The Art of the Cold Call

I’m genuinely curious about what brings someone to make cold calls. I can see the general appeal: you want to break through the noise with your submission, so you figure you’ll drop an agent a line and maybe charm the pants off them. Not literally, of course. That’s an entirely different profession.

What I can’t put together is why people think it will work. Publishing loves its anecdotes. Got rejected by 40 people? The Help was rejected by even more! Think you can sell your novel off a proposal for seven figures? Why not? Charles Frazier did it!

But while I’ve never heard a story of someone cold-calling their way to a brilliant deal, it’s a process that still exists. Is this the last gasp of optimism for a very particular type of author? Has anyone else heard a success story that’s spurring these writers on?

10 Responses to The Art of the Cold Call

  1. Joelle says:

    My guess is that lots of other businesses work with the cold call and these writers have not done any homework on how to get an agent, so they just go forward with what they think is normal business. Not that that’s a valid excuse or anything. And of course, there are the people who think they are the exceptions to everyone. On the plus side, you’re never going to accidentally get stuck with one on your list because they looked good on paper but turned out to be an idiot later. They’re idiotic from the beginning!

  2. Redleg says:

    I may be mistaken but I think it’s because publishing is the only business where phone calls are frowned upon. (Is there any other industry that insists you never call them?) Whenever I’ve had problems e-mailing back and forth with my contractor or my insurance company I’ve simply picked up the phone to cut through the communication breakdown. The publishing industry can insist on this rule and make everyone abide by this rule, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a really strange and counter-intuitive rule.

  3. Tamara says:

    In the larger sense, I also think we are firmly wedded to the belief of American Exceptionalism. By that I mean we love the story of the underdog and we believe that we as individuals are exceptions to the rule. What this means in real terms is that we print all kinds of articles about how you can get into the biz by doing the exact opposite of the rules, of what you’re supposed to do, and we think that that’s okay. Plus most movies we see and a lot of books we read ~ in other words, narratives ~ have happy endings that foster the belief that we as individuals will always win no matter what we do. The ends justify the means, and rules don’t apply to us. Indivualism like this has positives too, of course, but it also has its dirty underbelly. (Now dismounting soapbox.)

  4. Ciara says:

    I agree with Redleg, calling is the normal way to get through to someone in most businesses. I would guess that a lot of people don’t realise it’s not appropriate. Unless you’re following industry blogs etc there’s no reason why you would think a phone call is out of order.

    Sort of in this vein I have a question. I’m not ready to query yet but when I do my father is friends with a major agent. Not close friends but friendly. He insists that he should make a call to her and sort of introduce me, as my dad is not in publishing I told him I think that would be inappropriate, am I right? Would that do me more harm than good?

  5. It amazes me that people would assume that publishing, which is ultimately about the written word, would do business like the other businesses cited, where you just pick up a phone and call. In the other businesses, for one, the caller tends to be a customer, not an applicant. The writer trying to get an agent is more an applicant than a customer; they’re looking to be taken on, hired. Given that dynamic, you’d think they’d try to put their best foot forward and for most writers I know, their “best foot” only winds up in their mouths when they try talking it out as opposed to writing — that thing they’re supposed to be good at.

  6. Cynthia says:

    I have a happy ending!

    A friend of mine, Sheri Sanders cold called Hal Leonard on an idea for a book. He loved the idea and she is now a published author of Rock The Audition: How to Prepare and Get Cast in Rock Muscials. It’s for sale now. Here’s a link to her website if you’re curious.

  7. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Indie authors (and I’ve dipped my toes in self-pubbing myself) spamming threads is another case in point. How could antagonising a potential customer by gate-crashing a conversation they’re having with another potential customer be a good business strategy?

  8. In short, I agree with Joelle and Tamara. Cold calling and meeting-in-person are accepted and even encouraged in many other fields, because a good impression or personal connection is what makes your application stand out above the rest. Even for things like fast food jobs or retail, people are encouraged to give their application to the manager, if they can. (Of course, applications moving online is probably eliminating this somewhat.) And most jobs depend on an interview. Cold-calling, these writers probably think, is a good way to replicate that experience.

    And like Tamara said, we all think we’re the exception. Ours will be the story good enough to make anything unorthodox about our approach acceptable, because we are all special and dreams are achieved just through hard work and wanting something hard enough. How can we fail?

  9. Seanna Cabezut says:

    If the attitude is not gratitude, then what?

    All this hemming and hawing on what is “right” and what is “wrong,” but like life, everything is a matter of perspective.

    1. If Jim actually was touch-moved-inspired by the “cold call” then he would be grateful and praising the writer for having the confidence to call, since their effort and talent could potentially make him/the agency big $$$$$.
    2. What if the cold-calling writer, like Sheri Sanders, had a brilliant idea and chose the particular agent (in the referred case Hal Leonard) to share their vision…actually believing that the agent/agency was capable of developing a great idea into a bestselling book (as agents and agencies so often proclaim)?

    Let us not forget the definition of an agent (according to Apple Dictionary):
    1. A person or company that provides a particular service, typically one who organizes transactions between two parties.
    2. A person or thing that takes an active role or produces a specified effect.

    Without the writer, without the person willing to email, without the person willing to cold-call, without the visionary to inspire the visionary…there would be no agent, but there would still be writers.

    If we are to find a new way (in publishing and in life) then we may want to recall the words of Eckhart Tolle, “Gratefulness for what is there is one of the most powerful tools for creating what is not yet there. What does gratefulness mean? It means you appreciate what is. You value, you give attention to, you honor whatever is here at this moment.”

  10. Jason says:

    As someone who works in PR, I regularly call journalists *after* sending my initial pitch email.

    It’s not unlike querying a literary agent, really. After sending my written pitch to a journalist, I follow-up with a phone call to gauge their interest in featuring my client in their publication.

    Sometimes things can be conveyed over the phone that cannot be conveyed via the written word. Suer, sometimes journalists can be terse, but as someone who has placed my clients in a wide variety of publications, I’ve come to value the follow-up call as a means to provide proactive service to clients.

    I wish agents felt the same way about receiving follow-up calls, but to each their own.

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