Switching successfully to online communication: An agent’s view

A photograph of a man presenting during an online Zoom meeting, wearing headphones. Image by Getty Images Pro

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful planet, full of beautiful people. There they were, merrily jogging along to the beat of their own drum, taking into their stride with vociferousity the lack of time, swept away as they were, in a whirl of constant rushing. When all of a sudden this beautiful planet was struck by an invisible force rendering it silent. They fell asleep one by one. Then they slowly started to awaken in a startlingly brand new world and this is when online communication stepped in and became their knight in shining armour.

I’ve been in lockdown for 16 years – well, not really, but I’ve worked from home for 16 years so lockdown has primarily impacted meetings for me.

I may be used to being from home, but the majority of editors and publishing directors I deal with are not used to this way of working. This led to a drastic change in communication for them, whilst my world felt less rocked in this respect, it did affect my communication within the industry.

During lockdown, I pitched a timely memoir; whilst drafting my pitch I was very much aware of the intended recipient’s state of mind. I also seriously wondered how lockdown would impact acquisitions meetings.

Many of the publishers I work with felt they could not concentrate and read at all… Hardly surprising, as they may have been furloughed; they may have been enjoying the ubiquitous sunshine in their gardens; or baking endless supplies of sourdough bread (an observation from social media). They may have been going through personal heartache, or lost a loved one… The possibilities are endless. 

Lockdown has changed my style of working immensely. I’ve always taken part in agent one-to-ones at various literary festivals/conferences and online agent one-to-ones. It’s always been  very important for me personally to meet with writers and has always been an enormous part of my role. As all festivals/conferences have been cancelled over the last few months, I’ve been asked to do more online webinars etc. It’s been a baptism of fire at times: taking part in live online events is a whole new experience, bearing in mind my experiences using Zoom warrant a comedy-of-errors style handbook.

Just before lockdown, during this year’s absent London Book Fair, I was in back-to-back meetings with various publishers at their offices. It was surreal, as nobody quite knew how to behave. Yet, in that moment, it did not occur to any of us to move our meetings online; this was not a method I had considered with publishers at home. I’d always had online meetings with US publishers and foreign rights agents. 

I booked my trip to Frankfurt Book Fair prior to the pandemic, and I’m now wondering whether I will be attending Frankfurt for a jolly, as most publishers have pulled out, or ought I give it a miss? Lockdown has made me re-evaluate how I work: all the meetings for Frankfurt can take place online instead. It’s such a simple solution, but one which would never have entered my mind before lockdown. We are all so used to presenting ourselves on a crazy carousel of meetings at Book Fairs.

On a different note, submissions have skyrocketed – it seems everyone has hastily scribbled a magnum opus – lockdown creativity is thriving.

My experience is that I have missed face-to-face meetings. I usually visit publishers or meet them at Soho House. It is always so lovely to catch up properly.

I have not used Google Hangouts, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams. I’ve primarily used Zoom and occasionally Skype – each time Zoom decided to kick me out – we continue to have a tempestuous relationship.

A sign of the times, when my accountant cannot get hold of me via email, he sends me messages on WhatsApp. No stone left unturned…

Here are five tips for using Zoom or any other online medium for effective communication:

  1. Do not rush to your laptop / computer / device at the allocated meeting time, do allow at least a 5 minute window to log into the meeting. With everyone working from home, there are times when there is a strain on wifi, thus making it a little longer to connect. Logging in at the time of an allocated meeting, rendered me half an hour late for the meeting, I felt utterly mortified and spent the next half an hour profusely apologising – this basically covered most of the meeting.
  2. I joined Zoom but as I am sent invites, I don’t normally log in – this is a huge problem if you are setting up a meeting. Do log in and then set up the meeting. I tried to set one up without logging in, alas to no avail…
  3. An issue has arisen on a number of occasions regarding the scheduled time for meetings – Zoom always has our time set at GMT, this is confusing but it automatically allows the live meeting time to be set for BST – even if it clearly says GMT assume it knows we are in BST.
  4. If for any reason you find your connection has collapsed or like me, Zoom has kicked you out (this happened 5 times to me in a social meet-up) don’t fret, you simply open a new window/tab and put the meeting ID in again, et voila you are back in the game! I sincerely hope my rookie mistakes will help you, of course if you’re techie this is all child’s play.
  5. Whether you work for a corporation or you are a freelancer. Online communication has enabled us all to communicate more effectively and with ease. You can reach out and connect with anyone across the globe. For example; my one-to-one writer’s were usually UK based, but now, since the live webinars, I have agent one-to-one’s in September which are primarily with American writers. I’m being interviewed by an Instagrammer in Australia. It’s been a game-changer. The world is your oyster – go and have fun!