Building block of the pitch #3, part II: you’ve gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart — oh, and make a professional pitch for your work as well.

Yesterday, I suggested that a dandy way to prepare for a conversation with a real, live agent or editor was to sit down and come up with a list of selling points for your book. Or, if you’re pitching nonfiction, how to figure out the highlights of your platform.

Not just vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find it an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pull that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register.

It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you pitch or query, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if YOU know why readers will want to buy it. Trust me, “I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with agents and editors.

Why? Well, pretty much everyone who approaches them has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book; contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s WANTING to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

I’m not bringing this up randomly — many, many pitchers (and quite a few queriers as well) make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to tell the pitchee about how HARD it was to write this particular book, how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, etc. (For some extended examples, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

They believe, apparently, that pitching (or querying) is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. As charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of tears shed during the description), this approach typically does not work. In fact, what it generally produces is profound embarrassment in both listener and pitcher.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why IS partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken while trying to find a home for your work.

I’m quite serious about this. Apart from the very real benefits having such a list by your side when pitching, I like to ask writers about their books’ selling points before they pitch or query in order to pull the pin gently on a grenade that can be pretty devastating to the self-esteem. A lot of writers mistake professional questions about marketability for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Deriving these impressions, some writers shrink away from agents and editors who ask it — a reluctance to hear professional feedback which, in turn, can very easily lead to an unwillingness to pitch or query.

“They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye.

This response makes me sad, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that is never submitted at all. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all. Your job in generating selling points is to SHOW (not tell) that there is indeed a market for your book.

Ooh, that hit some nerves, didn’t it? I can practically hear some of you, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently. “Um, Anne?” some of you seem to be saying, with a nervous glance at your calendars, “I can understand why this might be a useful document for querying by letter, or for sending along with my submission, but have you forgotten that I will be giving VERBAL pitches at a conference just a couple of short weeks away? Is this really the best time to be spending hours coming up with my book’s selling points?”

My readers are so smart; you always ask the right questions at precisely the right time.

Before you pitch is EXACTLY when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points. Because, you see, if your book has market appeal over and above its writing style (and the vast majority of books do), YOU SHOULD MENTION IT IN YOUR PITCH. Not in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based REASONS that they will clamor to read it.

Preferably backed by verifiable statistics.

Why? Because it will make you look professional in the eyes of the agent or editor sitting in front of you. And because, really, no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

Enough pep talk for today; let’s get back to work.

Last time, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points yesterday, but try not to get too bogged down in listing the standard prestige points. Naturally, you should include any previous publications and/or writing degrees on your list of selling points, but if you have few or no previous publications, awards, and writing degrees to your credit, do not despair. I am going through a long list of potential categories in order that everyone will be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities to add to her personal list.

(5) Relevant life experience. This is well worth including, if it helped fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.

And if you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, you need to be explicit about it. It may seem self-evident to YOU, but remember, the agents and editors to whom you will be pitching will probably not be able to guess whether you have a platform from just looking at you.

There’s a reason that they habitually ask NF writers, “So, what’s your platform?” after all.

What you should NOT do, however, is stammer out in a pitch meeting (or say in a query letter) that your novel is “sort of autobiographical.” To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications.”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation.

However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material. But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco, it’s not going to be a good idea to include the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your pitch.

(6) Associations and affiliations. If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here. Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, mention it.

Some possible examples: the Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120, 000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest; Angelina Jolie is a well-known graduate of Yale University, which guarantees a mention of her book on tulip cultivation in the alumni newsletter. Currently, the Yale News reaches over 28 million readers bimonthly.

(Perhaps it goes without mentioning, but I pulled all of the examples I am using here out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore.)

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers. If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, state it here. If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.)

Even if these trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better.

Some possible examples: novels featuring divorced mothers of small children have enjoyed a considerable upswing in popularity in recent years. A July, 2008 search on Amazon.com revealed over 1,200 titles; ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association; last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

(8) Statistics. At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the country are affected by it. By listing the real statistics here, you minimize the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low. Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them.

Some possible examples: 400,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book; according to a recent study in the TORONTO STAR, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines — pointing to an immense potential Canadian market for this book.

(9) Recent press coverage. I say this lovingly, of course, but people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the irrational. Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it.

Possible example: so far in 2008, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends. I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening THEN.

Current events are inherently tricky, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)

If you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, do it here. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples: at its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2009 – guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET; if tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2012, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book. You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, “BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap displasia,” can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: avoid cutting down other books on the market; try to point out how your book is GOOD, not how another book is bad.

Why Publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the person to whom you are pitching DIDN’T go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or represented the book himself.

I would STRONGLY urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Why might a professor choose to teach it in an English literature class?

Again, remember to stick to the FACTS here, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is.

Why not? Well, that’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually SAYS that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter that this is the best book in the Western literary canon is a bad writer. Next!

So be careful not to sound as if you are boasting. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features the most sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old ever seen in a novel, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example: while Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(12) Research. If you have done significant research or extensive interviews for the book, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a NF book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform.

Some possible examples: Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities; Bruce Willis interviewed over 600 married women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE.

(13) Promotion already in place. Yes, the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well.

Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry — because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh. Remember a few weeks back, when I was talking about the distinction between a fresh book concept and a weird one? Well, this is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original. (And if you missed that discussion, you might want to check out the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

I like to see EVERY list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point, because it’s awfully important. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what’s already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)

Finished brainstorming your way through all of these points? Terrific. Now go through your list and cull the less impressive points. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or when you are practicing answering the question, “So, what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to have it handy when you’re giving interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Now, why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Yes, generating selling points IS a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams.

Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work.

Exhausted? I hope not, because for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be continuing this series at a pretty blistering pace. Tomorrow, I shall move on to constructing those magic few words that will summarize your book in half a breath’s worth of speech.

Be prepared to get pithy, everybody. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Building Block of the Pitch #3, in which we begin to figure out PRECISELY why the world not only wants your book, but needs it

Welcome back to my series on building the toolkit to construct a stellar pitch — or a brilliant query letter, for that matter. As I may PERHAPS have intimated before, the essential skills a writer uses for creating each are, if not the same, at least closely related. Note that I called them skills, and not talents. Contrary to popular belief, success in marketing one’s work is not entirely reliant upon the quality of the writing; it’s also about professional presentation.

Which is, in fact, learned. As in any other business, there are ropes to learn.

I cannot stress this enough: pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with talent. No baby, no matter how inherently gifted in finding la mot juste, has ever crawled out of the womb already informed by the celestial talent-handlers how to make her work appealing to the publishing industry, I assure you.

I wish this were a more widely-accepted truth on the conference circuit. Writers so often plunge into pitching or querying with sky-high hopes, only to have them dashed. But an unprofessional pitch or query letter is generally rejected on that basis, not necessarily upon the book concept or the quality of the writing. Until a book has been marketed properly, it’s virtually impossible to glean writing-related feedback from rejections at all.

So, onerous as it is, it truly behooves writers to start to think like marketers, at least for the few weeks immediately prior to attending a literary conference or sending out a flotilla of queries.

Today, I am — surprise, surprise — going to talk about something pitching classes very seldom address, identifying a book’s selling points. Over the next couple of days, we’re going to work on developing a list of selling points for the book to be pitched or queried.

Specifically, I’m going to ask you to prepare a page’s worth of single-sentence summaries of attributes (the book’s or yours personally) that make the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread.

And why bullet-pointed, rather than paragraphs? So you can retrieve precisely the piece of information you need at any given moment, without fumbling for it. Even if sweat is pouring down your face into your eyes and your heart is palpitating, you will be able to sound professional.

And that, my friends, is nothing at which to be sneezing.

Why am I encouraging you to do this? Because a really well-prepared list of selling points is like a really, really tiny press agent that can travel everywhere your manuscript goes. And whose book couldn’t benefit from that?

To be clear: this is not something you absolutely NEED to prepare before you pitch or query, but I think it’s a really, really good idea. But unless you happen to be pitching to my agent after having identified yourself as one of my blog’s readers, it’s unlikely to the point of hilarity that an agent is going to look at you expectantly as soon as you walk into the meeting and say, “Well? Where’s your list.

Even if you are not planning to pitch anytime soon, it is still worth constructing your list of selling points. Pulling together such a document forces you to come up with SPECIFIC reasons that an agent or editor should be interested in your book.

Other than, of course, the fact that you wrote it.

I’m only partially kidding about this last point. Nonfiction writers accept it as a matter of course that they are going to need to explain explicitly why the book is marketable and why precisely they are the best people in the known universe to write it — that mysterious entity called platform. These are specific elements in a standard NF book proposal, even.

Yet ask a fiction writer why his book will interest readers, let alone the publishing industry, and 9 times out of 10, he will be insulted.

Why the differential? Well, as I mentioned earlier in this series, a lot of writers, perhaps even the majority, do not seem to give a great deal of thought to why the publishing industry might be excited about THIS book, as opposed to any other.

Interestingly, though, many do seem to have thought long and hard about why the industry might NOT want to pick up a book. As a long-time pitching coach, I cannot even begin to tote up how many pitches I’ve heard that began with a three-minute description of every rejection the book has ever received.

Not only will constructing a list help you avoid this very common pitfall — it will also aid you in steering clear of the sweeping generalizations writers tend to pull out of their back pockets when agents and editors ask follow-up questions.

Did that gigantic gulping sound I just heard ripping across the cosmos emit from you, dear readers? “Follow-up questions?” the timorous quaver. “You mean that in addition to gasping out a pitch, I have to have enough brain power handy to answer FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS? I always thought that the agent or editor just listened to the pitch, said yes or no, and that was that.”

Um, no — at least, not if the agent or editor likes what s/he heard you say. As in ordinary conversation, follow-up questions after a pitch are a common indicator of the hearer’s interest in what’s being discussed. One very, very common follow-up question, as it happens, is “Okay, why do you think this story will appeal to readers?”

Stop hyperventilating. It’s a perfectly reasonable question.

What most pitchers do when caught off-guard by such a question is EITHER to start making wild assertions like, “This book will appeal to everyone who’s ever had a mother!” or “Every reader of horror will find this a page-turner!” OR to hear the question as a critique of the book they’re pitching. “Oh, I guess you’re right — no one will be interested,” these poor souls mutter, backing away from the bewildered agent.

Neither course will serve you. As I mentioned the other day, agents and editors tend to zone out on inflated claims about a novel’s utility to humanity in general — although if your book actually CAN achieve world peace, by all means mention it — or boasts that it will appeal to every literate person in America (a more common book proposal claim than one might imagine). They also tend, like most people, to equate a writer’s apparent lack of faith in her own work with its not being ready for the slings and arrows of the marketplace.

A writer’s having thought in advance about what REALISTIC claims s/he can legitimately make about why readers might like the book thus enjoys a significant advantage on the pitching floor.

In short, the selling point sheet prevents you from panicking in the moment; think of it as pitch insurance. Even if you draw a blank three sentences into your pitch, all you will have to do is look down, and presto! There is a list of concrete facts about you and your book.

”Yeah, right,” I hear the more cynical out there thinking. “What is this list, a Ginzu knife? Can it rip apart a cardboard box, too, and still remain sharp enough to slice a mushy tomato?”

