How to write a really good query letter, part VI: toiling productively in the vineyards of literature, or, would Pavlov’s doggie like a biscuit?

Those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while may well recognize this gorgeous image from the Book of Hours. I like to yank it out of the mothballs every now and again, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

What’s that you say, campers? That’s what it felt like back I was trying to find the right agent back in the dimly-remembered mists of the Paleolithic era, but everyone concerns feels perfectly marvelous about the process today? Whew, that’s a relief — thanks for clearing up that little misconception.

On the off chance that I wasn’t the only writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in style, fashions in content, and what kind of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how an aspiring writer presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

Which is a really, really nice way of saying that from a professional reader’s point of view, scads of query letters traject themselves like lemmings straight from the envelope into the rejection pile with scarcely a pause in between.

Sadly, the vast majority are rejected for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the potential personality fit between the author and agent, the agent’s ability to sell the book in question, or even the quality of the writing. Because agents and their screeners read hundreds of the darned things per week, even if only 20 of them share the same basic mistake — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, rather than to an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a Dear Agent letter. But that’s merely the best-known of the notorious query-readers’ pet peeves.

I heard that giant collective huff of indignation out there: you’re thinking that Millicent the agency screener is hyper-sensitive, far more eager to reject a query than to accept it, and perhaps even downright mean. Heck, judging by the expressions on your faces, you probably wouldn’t be remotely surprised to learn that she regularly eats live kittens for breakfast, snarls at babies, and honks her horn when Boy Scouts assist people with canes across the street.

Don’t be ridiculous. Millicent lives in New York City; she doesn’t drive a car.

Perhaps she does reject writers for a living, but that doesn’t mean that rejections are necessarily her fault: as I mentioned earlier in this series, many, many, MANY query letters just scream from their very first paragraph, “Reject me! I have no idea what I’m doing on your desk, much less what book category the manuscript my rambling prose professes to promote might best fit into, so why not put me out of my misery right away?”

The ubiquity of such self-rejecting letters means that the all-too-common writerly practice of blaming the rejector is not the best strategy for landing an agent. Call me zany, but if a query elicits a rejection for any reason other than that the storyline or argument in the proposed book didn’t grab Millicent or her boss, my first question is not, “Oh, how could the screener have made such a mistake?” but “May I have a look at that letter, so see how the writer may improve it?”

Why do I tend to leap straight to that conclusion, you ask? Experience, mostly. If there is a single rule of thumb that may be applied at every stage of any successful author’s career, it’s that it ALWAYS behooves us to look critically at our own writing before assuming that the only possible explanation for frowned-upon writing lies in the eye of the predisposition of the reader to frown.

My, that was a convoluted sentence, wasn’t it? Let me put it more simply: offense does not always lie in the propensity of the affronted to take umbrage. Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy at times, but any writer can learn how to avoid provoking her.

As with a manuscript, the writer of a query will virtually always be better off taking steps to improve what she can control than blaming the rejection upon other factors. It is possible to learn from one’s own mistakes, even in the current insanely competitive agent-seeking environment, where the vast majority of queriers are never told precisely what made Millicent slide their letters directly into their SASEs with a copy of the agency’s prefab one-size-fits-all rejection note.

Or, in the case of e-queries, to hit the REPLY key, sending the prefab rejection reply. (You didn’t honestly believe that Millicent or her boss actually re-typed those platitudes every time, did you?)

In the spirit of trying to avoid being the object of either dismal fate, I began running through a checklist of some of the most common query letter mistakes yesterday. Let’s recap, shall we?

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

Please do take the time to re-read your query before you answer these questions or the ones to come. Yes, even if some of these points sound a trifle redundant to those of you who have been reading my blog for a while: you would be well within your rights to think, honestly, don’t all of us know by now to avoid sounding bitter in a query letter? Or to be polite while doing it?

Well, probably so, but humor me here, because it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

In fact, serial queriers often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their mailed letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. Copying and pasting the text of one e-mailed query into the next guarantees it.

And those of you who habitually did this were surprised to receive form-letter rejections? The electronic age has made it much, much easier to be dismissive.

In short, it’s worth reviewing what’s going out every once in a while, to ascertain that the query matches the recipient well. Which, coincidentally, brings me to the next question on the checklist:

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

Many aspiring writers approach quite a few agents simultaneously — and with good reason. At this point in publishing history, when many agencies don’t even respond to e-mailed queries if the answer is no, waiting to hear back from one agent before approaching the next is poor strategy. One-by-one queries can add years to the agent-finding process.

Do I hear some restless murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you conference veterans protest, “I heard that some agents will become furious if they find out that a writer is sending out many queries simultaneously. I don’t want to scare them away from my book by breaking their rules right off the bat!”

I agree with the general principle imbedded in this cri de coeur — it’s only prudent to check an agency’s website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides to ascertain that you know what precisely the agent you are addressing wants to see in a query packet. If you haven’t been agent-shopping lately, the differentials can be astonishing: some want queries only, others want synopses, many ask for pages to be placed in the body of an e-mail, a few ask queriers just to go ahead and send the first 50 pages unsolicited.

The moral: there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query packet. In order not to run afoul of these wildly disparate expectations, a querier must be willing to do a bit of homework and follow individualized directions.

Admittedly, sometimes an agency’s listing in one of the standard guides, its website, and what one of its member agents will say at a conference are at odds. In the event of a serious discrepancy, don’t call or e-mail the agency to find out which they prefer. Go with the information that appears to be most recent — in my experience, that’s usually what’s posted either on the website or on Publisher’s Marketplace.

What no agency will EVER leave off any of its expressions of preference, however, is mention of a policy forbidding simultaneous querying, the practice of sending out queries to more than one agent at a time. Some do have policies against simultaneous submissions, where more than one agent is reading requested materials at the same time, but believe me, the agencies that want an exclusive peek tend to be VERY up front about it.

So If you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t. End of story. Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know.

Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on dealing with an actual request for an exclusive, if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

So why does the rumor that that most agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) remain so pervasive? Beats me. If I had to guess, I would say that it is an unintended side effect of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

Since everyone in the room will nod sagely in response, the agent will not unnaturally assume that the entire audience knows that s/he is referring not to the practice of querying several agents simultaneously, but to the astonishing common feat of sending (often via e-mail) an IDENTICAL query letter to, say, a hundred agents all at once. (And if you don’t know why that’s a bad idea, you might want to check out this archived post before you launch a flotilla of your own.)

As we have discussed, a query letter designed to please all is unlikely to be geared to the specific quirks and literary tastes of any particular agent — one of the many reasons that this shotgun approach seldom works. The other, believe it or not, is that mass submitters often render the fact that they don’t know one agent on their lists from another by sending out what is known in the biz as a Dear Agent letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,

I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel…

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, such an opening means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, they reason, that it is unlikely to the point of mockery that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency. And, most will additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works.

Yes, yes, I know: I’ve talked about this phenomenon before in this series, but I live in terror that even one of my readers will make this fundamental mistake in the interest of saving time. Since virtually any Millicent will simply pitch a Dear Agent letter into the reject pile, if not actually the trash (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs), it’s in your best interest to make it quite, quite obvious to whom you are addressing your missive. In fact, the query most likely to succeed is one that is specialized not only in the salutation, but in the first paragraph as well.

How, you ask? Good question.

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

This is a corollary of the last, of course — to put it another way, writers aren’t the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” Agents scream it, too, albeit with a slightly different meaning.

No, but seriously, agents (and their screeners) wonder about this. Given half a chance and a martini or two, many agents will complain vociferously about queries that read as though the writer simply used a mail merge to address letters to every agent listed on a particular website or in a given guide.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may find this question SLIGHTLY familiar, and for good reason: this is a NOTORIOUS agents’ pet peeve.

So it’s worth taking a look at your query letter and asking yourself if it answers the question: there are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents in the United States alone — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query? What specifically about this agent’s track record, literary tastes, and/or bio led you to say, By gum, I would like this person to represent my work?

And no, in this context, because she is an agent and I desperately want to sell my book, is not a reason likely to impress Millicent. She hears it too often.

Remember, agents — like most other people — tend to be proud of their best work: if you want to get on their good side, showing a little appreciation for what they have done in the past is just good strategy. Especially if you can honestly compliment them on a project they really loved, or one that was unusually difficult to sell.

See why I kept urging you earlier this summer to ask those panels of agents at conferences some pointed questions about their favorite projects? I was just looking to help you glean some useful information.

I picked this little trick up not at writers’ conferences, but in academia. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Not only is she expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring here, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief private meetings with everyone on the faculty first.

It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds, like going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who think simply everyone in the universe has read their work. (Everyone smart, anyway.) If you’re the job candidate, you’d better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or you’re toast.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia. But it did teach me something very valuable indeed: pretty much every human being affiliated with every book ever published likes to be recognized for the fact.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning:

Since you so ably represented X’s excellent book, {TITLE}, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”

I had lunch a while back with a writer who used this method in a pitch with triumphant success. The agent was blown away that the writer had taken the time to find out whom she represented and do a little advance reading.

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was; legally, it’s a matter of public record, so they have to tell you.

Actually, with small publishers, this isn’t a bad method for finding out what they are looking to publish. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Moral: sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. For instance…

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

I am surprised at how often writers seem reluctant to mention this, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book: the prevailing wisdom goes that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present.

A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, it’s one you should be riding for all it is worth.

If you have heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine or online, or even just noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked, mention that in the first line of your query letter. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to invent a general one:

Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

I would suggest being even more upfront than this, if the conference in question was a reputable one and you did in fact attend it. Why not write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, in approximately the same place where you would have written REQUESTED MATERIALS had you pitched to the agent successfully there?

And if you are an e-querying type, why not mention it in the subject line of the e-mail? (Also a good idea to include: the word QUERY.)

Oh, and lest I forget to mention it later in this series:

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I quadruple-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

Stop laughing, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — even as I write this, it’s still far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that accept submissions directly through the website often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic. (Don’t worry, those of you reading this abroad: I’m going to be talking soon about how to deal with the stamp problem.)

Double-check the agency’s policy before you e-query. This information will be in any of the standard agency guides, and usually on the website as well.

If you’re in any doubt, query via regular mail — strategically, it’s a better idea, anyway.

Yes, you read that correctly. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of querying via e-mail, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. A truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

Not to mention the fact that the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. (Or at least she did the last time I checked the statistics.) I can’t conceive of any writer who has thought about it actively longing to have Millicent spend less time reading his letter than she already does, can you?

The relative speed of scanning e-queries is why, in case you’re wondering, quite a few of the agencies that actively solicit online queries tend to respond more quickly than those that don’t. Or not at all — which means that it’s also worth your while to check an agency’s policy on responding to e-queries before you approach them; many have policies that preclude responding to a querier if the answer is no.

I sense an unspoken question hanging in the air right now. Go ahead; ask.

“But Anne,” I hear many of you shout, “what happens if I accidentally send an e-query to an agent who doesn’t like them, or a paper query to one who prefers to be approached electronically? That won’t result in an automatic rejection, will it?”

Not necessarily. But let me ask you this: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

I don’t know about you, but given my druthers, I would select the former.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that just as it’s polite to address a person the way he prefers to be addressed, rather than by a hated nickname, a courteous writer should approach an agent in the manner she prefers to be approached. Those with strong preferences either way seldom make a secret of it; verify before you send.

And before anyone out there asks: yes, most agents will assume that a writer worth having as a client will have gone to the trouble of learning something about their personal preferences. If they have expressed a pet peeve in one of the standard agency guides, they will assume that you are aware of it.

While we’re on the subject of double-checking, allow me to sneak in one more quick question before I sign off for the evening:

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common each of these gaffes is. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

And yes, an agent with a first name that leaves gender a tad ambiguous is every bit as likely to resent an incorrect salutation as a Rebecca or Stephen would. Often more, because a Cricket, Chris, or Leslie would constantly be receiving queries apparently addressed to someone of the opposite sex.

If you’re in serious doubt, call the agency and ask point-blank whether the agent is a Mr. or Ms. (Quick note for those querying US agents from other parts of the world: currently, Mr. or Ms. are the only two options, unless the person in question happens to be a doctor or a professor; unless a woman makes a point of identifying herself as a Miss or Mrs., Ms. is the proper salutation.)

I know, I know: you’ve heard 4500 times that a writer should NEVER call an agency until after he has a signed representation contract in hand or the agent has left a message asking him to call back, whichever comes first. While it is quite true that allowing the agent to set the level of familiarity in the early stages of exchange is good strategy, most offices are set up to allow a caller to ask a quick, anonymous question, if he’s polite about it.

As long as you don’t ask to speak to the agent personally and/or use the occasion to pitch your book, you should be fine.

Have you noticed how many of these tips boil down to some flavor of be clear, do your homework, and be courteous? That’s not entirely accidental: as odd as it may seem in an industry that rejects so many so brusquely, manners honestly do count in this business.

As my grandmother was fond of saying, manners cost nothing. But as I am prone to tell my clients and students, not exhibiting courtesy can cost an aspiring writer quite a lot.

So sit up straight, brush your teeth, and help little old ladies across the street; it will be great practice for working with an agent or editor.

