Last week, alert client Elaine Powell tweeted an article at me about a new feature of some UK writers conferences: Dog Walks with Agents. The title of the article in the Bookseller was "Literary Agents Try To Change 'Distant' Image"
It seems that at two literary festivals in England, one of the featured events was a morning jaunt where agents and authors bonded over their dogs, thus humanizing the agents, who might otherwise be thought of as foreboding or unapproachable.
I had a bunch of thoughts about this, all of which were surprisingly negative. I say surprisingly because a) I am a huge dog person, having spent much of my life cohabiting with various retrievers; and b) because I have made a serious effort since becoming an agent to be Out There and approachable. I have spent a lot of time at conferences. I am active on Twitter and Facebook, and have written this blog weekly for more than three years now. So why was my visceral reaction to roll my eyes at such a benign (and likely fun) event?
As I parsed it, I realized that there were two things. The first is that the places I spend most of my time talking to authors at conferences tends to be at the bar (along with everyone else!), where people organically gather at these confabs after a long day of panels and pitches. It’s not forced and it’s not scheduled. (Sometimes it can get sloppy, but that too can say something—how much to do want to work with the agent who starts spilling secrets after a couple of vodka tonics? Maybe it’s a strikeout, but to some, maybe a home run…) I don’t find it to be filled with peer pressure, and agents assume they are going to chat with people they don’t know—with the invite and the plane ticket is the unspoken understanding that you’ll hold court in the lobby.
The second issue I had with this article had to do with the assumption that agents are scary and intimidating and unapproachable, and they will be humanized through their relationships with their pets. There are two things about this: The first is that fundamentally I find that the vast majority of agents (like the vast majority of editors and the bulk of writers I meet, for that matter), are very nice and human (at least in small doses). We enter this business, as I’ve said any number of times in this space, because we want to LIKE things, to say YES, even though we ultimately reject the majority of queries we receive. But our mindset is largely positive and we at least TRY to be optimistic. So we’re approachable. Not like a golden retriever, but not like a komodo dragon, either.
But the other thing that I realized is that, while I am very happy to hang out at the bar with writers who either just finished pitching their manuscripts to me or are going to in the morning, I do think there is a very reasonable desire to be slightly distant from writers who are not clients. My social media persona (as is true with many of my peers), is what I want it to be, by and large. If you look me up, you will know that I play drums, love women’s basketball, am active in my synagogue and with some animal rights groups, am married with kids, and represent a lot of crime and historical fiction, some children’s books, and Other. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s more than many of my colleagues would put out there, but I think it’s enough to be interesting without oversharing.
My clients often know me better, but then, we have a closer relationship, and it’s a two-way street. They can know more about what I think about things, or some of my views. But I think it’s appropriate for there to be a bit of distance between agent and prospective client.
Finally, I was wondering why walking a dog with me would give you an indication as to my knowledge of the crime fiction market, or how well I line edit (Sheila Boneham, don't kill me!!!!). Now I’m not being obtuse—I know that what breed of dog I have can give as much of an indication as to my personality as the brand of scotch I drink, and I can talk about noir with Frisbees as easily as with tumblers. But in the same way that certain manuscripts can be written perfectly well but have a tone that’s just slightly off, so too is the Dog Walking at the Lit Conference.