Doubt if you like, oh scoffers, but his handy little document has more uses than duct tape — which, I’m told, is not particularly good at mending ducts.

How handy, you ask? Well, for starters:

1. You can have it by your side during a pitch, to remind yourself why your book will appeal to its target market. (Hey, even the best of us are prone to last-minute qualms about our own excellence.)

2. You can use it as a guideline for the “Why I am uniquely qualified to write this book” section of your query letter. (If you don’t know why you might want to include this section, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right before you write your next.)

3. You can add it to a book proposal, to recap its most important elements at a glance. (My memoir agent liked the one I included in my proposal so much that she now has her other clients add them to their packets, too.)

4. You can tuck it into a submission packet, as a door prize for the agency screener charged with the merry task of reading your entire book and figuring it out whether it is marketable.

5. Your agent can have it in her hot little hand when pitching your book on the phone to editors.

6. An editor who wants to acquire your book can use the information on it both to fill out the publishing house’s Title Information Sheet and to present your book’s strengths in editorial meetings.

Okay, let’s assume that I’ve convinced you that pulling together this list is a good idea. (Just ignore the muffled screams in the background. People who can’t wait until the end of a post to register objections deserve to be gagged, don’t you find?) What might you include on it?

Well, for starters, the names of similar books that have sold well (along with some indication of why your book is different, better, and will appeal to the same demographic), your past publications, credentials, trends, statistics, high points in your background — anything that will make it easier to market your book.

Why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story (or to put it another way: what’s your platform?), and why will people want to read it?

Those of you wise to the ways of the industry are probably already thinking: oh, she means the items on my writing résumé. (And for those of you who do not know, a writing résumé is the list of professional credentials — publications, speaking experience, relevant degrees, etc. — that career-minded writers carefully accrue over the years in order to make their work more marketable. For tips on how to build one from scratch, please see the aptly named BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category at right.)

Yes, list these points, by all means, but I would like to see your list be broader still.

Include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

So it’s time for a good, old-fashioned brainstorming session. Think back to your target market (see the posts of the last two days). Why will your book appeal to that market better than other books? Why does the world NEED this book?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing.

And yes, literary fiction writers, it would be in your best interest to give some thought to this point, too. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing.

So why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic? And if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince him to book the author?

No need to write pages and pages of justification on each point — a single sentence on each will serve you best here. Remember, the function of this list is ease of use, both for you and for those who will deal with your book in future. Keep it brief, but do make sure that you make it clear why each point is important.

Possible bullet points include (and please note, none of my examples are true; I feel a little silly pointing that out, but I don’t want to find these little tidbits being reported as scandalous factoids in the years to come):

(1) Experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book. This is the crux of a NF platform, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point.

Some possible examples: Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book; Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years, and is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara wedding bouquets; Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

(Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.)

(2) Educational credentials. Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a fiction writer: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is, from an agent or editor’s point of view, a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. (Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts.)

Some possible examples: Audrey Hepburn has a doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs; Charlton Heston holds an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage; Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, and thus is well equipped to field questions on the subject.

(3) Honors. If you have been recognized for your work (or volunteer efforts), this is the time to mention it. (Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?)

Some possible examples: Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas; Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX; Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience. Another good one from the standard platform list. If you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT IS OFF-TOPIC. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all.

Some possible examples: Diana Ross writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine; Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines; Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

I feel some of you tensing up out there, but never fear: if you have few or no previous publications, awards, writing degrees, etc. to your credit, do not panic, even for an instance. There are plenty of other possible selling points for your book — but of that array, more follows next time.

Keep up the good work!

Building block of the pitch #2, part II: the book market’s a banquet of possibilities, and most poor pitchers are starving to death

Last time, I urged you to think about your target reader — and why that reader really wants to read your book, rather than any other book currently on the market. Not only is this useful information to include in your pitch (yes, yes, we’re getting to it) and query letter, but it ALWAYS pays to be prepared in as many ways as possible for questions you may be asked about your book’s market potential.

Remember, your goal in preparing to pitch is not to compress the plot into a single breath’s worth of sentences, to be gasped out as quickly as possible before you fall in a dead faint at the agent’s feet: it’s to be able to present your work intelligently and professionally in a variety of promotional contexts. (And yes, I’m aware that most conference brochures will tell you the opposite. They’re wrong.)

And if you’re going to be talking about your book to people you want to sell it for you, “Who is your target audience?” is not, after all, an unreasonable question for them to ask. Telling them up front shows that you understand what they do for a living.

Which, at most literary conferences, will render you something of a novelty.

Yesterday, I suggested in passing that one good way to identify your book’s target market is to seek out how many people are already demonstrably interested in the book’s subject matter. Not the good folks who are already out there buying novels like yours, bless ‘em, but potential readers with an interest in some aspect of the story you are telling.

What do I mean? Well, in even the most personal literary fiction, even the most intimate memoir is about something other than the writing in the book, right? A sensitive novel about a professional mah-jongg player who falls in love with a bricklayer she meets in her Morris dancing class is arguably not only going to be of interest to inveterate readers of women’s fiction; potentially, those who already participate in mah-jongg, bricklaying, and Morris dancing might well find your book fascinating.

If you doubt that such interests translate into book sales, take a gander at how many books only marginally related to golf there are: quite a few, probably disproportionate to the percentage of the reading population who actually plays the game. But think about Christmas and Father’s Day: these books answer the perennial question, “What do you give the golfer who has everything BUT a thriller about a 5 iron-wielding maniac?”

These people are as legitimately your book’s target market as readers who regularly buy books in your chosen category. Declare them as such. It’s not enough just to tell agents and editors that these additional demographics exist, however. For this information to help you market your book, you’re going to have to get specific.

To go back to yesterday’s example, let’s say you’ve written a charming novel about Tina, a Gen X woman who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. As the better-prepared incarnations of Suzette informed us yesterday (you had to be there), there are 47 Gen Xers currently living in the U.S., roughly half of whom have divorced parents. And half of them are, like Tina, female.

So without reaching at all, Suzette could safely say that almost 12 million Americans already have life experience that would incline them to identify with Tina. That’s a heck of a lot more persuasive, from an agent’s point of view, than merely pointing out that daughters of divorced parents might conceivably find resonance in Suzette’s book.

Nor need Suzette limit herself to the demographic closest to her protagonist’s; she could consider the vocations and avocations of minor characters as well. If Tina’s father is a collector of classic cars, do you think he’s the only one in the country? If her best friend has a child with Down syndrome, wouldn’t your book be interesting to parents dealing with similar issues?

And given that one of the greatest gifts the internet has bestowed upon us all is the ability to create interest-based communities amongst far-flung people, what’s the probability that a simple web search will turn up a support group or an article containing statistics about just how many of these fine people are currently navigating their way across the earth’s crust?

”Whoa!” I hear some of you cry indignantly. “Who do I look like, George Gallup? Wouldn’t any agent or editor who specializes in a book like mine have a substantially better idea of the existing market than I ever could — and what’s more, infinitely greater practical means of finding out the relevant statistics? Do I have to do ALL of the agent’s job for him? When will this nightmare end, oh Lord, when will it end?”

You’re beautiful when you get angry. Especially, as in this case, when annoyance stems from a very real change in the publishing industry: even ten years ago, no one, but no one, would have expected a fiction writer to be able to produce relevant potential target market statistics for her book. (It’s always been standard for NF book proposals.)

And even now, you could probably get away with not quoting actual statistics, as long as you are very specific about whom your ideal reader will be. However, if you do, you run the very serious risk of the agent or editor to whom you are pitching underestimating how big your potential market is.

And when I say underestimating, I’m not talking about a merely imprecise ballpark estimate. I’m talking about an extremely busy publishing professional who hears a pitch or reads a query and thinks, “This would be really appealing to readers who’ve recently experienced deaths in their immediate families, but realistically, how many of them could there be in the United States in any given year? Maybe a hundred thousand? That’s a niche market.”

Niche market, incidentally, is the industry’s polite term for any group of people too small to deserve its own floor-to-ceiling shelf at Barnes & Noble.

But the book described above has millions of readers with direct personal experience of dealing with a loved one’s death. How do I know this? I did some research: in 2004, 8 million people in the US suffered deaths in the immediate family; of those, 400,000 of the survivors were under the age of 25. Before they are old enough to vote, more than 2% of Americans have lost at least one parent. Furthermore, widows and widowers make up 7% of the U.S. population; 45% of women over the age of 65 have been widowed at least once.

If that’s a niche in the book-buying market, I’d hate to see a cave.

How much harm could it possibly do if your dream agent or editor misunderstands the size of your book’s potential audience? Let me let you in on a little industry secret: people in the industry have a very clear idea of what HAS sold in the past, but are not always very accurate predictors about what WILL sell in the future. THE FIRST WIVES’ CLUB floated around forever before it found a home, for instance, as, I’m told, did COLD MOUNTAIN.

And let’s not even begin to talk about BRIDGET JONES. My point is, it might be worth taking some of the prevailing wisdom floating around writers’ conferences with a grain of salt. Acquiring a book is ALWAYS a speculation.

Historically, a book’s getting rejected quite a bit hasn’t necessarily proven a very good predictor of its eventual success. In fact, five of the ten best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially refused by more than a dozen publishers who simply did not understand their market appeal — and refused to take a chance on a first-time author. Get a load of what got turned down as appealing to only a niche market:

Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H — rejected by 21 publishing houses. {“How many Army doctors could there possibly be?” they must have scoffed. “And who else would care?”)

Thor Heyerdahl’s KON-TIKI — rejected by 20 publishing houses. (Yes, THAT Kon-Tiki. “This might appeal to people who sail for pleasure, but can we afford a novel for the yacht-owning niche?”)

Dr. Seuss’ first book, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET — rejected by 23 publishing houses. (“Do we really want to confuse children?”)

Richard Bach’s JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL — rejected by 18 publishing houses. (“The only person I have ever known who cared about seagulls was my mad great-aunt Kate, who spent her last years wandering down to the beach to offer them caviar on crackers. Next!”)

Patrick Dennis’ AUNTIE MAME — rejected by 17 publishing houses. (I have no idea what they were thinking here; sorry.)

To render these rejections more impressive, these first books were passed upon back when it was significantly easier to get published than it is now. Back then, the major publishing houses were still willing to read unagented work; it was before the computer explosion multiplied submissions exponentially, and before the array of major publishing houses consolidated into just a few.

With this much editorial rejection, can you imagine how difficult it would have been for any of these books to find an agent today, let alone a publisher?

And yet can you even picture the publishing world without any of them? Aren’t you glad they didn’t listen to the prevailing wisdom?

But if you were Richard Hooker today, wouldn’t you take a few moments to verify the number of Korean War veterans (or veterans of any foreign war, or doctors who have served in war zones, or…) BEFORE you composed your first query letter? If for no other reason than to make it easier for your agent to pitch the book to editors, for your editor to pitch it in-house, and the marketing department to pitch it to distributors.

The Internet is a tremendous resource for finding such statistics, although do double-check the sources of statistics you find there — not all of the information floating around the web is credible.

How can you verify the numbers? Call the main branch of public library in the big city closest to you, and ask to speak to the reference librarian. (In Seattle, the Quick Information Line number is 206-386-4636, and the staff is amazing. Send them flowers.) They may not always be able to find the particular fact you are seeking, but they can pretty much invariably steer you in the right direction.