More of the checklist follows next time, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Writers’ Conferences 101, part VIII: but what happens if they LIKE my pitch?

massive-kite

Had I mentioned lately that I’m proud of you, readers?

Seriously, I am, especially those of you who have mustered up the courage to pitch, query, and/or submit recently. It takes genuine bravery to put yourself and your work out there; I don’t think the writing community gives aspiring writers enough credit for that.

You’ve chosen a hard path, after all, and are approaching it rationally; it would be easier, let’s face it, just to sit around dreaming about how nice it would be to be a published author. But few of the authors whose books currently grace the shelves got them there by dreaming alone — most put in years, if not decades, perfecting their craft and learning how to market their work.

As you continue to do, I hope. So I’ll say it again: I’m proud of you.

In an effort to become even prouder of those of you who do not have easy access to face-to-face pitching opportunities and — dare I say it? — the vast majority of you who do not have the resources readily available to attend a first-rate writers’ conference, I am going to show you how to apply those lessons we learned in constructing a pitch to crafting a pleasing query letter. I hope you’ll pardon me, though, if I put that worthy topic on hold for a day to go over how to put together a submission packet.

I know, I know: I’ve been lavishing a lot of attention on pitching lately, and I freely admit that the timing on this week’s series is all about trying to help those pitching this conference season. However, since all of you, I hope, will be facing the joyous-but-stressful prospect of responding to a request for pages at some point, whether you get there by querying or pitching, I feel justified in dealing with this all-important topic now.

Another reason to leap right into submission packets: for those of you who aren’t already aware of it, much of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation between mid-August and Labor Day — and yes, that includes the staff of the average agency. So if you’re pitching or querying this summer (or already have), you’re better off waiting until after Labor Day.

Actually, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, you might want to hold off for a week of so after that. Why? Well, do the math: if the average agency receives somewhere in the neighborhood of 800-1200 queries per week, and most of the staff has been out of the office for a good three weeks, how many square inches of Millicent the agency screener’s desk are going to visible on the morning after Labor Day?

Got that answer firmly in mind? Okay, if you were Millicent and had to plow through all of those stacks of extra letters (and virtual stacks of e-mails) before you could even begin the current week’s avalanche, would you (a) sit down to read in a joyous, lighthearted mood, refreshed from your time away, or (b) be looking even more fiercely than usual for the most miniscule excuse to reject the query or submission in front of you, simply to have one less piece of paper on your desk?

Give her a week or so to get that urge out of her system. Trust me on this one.

So if you haven’t had the opportunity to read your pages for submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, might want to take advantage of the last few days of the annual August break to do that. Ditto if you have yet to get good feedback from first readers outside of your circle of family and close friends (who tend to have a hard time giving unbiased feedback, no matter how gifted they are as readers; for more on the hows and whys of selecting good first readers, please see the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right).

Even as I was typing those last two paragraphs, however, I could see that mad light in some recent pitchers’ eyes. It happens in the wake of every large writers’ conference in North America: scads and scads of aspiring writers suddenly become speed-obsessed, determined not to sleep, eat, or take your multivitamins until they get those requested materials out the door.

Last week, I brought up several reasons that an aspiring writer might not want to give in to that common urge…but wait; what is that strange whirling object floating in the air before you? You are getting sleepy, I tell you. Very, very sleepy…

Did it work? Have those of you who harbor the belief that you absolutely must submit before the requesting agent forgets on which side you part your hair abruptly woken up, exclaiming, “Wait a minute — that agent heard dozens of pitches at the conference, and she appeared to be taking fairly thorough notes. Would it not thus make significantly more sense to invest a couple of weeks in polishing and revision, since the request for materials is a one-shot opportunity? Might I not, for instance, indulge in another round of spell-checking?”

I thought not. Worth a try, though, because the single best piece of advice those of you who have pitched or queried successfully recently could get right now is RELAX.

Actually, it’s some of the best advice you could take at any point of the marketing process: you are relaxing, I tell you, RELAXING in the face of your upcoming pitching appointment…your only goal is to get these people to ask to see your work…you are buttonholing agents in at conference events and successfully giving your hallway pitch…you are calmly going through your 2-minute pitch to an agent who is delighted to hear it…your only goal is to get these people to ask to see your work, and you are thrilled when they do…

Did it work that time?

No? Well, for the sake of argument, let’s assume for the moment that the mantras I’ve been chanting at you for the last few weeks have worked, and an agent or editor has asked to see the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or even the entirety of your manuscript.

What do you do next?

In the first place, you should send your submissions simultaneously to everyone who asked for them.

Stop looking at me with those eyes of glowing reproach; it honestly is in your best interest to have more than one agent interested in your work. Yet most successful pitchers do not think of the luxury of being able to choose between offers (awfully nice, as I can tell you from experience), or the advantage of being able to mention in their cover letters to each that others are also considering the pages (nothing adds to a manuscript’s attractiveness like the news that other agents also believe it is marketable), or even the undeniable strategic pluses of being in a position to e-mail a reading agent the news that another agent has already made an offer (you wouldn’t believe how much that little bulletin can speed up the reading process).

What do they do instead? Typically, pick the agent they liked best personally (almost invariably the one who was nicest during the pitch meeting) and submit the requested pages to her only. Then they sit around and wait for her to get back to them before submitting or querying anybody else.

This strategy made a little more sense back when turnaround times were shorter — and a lot more sense back in the days when agents always sent a rejection letter. Now, a writer playing favorites might not hear back on a submission for three or four months, if at all.

So why do so many pitchers maximize the probability of living in limbo for months on end by playing favorites, essentially granting the friendliest agent an exclusive he did not request? Perversely, it’s often because they believe that such an approach will save them time.

“If I already know I like Agent Q best,” they reason, “why should I go to the trouble of multiple submission?”

Because a writer’s time is valuable, that’s why. If you honestly feel that your manuscript is ready to market now, why waste months by submitting only one at a time, if you are dealing with agents who do not request exclusives? (A question even better worth asking if you are querying one by one, by the way. Unless an agency has a formal policy forbidding simultaneous queries — which only a tiny minority does — most agents just assume that a savvy writer is querying broadly.)

Another popular reason for embracing the wildly inefficient submit-wait-submit-wait strategy is the aftereffect of the phenomena we saw in action in last weekend’s little dramas: many, many pitchers mistake an agent’s professional friendliness for the beginning of a long-term friendship.

“But I promised Agent Y that I would send her my pages,” these starry-eyed souls protest. “She’ll be hurt if she finds out I also sent requested materials to Agent Z. I don’t want to mess up our relationship.”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but if the only contact a pitcher had with an agent or editor was in a pitch meeting or hallway exchange, there isn’t a relationship yet. It was just a nice conversation about your work.

Treat it like a professional opportunity, not like a junior high school crush. Don’t sit by the phone, willing that agent to call.

Stop rolling your eyes at me, romantics. Your heart may tell you to give that dreamy agent who was so nice to you an unrequested exclusive, but believe me, your brain should be telling you to play the field.

Don’t tell me that love is blind. Wear your glasses, for heaven’s sake.

Second, you should send precisely what each agent asked you to send.

The first 50 means just that: the first 50 pages in standard format. Under no circumstances should you round up or down, even if pp. 49 or 51 is the last of the chapter.

Yes, even if that means stopping the submission in mid-sentence. (And if you aren’t absolutely positive that your manuscript IS in standard format or if you were not aware that manuscripts are NOT formatted like published books, please run, do not walk, to the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right. Improperly-formatted manuscripts are like a vacation in an envelope to Millicent: the second her eyes light upon one, she knows that she may be excused from reading it. Coffee break!)

Why follow the rules to the letter? Because part of what you’re demonstrating with the submission packet is that you are a writer who can follow directions — a rarer bird than you might think. Many, if not most aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that if their writing is good enough, no other considerations matter.

Here I go, bursting pretty bubbles again: poppycock. If an aspiring writer demonstrates at the submission stage that he isn’t very good at following directions, can you blame an agent for concluding that that he might later ignore prevailing formatting expectations when they were preparing to submit to an editor, or that he would kick and scream about incorporating editorial suggestions?

That, in short, he would be a pain to represent, and that he might be better off signing another writer?

Believe me, an agent who decides to sign a writer will be issuing a LOT of directions between that initial handshake and sending out that book or proposal to editors. A writer who cannot follow basic packaging directions (such as “Send me the first 50 pages, please.”) is inherently more time-consuming to represent. Thus, tractability and attention to detail are rather desirable attributes in a potential client who might reasonably be expected to meet sudden deadlines or make surprise revisions down the line.

Which first impression would you rather your submission convey?

Remember what I was saying over the weekend about the desirability of impressing the agent of your dreams with how easy you would be to work with down the line? Well, this is your chance to prove it: no slipping in an extra five pages because there’s nifty writing in it, no adding a videotape of you accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor, no cookies or crisp $20 bills as bribes.

Need I say that I know writers who have done all these things, and now know better?

If you’re asked for a specific number of pages, don’t count the title page as one of them or number it — but no matter how long an excerpt you have been asked to send, DO include a title page. (If you don’t know how to format a professional title page, or even that there is a professional format for one, please wend your way to the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right.)

If asked for a synopsis, send one; do not enclose one otherwise. Ditto for an author bio (don’t worry; I’ll be talking about how to build one soon; if you’re in a hurry, check out the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right), table of contents (unless you’ve been asked to submit a book proposal), illustrations, letters of recommendation from your favorite writing teacher, and/or the aforementioned cookies.

Just send what you’ve been asked to send: no more, no less.

With two exceptions: unless an agency SPECIFICALLY states otherwise, you should include a SASE, industry-speak for a stamped (not metered), self-addressed envelope for the manuscript’s safe return, and you should include a cover letter.

Why the cover letter? Well, in the first place, render it as easy as humanly possible to contact you — the last thing you want is to make it hard for them to ask for more pages, right? But also, you should do it for the same good, practical reason that I’m going to advise you to write

(Conference name) — REQUESTED MATERIALS

in 3-inch letters on the outside of the envelope: so your work doesn’t end up languishing in the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts (which are, incidentally, almost invariably rejected).

Why mark up the outside of your pretty envelope? Well, agents and editors hear a LOT of pitches in the course of the average conference; no matter how terrific your book is, it’s just not reasonable to expect them to remember yours weeks after the fact (which it almost certainly will be, by the time they get around to reading it) simply by its title and your name.

Thus, it is in your best interest to remind them that they did, indeed, ask to see your manuscript.

Be subtle about the reminder — no need to state outright that you are worried that they’ve confused you with the other 150 people they met that day — but it is a good idea to provide some context. Simply inform the agent or editor him/her where you met and that s/he asked to see what you’re sending. As in,

Dear Mr. White,

I very much enjoyed our meeting at the recent Conference X. Thank you for requesting my fantasy novel, WHAT I DID TO SAVE THE PLANET.

I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and look forward to hearing from you soon. I may be reached at the address and phone number below, or via email at…

Regards,

A. Writer

That’s it. No need to recap your plot or re-pitch your concept. Simple, clean, businesslike.

But do NOT, I beg you, present it in block-indented business format, as the rigors of blog format have forced me to do above — indent your paragraphs.

Why? Long-time members of the Author! Author! community, chant it with me now: many folks in the industry regard business format as only marginally literate, at best.

Don’t stand there, arguing that since this is a business transaction, business format is appropriate. Trust me, they don’t care what you do in the multi-million dollar factory you run: indent those paragraphs whenever you are dealing with anyone in publishing.

Oh, and if other agents or editors requested pages, mention that others are also looking at it. No need to be specific. This is considered good manners, and often gets your submission read a bit faster.

The other reason that mentioning where you met is a good idea is — and I tremble to tell you this, but it does happen — there are some unscrupulous souls who, aware that pitch fatigue may well cause memory blurring, send submissions that they CLAIM are requested, but in fact were not.

“Oh, like he’s going to remember ANY pitcher’s name,” these ruthless climbers scoff, stuffing first chapters into the envelopes of everyone who attended a particular conference.

Such scoffers occasionally receive a comeuppance redolent with poetic justice: VERY frequently, the roster of agents and editors scheduled to attend a particular conference changes at the last minute. How well received do you think a, “I enjoyed our conversation at last weekend’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named,” letter goes over with an agent who missed a plane and didn’t show up at that particular conference?

Tee hee. Serves the sender right.

Most importantly for the sake of your blood pressure, though, bear in mind that you do NOT need to drop everything and mail off requested materials within hours of a conference’s end. The standard writers’ conference wisdom advises getting it out within three weeks of the conference, but actually, that’s not necessary.

Especially this time of year.

And no, an agent or editor’s perceived friendliness during the pitching session should NOT be regarded as a legitimate reason to rush a submission out the door willy-nilly. Out come the hymnals again: a nice conversation with an agent or editor at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference, not a blood pact.

Nothing has yet been promised — and it can’t have been. As I have mentioned several dozen times throughout my recent Pitching 101 series, no agent is going to sign you on a pitch alone; no matter how good your book concept is, they are going to want to see actual pages before committing.

Why? I refer you to that crusty old industry truism: “It all depends upon the writing.”

By the same token, you are not bound to honor the request for materials instantaneously. And no, the fact that you said you would send it the moment you got home from the conference does NOT mean that you should send it off without proofing and performing any necessary revisions; unless they asked for an exclusive, they do not expect you to send it within a day or two, or to overnight it.

