The quickest and most certain way to accurate and rapid diagnosis is to remain silent and pay attention.

    Neither the art nor the skill can be faked, though, because nearly everybody can tell if you are not really paying attention. Children and dogs can tell almost instantly.

    Recent events in publishing seem to have pulled back the curtain. The stress is revealing the crap shoot style of decision making that has likely been going on a long time. I try to read most of the books that win awards, and every year some of them are so terrible it is hard to see how anyone in the publishing stream read the entire book before sending it to the printer.

    I enjoy listening to my test readers, and their comments are always helpful especially in matters of clarity and continuity in the story. I have been surprised that the teenagers and those over seventy have nearly the same tastes and questions. Of course, none of them are acquisition editors so I suppose they are of no ‘real literary importance.’

    I do hope the pubishers start treating you better.

  13. B says:

    While I agree that its always a good thing to listen to the advice industry professionals are giving you, surely that doesn’t mean the said professional is always right. Sometimes the author is right too. (though obviously im talking about nuts and bolts of the actual writing, not the business of publishing). There are two reasons I think this. First, industry professionals have said many times that when it comes to publishing a book they are often in the dark about what works and what doesn’t. It’s a gamble. And secondly, while editors and agents have years of experience in the business, authors often have years of experience too, honing their craft and studying the art of fiction. Surely the best approach is to have a constructive dialogue about what works, allowing authors to fight their corner, and not necessarily be looked down on for doing so, (obviously not when its concerning the opinions of friends and family) etc.

    As a final note though, if an editor or agent asked me to make changes, i’d probably do exactly what i’m told. I think.

    B

  14. Rowenna says:

    One thing I’ve learned in the art of hearing criticism is that the suggestion for how to fix a problem might not always be something you agree with, but most important part of the suggestion is that the problem is there. Sometimes a beta reader or editor won’t even quite nail what the problem is–but the fact that a trusted individual stumbled over a part of the story or a bit of language or a plot point means there’s probably something wrong. It’s a writer’s job to listen first, process second, then address the root of the issue. Too many people argue first :) One wonders whether they’d prefer to fail on their own terms rather than succeed in collaboration with others.

  15. Ryan Field says:

    I think the collaboration between agent, editor, and author is what makes things work. Especially when it comes to good copy editors.

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