One caveat about information line etiquette: every time I have ever given this advice in a class, at least one writer has come stomping back to me. “I called and asked,” this earnest soul will cry with ire, “but they said they couldn’t help me.” When prodded, they all turn out to have made the same mistake: they called up an information line and said something on the order of, “I am marketing a YA novel about a serial killer. What statistics can you give me?”

Naturally, the info line folks demurred; it’s not their job, after all, to come up with marketing insights for aspiring writers’ books.

What their job does render them eminently qualified to do, on the other hand, is to answer questions like, “Can you tell me, please, how many US high schools offer gun safety classes? And how many students take these classes each year?”

The moral: make your questions as specific as possible, and don’t ask more than three in any given call. (You can always call back tomorrow, right?)

And please, don’t waste their time by telling them WHY you want to know, or you’re likely to end up with statistics about how many first novels on coal-mining beauty queens were sold within the last five years. Keep it short and to the point.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to the next building block of a great pitch: identifying your book’s selling points. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Building block of the pitch #2: never assume — and other lessons gleaned from Saturday morning cartoons

Did I overwhelm you yesterday, by cramming everything you always wanted to know about book categories but were afraid to ask into a single post? I hope not; I’ll try to take my Building Blocks of the Pitch series a touch more slowly from here on out. And, as always, if any of you out there find what I’m suggesting confusing, I would MUCH rather that you ask me about it BEFORE you follow my advice than after.

I’m funny that way.

What I hope none of you will do is simply zone out during this series because you aren’t planning on pitching anytime soon. Believe it or not, learning how to give a verbal pitch well will improve your ability to write query letters and synopses — all three are built, after all, out of the same essential components, based upon a firm understanding of how the industry does and doesn’t work.

So as Fat Albert used to say, if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done.

Yesterday, I introduced (quickly) the first building block of a successful pitch: the book category, the terminology that enables everyone in the industry to know instantly which presses, editors, and agents might be interested in a particular book.

Being able to describe one’s book in market terms is as essential for a killer pitch as for an effective query letter. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cosy mystery,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the author’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works. The more specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound.

Which means, incidentally, that within the pitch setting, you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and it’s sort of autobiographical. Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hurt me if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Hey, I just report the rules; I don’t make ‘em up.

My point is, walking into a pitch meeting NOT knowing how the industry would categorize your book is not smart strategy. It may feel like writing your own tombstone, but commit to a category and state it at the BEGINNING of your pitch, rather than making your hearer guess.

Why? Well, among other things, being up front about it will permit your pitch-hearer to listen to the CONTENT of your pitch, rather than thinking the whole time, “Well, that sounds sort of like a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cosy mystery. How on earth am I going to categorize that?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

So let’s assume that you have in hand that vital first building block, your book’s category. This handy tool will not only feature prominently in your pitch, but also on the title page of your manuscript and in the first few lines of your query letter. (If it’s news to you that your title page should include these elements — or if it’s news to you that your manuscript should include a title page at all — please see the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right before you even CONSIDER submitting any material to an agent or editor.)

Next, I shall be moving on to a more sophisticated marketing tool, one that is not technically required, but will instantly stamp your pitch/query as more professional. I refer, of course, to identifying your target market.

Or, to be more precise, to preparing a concise, well-considered statement of your book’s target market, including an estimate of how many potential buyers are in that demographic group. And yes, Virginia, that can mean talking — dare I say it? — statistics.

Intimidating news to those of us who vastly preferred the verbal section of the SAT to the math, isn’t it? (Actually, I was always good at math, but I suppose my high school calculus teacher didn’t nickname me Liberal Arts Annie for nothing. Still, there’s no fool like a fool playing hooky, so let’s press on.)

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics — and that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them.

Instead, it makes far more sense to discover how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter. But before I talk about how one goes about doing that, let’s discuss what a target market is.

Simply put, the target market for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. It is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

Or, to put it another way, who out there needs your book and why?

I know these are not the first questions we writers like to ask ourselves, but if you pictured your ideal reader, who would it be? What books does this reader already buy? Who are her favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with those that would draw your ideal reader to both?

While we’re at it, who represents her favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” I hear some of you say. “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live. As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in EVERY book on the market, right? There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines like a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to a particular demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s POV: if she can realistically bring 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job?

Do Fat Albert and the Cosby kids really need to break down these issues into a song for the likely outcome here to be clear?

It’s very much worth your while to give some thought to your target readership BEFORE you pitch or query, so you may point it out to that nervous editor or market-anxious agent. Try to think about it not as criticism of your book, but as a legitimate marketing question: who is going to read your book, and why?

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific. For one thing, it will make you stand out from the crowd of pitchers.

Why? Well, to put it charitably, the vast majority of fiction writers do not think very much about the demographics of their potential readers — which is to say, most don’t seem to consider the question at all. (A luxury, I might point out, that NF writers do not have: NF book proposals invariably have an entire SECTION on target audience. No one ever seems to think that is incompatible with the production of art.) Or when fiction writers are forced to answer the question, they identify their readership in the broadest possible terms.

PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer: women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for Oprah. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Especially the one about Oprah.

Seriously, if I had a dime for every time I have heard it, I would own my own publishing house — and the island upon which it stood, the fleet of sailboats to transport books from there to market, and a small navy’s worth of shark-wranglers to keep my employees’ limbs safe while they paddled between editing projects.

Why do sweeping generalizations tend to be ineffectual, you ask? Well, agents and editors do have quite a bit of practical experience with book marketing: they know for a fact that no single book will appeal to EVERY woman in America, for instance. Since they hear such claims so often, after awhile, they just block out all hyperbole.

Coming from authors, that is. Anyone who has ever read a marketing blurb knows that they’re not all that shy about using hyperbole themselves.

Make sure your target market are believable — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

While these may sound like narrow definitions, each actually represents a very large group of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books. Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book.

Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will this reader’s life be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to him?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors.

If you want to make their lives even easier, throw in some concrete numbers, showing just how big your target market actually is — it will make it MUCH easier for them to sell the book to higher-ups. Sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too.

Doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

Not yet convinced that it would behoove you to go to the additional effort? Let me give you a concrete example of what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics.

Aspiring writer Suzette has written a charming novel about an American woman in her late thirties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Suzette herself is. Let’s further assume that like the vast majority of pitchers, she has not thought about her target market before walking into her appointment with agent Briana.

So she’s stunned when Briana, the agent to whom she is pitching, says that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she says. “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is vague. What Suzette really meant was, “My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.”

But Briana heard what Suzette SAID, not what she MEANT. Since they’ve just met, how reasonable was it for Suzette to expect Briana to read her mind?

The result was that Briana thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) conclude from Suzette’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.”

Agent Briana thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics all ready to leap off her tongue.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Briana responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. Let’s talk about your book further over coffee.”

And editor Ted thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only 1% of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing.”

As scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities; writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about marketing it to them.

As I have said before, and shall no doubt say many times again: art for art’s sake is marvelous, but an author’s being cognizant of the realities of the market renders it far more likely that her book is going to be successful.

And, to paraphrase Fat Albert, those who don’t do their homework are not as likely to succeed as often as those who do.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about how to dig up specifics about your target demographic relatively painlessly. In the meantime, don’t play hooky, try not to assume, and keep up the good work!

Building block of the pitch #1: navigating the tricky terrain of book category identification

Yesterday, I warned you that my approach to pitching is a TEENY bit unorthodox. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that the definition of pitching successfully is not merely being able to cram an entire 400-page book into three sentences and spit it out coherently.

Call me zany, but it’s true.

Instead, I define pitching success as the ability to speak fluently and persuasively about a book in terms that make an agent or editor likely to say, “Gee, I’d like to read that. Please send me the first 50 pages right away.” I define a pitch’s success by its results, not its conformity to a pre-set model to be used in all instances.

I know: radical.

But thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process, I find: instead of grumblingly adhering to an evidently arbitrary and difficult standard of presentation, you’re gearing up to have all of the marvelously fulfilling conversations of the rest of your life as a professional writer.

Much nicer to wrap your brain around, isn’t it?

Now that you are prepared for my advice to be a bit offbeat, I am not afraid to shock you with my first unorthodox suggestion: DON’T start the pitch-prepping process by sitting down and trying to summarize your book.

Instead, let your first step be figuring out where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, or a similar chain bookstore.

And no, I don’t mean just in fiction, alphabetically. In a marketing display, what kind of books would be grouped around it? How would it be placed so as to suggest that if the potential buyer liked book X, he would probably be interested in your book as well?

Once you know where the pros would envision your book selling best, you will have both an infinitely easier time pitching AND finding agents to query. Suddenly, those cryptic lists of book types in agents’ guides and opaque conference bio blurbs will spring to life for you.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of aspiring writers do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows in their pitches. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and no agent represents every kind of book. The sad fact is, the vast majority of aspiring writers out there have only a vague idea of how their books would be marketed to booksellers.

Yet the FIRST question any editor would ask an agent about a book, or a committee would ask an editor, or a book buyer would ask a publishing house’s marketing department is, “What’s the book category?”

To put it as bluntly as possible, the book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level.

Before I launch into how to figure out where your book belongs, let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this primary question, and why the standard response tends not to impress agents and editors very much.

In the first place, writers often mishear the question as, “So, what is your book about?” rather than what it is, a straightforward question about marketing. Thus, they all too often give exactly the same response they would give anybody who asked the more general latter question at a cocktail party:

“Well (gusty sigh), it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but I guess it’s also suspense, with thriller elements. And the writing is definitely literary.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to an agent or editor, this kind of response sounds EXACTLY like that noise that Charlie Brown’s teachers used to make: Wah wah wah wah waagh…

Remember, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers.

And I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process.

So it’s an excellent idea to tell them up front — as in both your pitch and the first few lines of your query letter — what kind of book it is. But in order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language: pick one of their recognized categories.

In other words, don’t just guess, don’t lump a couple of categories together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a hyphenate, and don’t just make up a category.

How do you know where to start? Take a gander at the back jacket of most hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word description. That is the book category.

Now, think about your book. Can you come up with, say, 3-5 titles that are similar to it in subject matter, tone, approach, voice, etc., that have come out in North America within the last five years? Not similar in ALL respects, necessarily — just one or two may be enough.

If you can’t come up with any that are remotely similar, I suspect that you’re not overly familiar with the current book market — a serious liability for anyone hoping to pitch or query a book to someone who makes a living following such trends. If all else fails, start feeding relevant search terms into Amazon and see what comes up.

Once you have your list, go to a bookstore (either physically or online) and see where those books are housed. That is, most likely, where your book would be categorized, too.

You can also go through the generally accepted categories and see what intuitively seems like the best fit. Here is the standard list for fiction:

Fiction (a.k.a. Mainstream Fiction), Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Futuristic Fiction (that is not SF. The usual example is THE HANDMAID’S TALE.), Adventure Fiction, Sports Fiction, Contemporary Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit, Lady Lit, Lad Lit; Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance (designate period), Paranormal Romance, Romantica, Erotica, Inspirational Romance, Multicultural Romance, Time Travel Romance; Science Fiction, SF Action/Adventure, Speculative SF, Futuristic SF, Alternate History, Cyberpunk; Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Epic Fantasy; Horror, Paranormal, Vampire Fiction; Thriller, Spy Thriller, Suspense, Romantic Suspense; Mystery, Police Procedural Mystery, Legal Mystery, Professional Mystery, P.I. Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Forensic Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hardboiled Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Cops & Killers Mystery, Serial Killer Mystery, British Mystery, Noir, Caper; Western; Action/Adventure; Comics; Graphic Novel; Short Stories; Poetry; Young Adult, Picture Book, Children’s, Middle Readers.