Besides, it is very much to your advantage that they see your work at its absolute best, after all, not as our work tends to be before a hard-copy proofing.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: take the time to read EVERY page you intend to submit to ANYONE in the industry in hard copy, out loud, every time.

There is no better way to weed out the mistakes that will strike you a week later as boneheaded (for real-life samples of these, see the archived Let’s Talk About This on the subject), and the extra couple of weeks fixing any problems might take will not harm your chances one iota.

I know that I have been asking you to trust me quite a bit throughout this post, but please do it one more time: agents and editors meet too many writers at conferences to sit around thinking, “Darn it, where is that Jane Doe’s manuscript? I asked for it two weeks ago! Well, I guess I’m just going to reject it now, sight unseen.”

A common writers’ negative fantasy, but it just doesn’t happen. These people are simply too busy for that. If you wait 6 months to send it, they may wonder a little, but 6 days or 6 weeks? Please.

So unless you already have the manuscript in apple-pie order (which includes having read it — take a deep breath now, so you can say it along with me — in its ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and ALOUD), it’s worth your while to take the time for a final polish.

You want your book to be pretty for its big date, right?

And yes, Virginia, I do in fact plan to go over how to pull together a submission packet that just bellows, “This writer has done her homework! How refreshing!” However, I had promised some weeks ago to take all of you on a breathless little joyride through the ins and outs of producing a stellar query letter before the end of Labor Day week, so I shall be devoting the rest of this week to that. I shall return to submission packets immediately thereafter, though.

Hmm, what could a writer with a request for materials burning a hole in her computer do in the meantime? You are relaxing about getting those requested materials out the door, I tell you…relaxing…

Keep up the good work!

Writers’ conferences 101, part VII: telling the difference between a kind soul, a helping hand, and a career-long commitment

wedding_rings

No, it’s not time to start humming that march from Lohengrin. Today, we’re going to be talking not about a semi-permanent commitment between two consenting adults for mutual benefit — which the writer-agent relationship is, ideally; contracts between agents and writers who happen to be minors can be a trifle more complicated — but about instances where aspiring writers THINK an agent has committed to something she hasn’t.

Yes, it happens all the time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For the enlightenment of those of you tuning in late in this series, I should explain that since most of the faux pas writers tend to make at conferences are simple matters of not being aware of the unwritten rules of the industry, this weekend I have been taking rounding off my Pitching 101 series by offering a few concrete examples of common pitching faux pas.

Admittedly, these little homilies may be a touch on the depressing side, since my fictional exemplars do EVERYTHING wrong, but hey, better them than you, right?

Today’s first melodrama concerns that ubiquitous conference misapprehension: not being versed enough in the ways of publishing folk to tell the difference between a nice conversation at a conference, an offer of help, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Sometimes, they can look awfully similar. But as the international relations folks say, where you stand depends on where you sit.

Yesterday, as part of my ongoing series on how to recognize and avoid common faux pas writers make in their initial encounters with agents, I introduced exemplar Lorenzo, an intrepid soul who believed that arguing with the agent who rejected him would cause her to change her mind and take him on as a client. Instead, he merely impressed her as an ill-mannered boor and unprofessional writer who could not deal with rejection well.

Um, bad idea.

In an industry where even ultimately very successful books are often rejected dozens of times before being picked up by an editor or publishing house, that latter quality is NOT one any agent is likely to be eager to embrace in a client. Because, contrary to common expectation amongst the pre-agented, those of us lucky enough to have signed with someone terrific tend to spend a LOT of time gnawing on our nails, waiting for the phone to ring.

(Yes, it IS a lot like dating in high school. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.)

A writer does not necessarily need to go over the top to bug an agent with over-persistence. Sometimes, the trick is knowing when to stop following up. Take, for example, the case of Mina:

Pesky persistence scenario 1: After several years of unsuccessful querying, Mina goes to her first writers’ conference. There, her learning curve is sharp: much to her astonishment, she learns that the ostensibly tried-and-true querying and submission techniques she had been using are seriously out of date; as a result, her submissions may not even have been read for more than a paragraph or two before being rejected.

“What?!?” she scrawls all over the conference program. “Why didn’t anyone mention this possibility before? I had thought that they were reading every syllable twice before rejecting me!

Like many writers when first faced with an accurate realization of just how hard it is to land an agent, Mina reacts with depression. Fortunately, she has made friends with a couple of more experienced writers at the conference, one of whom introduces her over drinks to Simon & Schuster editor Maxine.

After having spent many, many years trolling for clients at conferences, Maxine instantly recognizes the source of Mina’s despair, and takes the time to speak to her encouragingly. At the end of their chat, seeing that Mina is still a little blue, Maxine hands her a card and tells her to go ahead and send the first chapter of her novel.

For the rest of the conference, Mina chatters excitedly about her new friend Maxine. (To Lorenzo, as it happens, but he is too busy boasting about his new BFF Loretta to hear her.) Since they clicked so well, Mina reasons, there doesn’t seem to be all that much point in pitching to anyone else.

But hey, she paid for those appointments, so she goes ahead and pitches to a couple of agents and an editor. Two of the three ask for pages.

Mina is feeling terrific about herself and her work — but as soon as the conference is over, when she sits down again to pull together her post-pitching packets, her former depression returns, even more strongly. Why even try, she wonders, when she now knows that it’s so easy to get rejected?

So she seeks out the help that worked before: she sends a friendly, chatty e-mail to her new buddy. Maxine never replies. Wondering what went wrong, Mina tries again — and again, no response.

Mina is shattered, deciding that since Maxine’s friendliness had obviously been a sham, she must also have been utterly insincere in her request for pages. But wait – since Maxine was so much nicer than everybody else, and she turned out not to want the pages, doesn’t that mean that the other agents and editors who requested submissions wanted it even less? Why bother?

Having talked herself out of the possibility of ever succeeding, Mina ultimately never sends out any packets at all.

Okay, where did Mina do wrong?

She made that oh-so-common conference mistake: like Lauren and Lorenzo, she did not understand that a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference, not necessarily the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Heck, given the current volatility of the literary market, having been someone’s client for several years does not necessarily guarantee a lifetime bond.

Nor was a lack of effusiveness an indication that the other agents were not going to read her work carefully – the behavior of one person, however well connected in the industry, is just the behavior of one person.

Yet, like about 40% of writers asked at conferences to submit materials, Mina managed to convince herself that she shouldn’t bother to place her ego on the line further. It was easier to decide instead that all of these people were too mean, too self-centered, too hostile to writers, etc.

Yes, you read that correctly: almost half of requested materials are never submitted. You might well wonder why someone would go to all the trouble of pitching and/or querying and THEN give up, but anteing up is genuinely scary. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that it’s probably going to be quite a bit more painful to have a manuscript rejected than a query or pitch.

So why, the Minas of the world conclude, take the risk? Especially when people at that conference were so mean, hostile, self-centered…

You know the words to the tune by now, don’t you?

Do I see a few hands raised out there? “But Anne,” some sharp-eyed readers point out, “this train of thought (which is a common one, unfortunately) followed Maxine’s non-response, rather than prompted it. So what was Mina’s INITIAL mistake?”

Good question. Anyone out there want to take a guess?

If you shouted out that it was not knowing Simon & Schuster’s policy on picking up unagented authors, give yourself partial marks: being aware of that would have helped her here. But Mina’s primary mistake was not so much a professional lapse in judgment as an interpersonal one: she mistook someone in the industry’s being nice to her as an invitation to take advantage of similar kindness in the future.

This, I assure you, happens ALL the time, not only to agents and editors, but to anyone who speaks at conferences, teaches writing classes, publishes a book, or even – I must say it — writes a reasonably informative blog.

Doubt this? Okay, the next time you’re at a conference, wander into the bar that’s never more than 100 yards away, stand on a chair, and offer to buy a drink for anyone in the industry who will tell you about the time that some aspiring writer mistook friendliness for a commitment. You may well go bankrupt before you run out of takers.

The sad part is, from the writer’s perspective, it almost always begins fairly innocuously: after an initial contact, a writer will e-mail or call with a question. Then e-mail or call again — and again, and again, until soon, it starts to look to the industry professional as though the writer is inventing excuses for contact, for precisely the same reason Mina did: to try to evoke a human response from an industry that from the outside appears monolithic, cold, and hostile to new writers.

That’s nonsense, of course: the industry’s not monolithic; it’s polychromatically cold and hostile.

From the encroaching writer’s perspective, though, the progression of contact doesn’t look out of line at all. Mina merely thinks that she has a friend on the inside who can help her retain hope; most of the time, writers who e-mail or call speakers at conferences have legitimate questions.

But it’s a slippery slope: there’s a big difference between calling on a resource person who is happy to help out with the occasional quick question, starting to regard that person as one’s FIRST stop for any publishing-related question — and e-mailing four times a day simply because one enjoys having contact with someone in the industry.

All of the above are real examples, by the way, and all have happened many times to every conference speaker I know.

By all means, seek expert advice, but tread lightly: remember, by definition, people involved in the publishing industry are trying to make a living at it — and as my agent keeps hinting, no one has ever made a living dispensing free advice.

Except Dear Abby.

“Wait just a minute!” a protesting cry emerges from cyberspace. “Maxine gave Mina her card! Why would she do that, if not to encourage future contact?”

For precisely the reason Maxine said: so Mina could send the first chapter to her.

While handing over a card may well have seemed like the heavens opening and St. Peter reaching out his staff to a writer who has been buffeted for a long time by rejection, it was actually a fairly low-commitment (and certainly low-effort) thing for Maxine to do. Simon & Schuster, like all of the major US publishers, has an absolute policy against picking up unagented writers: even if Maxine fell in love with Mina’s work at the first paragraph, the best assistance she could have offered would be a recommendation to an agent, not a publication contract.

In that case, what was so wrong with Mina dropping a friendly line?

Well, as I hope any long-time reader of this blog now parrots in her sleep, there is NOTHING that people in the publishing industry hate more than having a nanosecond of their time wasted. There’s a pretty good reason for that: this business runs on deadlines. Since any reasonably successful agent is constantly juggling not only her own deadlines, but those of her entire client list as well, the chances that an unsolicited call or e-mail is going to catch her when she is busy are very high indeed.

Perhaps it’s unfair, but the vast majority of agents expect every writer who approaches them to be aware of that. Any aspiring writer who has taken the time to learn how the business works — an absolute prerequisite for being an agent’s dream client, right? — would know that acquiring new clients is only a small part of what an agent does for a living; it’s not as though a new client will bring income to the agency right away, after all. (If you don’t understand why, you might want to take a pick at the TIME BETWEEN SUBMISSION AND PUBLICATION category at right.) In order to stay in business, an agent has to sell the manuscripts her already-signed clients give her.

Since all too many aspiring writers seem unaware of these facts, approaching agents as though responding to queries, pitches, and submissions were their ONLY jobs — hands up, everyone who has ever met a submitter who acts surprised that a requesting agent didn’t drop everything in order to read requested pages the day they arrived at the agency — lack of courtesy about taking up an agent’s time is widely regarded as symptoms of unprofessionalism in a writer. So are extraneous e-mails, letters (beyond queries, cover letters for requested materials, and perhaps a simple thank-you note), and virtually any phone call that is not initiated by the agent.

Yes, even if it’s just to ask a question. Agents are pretty tenacious of their time.

That can be confusing to writers new to the game; a neophyte, by definition, is going to have a lot of questions to ask, after all. That’s fine, if they’re intelligent, thoughtful questions.

But the next time you’re at a conference, ask any agent you happen to meet for a definition of their nightmare client, and I can assure you that it will include a shuddering reference to someone who contacts them so often that they can’t get on with their work.

So was it unfair for Maxine to assume that Mina is one of these fearsome types based upon a single chatty e-mail? Probably. But Mina made one other mistake: she sent the e-mail INSTEAD of mailing (or e-mailing) the chapter Maxine requested.

Even if she requested it only to be nice (as seems probable here), a professional request is a professional request; by not complying with it, Mina announced to Maxine as effectively as if she had used it as the subject line of her e-mail that she’s not industry-savvy enough to be likely to break into the industry very soon. So, professionally speaking, Maxine would lose nothing by brushing her off.

Beggars, the old adage goes, can’t be choosers, and aspiring writers, as we all know to our cost, cannot set the terms of engagement with prospective agents. Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, these terms are unfair; certainly, agents have set the rules to their own advantage.

Which means, perversely, that there is a fail-safe fallback rule governing your interactions with them: let the agent determine the level of intimacy between you.

Within reason, of course. Obviously, it makes sense for you to take the initiative to pitch and query your work; equally obviously, it is to your advantage to send out your work promptly after it is requested.

Perhaps less obviously, it behooves you to follow up if an agent has sat on a project of yours too long without responding.

Beyond that, however, let the agent set the pace of your progressing relationship. Save the chatty e-mails for after she has started to send them to you; call only after she has established that she welcomes your calls. And keep the contact professionally courteous until you have solid, ongoing evidence that your agent regards you as a friend as well.

Trust me on this one: agents are not typically shy people; habitual reticence would be a serious professional impediment. If an agent has decided to make you a lifelong friend, she’s going to let you know about it.

