The Art of the Compliment Sandwich: Praise
It's tough out there, as all publishers will tell you. Fewer shops in which to sell books, fewer promotional slots to win, lots of other TV and gaming product to compete with. But the good news is that books can still sell and sell for sure, if you have the right book at the right time and you publish it beautifully and people get to hear about it... What the publishing industry is discovering, is that social media is a great place to get that ball rolling, and Twitter in particular is an ideal space in which to keep spirits up in the meantime.
It's great to see publishers praising each others' work; authors reading and recommending books by competitors; booksellers and bloggers enthusing together; publicists giving each other virtual fist-bumps and cheek-kisses. Giving compliments freely is uncharacteristic for most of us English people, usually too embarrassed to accept praise well and too proud to offer it lavishly. Now we can 'like' or 'favorite' something in one click, we're all getting much better at telling each other when we've done a great job, or deserve success.
Actually praise fuels the books business. Giving praise together with editorial feedback is particularly crucial, clearly. Most publishers excel at this, although one editor is renown for diving straight in: 'Dear [Author],' a typical email from her might open, 'I think the main areas in need of thought are the relationship between...'. Oh, darling, we're starving over here! Where are our compliment sandwiches? Give us some bread with this meat.
When my clients send me a manuscript for review they often give me strong signals about the response they need. "BE GENTLE," warns one particular author, always. Gentle, who me? Always, surely! I'm good at criticism (I mean critique, darling), and can manage a decent compliment sandwich, but am less successful at fully articulating the things I admire. One of the many reasons I treasure my colleague Harriet Moore is for her open-hearted appreciation of our authors' work. Her ability to pinpoint in her editorial letters exactly what it is a writer has done so well is unusual and precious.
I'm still the gawky teenager when receiving compliments. Let me slide like paper out under the door. Stop lying, fool. Parties these days are alive with P.D.A.s - Public Displays of Admiration. Shoes. Bags. Hair. Sometimes even books. Agents are paid to fade into the background until needed, thankfully, but authors have to become exceptionally good at hearing praise graciously. And they need to hear it - it makes returning to the writing desk the morning after so much less daunting.
An agent is in a great position to use praise to encourage and support both publishers and authors. We can pay talented people the compliment of noticing their best work, of caring about it being wonderful, of believing in their original intent and highest aspirations. In our role as middle-person, if we watch carefully, we can also spot when there is a compliment gap, and fill it quickly.
Recently I was at a client's launch party. The moment came for speeches. The crowd formed a messy half-circle, the author teetering, blushing, at its heart. The publisher took a breath. I turned to my author just before the chatter died down. Gosh, I thought, she looks radiant. But nervous. I leaned in and whispered impulsively, 'You look beautiful by the way.' My compliment was well-timed. The author beamed, glowed, and reigned. Her speech completed the compliment circle, as she thanked all who had worked so brilliantly together to launch her little book into the world.