Pick one for your novel.

Specifically, pick the one that comes CLOSEST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. (Since I’ve written about this topic quite frequently and I’m trying to get us through the pitching basics fairly quickly, for more specific tips on how to do this, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right.)

But whatever you do, NEVER tell anyone in the industry that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always, just as a memoir is always nonfiction.

Technically, anyway. Don’t even get me started on how many memoirists have found their books under just-the-facts scrutiny over the last couple of years. But speaking of which, here are the main NF categories:

Entertaining, Holidays, House & Home, Parenting & Families, How-To, Self-Help, Pop Psychology, Pop Culture, Cookbook, Narrative Cookbook, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Medical, Alternative Medicine, Health, Fitness, Sports, Psychology, Professional, Engineering, Technical, Computers, Internet, Automotive, Finance, Investing, Business, Careers, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, True Crime, Law, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Memoir, Outdoors & Nature, Essays, Writing, Criticism, Arts, Photography, Coffee Table, Gift, Education, Academic, Textbook, Reference, Current Events, Politics/Government, Women’s Studies, Gay & Lesbian (a.k.a. GLBT).

Actually, there are a few more, but these are the main ones. For more detailed analysis, again, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right. Also, the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” I hear some confused would-be pitchers and queriers cry, “I occasionally see other categories listed on book jackets. Therefore, you must be wrong about agents and editors expecting to us to label our books.”

Oh, that old saw. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should make one up. All one has to do is check out any of the standard agency guides to see why: when asked what kinds of books they represent, agents don’t make up terms that are only meaningful to themselves and their closest friends; the vast majority of the time, they use the standard category designations.

Generally speaking, it’s safer to pick one of the standards rather than to insist upon a category that has only been introduced recently: if it’s too new, the agent or editor to whom you are pitching may not yet be aware of it yet.

Hey, it happens.

Believe me, if you are off just a little, an agent who is intrigued by your work will nudge you in the right direction, rather than writing you off because you picked the wrong sub-category. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for an agent to sign a writer and then say, “You know, Ghislaine, I think your book would sell better as women’s fiction than mainstream fiction. Let’s market it as that.”

And if Ghislaine is a savvy writer, she won’t immediately snap back, “Why is it women’s fiction rather than mainstream — because the author possesses ovaries?” (Not all that an uncommon an underlying reason for the choice, actually; some of my work has been categorized that way on apparently no other pretext.) Instead, market-ready writer that she is, she will respond, “If you think it’s a better idea, William. But do you mind explaining the logic to me, so I may consider it when I’m writing my next novel?”

THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.

When in doubt, pick the more general category. Or at any rate, the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell.

Just in case any of you out there sporting ovaries are assuming that women’s fiction label is automatically perjorative: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category. It’s something of a misnomer, because the vast majority of fiction buyers in North America are women.

Hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it. For more on the ins and outs of defining women’s fiction (particularly when a book occupies the rather broad territory where women’s, literary, and mainstream overlap), please see the three posts beginning here.

If you truly get stuck, here is a sneaky trick: go to a well-stocked bookstore and track down a friendly-looking clerk. Describe your book to her in very general terms, and ask her to direct you to the part of the store where you might find something similar.

Then start pulling books off the shelf and examining their back covers for categories.

Hint: don’t be too specific in your description to the clerk — and whatever you do, don’t mention that you wrote the book you are describing. “My favorite book is a suspenseful romantic comedy about murderous contraltos set in the Middle Ages — would you have anything close to that?” tends to yield better results than, “I’m looking for a book about an opera diva who lives in 9th-century Milan, has scores of amorous misadventures, and strangles her conductor/lover. Where would I find that in your store?” The latter is more likely to turn up a puzzled shrug than useful directions.

Repeat in as many bookstores as necessary to start seeing a pattern in where you’re being advised to look. That location is where your book is most likely to be shelved.

Yes, this process can be a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work.

Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

To put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Since that is precisely what you want them to be doing, what are you complaining about?

If you’re still a bit confused and want more help fine-tuning your selection, again, I would recommend taking a gander at the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. In the past, I have spent more time on this particular point; I could easily spend a week on this point alone. But as I mentioned above, I honestly am trying to move us through this as quickly as possible.

Whoa, I didn’t even have time to move my hand to the return key before I felt a mighty gust of cries of WAIT! coming from out there. “But Anne,” breathless voices cry, “I honestly don’t know how to categorize my novel. Is it literary, mainstream, or just plain fiction — and will agents hurt me if I guess wrong?”

This is an excellent question — one that I covered at some length in several posts last summer; I would encourage you to go back over this post, this one, and this. You might also try asking yourself few questions about your book:

(1) Does your book assume a college-educated readership? Does it try experiments with structure and language? Is character development more important to the reading experience than plot? If you answered yes to at least two of these, literary fiction would probably be the safest choice.

(2) Is your book aimed at a general adult audience, or is more heavily weighted toward a female readership? (Okay, so this is kind of a trick question, since women buy over 80% of the fiction sold in the US (and almost all of the literary fiction, but bear with me here.) If it is genuinely aimed at a general market, mainstream fiction would be a good choice.

(3) Does your book have a filmic, easily-summarized plot? Are the style and storytelling technique similar to a bestselling author’s? If so, it might be commercial.

(4) Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? If so, it might be adult fiction.

(5) Are all of the criteria in #4 true, but the protagonist is female, under 35, and doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem? Does her interest in shoes and handbags border on the pathological? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category.

(6) Are you querying an agent who likes to make this call himself? In that case, you might be best off simply labeling it fiction — but you’re unlikely to know that unless you’ve spoken to the agent personally. If this is the case, you should pick the closest label, then nod smilingly when the agent to whom you are pitching says you are mistaken.

Hey, it’s how those of us already signed with agents do it. I even know a quite prominent author who claims that she doesn’t know whether any particular piece is women’s fiction or memoir until her agent has sold it as one or the other.

All that being said, try not to get too discouraged if your book’s category does not immediately pop to mind. Often, it is genuinely a hard call. Just do your best.

Okay, I admit it: that was a MASSIVE amount of information to cover in a single post — but look at it this way: the more quickly we can race through this, the sooner we can get back to craft!

The next pitch building block follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS: I understand that some readers may feel that it is too time-consuming to go through my fairly massive archives, but please do check that I haven’t already written a post on a subject before asking me to write a fresh one. I’ve taken care to address many of the most common questions directly in the category list on the right-hand side of this page, just underneath the blogroll. I have also provided a site search engine in the upper-right corner; please use them.

And please, archive searchers, resist the temptation to blame the site for providing too much information gratis to aspiring writers — a sentiment that, perversely enough, commenters seldom expressed until my bout of mono earlier this year. After three full years of my intensive work here, it’s a trifle unreasonable to expect NOT to have to search for the particular topic any individual out there happens to want. It’s the nature of a blog to be cumulative, after all.

The times they are a-changin’ — but it’s hard to tell whether it’s for better or worse

I have to confess, I’m a trifle perplexed today, campers. Should I feel hopeful about the present, near future, and life to come for aspiring writers, or shouldn’t I? Is despair appropriate, or rejoicing?

Take, for instance, the mixed news coming out of this year’s BookExpo America. the major publishers seem wary of how the combination of a slow economy and interest in the presidential election will affect what readers will be willing to buy this fall, judging by their offerings; opinions vary about what the Kindle and similar devices will mean for the future of the paper-and-ink book market; this was the first year in a long time when more independent bookstores opened in the US than closed.

Should the average writer be psyched or bummed in the face of such tidings? Try as I might, I can’t quite decide.

A little closer to home, while I was perusing the finalist list for the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, I was delighted to see frequent commenter Auburn McCanta in the poetry category (congratulations, Auburn!), as well as a few other names not entirely unknown on this website (who should e-mail me to give me permission to gloat about them, by the way).

But then I was startled to notice that the top-named finalist in the screenwriting category has had books on the New York Times bestseller list. Recently.

Hey, I’m just quoting from his website. If it and the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s conference promotional materials are to be believed, he’s also going to be Thursday night’s featured speaker at that very conference.

Merest coincidence? Eyebrow-raising conflict of interest for the organization? Or clever self-promotional move by a well-established author? Again, I’m not sure I can make up my mind.

To be fair, there’s no longer anything in the contest’s rules that precludes established writers from entering (as I seem to recall that there was in 2004, when I won the NF book category); it’s just traditionally been considered, well, not entirely cricket for someone making a living at it to enter an amateur contest. In theory, at least, it’s not really starting with a level playing field, is it?

At least, if the author in question is well-respected in his genre. Heck, if he had a truly unique narrative voice, it might even be impossible to maintain the anonymity that’s so vital to the credibility of a respectable literary contest.

I can only assume that the organization in question considered that possibility, though, long before it announced its finalists for this year. Given the rumors that published writers turned up in surprisingly heavy numbers on the finalist lists in other categories as well (please see the comments on Monday’s post), I’m inclined to believe that there’s been a carefully-considered rule change of which I was not aware prior to this year’s entry deadline. (Was anybody else?)

But, naturally, not having been privy to the decision-making process, I can’t really say. How can one differentiate firmly between, say, publicizing a policy change and merely letting one’s friends know about it?

In recent years, the advantages to aspiring writers of books engaging in the kind of verbal pitching that has long been the norm in the screenwriting industry have been much touted by writers’ conference organizers, and for some good reasons: by pitching to an agent or editor at a conference, a writer may be invited to submit material directly, effectively skipping the annoying and often protracted querying process.

Which is, of course, a mighty fine thing for those who can pull it off.

It has some under-advertised drawbacks, however, chief among which is the assumption that a verbal pitch is necessarily reflective of the quality of the book it describes, which is certainly not always the case. The in-person pitch also most assuredly places the shy at a serious competitive disadvantage — and every year, countless conference-goers are petrified into a state of horrified inertia by the prospect of producing a three-line pitch that effectively conveys all of the complexity of a 400-page book.

I ask you: does this expectation represent an improvement in the lives of aspiring writers, or an unreasonable additional stress?

Don’t look at me to solve that knotty dilemma — I asked you first, after all. But I will say that in my experience, the three-line pitch conference organizers are so apt to tell prospective pitchers is the ONLY possibility often isn’t what agents and editors expect to hear.

At least, not the ones who represent books for a living.

Script agents, well, that’s another story; screenplays are not my area of expertise, so please do not look to me for advice on the subject. Perhaps someone could ask the NYT bestselling author his opinion; it seems to be well-informed.

Fair warning: what you’re going to be seeing me spell out over the next couple of weeks is MY opinion about what does and doesn’t work in various types of conference pitch. Please don’t bother to inform me that others are equally vehement that the pros will stop listening after three sentences; that simply hasn’t been my experience as a successful conference pitcher, nor the experience of any other successful conference pitcher I know, or anyone who has ever taken one of my pitching classes and reported back to me…

You get the picture.