I’m sensing quite a bit of disgruntlement out there. “Okay, Anne,” some readers who aren’t entirely happy in retrospect about their last conferences after having read the last couple of days’ worth of posts, “it’s helpful to know what NOT to do — although it would have been nice to hear about some of this before I attended a conference. How about telling us what would be an appropriate response to a successful pitch meeting?’

I’ll do better than that, less-than-content conference attendees. I’ll run you through a quick series of dos and don’ts. (And for those whose schedules don’t coincide well with the timing of my various series: you can usually find quite a few posts on the topics relevant to most major stages of the writer’s life on the category list on the lower right-hand side of this page. 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. How’s that for anticipating your needs?)

This may be old hat to some of you, especially those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while, but this is precisely the sort of wisdom that tends to be passed only by word of mouth amongst writers. Take good notes — and if any of this doesn’t make sense to you, please ask questions.

DO write REQUESTED MATERIALS — (CONFERENCE NAME) in big, thick pen strokes on the outside of the envelope. As you probably know, agents and editors receive literally hundreds of missives from aspiring writers per week. If they asked for your work, it belongs in a different pile from the five hundred unsolicited manuscripts and query letters.

DON’T write REQUESTED MATERIALS if they did not actually request your work. Instead, write the conference’s name with the same big, fat pen on the outside of the envelope, so they know you’ve been professional enough to attend a conference and have heard them speak.

DO write (CONFERENCE NAME) – FINALIST/PLACE WINNER (CATEGORY) on the outside of the envelope if you did get honored in the contest. When I won my first major contest, both the fiction winner and I (the NF winner) did this in 2004, and every single agent thanked us for it. It kept our work from getting lost in the piles on their desks.

DON’T send more material than the agent/editor asked to see. (A big pet peeve for a lot of ‘em.) This is not like a college application, where sending brownies, an accompanying video, or a purple envelope will get you noticed amongst the multitudes: to agents and editors, wacky tends to equal unprofessional, which is the last label you want affixed to your work. And don’t spend the money to overnight it; it will not get your work read any faster.

DO send a polite cover letter with your submission. It’s a good chance to show that you have appropriate boundaries, and that you are professionally seasoned enough to realize that even a very enthusiastic conversation at a conference does not mean you’ve established an intimate personal relationship with an agent or editor.

DON’T quote other people’s opinions about your work in the query letter, unless those people happen to be well-known writers. If David Sedaris has said in writing that you’re the funniest writer since, well, him, feel free to mention that, but if your best friend from work called your novel “the funniest book since CATCH-22,” trust me, it will not impress the agent.

DO mention in the FIRST LINE of your cover letter either (a) that the agent/editor asked to see your work (adding a thank-you here is a nice touch) or (b) that you heard the agent/editor speak at the conference (mention it by name). Again, this helps separate your work from the unsolicited stuff.

DON’T assume that the agent will recall the conversation you had with her about your work. Remember, they meet scores of writers; you may not spring to mind immediately. If you had met 500 people who all wanted you to read their work over the course of three days, names and titles might start to blur for you, too.

DO mention in your cover letter if the agent/editor asked for an exclusive look at your work. If an agent or editor asked for an exclusive, politely set a time limit, say, three weeks or a month. Don’t worry that setting limits will offend them: this is a standard, professional thing to do. That way, if you haven’t heard back by your stated deadline, you can perfectly legitimately send out simultaneous submissions.

DON’T give any agent or editor an exclusive if they didn’t ask for it — and DON’T feel that you have to limit yourself to querying only one agent at a time. I’ve heard rumors at every conference that I have ever attended that agents always get angry about multiple submissions, but truthfully, I’ve only ever heard ONE story about an agent’s throwing a tantrum about it – and that only because she hadn’t realized she was competing with another agent for this particular book.

Your time is valuable. Check a reliable agents’ guide to make sure that none of the folks you are dealing with demand exclusives (it’s actually pretty rare), and if not, go ahead and send out your work to as many agents and editors who asked to see it.

DO consider querying agents and editors with whom you did not have a meeting at the conference — and tell them that you heard them speak. (Mention it by name, either in the first paragraph of your query or the subject line of a query e-mail.) Just because you couldn’t get an appointment with the perfect person at the conference doesn’t mean that the writing gods have decreed that s/he should never see your work.

DON’T call to make sure they got your work. This is another common agenting pet peeve: writers who do it tend to get labeled as difficult almost immediately, whereas you want to impress everyone at the agency as a clean-cut, hard-working kid ready to hit the big time.

If you are very nervous about your work going astray, send your submission with delivery confirmation or enclosed a stamped, self-addressed postcard that they can mail when they receive your package. Don’t telephone.

DO send an appropriate SASE for the return of your manuscript – with stamps, not metered postage. I always like to include an additional business-size envelope as well, so they can request further pages with ease. Again, you’re trying to demonstrate that you are going to be a breeze to work with if they sign you.

DON’T just ask them to recycle the manuscript if they don’t want it. There are many NYC offices where this will seem like a bizarre request, bordering on Druidism. Include the SASE unless the agency specifically says on its website that it will not return manuscripts.

DO make sure that your manuscript is in standard format: at least 1-inch margins, double-spaced, every page numbered, everything in the same 12-point typeface. (Most writing professionals use Times, Times New Roman, or Courier; screenwriters use exclusively Courier. And yes, there ARE agents and editors who will not read non-standard typefaces. Don’t tempt them to toss your work aside.)

If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal, send it in a nice black or dark blue file folder –this is not the time to bring out your hot pink polka-dotted stationary and tuck it into a folder that looks like something out of Jerry Garcia’s wardrobe. Think of it like a job interview: a black or blue suit is not going to offend anyone; make your work look as professional as you are.

DON’T forget to spell-check AND proofread in hard copy, not only the manuscript, but also your cover letter for the submission. Computerized spelling and grammar checkers are notoriously unreliable, so do double-check. When in doubt, have a writing buddy or a professional proof it all for you.

DO give them time to read your work – and use that time to get your next flight of queries ready, not in calling them every day.

DON’T panic if you don’t hear back right away, especially if you sent out your work in late July or August. A HUGE percentage of the publishing industry goes on vacation between August 1 and Labor Day, so the few who stick around are overworked. Cut them some slack, and be patient.

DO remember to be pleased that a real, live agent or editor liked your pitch well enough to ask for your work! Well done!

DON’T be too upset if your dream agent or editor turns out not to be interested in your project, and don’t write that person off permanently; s/he may be wild about your next. Keep your work moving, rather than letting it sit in a drawer. Yes, it’s hard emotional work to keep sending out queries, but you can’t get discovered if you don’t try.

DO take seriously any thoughtful feedback you receive. As you may already know, boilerplate rejection letters are now the norm. If an agent or editor has taken the time to hand-write a note on a form letter or to write you a personalized rejection, you should take this as a positive sign – they don’t do that for everybody. Treasure your rave rejections, and learn from them.

Puzzled by the speed of this overview? Don’t worry — I’m going to be talking in greater depth next time about how to handle a “Yes, please do send pages” response to your pitch or query.

In the week to come, I’m going to be talking about the ins and outs of query letters, to get everyone ready to send ‘em out just after Labor Day; shortly thereafter, I had planned on covering the basics of submission packets before wending my way back to the large pile of craft questions that have piled up over the course of the summer.

In short, it’s going to be a busy few weeks here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Writers’ Conferences 101, part VI: keeping the pitch-hearer from hitting the fast-forward button, or, does this boundary look blurry to you?

piece-of-pie

Last time, I pointed out that while many, many nice writers’ conference attendees fret away pre-pitching hours in worry over whether they might inadvertently offend an agent or editor. While a reasonably considerate writer can usually avoid this dreadful fate if s/he bears in mind that the goal of pitching is not to impress the pro with one’s enthusiasm, but with one’s professionalism and great presentation, there are, I must admit, quite a few common faux pas writers stumble into without realizing.

So while we’re on the entrancing subjects of conferences and conference pitching, I thought it might be a good time to re-run a couple of situationally-appropriate scenarios from my ever-popular Industry Faux Pas series (collected under the INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page). The manners expected of an aspiring writer at such events are not always intuitively apparent, after all.

Why darken a perfectly pleasant weekend day with this, you cry in horror? Glad you asked: most of the faux pas writers tend to make at conferences are simple matters of not being aware of the rules of the game. Better that my fictional exemplars make these mistakes than my readers, I say.

Think of it as educational soap opera.

Today’s little dramas are excerpted from three of my earlier posts, combined because all deal with the differential between what writers often expect to happen at a literary conference (meet the perfect agent instantly, get signed within the hour, sell the book within the week, Oprah and literary luncheons within the year) and what actually occurs.

Our first heroine falls prey to an extremely common impulse amongst pitchers and queriers, to tell the agent or editor all about the difficulties the book has met so far on the road to publication. While that urge is certainly understandable, to the pros, such a litany tends to make the book seem, at best, less marketable than it would have seemed without such a recital.

This coming example is the one that most consistently breaks my heart, because it is almost always merely a side effect of the nervousness most writers feel the first few times they pitch their work — and, as such, seems to me disproportionately frowned-upon in the industry.

Misguided approach #1: Betsy has been querying her excellent first novel unsuccessfully for some years. Having read that it is easier to make contact with an agent at a literary conference than through cold querying (which is quite true, generally speaking), she plunks down a significant amount of cash to attend a major regional conference.

Once there, however, she becomes intimidated by both the enormity of pitching her beloved novel to a powerful stranger and the sheer number of confident-seeming writers around her, all geared up to pitch successfully. Since she knows no one there, she does not have an opportunity to talk through her fears before her appointment; she walks into her pitch meeting with agent Bertrand shaking visibly.

Fortunately, Bertrand is a nice guy underneath that NYC-cool veneer: seeing that (check his appointment sheet) Betsy is nervous, he does his best not to be any more intimidating than their relative positions dictate. He shakes her hand, offers her a seat, and asks, not unreasonably, “So, what is your book about?”

His kindness is the last blow to her already tenuous composure. Staring down at the tabletop between her and the agent of her dreams, Betsy is horrified to hear herself begin to babble not about the book, but about how difficult it has been to try to find a home for it.

About her years of querying. About her frantic total revisions of the book after every 20th rejection or so. About how she has gotten to the submission stage a few times, but was never given any reason why her book was rejected – so when she sat down to revise again, she was doing it essentially in the dark.

She has become, in fact, the complete anti-salesperson for her book. Every so often, Bertrand tries to steer her back toward the book’s content and why it would appeal to her target audience, but by now, it feels so good to talk to someone, anyone, in the industry about how hard it’s been for her that she just can’t stop. Her every third sentence seems to begin, “Well, you probably wouldn’t be interested, because…”

After awhile, Bertrand stops asking questions, letting her ramble. When she finally works up nerve to glance up at his face, her throat contracts: his eyes are distinctly glazed over, as though he were thinking about something else. At that point, all Betsy wants to do is run away.

“So,” Bertrand says when she finally runs out of steam, “what is your book actually about?”

This situation is so sad that I hesitate to ask this, but what did Betsy do wrong? Not from a writer’s point of view, but from Bertrand’s?

Surprised that the mistake might be different, depending upon perspective? Oh, heavens, yes. From a writer’s point of view, Betsy’s problem was lack of confidence that led her to go off on a tangent unrelated to her pitch, right?

But Bertrand is an agent well used to dealing with nervous pitchers: her fear alone would not necessarily have put him off. Her real faux pas was let him know — indirectly, of course, but quite immistakably — that she would be an extremely time-consuming client.

How did she make that clear? Through her apparent inability to talk about her manuscript professionally.

Lest that seem like an unfair conclusion, consider what information she neglected to include in her pitch: what the book was about, the book category, at what target market it aimed, who the characters are, what the premise is. Essentially, by airing her fears of rejection at such great length, Betsy turned the pitch meeting into a guessing game for Bertrand.

I’m sensing some discomfort out there with this level judgment, am I not? “But Anne,” some fair-minded folks point out, “Betsy didn’t plan to break down; she was just nervous. Or maybe she had waited so long to talk to a real, live professional about her work that she became overwhelmed in the moment. Where does Bertrand get off, assuming that she’s always like that, and therefore would not be a good client?”

Your assessment of why Betsy went off on a tangent is probably accurate oh pointer-outers, but I didn’t say that she wouldn’t be a good client; I said that she would be an unusually time-consuming one.

Bertrand’s likely to be right about that, you know. She has, after all, already expected him to help her make her pitch. How so? Well, if he wanted to hear about her book project — which is, ostensibly, the primary reason they are having this conversation at all — he was going to have drag the story out of her.

Even if he manages to pull that off successfully, he’s going to wonder: was she unprepared, or did she not do the necessary homework to know what a pitch entails? If it’s the latter, how likely is it that she will have been sufficiently professional to find out how to format a manuscript or to submit it properly? Does she know not to call him every other day while he’s considering her manuscript? Will she fall apart if he gives her feedback on her writing — and if so, how much extra time will that take out of his busy day?

See how she might strike him as a potentially demanding client? Or why it might seem easier to him to say, “Sorry, I’m just not handling that kind of book right now,” and move on to the next pitcher than to assume that she’s a good writer who is having a bad day?

Which is in fact what happened here. (Omniscient narrators know hidden facts like this, you see.) Regardless of why it happened, the result of Betsy’s loss of focus was that Bertrand never got an opportunity to read her book, which was actually very well written.

Try not to judge either Betsy or Bertrand too harshly, please — she fell into a very common panic spiral, and he reacted self-protectively. Both completely understandable reactions, especially Betsy’s. It may seem odd to those of you who have never pitched your work verbally, but in the moment, it’s amazingly common for pitchers to take five or ten minutes to calm down before they are able to talk about the book at all.

This, in case you had been wondering, is why every conference guide ever printed will tell you to prepare your pitch in advance: to maximize the probability that you will actually be able to talk about the book.

Advance preparation can substantially reduce the probability of falling into a panic spiral – or into the other form Betsy’s faux pas often takes. I am re-using Betsy here, to give her a second chance and Bertrand another opportunity to win your heart.

Misguided approach 2: Betsy has signed up to pitch her excellent novel to agent Bertrand. He shakes her hand, offers her a seat, and asks, “So,” he checks his schedule here, “Betsy, tell me what your book is about?”

Delighted by his interest, Betsy tells him her title, then proceeds to tell him the entire plot of the book, beginning on page 1. Ten minutes later, she has reached the end of Chapter 4.

Bertrand looks shell-shocked, but that might just be effects of the day’s cumulative pitch fatigue. “Um, that sounds very interesting,” he says, standing to lead her back to the appointment desk, “but a trifle complicated for us. You might have better luck with another agent, though.”

This version of Betsy reached the same result — convincing Bertrand that she would be hard to help — by completely opposite means. By presenting a kitchen-sink pitch, replicating the entire storyline rather than concentrating on the primary themes of the book, she told him — again, indirectly — that he would need to put in a lot of effort to make her work market-worthy.

Any guesses why Bertrand didn’t ask her to submit pages?

Betsy’s second faux pas can teach us an important lesson: by prepping your pitch in advance, you are telling the agent to whom you pitch, “Here I am, making it as easy as humanly possible to help me. I am more than prepared to meet you halfway, and together, let’s walk the path to publication.”

These two examples turned on simple differentials of expectation: the pro expects one standard of behavior, and the hopeful petitioner another. Sometimes, though, the depth of the writer’s desire to be published leads to a total disregard of boundaries – which, in turn, leads the industry professional the writer is pursuing to back away quickly.

Much of the time, the boundary-blurred writer does not mean to overstep; he merely assumes that her project is of greater importance to the pro than is actually the case. If he doesn’t transgress the expected norms of behavior, this mistaken belief will harms the writer only emotionally, not professionally, as in the case of Lauren:

Blurry boundary scenario 1: After working tirelessly on her novel to make sure it was ready for conference season, Lauren lugs it to a conference. During the agents’ forum, she is delighted to hear Loretta, the agent to whom she has been assigned for a pitch appointment, wax poetic about her great love of writers and good writing. In fact, of the agents on the panel, she sounds like the only one who regards her job as the promotion of art, rather than finding marketable work and selling it.

This, Lauren decides, is the perfect agent for her book.

Since she has only pitched a couple of times before, Lauren takes advantage of the Pitch Practicing Palace, where she works on her pitch with someone who looks suspiciously like yours truly. After having worked the major kinks out of her pitch, my doppelganger asks to whom Lauren intends to pitch it.

“Oh,” Lauren says happily, “I have an appointment with Loretta.”

My apparent twin frowns briefly. “She’s a good first choice, but are you planning to pitch to anyone else? As far as I know, she has not picked up any clients at this conference in years, and she very seldom represents first-time writers. She writes really supportive rejection letters, though.”

Lauren shrugs and walks off to her appointment with Loretta. Her pitch goes well; the agent seems genuinely interested in her work, saying many encouraging things about the novel. Even better, she seems genuinely interested in Lauren as a writer and as a person; they seem to click, and are soon chatting away like old friends. Loretta asks to see the first 50 pages of the novel.

Walking on air, Lauren decides that since she’s made such a good personal connection with Loretta, she does not need to pitch to anyone else. Obviously, she thinks, the agent would not have been so encouraging unless she were already more or less decided to take on the book.

The second she returns home, Lauren prints up and ships off her first 50, along with an effusively thankful cover letter. Three weeks later, her SASE returns in the mail, accompanied by a very supportive rejection letter from Loretta.

What did Lauren do wrong? And how did that wise, wise woman at the Pitch Practicing Palace know what was likely to go awry.

Actually, Lauren didn’t step far off the prescribed path for pitchers: she merely responded to her meeting with Loretta based upon her hopes, not upon solid research. Lauren should have checked before making the appointment (or asked Loretta during the agents’ forum) how many debut novels she had sold lately (in this case, none), and how recently she had picked up a new writer at a conference.

Even if she did not have the time to do the necessary background research, since the Pitch Practicing Palace lady had raised the issue, Lauren should have asked around at the conference. Or simply asked a follow-up question or two.

If she had, she might have learned that Loretta had been attending the conference for years without picking up any new clients at all. Unfortunately, there are agents – and prominent ones — who attend conferences regularly, being charming and supportive to every writer they meet, but without seriously intending to sign anyone at all.

Unless, of course, the next DA VINCI CODE falls into their laps. Then, they might make an exception.

While this attitude is not in itself an actionable offense – I would be the last to decry any agent’s being nice to any aspiring writer – it has roughly the same effect on the hooking-up expectations of conference attendees as a mysterious young man’s walking into a Jane Austen novel without mentioning that he is secretly engaged: the local maidens may well fall in love with him without knowing that he is attached.

And who can blame Lauren for falling in love with Loretta, professionally speaking? The absolute demands of the industry can be so overwhelming at the agent-seeking stage that when that slammed door opens even a chink, it is tempting to fling oneself bodily at it, clinging to any agent, editor, or author who so much as tosses a kindly smile in the direction of the struggling.

Those of you who followed the Pitching 101 series closely shout along with me now: a nice conversation at a conference does NOT a commitment make.

Unfortunately, it’s very, very common for writers to interpret this as something more than it is. A writer is a free agent until a representation contract is signed, and there are agents out there who feel it’s their duty to be nice to aspiring writers.

So what could Lauren have done differently? Lauren should not have relied so heavily upon her — as it turned out, false — first impressions of her. Even if Loretta HAD actually wanted to sign her on the spot, no reputable agent is going to made a decision about representation without reading the book in question. Nice interpersonal contact may help nudge an agent toward offering a likeable writer a contract, but ultimately, no experienced agent would make such an offer upon a conversation, or even a verbal pitch, alone.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: no matter what pitching experts, including myself, tell you, a pitch alone is NEVER enough to sell a book to an agent or editor, no matter how good it is. The writing always needs to fulfill the promise of the pitch; the pitch merely opens the door to a favorable reading.

The good news is that Lauren did not need to give up her hopes for continuing her connection with Loretta in order to protect herself here: all she had to do was keep on pitching her book to other agents at the conference. That way, she would have hedged her bets.

True, it would have cost her a bit of extra effort and bravery, but on the off chance that she really had made a once-in-a-lifetime connection with Loretta, continuing to pitch would not have had an adverse affect. Realistically, Loretta did not expect exclusivity from Lauren, so there is no chance whatsoever that she would have been offended had Lauren pitched to every agent at the conference.

How do I know that Loretta didn’t expect it? Long-time readers, chant with me now: if an agent wants an exclusive, she will ask for it.

Learn from Lauren’s example: it should take more than a few kind words to make you lose your heart — and other valuable pitching opportunities — to an agent. Don’t act as if you are going steady until your signature has dried upon a representation contract.

To give Lauren her props: she was awfully well-behaved about it all, and thus did not offend agent Loretta with her misconceptions. For the sake of argument, let’s meet another of Loretta’s pitch appointments, Lauren’s twin brother Lorenzo, to see how someone less knowledgeable about industry norms might have responded to the same situation:

Blurry boundary scenario 2: Lorenzo attends the same conference as his sister, and like Lauren, has an almost unbelievably positive pitch meeting with agent Loretta. Pleased, he too stops pitching, boasting in the bar that is inevitably located no more than 100 yards from ground zero at any writers’ conference that he has found the agent of his dreams. From here on in, he has it made.

So, naturally, Lorenzo goes home, spends the usual panicked week or two frantically revising his novel, and sends it off to Loretta. Like Lauren, he too receives a beautifully sympathetic rejection letter a few weeks later, detailing what Loretta feels are the weaknesses of the manuscript.

Unlike Lauren, however, Lorenzo unwisely picked conference week in order to go off his anti-anxiety medication. His self-confidence suffers a serious meltdown, and in order to save his ego from sinking altogether, he is inspired to fight back. So he sits down and writes Loretta a lengthy e-mail, arguing with her about the merits of his manuscript.

Much to his surprise, she does not respond.

He sends it again, suitably embellished with reproaches for not having replied to his last, and attaching an article about how the publishing industry rejected some major bestseller 27 times before it was picked up.

Still no answer.

Perplexed and angry, Lorenzo alters his first 50 pages as Loretta advised, scrawls REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the envelope, as he had the first time, and sends it off.

Within days, the manuscript is returned to him, accompanied by a curt note stating that it is the practice of Loretta’s agency not to accept unrequested submissions from previously unpublished authors. If Lorenzo would like to query…

Okay, what did Lorenzo do wrong? Where do we even start?

Let’s run through this chronologically, shall we? First, he made all of the same mistakes as Lauren did: he did not check Loretta’s track record for taking on previously unpublished writers — hardly difficult information to dig up; it’s a question that both of the standard agents’ guides ask every agency listed to answer. He also assumed that a nice conference conversation automatically meant a lasting connection, and did not keep pitching.

Had he stopped there, he would have been a much happier camper.

But no, our Lorenzo pressed ahead: he decided to contest with Loretta’s decision, adopting the always people-pleasing strategy of questioning her literary judgment. In order to insult her knowledge of the book-buying public more thoroughly, his follow-up included an article implying that no one in the industry knew a book from the proverbial hole in the ground.

Bad move, L. Arguing with an agent’s decision, unless you are already signed with that agent, is always a bad idea. Even if you’re right.

More to the point, arguing with rejection is not going to turn it into acceptance. Ever.

Seriously — it may be satisfying emotionally, but at the agent-seeking stage, this strategy has literally never worked. All it does is impress the agent (or, more likely, her screeners) with the fact that the writer in question is not professional enough to handle rejection well.

And that, my friends, is not an impression at all likely to engender a sympathetic re-read. At best, an agent will tend to conclude that she’s got another Betsy on her hands: perhaps this person writes well, but it’s going to be a heck of a lot of trouble to find out.

In other words: next!

You’re all too savvy to follow in Lorenzo’s footsteps, aren’t you? You would never be so blunt, I’m sure, nor would you ever be so dishonest as to write REQUESTED MATERIALS on materials that had not, in fact, been requested. (Since Loretta had not asked Lorenzo to revise and resubmit, her request ended when she stuffed his initial 50 pages into his SASE.)

However, a writer does not necessarily need to go over the top right away to bug an agent with over-persistence. Give some thought to how you can present yourself as easy for an agent to help.

And remember, it is ALWAYS in a writer’s best interest to pitch or query to more than one agent at a time, no matter how ideal any given agent seems to be. Always, always, always.

Another set of conference-related object lessons follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXV and Writers’ Conferences 101, part V: surviving a conference with your sanity — and energy — in one piece, or, if a stone can smile, so can you

That’s an actual stone in my yard, believe it or not, one that apparently went out of its way to anthropomorphize itself for my illustrative pleasure. If rocks can be that friendly and helpful, it gives me great hope for human beings.

Which is my subtle way of leading into asking: after these last few weeks of posts, have you start to have dreams about pitching? If they’re not nightmares, and you’re scheduled to pitch at a conference anytime soon, you’re either a paragon of mental health, a born salesperson, or simply haven’t been paying very close attention. Either that, or I’ve seriously underemphasized the potential pitfalls.

For the next couple of days, I’m going to assume that you either ARE waking up in the night screaming or that I haven’t yet explained this adequately. So fasten your seatbelts — I’m going to be taking you on a guided tour of false expectations, avoidable missteps, and just plain disasters.

Hey, forewarned is forearmed. Or at least less surprised.

One of the fears first-time pitchers often harbor is inadvertently making a poor impression upon an agent or editor, thereby nullifying their chances of being able to wow ‘em with a pitch. I wish I could say that this is an unfounded fear, but actually, it’s pretty reasonable: one doesn’t have to spend much time hanging around that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America to hear a few horror stories about jaw-droppingly rude writers.

Before anybody out there begins to panic, let me hasten to add that jaw-droppingly is the operative term here. These anecdotes are almost invariably about genuinely outrageous approach attempts — and not just because “You’re not going to believe this, but a pitcher just forgot to tell me whether is book is fiction or nonfiction” isn’t nearly as likely to garner sympathy from fellow bar denizens as “This insane writer just grabbed my arm as I was rushing into the bathroom and refused to stop talking for 20 minutes.”