But that’s not an immense surprise, right? As those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform to the prevailing wisdom. (I know: GASP! Alert the media!)

The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now. And it is now every bit as hard to land an agent as it used to be to land a book contract.

Heck, it’s significantly more difficult than it was when I signed with my current agency — and honeys, I’m not that old.

My point is, the industry changes all the time, and very quickly — and it’s not always clear immediately whether each individual change is helpful or hurtful to the aspiring writer’s chances.

If you doubt this, chew on this: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, in case you were wondering.)

Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.

What happened in that intervening 3+ years to alter the standard memoir contract’s provisions, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.

The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that a couple of years back, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book.

Yes, you read that right. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? And doesn’t cloistered mean, you know, not wandering up and down the aisles at Barnes & Noble, checking out your own publicity?

Yet such is the prevailing level of concern that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly the little sisters of St. Francis of Assisi would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies. I ask you: good for writers, or not?

Perhaps this will help you decide: since the MILLION LITTLE PIECES incident, writers have been hearing at conferences, “Oh, it’s impossible to sell memoir right now.” Which is odd, because the trade papers seem to show that plenty of houses are in fact still buying memoirs aplenty.

So you’ll pardon me, I hope, for saying that it always pays to look over the standard truisms very carefully, both to see if they still apply and to see if they’re, you know, TRUE. Many, I am sad to report, are neither.

You can tell I am gearing up to saying something subversive, can’t you?

Yes, I am: I would specifically advise AGAINST walking into a meeting with an agent or editor and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications — and practically mandated in the average conference brochure.

Or, to put it another way: I think it is a common mistake to assume that the structure that works for pitching a screenplay can be adapted without modification to books. Because, you see, the screenplay pitch is intended merely to establish the premise — and there’s quite a bit more that any agent or editor is going to need to know about a book before saying yea or nay.

“Wait just a second, Anne!” I hear some of you shouting. “I have a conference brochure right here, and it tells me I MUST limit myself to a 3-sentence pitch!”

Well pointed out, imaginary shouters — this is quite standard boilerplate advice. But think about it: the average conference appointment with an agent is 10-15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous.

So I have one question to ask you: do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared, so you have to wing it if the agent of your dreams wants to hear more?

Because, trust me, he IS likely to ask. I’ve heard many, many agents and editors complain that writers pitching at conferences either talk non-stop for ten minutes (not effective) or stop talking after one (ditto).

“Why aren’t they using the time I’m giving them?” they wonder in the bar. (It’s an inviolable rule of writers’ conferences that there is always a bar within staggering distance. That’s where the pros congregate to bemoan their respective fates.) “Half the time, they just dry up. Aren’t they interested in their own books?”

Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its utility: it is helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in an elevator, when you might genuinely have only a minute and a half to make your point.

That’s why it’s called an elevator speech, in case you were wondering; it’s short enough to deliver between floors without pushing the alarm button to stop the trip.

It’s also very useful in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book. Once you have a really effective marketing paragraph written, you can use it many contexts. So I will definitely be walking you through how to construct one.

However, an elevator speech should not be confused with a full-blown book pitch.

To do so, I think, implies a literalism that cannot conceive that a similar process called by the same name but conducted in two completely unrelated industries might not be identical. It’s akin to assuming that because both Microsoft and Random House are concerned with word count, they must be estimating it precisely the same way — because it’s just not possible for a single term to mean more than one thing to different groups of people, right?

News flash to the super-literal: the noun bat refers to both a critter that flies and a piece of wood used to hit a ball. Learn to live with it. (And if you don’t know how literary types estimate word count — which is not usually how the fine folks at Microsoft do — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

In purely strategic terms, there’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else at a conference: now that the three-line pitch is so pervasive, pitch fatigue sets in even more quickly. Not forcing an agent or editor to pull your plot out of you via a series of questions may well be received as a pleasant change.

Pitch fatigue, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the industry term for when a person’s heard so many pitches in a row that they all start to blend together in the mind. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail. Even with the best intentions, after the third pitch in any given genre in any given day, the stories start to sound alike.

Even stories that are nothing alike can begin to sound alike.

I can tell you from experience that pitch fatigue can set in pretty quickly. Two years ago, at the Conference That Dares Not Speak Its Name, a group of intrepid writers, including yours truly, set up the Pitch Practicing Palace, collectively hearing over 325 individual pitches over the course of three very long days. (Good for aspiring writers or not? Opinions differ.)

Now, all of us on the PPP staff are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, it is safe to say, were pretty much always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. And we heard quite a number of truly exceptional pitches. But by the end of the first day, all of us were starting to murmur variations on, “You know, if I had to do this every day, I might start to think the rejection pile was my friend.”

Part of the problem is environmental, of course. Agents and editors at conferences are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.

I know: poor, poor babies, forced to endure precisely the same ambient conditions as every writer at the conference, without the added stress of trying to make their life-long dreams come true. But I’m not mentioning this so you will pity their lot in life; I’m bringing it up so you may have a clearer picture of what you will be facing.

Gather up all of those environmental factors I described above into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent who has been listening to pitches for the past four hours.

Got it? Good.

Now ask yourself: which is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to make the effort of drawing more details about the book out of a pitcher who has been told to shut up after conveying a single breath’s worth of information? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why?

Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or to a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, embellished attractively with a few well-chosen significant details?

Exactly. You don’t want to hand them the same vanilla ice cream cone that everyone else has been offering them all day; you want to hand them the deluxe waffle cone stuffed with lemon-thyme sorbet and chocolate mousse.

And that, dear friends, is why I’m spending the days to come talking about how to market your work in ways that make sense to the industry, rather than just telling you to cram years of your hopes and dreams into three overstuffed sentences as…well, as others do.

By the time we reach the end of this series, my hope is that you will not only be able to give a successful pitch AND elevator speech — I would like for you to be prepared to speak fluently about your work anytime, anywhere, to anybody, no matter how influential.

Even to a New York Times bestselling writer, should you happen to bump into one.

In short, my goal here is to help you sound like a professional, market-savvy writer, rather than the nervous wreck most of us are walking into pitch meetings. To achieve that, a writer needs to learn to describe a book in language the industry understands.

The first building block of fluency follows tomorrow. I know you’re up for it.

Truth compels me to say, though, that not everyone out there agrees that my take on this process is unequivocally good for aspiring writers — including, let’s face it, some of the folks to whom I have referred above. But then, we also have a long-standing, fundamental disagreement about whether the primary purpose of a writers’ organization — or literary contest, for that matter — is to help the struggling writers out there or those already established promote their work more effectively.

Try as I might to keep my opinion to myself, hints do seem to pop out from time to time. I encourage you to make up your own minds, my friends — and to keep up the good work!

I have to pitch to WHOM?

On Friday, I raised the specter of the mismatched pitch meeting, the kind where a writer finds are pitching a romantic comedy to an agent who concentrates exclusively upon horror, or trying to convince an editor up to his eyeballs in fiction to give a memoir a chance. Writers seldom talk about this problem amongst themselves, even at conferences, but it happens all the time — especially when writers rely blindly upon conference schedulers to hook them up with the perfect agent for their work.

As I have suggested in my last couple of posts, this level of trust may not pay off for the writer. Specifically, it may result in an agent’s stopping a pitcher half a sentence in with one of the hardest-to-hear sentences in the English language: “Oh, I’m sorry — I don’t represent that kind of book.”

I can feel some of you rolling your eyes already. “Oh, great, Anne,” some of you are sniffing, “go ahead and leap to the worst-case scenario. Way to scare me out of wanting to pitch at all.”

Sniff away, oh cynics, but actually, I have some really, really good reasons for bringing this up now, rather than after I go over the nuts and bolts of pitching: not just because I didn’t want you to be waking up in the dead of night, hyperventilating over the prospect of a mismatched meeting (which, as I said, does happen to writers all the time), but so you may be prepared if it does happen.

Let me put it this way: would you rather learn how to perform the Heimlich maneuver BEFORE the person next to you at the rubber chicken banquet, or during?

Some mismatches are unavoidable, after all — and much of the time, they are the result of simple bad luck. Agents get the flu and cancel their appearances at the last minute, for instance. Or get embroiled in the details a client’s deal, so the agency sends an alternate representative.

Who, being a different individual — chant it with me now, long-time readers — will inevitably have different literary tastes than the first.

Also, at the risk of pointing out that the emperor’s garments are a tad scanty as he dodges behind that great big elephant in the room, agents and editors’ preferences sometimes switch rather abruptly and without a whole lot of publicity. So do market trends.

It is not at all uncommon, for instance, for an agent whose sister has just had a baby suddenly to be interested in parenting books. Or for an editor who has just been mugged to stop wanting to read true crime.

What does this mean, in practical terms? Often, that the person whose conference brochure blurb burbled excitedly about chick lit will shock half a conference crowd by announcing that she’s no longer accepting chick lit submissions.

That sound you heard was all of the writers who signed up for a session with her SPECIFICALLY because of her stated interests keeling over in a dead collective faint.

In short, sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may end up pitching to someone who is categorically disinclined to listen — which more or less guarantees rejection, no matter how great the book concept or writing may be.

Isn’t it better that you hear it from me now, rather than having it come as a stunning mid-conference surprise? Most writers, not having anticipated this particular possibility, will either:

a) freeze, unsure what to do, and end up pitching to the now-inappropriate agent or editor anyway,

b) assume that it’s a waste of time to pitch to that agent or editor, and just not show up for the scheduled appointment, or

c) assume that the agent or editor is lying about not being open to certain types of book and pitch it anyway — because if it were a really great book, he would cast ten years of marketing experience aside and grab it on the spot, right?

Wrong. Agents represent what they represent; a rejection based on book category has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book, or even of the pitch. It’s no reflection upon you or your writing. It can’t be, logically: by definition, a pitch-hearer is judging a verbal presentation, not words on a page.

So what should you do if you end up in an inappropriate meeting?

Other than, of course, taking on the quixotic task of trying to convince an industry professional to change utterly how s/he has decided to do business — which is, incidentally, to what pitching to an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of book amounts. Yet conference after conference, year after year, writers will bullheadedly insist upon acting as though every agent represents every conceivable type of book — and responding to the practically inevitable rejection by concluding that their books simply aren’t of interest to the publishing industry.

That’s poppycock, of course: the only rejection that means anything at all about your book’s marketability is one that comes from someone who specializes in your chosen book category.

But you already know that you’re looking for Ms. or Mr. Right Agent. Let’s get back to the practical issue of what you should do if you end up with Mr. or Ms. Wrong.

You could, of course, just thank the agent and walk away immediately. This is, in fact, what most agents in this situation are hoping you will do (more on that below), but better than that, it preserves your dignity far better than the usual writer’s reaction, to argue about whether the book would be a good fit for the agency. (Which never, ever works, in case you were wondering.)

However, you’ve got time booked with a seasoned industry professional — why not use it productively? Why not ask some questions?

Hear me out. Remember that you are at the conference not merely to make contacts with people in the industry, but to learn how to market your work better. Yes, you will be disappointed, but I can absolutely guarantee that an hour after the meeting, you will be significantly happier if you didn’t just sit there, feeling miserable and helpless.