For one thing, the former is too common a phenomenon to excite much of a response from other agents. Unfortunately, though, the latter happens often enough that some agents turn against hallway pitching for life.

However — and this is a BIG however — the aspiring writers who sit around and fret about being the objects of such anecdotes are virtually never the folks who ought to be worrying about it, in my experience. These are not the kind of faux pas that your garden-variety well-mannered person is likely to commit, if you catch my drift.

The result: polite people end up tiptoeing around conferences, terrified of doing the wrong thing, while the rude stomp around like the football star at the homecoming dance.

Case in point: technologically-savvy reader wrote in to ask if it was considered appropriate to take notes on a laptop or Blackberry during conference seminars. It’s still not very common — surprising, given how computer-bound most of us are these days — but yes, it is acceptable, under two conditions.

First, if you do not sit in a very prominent space in the audience — and not solely because of the tap-tap-tap sound you’ll be making. Believe it or not, it’s actually rather demoralizing for a lecturer to look out at a sea of faces that are all staring at their laps: are these people bored out of their minds, the worried speaker wonders, or just taking notes very intensely?

Don’t believe me? The next time you attend a class of any sort, keep your eyes on the teacher’s face, rather than on your notes, your Blackberry, or that Octavia Butler novel you’ve hidden in your lap because you can’t believe that your boss is making you sit through a talk on the importance of conserving paper clips for the third time this year.

I guarantee that within two minutes, the teacher will be addressing half of her comments directly to you; consistent, animated-faced attention is THAT unusual in a lecture environment. The bigger the class, the more quickly she will focus upon the one audience member who is visibly interested in what she is saying.

In the university department where I used to teach, active listening was so rare that occasionally, one or another of my colleagues would get so carried away with appreciation that he would marry a particularly attentive student. One trembles to think what these men would have done had they been gripping enough lecturers to animate an entire room.

Back to the Blackberry issue. It’s also considered, well, considerate to ask the speaker before the class if it is all right to use any electronic device during the seminar, be it computer or recording device.

Why? Think about it: if your head happens to be apparently focused upon your screen, how is the speaker to know that you’re not just checking your e-mail?

Enough about the presenters’ problems; let’s move on to yours. Do be aware that attending a conference, particularly your first, can be a bit overwhelming. You’re going to want to pace yourself.

“But Anne!” I hear conference brochure-clutching writers out there crying, “The schedule is jam-packed with offerings, many of which overlap temporally! I don’t want to miss a thing!”

Yes, it’s tempting to take every single class and listen to every speaker, but frankly, you’re going to be a better pitcher if you allow yourself to take occasional breaks. Cut yourself some slack; don’t book yourself for the entire time.

Why? Well, let me ask you this: would you rather be babbling incoherently during the last seminar of the weekend, or raising your hand to ask a coherent question?

Before you answer that, let me add: since most attendees’ brains are mush by the end of the conference, it’s generally easier to get close to an agent or editor who teaches a class on the final day. Fewer lines, less competition.

Do make a point of doing something other than lingering in the conference center. Go walk around the block. Sit in the sun. Grab a cup of coffee with that fabulous SF writer you just met. Hang out in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference; that tends to be where the already-agented and already-published hang out, anyway.

Skipping the occasional seminar is NOT being lax about pursuing professional opportunities: it is smart strategy, to make sure you’re fresh for your pitches. If you can’t tear yourself away, take a few moments to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, to reset your internal pace from PANIC! to I’m-Doing-Fine.

I know that I sound like an over-eager Lamaze coach on this point, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of reminding yourself to keep taking deep breaths throughout the conference. A particularly good time for one is immediately after you sit down in front of an agent or editor.

Trust me: your brain could use the oxygen right around then, and it will help you calm down so you can make your most effective pitch.

And at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, please, please, PLEASE don’t expect a conference miracle. Writing almost never sells on pitches alone. You are not going to really know what an agent thinks about your work until she has read some of it.

Translation: it’s almost unheard-of for an agent to sign up a client during a conference. (And no, I have no idea why so many conference-organizers blithely hand out feedback forms asking if you found an agent at the event. Even the most successful conference pitchers generally don’t receive an offer for weeks.)

Remember, your goal here is NOT to be discovered on the spot, but to get the industry pro in front of you to ask to read your writing. Period.

Yes, I know: I’ve said this before. And I’m going to keep saying it as long as there are aspiring writers out there who walk into pitch meetings expecting to hear the agent cry, “My God, that’s the best premise since OLIVER TWIST. Here’s a representation contract — and look, here’s my favorite editor now. Let’s see if he’s interested.”

Then, of course, the editor falls equally in love with it, offers an advance large enough to cover New Hampshire in $20 bills, and the book is out by Christmas. As an Oprah’s Book Club selection, naturally.

Long-time readers, chant along with me now: this is not how the publishing industry works.

The point of pitching is to skip the querying stage and pass directly to the submission stage. So being asked to send pages is a terrific outcome for this situation, not a distant second place to an imaginary reality.

Admittedly, though, that is SO easy to forget in the throes of a pitch meeting. Almost as easy as forgetting that a request to submit is not a promise to represent or publish.

To reiterate: whatever an agent or editor says to you in a conference situation is just a conversation at a conference, not the Sermon on the Mount or testimony in front of a Congressional committee. Everything is provisional until some paper has changed hands.

This is equally true, incidentally, whether your conference experience includes an agent who actually starts drooling visibly with greed while you were pitching or an editor in a terrible mood who raves for 15 minutes about how the public isn’t buying books anymore. Until you sign a mutually-binding contract, no promises — or condemnation, for that matter — should be inferred or believed absolutely.

Try to maintain perspective.

Admittedly, perspective is genuinely hard to achieve when a real, live agent says, “Sure, send me the first chapter,” especially if you’ve been shopping the book around for eons. But it IS vital to keep in the back of your mind that eliciting this statement is not the end of your job as a marketer, because regardless of how much any given agent or editor says she loves your pitch, she’s not going to make an actual decision until she’s read at least part of it.

So even if you are over the moon about positive response from the agent of your dreams, please, I beg you, DON’T STOP PITCHING IN THE HALLWAYS. Try to generate as many requests to see your work as you can.

I’m serious about this. No matter who says yes to you first, you will be much, much happier two months from now if you have a longer requested submissions list. Ultimately, going to a conference to pitch only twice, when there are 20 agents in the building, is just not efficient.

Also, it is VERY much in your interest to send out submissions to several agents at once, rather than one at a time. If several asked, thank your lucky stars and mail those manuscripts to all of them at the same time.

I heard that gasp, but no, there is absolutely nothing unethical about this, unless (a) one of the agencies has a policy precluding multiple submissions (rare) or (b) you promised one agent an exclusive. (I would EMPHATICALLY discourage you from granting (b), by the way — and if you don’t know why, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category at right before you even CONSIDER pitching at a conference.)

Just mention in your cover letter to each that other agents are also reading it; trust me, that’s not going to annoy anyone. That old saw about agents’ getting insulted if you don’t submit one at a time is absolutely untrue; unless an agent ASKS for an exclusive look at your work, it’s neither expected nor in your interest to act as if s/he has.

So there.

Back to why you should keep on pitching in those hallways: it tends to be a trifle easier to get to yes than in a formal pitch. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Yet in many ways, casual pitches are easier.

Why? For one simple reason: time. In a hallway pitch, agents will often automatically tell you to submit the first chapter, in order to be able to keep on walking down the hall, finish loading salad onto their plates, or be able to move on to the next person in line after the agents’ forum.

If the agent handles your type of work, the premise is interesting, and you are polite, they will usually hand you their business cards and say, “Send me the first 50 pages.”

Okay, pop quiz to see who has been paying attention to this series so far: after the agent says this, do you:

(a) regard it as an invitation to talk about your work at greater length?

(b) say, “Gee, you’re a lot nicer than Agent X. He turned me down flat,” and go on to give details about how mean he was?

(c) launch into a ten-minute diatribe about the two years you’ve spent querying this particular project?

(d) thank her profusely and vanish in a puff of smoke so you may both pitch again and read the requested pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you submit them?

If you said anything but (d), go back and reread the Pitching 101 series — and the entirety of the INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category at right as well. You need to learn what’s considered polite in the industry, pronto.

In a face-to-face pitch in a formal meeting, agents tend to be more selective than in a hallway pitch. (I know; counterintuitive, isn’t it?) Again, the reason is time. In a ten-minute meeting, there is actual leisure to consider what you are saying, to weigh the book’s merits — in short, enough time to save themselves time down the line by rejecting your book now.

Why might this seem desirable to them? Well, think about it: if you send it to them at their request, someone in their office is ethically required to spend time reading it, right? By rejecting it on the pitch alone, they’ve just saved Millicent the screener 5 or 10 minutes.

Also, sitting down in front of an agent or editor, looking her in the eye, and beginning to talk about your book can be quite a bit more intimidating than giving a hallway pitch — it helps to be aware of that in advance, I find. In a perverse way, a formal pitch can be significantly harder to give successfully than a hallway one.

So get out there and pitch, pitch, pitch! Think of it this way: every time you buttonhole an agent and say those magic first hundred words is one less query letter you’re going to need to send out.

Still hanging in there? Still breathing at least once an hour? Good; I’ll move on.

As a veteran of many, many writers’ conferences all over the country, I can tell you from experience that they can be very, very tiring. Especially if it’s your first conference. Just sitting under fluorescent lights in an air-conditioned room for that many hours would tend to leech the life force out of you all by itself, but here, you will be surrounded by a whole lot of very stressed people while you are trying to learn as much as you possibly can.

As you may have noticed, most of my advice on how to cope with all of this ambient stress gracefully is pretty much what your mother probably said to you when you went to your first party: be polite; be nice to yourself and others; watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, and make sure to drink enough water throughout the day. Eat occasionally.

And you’re not wearing THAT, are you?

Oops, slipped too far into Mom mode. Actually, on the only occasion when my mother actually made that comment upon something I was wearing, she had made the frock in question. For my senior prom, she cranked out a backless little number in midnight-blue Chinese silk that she liked to call my “Carole Lombard dress,” for an occasion where practically every other girl was going to be wearing something demure and flouncy by Laura Ashley.

It was, to put it mildly, not what anyone expected the valedictorian to wear she hastened to alter it. Even with the alterations, most of the male teachers followed me around all night long. The last time I bumped into my old chorus teacher, he spontaneously recalled the dress. “A shame that you didn’t dress like that all the time,” he said wistfully.

Oh, what a great dress that was. Oh, how inappropriate it would have been for a writers’ conference — or really, for any occasion that did not involve going out for a big night on the town in 1939. But then, so would those prissy Laura Ashley frocks.

Which brings me back to my point (thank goodness).

I wrote on what you should and shouldn’t wear to a conference at some length in an earlier post, but if you find yourself in perplexity when you are standing in front of your closet, remember this solid rule that will help you wherever you go within the publishing industry: unless you will be attending a black-tie affair, you are almost always safe with what would be appropriate to wear to your first big public reading of your work.

And don’t those of you who have been hanging around the industry for a while wish someone had shared THAT little tidbit with you sooner?

To repeat a bit more motherly advice: do remember to eat something within an hour or two of your pitch meeting. I know that you may feel too nervous to eat. but believe me, if you were going to pick an hour of your life for feeling light-headed, this is not a wise choice. If you are giving a hallway pitch, or standing waiting to go into a meeting, make sure not to lock your knees, so you do not faint. (I’ve seen it happen, believe it or not.)

And practice, practice, practice before you go into your meetings; this is the single best thing you can do in advance to preserve yourself from being overwhelmed. As I pointed out yesterday, you will also be surrounded by hundreds of other writers. Introduce yourself, and practice pitching to them.

Better still, find people who share your interests and get to know them. Share a cookie; talk about your work with someone who will understand. Because, really, is your life, is any writer’s life, already filled with too many people who get what we do? You will be an infinitely happier camper in the long run if you have friends who can understand your successes and sympathize with your setbacks as only another writer can.

I know this from experience, naturally. The first thing I said to many of my dearest friends in the world was, “So, what do you write?”

To which the savvy conference-goer replies — chant it with me now, everyone — the magic first hundred words.

In fact, the first people I told about my first book deal — after my SO and my mother, of course — were people I had met in precisely this manner. Why call them before my college roommate? Because ordinary people, the kind who don’t spend all of their spare time creating new realities out of whole cloth, honestly, truly, sincerely, often have difficulty understanding the pressures and timelines that rule writers’ lives.

Case in point: the FIRST words by mother-in-law uttered after hearing that my book had sold: “What do you mean, it’s not coming out for another couple of years? Why the delay?”

This kind of response is, unfortunately, common. I don’t think any writer ever gets used to seeing her non-writer friends’ faces fall upon being told that the book won’t be coming out for a year, at least, after the sale that’s just happened, or that signing with an agent does not automatically equal a publication contract, or that not every book is headed for the bestseller list.

Thought I got off track from the question of how to keep from getting stressed out, didn’t you? Actually, I didn’t: finding buddies to go through the conference process with you can help you feel grounded throughout.

Not only are these new buddies great potential first readers for your manuscripts, future writing group members, and people to invite to book readings, they’re also folks to pass notes to during talks. (Minor disobedience is a terrific way to blow off steam, I find.) You can hear about the high points of classes you don’t attend from them afterward.

And who wouldn’t rather walk into a room with 300 strangers and one keynote speaker with a newfound chum than alone?

Making friends within the hectic conference environment will help you retain a sense of being a valuable, interesting individual far better than keeping to yourself, and the long-term benefits are endless.

To paraphrase Goethe, it is not the formal structures that make the world fell warm and friendly; friends make the earth feel like an inhabited garden.

So please, for your own sake: make some friends at the conference, so you will have someone to pick up the phone and call when the agent of your dreams falls in love with your first chapter and asks to see the entire book! And get to enjoy the vicarious thrill when your writing friends leap their hurdles, too.

This can be a very lonely business; I can tell you from experience, nothing brightens your day like opening your e-mail when you’re really discouraged to find a message from a friend who’s just sold a book or landed an agent.

Well, okay, I’ll admit it: getting a call from your agent telling you that YOU’ve just sold a book is rather more of a day-brightener. As is the call saying, “I love your work, and I want to represent you.”

But the other is still awfully darned good. Start laying the groundwork for it now.

One more little thing that will help keep you from stressing out too much: while it’s always nice if you can be so comfortable with your pitch that you can give it from memory, it’s probably fair to assume that you’re going to be a LITTLE bit nervous during your meetings.

So do yourself a favor — write it all down; give yourself permission to read it when the time comes, if you feel that will help you. Really, it’s considered perfectly acceptable, and it will keep you from forgetting key points.

I would advise writing on the top of the paper, in great big letters: BREATHE!

Do remember to pat yourself on the back occasionally, too, for being brave enough to put yourself on the line for your work. As with querying and submitting, it requires genuine guts to submit your ideas to the pros; I don’t think writers get enough credit for that.

In that spirit, I’m going to confess: I have one other conference-going ritual, something I do just before I walk into any convention center, anywhere, anytime, either to teach or to pitch. It’s not as nice or as public-spirited as the other techniques I have described, but I find it is terrific for the mental health. I go away by myself somewhere and play at top volume Joe Jackson’s song Hit Single and Jill Sobule’s (I Don’t Want to Get) Bitter.

The former, a charming story about dumbing down a song so it will stand a better chance of making it big on the pop charts, includes the PERFECT lyric to hum walking into a pitch meeting:

And when I think of all the years of finding out
What I already knew
Now I spread myself around
And you can have 3 minutes, too.

If that doesn’t summarize the difference between pitching your work verbally and being judged on the quality of the writing itself, I should like to know what does. (Sorry, Joe: I would have preferred to link above to your site, but your site mysteriously doesn’t include lyrics.)

The latter, a song about complaining, concludes with a pretty good mantra for any conference-goer:

So I’ll smile with the rest, wishing everyone the best
And know the one who made it made it because she was actually pretty good.
‘Cause I don’t want to get bitter.
I don’t want to turn cruel.

I hum that one a LOT during conferences, I’ll admit. Helpful, I find, when a bestselling author whose agent is her college roommate’s cousin tells a roomful of people who have been querying for the past five years that good writing always finds a home.

Perhaps, but certainly not easily.

What you’re trying to do certainly is not easy, or fun, but you can do it. You’re your book’s best advocate. And remember, all you’re trying to do is to get these nice people to take a look at your writing. No more, no less.

It’s a perfectly reasonable request, and you’re going to be terrific at making it, because you’ve been sensible and brave enough to face your fears and prepare like a professional.

Take a deep breath on me, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXIV and Writers’ Conferences 101, part IIII: working up the nerve to pitch — or to ask pointed questions, for that matter

At the opera the other night, I saw something I’d never seen before: the orchestra leaving its pit during the curtain call — and at a rather specific point, too, when the singer playing the lead was walking out for her solo curtain call. (And no, that’s not a picture of Brünnhilde; it’s Frank Gorshin as the Riddler on the old Batman show.) Why would they have done such a rude and unprofessional thing? I cannot say for sure, but my guess would be that it was for the same reason the audience members in my part of the balcony stopped yelling “Bravo,” sat down, and engaged in golf claps when she appeared.

It wasn’t because she didn’t have a marvelous voice; far from it, as she had demonstrated in Act III. She’s world-famous for playing this role. Unfortunately, in anticipation of Act III, she had not sung full voice in Act II. As a result, the Valkyrie most closely associated with belting out the notes was barely audible past the tenth row for a good hour.

Did she have a sore throat? Had she lost her nerve? Or did she merely figure that this was Seattle, not New York or Berlin, so she could afford to phone in half of her performance?

Performance anxiety, medical excuse, or apathy — we in the audience will never know. All we can judge her by is how she sang.

Performance anxiety is on my mind today, campers, because I’m going to be concentrating in this post upon the delicate art of working up nerve to approach agents to pitch. And — brace yourselves — to start to think of the pitching process as your interviewing agents as much as their interviewing you.

Okay, perhaps not quite as much, given just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days, but certainly, it’s not a face-to-face meeting to approach uncritically. As, alas, the vast majority of pitchers — and queriers, for that matter — seem to do.

Oh, I’m not saying that it isn’t understandable — undoubtedly, it is. In the flurry of pitching and querying, signing with an agent can start to feel like the end goal, the point at which all of the hard work is going to end, rather than a victory to be celebrated along the way. Yes, you do want an agent to fall in love with your writing — but never forget that the point of having an agent is to market your book.

Before an army of Valkyries shouts, “Well, duh!” at me at a volume certain divas would have done well to emulate, allow me to add a spin to that observation that may not have occurred to some pitchers: since a pitch meeting is a professional encounter, not a social event, it is very much in your interests to consider whether the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication, rather than whether you happen to like this person.

There’s more to an agent-writer relationship than friendship, you know. In fact, that’s often a relatively small element. Obviously, you’re going to want to be able to trust your agent, but whether the two of you clicked during your ten-minute chat is far less important to how well you will work together than your ability to communicate — and, yes, the agent’s contacts with editors who happen to publish books in your category.

So the common writerly fantasy that a friendly pitch meeting automatically equals a long-term personal connection is not only seldom true in actual practice; it can lead aspiring writers do make foolish choices. “Oh, but I really clicked with Agent Z,” they will protest. “I couldn’t possibly submit those pages Agent Q requested until I hear back from Z.” Or: “Since I had such a great pitch session with Agent R, why should I bother to pitch to anyone else at this conference? He’s sure to sign me.” Or even: “Yeah, it’s been 10 months since I submitted those pages Agent B requested, but I’m not going to keep querying or contact the agency to see if they have lost my submission packet. She seemed to like me; I don’t want to mess that up.”

All of these are poor strategic choices, based upon a misunderstanding of the pitching relationship. Successful pitchers’ hopes often rise sky-high, leading them to confuse a request for pages for an implied commitment. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be interpreted as such.

Far too few pitchers seem to understand that. Here’s a useful rule of thumb: until an actual offer is on the table, a good pitch meeting is just a nice conversation at a conference.

But even if a smiling request for materials did imply more (which it doesn’t), the mere fact of liking an agent personally is not the best determinant of whether this is the right person to represent your manuscript. Or even whether the two of you can work well together under stressful conditions.

Yes, I said work together, because believe me, the author’s work does not end when the ink dries on the agency contract: its nature merely changes. It’s rare that a manuscript or proposal does not go through at least some revisions after the agency contract is signed, generally at the new agent’s request. So before you think about committing your manuscript or proposal to anyone’s hands, you’re going to want to ask some questions about who these people are, what they typically represent, and how they like to work with writers.

Stop cringing — if you’re going to be a successful author, this is CRUCIAL information.

Why? Well, agenting styles are very different: some are very hands-on, line-editing the work they represent, and some prefer to, as the saying goes, “leave the writing to the writers.” Some enjoy explaining the publishing process to their clients, and some are infuriated by it. Some want their authors to check in regularly, while others roll their eyes if a client has the temerity to inquire whether the manuscript the agent sent out six months ago has met with any results yet.

It really does behoove everyone concerned, therefore, that such preferences be aired up front.

I know: a pitch meeting is an intimidating situation, and you don’t want to offend anybody. But remember, these people come to a conference to discover people like YOU. Don’t talk yourself out of approaching them. Yes, the deck is stacked, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to make it: writers find agents at conferences all the time.

Including, incidentally, yours truly. After asking simply mountains of very pointed questions. Hey, I was merely being honest about the kind of client I would be.

Fortunately, you need not wait until your pitching appointment or you have buttonholed an agent in the hallway to ask such questions: most writers’ conferences feature panels where agents and editors talk about their work. Almost universally, the moderator will ask for questions from the audience.

That prospect should make you start rubbing your hands in glee like the villain in a melodrama: here’s a risk-free chance to ask many agents at once about what they like in a book — and in a client.

It’s a golden opportunity, yet much of the time, it’s is squandered with the too-specific question of the conference newbie who thinks this is an invitation to pitch. “Would you be interested,” such a fellow will stand up and ask, “in a book about a starship captain who finds himself marooned on a deserted planet where only mistletoe grows, and his only chance of escape is to court the ancient Druidic gods?”

Now, personally, I would probably want to take a gander at that particular book, if only for giggles, but that’s not really the issue here: this guy is trying to give a mass pitch to everyone on the panel. Universally, this kind of approach-disguised-as-question falls flat on its face.

Why? Manners, my dears, manners. Question time at an agents’ forum is NOT an appropriate venue for pitching.

Let me repeat that, as it may sound a bit strange coming from the fingertips of the queen of the hallway pitch: the agents’ and editors’ forums should NOT be construed as pitch sessions. You may, if you can work up the nerve, walk up to the panelists afterward to try out your hallway pitch, but you will make a much, much better impression if you use the question time for, um, questions.

Still not convinced? Okay, let’s take a gander at what happens when our misguided friend above ignores this dictum — as, I assure you, someone invariably does at every major conference. If the agents are feeling kind, one of them will try to turn this too-specific question into an issue of more general concern, as in, “It’s interesting that you ask that, because the SF market right now is very much geared toward (some other focus entirely)…”

The other, less charitable and more common response is for the agents all to say no and the moderator to ask for the next question from the audience. Like hallway pitching, the response all depends upon the mood and generosity level of the agents approached — and how politely the writer has made the request.

Even if you are Emily Post personified, however, don’t bother with the broadcast pitch approach: it’s not worth the risk. Most likely, the only result will be your getting talked about negatively in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. Trust me on this one.

A popular variation on this faux pas is a questioner’s standing up, describing his book, and asking how much he could expect to receive as an advance. From the writer’s point of view, this certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Yet to industry-trained ears, it says very clearly that the asker has not gone to the trouble of learning much about how publishing actually works.

Why is that so evident to the pros? Well, in the first place, advances vary wildly. Think about how deal memos are constructed: pretty much everything that has to do with the author’s cut is a matter of negotiation. (If you have no idea what a deal memo is, you might want to take a gander at the HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED? category on the archive list at right. Even aspiring writers who have done their homework often harbor misconceptions about how the process works.)

Second, a manuscript that attracts competitive bidding today may not interest any editor at all six months from now. So really, when an aspiring writer asks such a question, what an agent tends to hear is, “I want you to predict the market value of a book you know absolutely nothing about, which may or may not be any good, and I expect this advice to be applicable at any time I may try to market this book concept.”

Again: not the best idea.

So how does one use question time correctly, you ask? You’re going to want to keep your question general and, if at all possible, have everyone on the panel answer it, so you don’t appear to be targeting one of them for critique.

Oh, it happens. It’s pretty to see how quickly agents — who, after all, are in competition with one another just as much as writers are — will rush to defend one of their own.

Another common faux pas is to challenge what an agent on the panel has already said. Often, the writers who go this route will cite another source, for added credibility, “You said X ten minutes ago, but Miss Snark says…”

If you take nothing else I say into the Q&A session, remember this: this type of question will not help you win friends and influence people.

Why? Well, no one particularly likes to be contradicted in front of a roomful of people, right? Being told that someone out there is laying down rules of her conduct is far more likely to raise hackles than provide clarification. Human nature, I’m afraid.

And it’s not as though the average agent reads the many writing blogs out there, even if she happens to write one herself. So any name you cite — up to and including Miss S’, who even at the height of her blog’s popularity enjoyed at best a mixed reputation amongst agents — is unlikely to seem like an unimpeachable source.

Although should you happen to bump into MY agent at a conference, you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to him with, “I really like Anne Mini’s blog,” should you be so moved. As long, that is, as you did not add immediately thereafter, “…and she says that what you told us before is wrong.”

Trust me: as an opening gambit, it just doesn’t work.

So what should you ask that intimidating row of agents? A few suggestions that designed to elicit information you would probably have a hard time gleaning anywhere else — and will generally provoke interesting comments, rather than the usual bleak diagnoses of how tough the market is right now:

“What was the last book each of you picked up at a conference? What made that book stand out from the others you heard pitched?” I love this question, as it gives pitchers hints about how the agents like to hear a book described; darned useful information.

“Who is your favorite client, and why?” This is a question agents tend to love, as it enables them to promote a client’s work. Make a great show of writing down names, nodding vigorously to indicate that you either believe that the author mentioned is the best thing to happen to literature since Homer first got the idea of telling the story of the Trojan war or that you are intending to rush to the nearest brick-and-mortar bookstore the instant the conference is over and buy all of that author’s books.