What kind of questions, you ask? Well, for starters, how about, “If you were in my shoes, which agent here at the conference would YOU try to buttonhole for an informal pitch?”

Or, “Does anyone at your agency handle this kind of work? May I say in my query letter that you suggested I contact this person?”

Or, even more broadly: “I understand that this isn’t your area per se, but who do you think are the top five agents who DO handle this sort of book?”

Usually, they’re only too happy to help; don’t forget, this is an awkward moment for them, too. Only sadists LIKE seeing that crushed look in a writer’s eyes.

Seriously, it’s true. Mentally, I promise you, that agent will be cursing the evil fate that decreed that the two of have to spend ten or fifteen interminable minutes together; he doesn’t want to face recriminations, either from disappointed aspiring writers or from his boss if he comes back with work that he is not technically supposed to have picked up. (Editors at major publishing houses, anyone?) So many will become very frosty, in the hope you will walk away and end this awful uncomfortable silence.

If you can pull yourself together enough to move on to topics that you’re both comfortable discussing, trust me, the agent will appreciate it. Not enough to pick up your book, but still, enough to think of you kindly in future.

Don’t underestimate how helpful that may be down the line: both agents and editors move around a LOT. Just because the guy in front of you isn’t interested in your current project doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t be interested in your next, right?

Approaching the disappointment as a learning experience can make the difference between your stalking out of your meeting, biting back the tears, and walking out feeling confident that your next pitch will go better.

Besides, agents are often flattered by being asked their opinions, I find. There’s such a thing as human nature: few people are insulted by being admired for their expertise.

So it’s worth your while prepping a few questions in advance, as insurance. If the agent or editor seems approachable, you might even want to ask, after the other questions, “Look, I know it isn’t your area, but you must hear thousands of pitches a year. Would you mind listening to mine and giving me some constructive criticism?”

Remember, though, that when you ask for advice, you are requesting a FAVOR. Be accordingly polite — and grateful.

Particularly the latter. As someone who both teaches classes and goes to a lot of writing conferences, I both see and have first-hand experience with the VERY common ilk of writer who, having found a knowledgeable person in the industry gracious enough to answer questions, quickly becomes super-demanding. Literally every agent and editor I have ever met has a horror story about that writer at a conference who just wouldn’t go away.

A word to the wise: remember, stalking is illegal, and no amount of friendly helpfulness means that a “I’m sorry, but I don’t represent that kind of book,” into a “In your case, I’ll be delighted to make an exception.”

I’m going to be writing at some length later in this series about navigating the rather tricky etiquette of the pitching situation, but for starters, here’s a great rule of thumb: let the other party set the level of intimacy.

And regardless of their level of interest, try to make it a nice conversation, rather than a confrontation or a referendum on your prospects as a writer — an excellent plan regardless of whether your assigned pitch meeting is a good fit or not, actually.

Here again, background research helps: knowing something about the agent or editor will not only minimize the probability of ending up in an inappropriate pitch meeting, but will also enable you to ask intelligent questions about how he handles his clients’ work.

For instance, in the past, most fiction was published first in hardcover; until fairly recently, newspapers refused to review softcover fiction. However, increasingly, publishing houses are releasing new fiction in trade paper, a higher-quality printing than standard paperback, so the price to consumers (and the printing costs) may be significantly lower.

Why should you care? Well, traditionally, authors receive different percentages of the cover price, based upon printing format. Trade paper pays less than hardback.

So if you were speaking with an agent who had a lot of clients who were publishing in trade paper, you might want to ask, “So, I notice that several of your clients published their first novels in trade paper. Is that your general preference? What do you see as the major advantages and disadvantages to going this route?”

Knowing something about the books an agent has sold will also demonstrate that, unlike 99.9% of the aspiring writers he will see this season, you view him as an individual, an interesting person, rather than a career-making machine with legs. This can be a serious advantage.

Why? Well, think about it: if the agent signs you, the two of you are going to be having a whole lot of interaction over a number of years. Would you prefer his first impression of you to be that you were a nice, considerate person — or a jerk who happened to be talented?

I heard all of you who just thought, “I don’t care, as long as he signs me.” Go stand in the corner until your attitude problem improves; impolite writers make all of us look bad.

Being conversant with the books they have handled is flattering: we all like to be recognized for our achievements, after all. Agents and editors tend to be genuinely proud of the books they handle; remember, the vast majority of ANY agent’s workday is taken up with her existing clients, not ones she is thinking about perhaps picking up.

And let’s face it: if you’ve paid hundreds of dollars to attend a literary conference (and possibly travel expenses on top of that), it doesn’t make sense to limit your pitching to a single, pre-scheduled pitching appointment. It’s in your best interest to find out in advance who ALL of the agents and editors who deal with your type of book are, so you may buttonhole them in the hallways and pitch.

Don’t worry; I shall be giving you some tips on how to do that without coming across like a stalker. (Which, again, is ILLEGAL, no matter how badly you want a particular agent to hear about your book.)

Boning up on the facts can also help you calm down before giving your pitch. Instead beginning with a nervous “Hi,” followed by an immediate launch into your pitch, wouldn’t it be great if you could stroll in and break the tension with something along the lines of, “Hello. You represent Lynne Rosetto Casper, don’t you? I just loved her last cookbook.”

Trust me, she will be pleased to meet someone who has contributed to her retirement fund by buying one of her clients’ books, even if that someone happens to want to pitch her a kind of manuscript she doesn’t represent.

One caveat: if you plan to make mention of a particular book, do come prepared to talk about it for a couple of minutes. Don’t make the common mistake of praising a book you haven’t read. And don’t lie about liking a book that you hated, of course.

Pitch specifics follow in the days and weeks to come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Wait — if my contest entry was so good, why didn’t it make the finals?

Let’s start out with the obvious question: yes, I AM just getting into the swing of a series on pitching, and yes, as a general rule, I hold off on posts-by-request until after a series is complete. So yes, normally, I wouldn’t be doing this.

But yesterday, long-time reader Karen wrote in on a topic I know a number of my readers are pondering right now, how to respond to feedback on contest entries:

With your help, I entered the contest-that-shall-remain-nameless. I’m sorry that I can’t report that I won, or even placed. I didn’t. However, life is about learning. I just received my two critiques and I can’t tell you how valuable they are. Wow! One problem I have though is this…I read the critiques to my husband. He said, “How is it possible that the critiques are that good and you DIDN’T place?” I have no answer for that.

While there are a few suggestions that I am mulling over, for the most part, the comments are super-positive. This leaves me to wonder, “then why wasn’t I a finalist?” Is it just that the competition was so steep? I’m not sure what to think of it all. On the Additional Comments section, one even says-and I quote “Get this published!!!” Hmmmm…can you cover this sometime? What to do with the critiques when you DON’T win?

Anyway- I am not angry or bitter. I am actually very encouraged. I just don’t know which direction to go. Thanks for all your help Anne. Your blog rocks! ~Karen

Karen, I hear this from good writers all the time — not the part about my blog’s rocking, necessarily (although that’s always nice to hear) but questioning how seriously to take contest-generated critique. Since contest judges are anonymous and faceless, and since judging criteria are often shrouded in levels of mystery that would make the WTO’s deliberations seem transparent by comparison, many writers are left staring at feedback, wondering, “How close is this to what an agent or editor might say about my work?”

It’s a question asked with particular frequency in my neck of the woods, with respect to the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. For those of you who do not live and write in my part of the country, the fact that the CTSNBN routinely has first-round judges give such feedback, in a format that implies that the opinions expressed are authoritative, is one of the contest’s main selling points to writers: every entrant receives two ostensibly well-informed critiques. Since this particular contest does not pay its first-round judges (nor, in the last couple of years, has it thanked them), the anonymity of the feedback presumably guarantees impartiality.

In years past, entrants did not receive their critiques until well after the conference at which the literary prizes were awarded; as of last year’s contest, the policy changed (thank goodness) so that entrants could benefit from feedback prior to pitching at the conference.

Which means, in theory, that if entrants are going to take advantage of these critiques, they have only a few weeks to do it now. So my addressing it after my pitching series was complete might be a TAD tardy. Thus the exception.

(Before I launch into it, in the interest of full disclosure I should say that I used to serve as a judge in the contest in question, but no longer do; I also won its highest nonfiction award in 2004 and was the organization’s Resident Writer for a year. In fact, the CTSNBN is my local writers’ association, whose name I no longer mention on this blog (for those of you who missed last year’s fiasco) because (a) I don’t feel that it deserves the free publicity, (b) its formerly quite prestigious conference and contest are now handled so differently that I can no longer in good conscience recommend either to my readers, (c) I think the purpose of a writers’ organization should be to help all of its members, not merely the ones who happen already to be published, and (d) I don’t like people who are mean to little old ladies. So much for that rather dull little explanation. Back to the question at hand.)

Obviously, it’s really, really hard to answer any question about how a contest entry might have been judged without, well, being one of its judges. Only someone directly involved with the administration of a contest would know for sure, for instance, if there had been a policy change in how the judges were asked to evaluate entries.

Taking a gander at the CTSNBN’s website, however, I do notice that there has been a policy shift that anyone might notice: instead of having 10 finalists in each category, there are now only 8. Which would almost inevitably mean that the competition for each finalist slot would be more intense.

So you’re quite right to wonder about the competition level, Karen — it’s not unusual for a category with 10 or 15 finalist slots to have seven or eight times that many entries that could have been finalists in a less competitive contest. When the field is narrowed still further, it’s probably safe to conclude that the differences between Finalist #8’s entry and Not-Finalist #1’s were pretty miniscule.

If not entirely a matter of personal literary taste.

Literary contest entrants are often shocked to realize this, but evaluating writing can never be entirely objective. Oh, the issues that tend to knock most entries out of the running are fairly easy to grade objectively — formatting problems, grammar, spelling, adherence to contest rules, and so forth — but presumably, any entry that would even have a chance of making the finals would not run afoul of any of these.

Beyond exclusion factors, judging style is necessarily subjective — which means, logically, that the difference of the tenth of a point in scoring that might have separated Finalist #8’s ranking from even the next twenty below must be equally so. Lest we forget, the individual judge just gets to assign a numerical value to the entry, typically, not to say this one should be a finalist or that one shouldn’t.

If another judge was more generous with points…well, I don’t need to spell out the inference, do I?

My point is, it’s not as though judging a writing contest is as straightforward as being able to rank every single entry as clearly better or worse than the one just above or just below it. Judges tend to think of them in groups, and the fact is, in a contest with a lot of good entries, one should expect that there would be more finalist-worthy entries than finalist slots.

Particularly if a contest is, for reasons that escape me, trying to limit its finalist slots.

Also, the entrant can’t know if the judges were looking for something specific this year — which happens more than the average entrant tends to think. The broader the category descriptions, the more likely this kind of unofficial judging preference is to crop up, I’ve noticed, if only to narrow the criteria for winning.

As one might want to do if, say, a contest lumped Mainstream Fiction and Literary Fiction into a single category, when the writing standards for each in the industry are quite different.

I always wonder about policy shifts when I hear of contest feedback like, “Get this published,” with or without the extra exclamation points. Frankly, from a judge’s point of view, it doesn’t make sense as feedback UNLESS the critiquer had some reason to believe that your entry WOULDN’T make the finals and didn’t want you to be discouraged by that outcome.

Think about it: as feedback goes, it isn’t all that helpful otherwise, since it’s unlikely to the point of ridiculousness that trying to get the entry published would already have occurred to anyone who entered a literary contest.

Judges’ perceptions of marketability also vary widely, especially if the judging pool’s level of professional experience is uneven. (As might be the case, for instance, in a contest where many of the long-time judges abruptly resigned in a huff and needed to be replaced in a hurry.)

If you’ll recall from my earlier posts on contest judging, marketability is usually weighted almost as heavily as style in judging. As both are in the eye of the beholder — and the former tends not to play a very heavy role on a feedback sheet — it’s impossible for the entrant to figure out how the points were assigned.

As if all that weren’t confusing enough, the rating forms (where the entries are actually assessed) are typically quite different from the feedback forms (which are sent back to the entrant). The feedback may or may not be reflective of the numerical scores the judge assigned the entry. That’s left up to the judge’s discretion.

One more possible rating factor to consider: although from a judge’s perspective, there is a very palpable difference between an entry that has no outstanding problems (which would tend to receive a very positive feedback sheet) and one that has the WOW! factor that just screams, “This one’s got a shot to win,” most contest critique forms do not reflect that. I cannot speak to the CTSNBN’s current format, but in the past, a judge would have had to make an additional effort to note this.

On most feedback forms, these two types of manuscript might seem very similar indeed.

On the bright side, this usually means that an entrant who received glowing feedback can at least be sure that she has not made any major mistakes — not an achievement at which any of us should be sneezing. But that doesn’t really offer many tangible hints about how to up the WOW! in the entry, does it?

I hate to bring up the other logical possibility, but it’s not beyond belief that the judges were kinder in their written evaluations than they were in their numerical ones, the ones that actually counted toward whether the entry made it to finalist consideration or not.

I know: the very notion is annoying, from the entrant’s perspective. But it does happen. In fact, sometimes the rules and even the evaluation forms themselves promote this kind of judging duality.

Manuscript critique is a serious responsibility, you know; it’s easy to crush someone’s ego without really trying. Back in the Paleolithic era, when I used to be a judge in that particular contest, we were encouraged to accentuate the positive in our feedback — and to provide as much specific, helpful feedback as possible. Some judges made the effort, some didn’t. (Some also interpreted this dictum to mean not to mention ANY areas of possible improvement, but that’s neither here nor there.)

To answer your husband’s question directly, then: since there’s not necessarily a correlation between the judges’ critique and the scores they assign the entry, it’s not really possible for an entrant who receives stellar feedback to figure out WHY her entry didn’t make the finals. Sorry about that.

But in any case, the critique forms would not give a solid indication of why one entry placed, rather than being just one of the finalists. Few literary contests are judged in a single round. In the case of the CTSNBN, the first-round judges (who produce the feedback) are neither the people who tabulate the results and pick the finalists (that’s the category chair) nor the people who decide who will win and place amongst the finalists (usually one of the agents or editors attending the conference).

Clear as mud, isn’t it?

In fairness, though, the CTSNBN’s judging practices (or what they were in the past, when I was actually involved with them) aren’t really any less opaque than most literary contests’. It’s in a contest’s interest to pretend that there are always clear demarcations between finalist and non-finalist entries, just as they would like us to believe that the difference in quality between first and second place, or between third and finalist, is so obvious that any professional could spot it instantly.

But in practice, as anyone who has ever been a contest judge can tell you (or would if s/he were being honest about it), the lines are seldom so clearly drawn.

What does all this mean for the feedback, those of you who entered the CTSNBN ask? Well, it’s not really possible to answer that without (a) reading the piece in question and (b) reading the feedback, of course. But here are a few general rules of thumb:

(1) If the critique contains discussion of any technical points — formatting, grammar, etc. — address those issues right away. Chances are, if these problems caught the eye of a contest judge, they are serious enough to annoy an agent or editor as well.

(2) If the critique doesn’t bring up technical problems, be very pleased with yourself.

(3) Weed out the generalized part of the critique (“Get this published!”); these points are not going to be of much use in revision. Save the compliments to cheer yourself up on a rainy day.

(4) Make a list of the specific critique points, so that you may weigh the suggestions and see if they seem reasonable. (If you’re like most writers, you may need to sit with them awhile and/or get an outside opinion before you can make this judgment. For tips on maximizing your objectivity about your own work, please see the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK category at right.) If they strike you as good ideas, try incorporating them.

(5) If any part of the critique doesn’t make sense to you, PLEASE do not incorporate it blindly, simply because it seems to be coming from an authoritative source. Find some good first readers to go over your work to see if the critique makes more sense to them.

This is an especially good idea if the feedback in question concerns the marketability of your entry. As I said, contest judges’ levels of experience in the industry vary WILDLY — not all of the feedback you receive may be of sterling value.

Remember, typically, first-round judges are writers, not agents or editors: their sense of what is and isn’t marketable may not be the current wisdom in the industry. Do your homework to double-check before you do a major overhaul on your manuscript based upon an anonymous judge’s opinion.

In short, treat contest feedback in much the same way as you would any other manuscript critique: warily, using what’s helpful and applicable without merely substituting someone else’s judgment for your own. Often, these critiques can provide substantial insight, but ultimately, it’s your book, right?

Phew — that was a heavy topic, wasn’t it? Next time, we’ll traipse off into the lighter world of…wait, we were talking about pitching, weren’t we? Never mind.

Keep up the good work!

Conference pitching warm-up, part II, in which you may be surprised to learn that you and the agent or editor on the other side of the pitching table actually want the same thing. Honest.

Yesterday, I was waxing poetic on an must-follow piece of conference-preparation advice — if you are looking for an agent (as the vast majority of writers willing to shell out the dosh to attend major conferences are), it makes sense only to invest in attending conferences where agents with a proven track record of selling with your type of book will be available for your pitching pleasure.

Feel free to derive an important corollary from this excellent axiom: from this moment on, ONLY pitch or query your book to agents who represent that kind of book.

Seems so simple, put that way, doesn’t it?

Yet every year, literally millions of aspiring writers either take a scattershot approach, querying fairly randomly (thus all of those “Dear Agent” letters that folks in the industry hate so much) or let the conferences do the selection for them, pitching to whoever is there with a winsome disregard for matching their books with the right agent.

Sigh.

I cannot say this often enough: you do not want to be signed by just ANY agent — although, in the throes of agent-seeking, it’s certainly very easy to start believing that any agent at all would be better than none. You want the agent who is going to be able to sell your work quickly and well.

Believe it or not, even the surliest agent who ever strode contemptuously into a literary conference and brushed off a pitcher wants this as well. Agents, perversely enough, want to sign authors of books they know they can sell.

Which is, in case you were wondering, why they tend to be so quick to reject what doesn’t fall within their sphere of influence. Since they are inundated with queries and pitches, it is in their best interests to weed out the absolutely-nots as swiftly as humanly possible — and although it may not feel like it at the time, in yours as well.

Don’t believe me? Ask any author who has found herself spending a year or two in the purgatory of a representation contract with an agent who didn’t have the contacts to sell her book, but still snapped up the book because it was in an at-the-time-hot book category. (Yes, it happens.)

So if an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of work rejects you — and this is equally true if it happens at a conference or via query — be open to the possibility that it may not have anything to do with the quality of your writing or the idea you are pitching.

It might just be a bad fit.

I know it’s hard to accept this philosophically when your baby is rejected out of hand, but it is vital for your professional mental health that you bear the issue of fit in mind constantly while you are pitching and querying. Not only isn’t anything personal about a bad-fit rejection — it does not even begin to be a fair test of how the book will fly with an agent who does represent that kind of work.

Let me repeat that, because it’s awfully important: a book’s being rejected by an agent or editor who doesn’t represent that type of work is NOT a viable test of its marketability amongst those who do. Thus it follows with an elegant inevitability that if you want to know whether your book is marketable, you should pitch or query it only to those with whom such a test WOULD be a good indicator of how the publishing industry might view it.

Or, to put it another way, the best way to avoid this kind of rejection is not to pitch or query your book to any agent that isn’t predisposed to be interested in it. Check before you pitch.

Even better, check before you register for the conference where you intend to pitch.

Ditto with editors, by the way. No editor in the business acquires across every conceivable genre; in fact, most editors’ ability to acquire is sharply limited by their publishing houses to just one or two types of book.

So it would be a waste of your pitching energies to, say, try to interest an editor who does exclusively mysteries in your fantasy novel, right? Right?

Another thing that any writer pitching at a North American conference ABSOLUTELY MUST KNOW: all of the major NYC publishing houses currently have policies forbidding their editors to acquire work by unagented writers.

Don’t believe me? Check their websites. At least for the adult market, the policy is uniform. (Some YA imprints have different policies; again, it’s in your interests to check.)

This means, in essence, that the BEST that could happen if you pitched your book to an editor from one of these houses is that he might help you hook up with an agent. Although it’s somewhat counterintuitive, an editor at a smaller or regional house might have more leeway to pick up your book.

Sort of changes how you view those much-vaunted conference appointments with bigwig editors, doesn’t it?

I’m bringing this up because in most of the flavors of common being-discovered-at-a-conference fantasy, an editor from Random House or somewhere similar hears a pitch, falls over backwards in his chair, and offers a publication contract on the spot, neatly bypassing the often extended agent-seeking period entirely.

Conference today, contract tomorrow, Oprah on Thursday.

In reality, even if an editor was blown over (figuratively, at least) by a pitch, he might buttonhole one of the attending agents at a conference cocktail party on your behalf, and they might together plot a future for the book, but you’re still going to have to impress that agent before you can sign with the editor.

In other words, pitching to an editor at a major house might help your book in the long run, but it will not enable you to skip the finding-the-agent step, as so many aspiring writers believe. Sorry.

Frankly, I think it’s really, really unfair to the editors from these houses that more writers’ conference promotional materials are not up front about this policy, considering that it is in fact common knowledge — which means, incidentally, that most editors will assume that a writer attending the conference is already aware of it. It’s not as though the individual editor could change the status quo, after all, or as if he’s following the policy merely because he likes to taunt the hopeful.

Before any of you protest that at the last conference you attended, editors from the Big Five asked for your work as though they intended to pick you up regardless of your representation status, let me hasten to add that you are not alone: the we-accept-only-the-agented is most assuredly NOT the impression that most conference pitchers to editors receive.

There’s a reason for this: unless they are asked point-blank during an editors’ forum how many of them have come to the conference empowered to pick up a new author on the spot — a question well worth asking, hint, hint — most editors who attend conferences will speak glowingly about their authors, glossing over the fact that they met these authors not in settings like this, but through well-connected agents.

See earlier comment about common knowledge. They honestly do think you know. It doesn’t mean that they can’t give you some valuable advice.

Yet few conference brochures or websites are honest enough to feature the major houses’ policies next to the appropriate attending editors’ listings. In fact, most conference rhetoric surrounding pitch appointments with editors directly states the opposite, encouraging pitchers to believe that this meeting could be their big break.

I don’t think that conference organizers do this in order to be mean or misleading — I just think many of them are not hip to the current conditions of the industry. Trust me, no editor is going to jeopardize his job at Broadway by handing a contract to a writer his boss would throw a fit if he signed.

So why, you may be wondering, do editors from the majors attend literary conferences — and, once there, why do they request submissions?

This is an important question, because editors from the major houses request manuscripts from pitchers all the time — but not because they are looking to sign the author instantly on the strength of the book. They just want to get in on the ground floor if the book is going to be the next…

You guessed it: no editor wants to be the one who passed on the next DA VINCI CODE. It’s a gamble, pure and simple.

So even though they would almost certainly not in fact pick up the next DA VINCI CODE if its author DID pitch to them at a conference, having a personal connection with the author is a great means of queue-jumping. If one of them is nice enough to you, you might tell your agent (once you hook up with one) that you want your potential bestseller sent to that editor first.

Heck, if she’s nice enough to you, you might be gullible enough to insist that she gets an exclusive peek at it.

Don’t laugh: it’s not a bad gamble, from their perspective. Aspiring writers, as I believe I have pointed out a couple of hundred times before, can get some strange ideas about loyalty owed to industry types who met them for a grand total of fifteen minutes once.

But trust me: deep in their steamy little hearts, those editors from major houses who ask you to send chapters will be hoping that you will land an agent before they get around to reading the manuscript they requested you send. If you are looking to pitch to an editor who might conceivably pick up your book right away, you are generally better off pitching to an editor from a smaller or regional house.

The overall moral: learning what individual agents and editors are looking for AND what their bosses will allow them to pick up (aside from the next DA VINCI CODE, of course) will help you target both your conference pitches and your queries more effectively.

Everyone — agents, editors, and writers alike — are happier when you do. Honest. Nobody concerned wants to break your heart gratuitously.

Keep repeating to yourself between now and the conference: they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean. They’re doing it to fight their way to the book they can support wholeheartedly.

Getting a trifle depressed? Don’t worry — I’m almost through with the don’t list; very soon, we’ll be moving on to the dos, which are far more empowering. Keep up the good work!

A rose is a rose is a rose…but that doesn’t mean that they’re aren’t at least three ways to pitch it

It’s that charming-but-disorienting season again, campers: time for so many of us set our manuscripts aside in favor of such light-hearted feats as walking into a room with 150 strangers in it and striking up meaningful conversations, sitting through six hours of craft classes a day, and trying to compress a 400-page book into a 2-minute speech.

I refer, of course, to writers’ conference season, when hope flies skyward on the slightest provocation — followed closely by writers’ blood pressure.

Ah, we writers walk into conferences with such high expectations and nervous stomachs, don’t we? The average conference-goer’s wish list carries some fairly hefty items: to meet the agent of his dreams, who will fall flat on the floor with astonishment at his pitch and sign him on the spot; for an editor at a major publishing house to be so wowed that she snaps up the book practically before the writer finishes speaking, and to be whisked off to New York immediately for literary cocktail parties and glowing adulation. Can the New York Times’ bestseller list and Oprah’s book club be far behind?

It’s a lovely dream, certainly, but this is not what actually happens.

I’m absolutely serious about this. In actuality, no credible agent will sign a writer before having read the book in question; all of the major U.S. publishing houses have strict policies against acquiring books from unrepresented writers, and even agented works often circulate for months or more before they are picked up by publishers. Furthermore, there is generally at least a year-long lapse between the signing of a book contract and when that book appears in bookstores.

Translation: even for writers who actually ARE pitching the next DA VINCI CODE, the process takes a heck of a lot longer than the average conference-goer expects.

Even authors of brilliant, super-marketable books do not typically experience the conference fantasy treatment. At most, a great book well pitched will garner an array of, “Gee, that sounds terrific. Send me the first 50 pages,” requests. Yet even with a flurry of initial enthusiasm, months often pass between initial pitch and requests to represent.

It’s important to realize that going in; otherwise, pitching at a conference will almost inevitably feel like a tremendous letdown — or, still worse, like a sight-unseen review of your writing talent.

Worst of all, a belief that the truly talented ARE signed and sold within a matter of nanoseconds leads every year to that oh-so-common writerly misstep, rushing home to send out requested materials within a day or so of receiving the request — and realizing only after the fact that since the mad rush to get the manuscript out the door before that agent or editor changed her mind about wanting to see it meant sending it out without reading the submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I can sense my long-time readers of this blog shuddering at the ghastly fate that tends to greet such hastily sent-off submissions.

For those of you who are not yet cringing, let me ask you: how would you feel if you realized only after you’d popped a requested manuscript in the mail that there were four typos on page 1? Or that the margins were the wrong width? Or that you’d forgotten to change your memoir protagonist’s name back to your own after you’d changed it for a blind contest entry?

Ah, now everyone’s shuddering.

Realistic expectations about what conference success does and does not mean, as well as how it would serve you best to respond to the various contingencies, can save you a lot of grief — and I say this as a writer who DID land her agent through a conference pitch, had offers from several agents, AND had a book contract in hand six months thereafter.

But guess what: that probably would not have happened had I not done my pre-conference prep — or if I didn’t know walking in that I shouldn’t just sign with the first agent kind enough to ask me.

That last one caught some of you off guard, didn’t it?

So, what would be a realistic set of goals for a conference? An excellent choice would be to use the conference to skip the very annoying and time-consuming querying stage and jump directly to a request to read your manuscript.

Thus, pitching your work to at least one agent who has a successful track record representing books like yours would be a great goal — and having at least one agent ask you to mail a submission would be even better.

As would having an editor who is empowered to pick up new writers ask to see part or all of the book, or pitching to every publishing professional at the conference who deals in your kind of work. And let’s not forget the less marketing-oriented goals, such as learning a great deal from good seminars.

Or — and too many conference-goers forget to add this to their to-do lists — making connections with other writers, established AND aspiring, who write what you do. Amazing mutual support groups don’t just happen, you know; they are built over years.

If you can pull any or all of that off, you will have achieved conference success.

Not as sexy as the fantasy version, I know, but eminently do-able — and definitely worthwhile for your writing career. After all, skipping the querying stage can cut years from your agent search; think of every pitching opportunity as one less raft of a dozen query letters you are going to have to send out.

Looking a whole lot better now, isn’t it?

Your chances of pitching successfully, however, will be SUBSTANTIALLY higher if you do a bit of prep work before you go. But never fear: for the next few weeks, I shall be guiding you though the steps you need to take in order to walk in confident and prepared.

Fringe benefit: these steps are very useful to marketing any book, anywhere, anytime. If you invest the time in them, you will not only be able to pitch your work verbally; you will be able to talk about it like a pro AND transplant your pitch to your query letters.

Don’t tense up. You can do this. But it is going to take some work.

The first step to a successful pitch is to understand your book’s market appeal. Who is your target reader, and why will your book, out of the tens of thousands a good agent will see this year, satisfy that reader like nothing else currently on the market?

Hey, I told you it wasn’t going to be easy.

The second step to a successful pitch, as for a successful query, is to be familiar with the work of the person to whom you will be pitching. Find out what that agent has sold lately; find out what that editor has bought.

Find out, in short, who at the conference would be receptive to you and your book, so that you may know which to approach and pitch. This will involve some research on your part — which is why I am mentioning this at the BEGINNING of this series, and not toward its end.

I can sense some of you who have already signed up for conferences shifting restlessly in your seats, wondering if you should just skip the next few weeks of posts. “But Anne,” I hear those of you clutching registration forms protest, “I understand doing the prep work if I have a plethora of conferences from which to select, but I’m already registered for my local one. Since I’ve already been assigned a pitch appointment, why should I bother checking up on all of the agent who might eb attending?”

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, any book could be pitched in a number of different ways — and since the goal of pitching is not absolute uniformity between every pitch attempt, but rather to garner a request for pages, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to tailor your pitch to the agent who happens to be listening to it at any given moment, doesn’t it?

And no, I have absolutely no idea why conference literature so often tells potential attendees the exact opposite. I’ll be dealing with the one-size-fits-all pitch concept next week.

For now, suffice it to say that all three pictures above are from the same negative. You probably have a favorite among them; so do I. So would an agent. But they’re all the same angle on the same rose. The only difference is presentation.

Seem cryptic? Trust me, within a couple of weeks, it will seem downright obvious.

The other reason to do some background research on the agents to whom you may be pitching is — brace yourselves; this is a biggie — that it’s far from uncommon for writers to be assigned to pitch to agents who do not represent their kinds of books at all. Which means, practically inevitably, that the pitch will not end in a request for pages.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sit down and breathe deeply until that feeling of dizziness passes.

As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea.

I know, I know: it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? But in fairness, conference organizers very frequently do not have enough information about prospective attendees to make a good match; most of the time, they simply rely upon the writers’ expressed preferences or — sacre bleu! — assign appointments randomly.

This means, unfortunately, that it is up to the conference attendee to check up on the agents and editors, over and above their blurbs in the conference program. Even those bear double-checking: as my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. It’s not that they’re trying to be misleading, of course; most just reuse their standard bio blurbs, which tend not to be updated all that often.

So it’s worth your while to check the agents’ websites, standard agents’ guides, Preditors and Editors, the Absolute Write water cooler, and anywhere else that you would normally go to check out an agent you were planning to query. You need to find out who these people are and what they represent.

I hear you groaning: yes, this IS every bit as much work as finding an agent to query. You don’t want to end up pitching to the wrong agent, do you?

Do be aware that since there is usually a significant time lag between when an agent signs an author and when the book hits the shelves (see above), it may be difficult to track down client lists for some agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not active. The Publishers Marketplace database tracks sales as they happen AND provides client lists, so it’s a great place to check. This site does require a subscription ($20/month), so you might want to buttonhole some of your writing friends and pool the expense.

If you can’t find evidence that the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch is actively representing your kind of book, don’t be afraid to ask to switch appointments. Most of the time, conference organizers will honor this request — but they’ll usually be happier about it if you can suggest an alternative agent for an appointment.

That’s why it’s an excellent idea to check out ALL of the agents scheduled to attend a conference (there’s usually a list on the conference’s website), not just to one to whom you’ve been assigned. Ideally, you will want to try to pitch to anyone who might conceivably be a reasonable fit. And if none of the scheduled agents represent your kind of book, you should think very seriously about taking your conference dollars elsewhere.

Yes, having to do this level of background research is kind of a pain, but if it saves you even one wasted pitch, it’s definitely worth it. The more information you have, the more likely you are to find your best fit.

Doing your homework maximizes the probability that you will be pitching to someone who can help you get published — and not someone who will stop you three sentences in to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t represent that kind of book.”

Remember, not all agents are the same, any more than all editors are (of which more tomorrow); they have both professional specialties and personal preferences. It doesn’t make any more sense to pitch sensitive coming-of-age literary fiction to an agent who concentrates primarily on thrillers than it does to query a NF agency with a novel, does it?

Or to offer a modified purple rose to someone who would prefer a more realistic picture, for that matter.

Much, much more on conference prep and marketing follows in the days to come — and if you don’t mind a bit of motherly advice, PLEASE don’t be too hard on yourself if your learning curve is a bit sharp throughout this series. After all, no one is born knowing how to market a book.

Don’t let the process intimidate you — and keep up the good work!