Hey, agents make a living from their clients’ royalties. You think they DON’T mention their clients at conferences partially in order to stimulate some book sales?

“How long do you stick with a book you really love that’s not selling before you give up on it?” In many ways, this is the single most important thing to know about an agent with whom you’re considering signing — and it’s an agent-friendly question, because they almost invariably answer it by talking about a pet project that was hard to place, but eventually succeeded.

Word to the wise: while it’s tempting to be impressed by the story about how the agent showed a particular manuscript to 43 agents before it got picked up, it’s worth asking the follow-up question, “Is that your regular practice, or did you especially love that book?” It’s not unheard-of for an established agent to recycle a single heroic incident from the very beginning of his career throughout a couple of decades’ worth of writers’ conference panels. What he was willing to do for the best manuscript he ever read back in 1982 isn’t necessarily indicative of how he might handle your book now.

“If I were looking to understand what a great first novel (or first book in your chosen category) would read like from an agent’s point of view, what books recently out would you suggest I read?” Another question that tends to be popular with panelists — because, trust me, no agent on earth is going to name a book that s/he DIDN’T represent.

“How is selling a first-time author’s book different from selling the work of someone more established?” They’ll like this question less, but it will give you a pretty good idea of who has sold a debut novel lately and who hasn’t.

“Are you looking for a career-long relationship with a writer when you consider a submission, or are you only thinking about the book in front of you? If you thinking in the long term, how often do you expect your clients to produce new books?” This last varies a LOT, but in the last year or so, many fiction agents have been on the look-out for career writers, rather than those with only one great book in them. Asking panelists this question will let you know to whom to mention the other three manuscripts you have sitting in a drawer.

“How much feedback do you give your clients before you submit their books? Do you usually ask for a revision before you send a book out? How much do you like to get involved in the revision process?” Yes, this is an enormous question, but the agents who never edit at all will usually say so immediately. Translation: they don’t like to take on unpolished manuscripts, even if they have great market potential.

“Is there any kind of book you specifically do NOT want to hear pitched this weekend?” Hey, someone’s got to pull the pin on that grenade. Sometimes they will answer this question unsolicited, however, so do keep an ear out during the forum.

What was the last book you picked up from a conference pitch and why? What made that pitch stand out to you? The benefits of this question are twofold: it will enable agents to gush about clients whose books have not yet been released (always fun for them), and you might just glean a pitching tip or two.

Do be aware, however, that some agents will respond defensively to this type of question, disliking the implication that they might EVER sign a writer without having read the manuscript in question. The usual deflecting response: “Well, I don’t really judge by the pitch; it all depends upon the writing.”

“I’ve been hearing that many of the big agencies employ submission screeners. How many other people need to read a submission before it will reach your desk — and what kinds of comments to you like to see from them?” It can be difficult to get an answer to this question — some agents who normally employ screeners pride themselves on reading requested materials from pitchers themselves — but it can reveal quite a lot about the unwritten rules of screening.

“What’s the worst query letter you ever got, and why?” This is a great question to ask if you’re not planning to do any hallway pitching, but only intend to query the attending agents after the conference. (Beginning your query, naturally, with the magic words, “I so enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent XYZ conference…) The responses are usually pretty colorful.

Do you have any automatic red flags for submissions? Any pet peeves we all should avoid? You are well within your rights to ask this one — and everyone in the room will bless you for it. Every agent has a different representation style, and you will want to know about any pet peeves or preferences before you stick your pages under their respective noses, right?

Fair warning about the response to this one: it’s very, very common for agents to imply that their individual pet peeves are shared by every other agent currently walking the earth’s crust. Sometimes it’s true; sometimes it isn’t.

However, should you EVER hear an agent mention a pet peeve on a panel, scour your work for that problem before you send that agent anything. If an agent makes the effort to warn you, s/he means it.

You’ll be pleased to hear, after all that, that there is really only one question that someone absolutely needs to ask at the editors’ forum — although most of the questions above will work in this context, too. Since most publishing houses now have policies forbidding their editors from picking up unagented work, everyone in the room will be happier in the long run if you just pull the pin on the grenade:

“If you found a fabulous book here at the conference, which of you could sign the author directly, and which of you would have to refer her to an agent?”

Yes, it’s a bit in-your-face, but the fact is, all of the major US publishing houses currently have policies forbidding editors from signing unrepresented writers — a policy of which editors tend to assume that pitchers are already aware. So much so that editors new to conferences are sometimes surprised that writers want to pitch to them. Often, senior editors are at the conference merely to give a class, network, or make connections with the already-established authors that often hang out at their local conferences; they may only have agreed to participate in pitch meetings to fill the time in between. (Hey, it happens.)

Asking to know whether you’ll be pitching to someone who could act directly or not can help you streamline your pitching attempts. Generally speaking, an editor from a small publishing house is more likely to be able to say yes to a manuscript, but if, for instance, an editor at HarperCollins is given to perusing its online competitive submission site, asking about direct submissions will probably elicit that information.

These questions will also help you decide to whom to pitch (in the hallways, probably) on a more professional basis than whether the agent or editor struck you as a nice person whilst speaking on the dais. This is not the best criterion to use, and certainly not the best ONLY criterion to use, because:

(a) Most people are rather different when speaking to large groups than one-on-one, which is how a signed writer would be dealing with them; your first impression might not be an accurate one.

(b) Agent and editor fora tend to be rather early in the morning, and folks in the arts are often not morning people (see conclusion on previous point).

(c) The pro who comes across as nastiest may in fact just be trying to save writers some chagrin. Telling the hard truth from a podium is not usually conducive to popularity, but the truth about the publishing industry is what you paid to come to the conference to hear, right?

(d) The pro who just oozes affection for writers and good writing may not have the best track record for picking up clients.

Finding out more about these people’s personal tastes and professional interests is also just good manners — and this is an industry where manners do count to a surprisingly great extent. From a more self-interested perspective, wouldn’t you rather learn in an impersonal forum that Agent A isn’t remotely interested in your kind of book than during a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting?

Of course you would. See why I was so adamant about your picking a book category?

Once you have figured out which agents and editors from small houses (again, all of the major US publishers currently have policies against picking up unagented authors) represent books in your category and like your type of voice (not always the same thing, in practice), try to get appointments with ALL of them.

Standing by the appointment desk and listening for cancellations is a good way to do this — although fair warning: this practice does tend to annoy the volunteers manning the appointment desk. Also, many conferences lay down rules barring signing up for extra appointments (unless you pay for them). However, even at such conferences, the eager beaver who happens to be standing by the desk when someone cancels can sometimes nab the extra slot.

A great, great time to do this: immediately after the agents’ forum. Would-be pitchers who have just heard their assigned agents declare from the dais that the appointment was a mismatch are often overjoyed to switch appointments with someone else, or even just cancel their own.

If you can’t get appointments, try to pitch to your likely candidates in the hallways. Again, immediately after the agents’ forum is an opportune moment for this.

I felt your chest seize up, but please, don’t be afraid: you’re there to learn how to market your work better, and they are there to pick up new writers. You are not a second-class citizen begging the nobility for a favor, as so many first-time pitchers seem to think: you are trying to find the best collaborators for your writing career.

As Francis I of France put it: “The sun shines for me as for others. I should very much like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share of the world.”

You deserve to be heard, in short. Don’t let ‘em intimidate you.

But if you DO find yourself too intimidated to walk up to someone in the industry and gasp out your magic first hundred words, do not despair: that information you gathered at the agents and editors’ forum will still serve you well. After the conference, you can query ALL of them — or at least the ones on your narrowed-down list.

And do you know what I would do in your quivered-in shoes? (Hint: I mentioned it above.)

If you said, “By Jove, you would go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope or put it in the subject line an e-mailed query,” give yourself a gold star for the day.

Why is this a dandy idea? Because in most agencies, conference-goers are regarded as a bit savvier than the average querier; their queries, therefore, tend to be taken a bit more seriously AND read with greater attention. So it’s well worth your while.

Oh, and before I forget: make sure to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the envelope or place it in the subject line of your e-mail, for the reasons above. (Assuming, of course, that an agent or editor DID request those materials. Don’t scrawl it otherwise.)

But whatever you do, don’t be a silent wallflower at a writers’ conference: take a few polite risks, and don’t be afraid to approach editors from smaller presses. The Brünnhilde who perpetually saves her voice for the final act has a hard time making a good first impression.

Sing out, Hildy. This could be your big break.

Tomorrow, a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXIII and Writers’ Conferences 101, part III: the bare necessities of pitching — and no, I’m not just talking about 3 lines scrawled on the back of a business card

glass-of-water

I honestly am trying to wrap up our weeks-long series on formal and informal pitching, but the fact is, if I’m going to talk about getting the most out of (often quite expensive) writers’ conferences, it only makes sense to give a few more practical tips on pitching while I’m at it. So please bear with the absurdly long and complicated titles for a while: labeling discussions as series makes it easier for late-joining readers to follow them in the archives, I’ve found.

Since we’ve all been so very good for so very long, I have a fun-but-practical topic for today: what materials should you bring with you to a conference — and, more importantly, to your pitch sessions with agents and editors? Other than good, strong nerves, an iron stomach, and faith that your book is the best literary achievement since MADAME BOVARY, of course.

At minimum, you’re going to want a trusty, comfortable pen and notebook with a backing hard enough to write upon, to take good notes. You’ll also want to bring all of the paperwork the conference organizers sent you, including a copy of your conference registration, information about your agent and/or editor appointments, and tickets to any dinners, luncheons, etc. for which you may have paid extra. (As, alas, one almost invariably does now at literary conferences. I can remember when rubber chicken banquets were thrown in gratis, and folks, I’m not that old.)

I’m already sensing some shifting in chairs out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” those of you new to writing great big checks to conference organizers protest, “why would I need to burden myself with all of that paperwork? I already signed up for those events, as well as my pitch appointments. Won’t the conference folks have all that on file?”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but not necessarily. Remember, most writers’ conferences are organized by hard-working volunteers, not crack teams of hyper-efficient event organizers assisted by an army of support staff with Krazy Glue on their fingertips. Details occasionally fall through the cracks.

So it’s not very prudent to assume that your paperwork has not been crack fodder — or even that the selfless volunteers working the registration tables will have access to their computers to double-check what you paid to attend. Few literary conferences are held in the offices or homes of the organizers, after all, and while being able to get into the dinner where you paid $60 to hear the keynote speaker may be vitally important to you, the volunteers on site will probably neither have the time nor the inclination to run home to double-check a misprinted list of attendees.

All of which is to say: if you registered electronically, make sure to bring a hard copy of the confirmation. And if everything goes perfectly when you check in, please remember to thank the volunteer who helped you.

As my grandmother used to say: manners cost nothing.

While you’re printing things out, go ahead and produce a hard-copy confirmation of your hotel reservation as well, if you’re not attending a conference that permits you to sleep in your own bed at night. Again, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it is not at all unheard-of for a hotel hosting a conference to over-book.

Also, it’s a good idea to bring a shoulder bag sturdy enough to hold all of the handouts you will accumulate and books you will buy at the conference. This is not an occasion for a flimsy purse. Think grad student backpack, not clutch bag.

Don’t underestimate how many books you may acquire. It’s rare that a literary conference doesn’t have a room devoted to convincing you to buy the collected works of conference speakers, local writers, and the folks who organized the conference. (At the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, for instance, only organization members’ and conference presenters’ work are typically featured.)

Don’t expect to receive discounts on those books, however; because the conference typically gets a cut of sales, offering a members’ discount seldom seems to occur to organizers. On the bright side, it’s usually child’s play to get ‘em signed. Even if the author is not hovering hopefully behind a pile of his literary output, if he’s at the conference at all, he’s going to be more than happy to autograph it.

Don’t be shy about walking up to ‘em in hallways and after speeches to ask; this is basic care and feeding of one’s readership. And if you’re polite about it — introducing yourself by saying how much you loved the author’s latest work and/or speech last night, perhaps, or via the Magic First Hundred Words — who knows? You might just end up with a marvelous literary friend.

Which is one of the reasons you signed up to go to a conference in the first place, right?

Do be aware, though, that when major bookstore chains organize these rooms (and at large conferences, it’s often a chain like Barnes & Noble), they often take an additional payment off the top, so a self-published author may well make less per book in such a venue. And if an author with a traditional publisher has shown up with her own copies, purloined from the sometimes generous stash of promotional copies publishers often provide authors because the expected copies did not show up on time for the conference (yes, it happens), the sales may not count toward official sales totals.

This is not to say that you should hesitate to purchase a book from the writer with whom you’ve been chatting in the book room for the last half an hour. You should. However, if the book is self-published, you might want to ask the author if s/he would prefer for you to buy it elsewhere. Generally, authors will be only too glad to steer you in the right direction.

Speaking of requests folks in the industry are thrilled to get, if you are struck by a particular agent or editor, you can hardly ask a more flattering question than, “So, are there any books for sale here that you worked upon? I’d like to read a couple, to get a sense of your taste/style/why on earth anyone would want to spend years on end editing books about horses and flamingos.”

Hard for even the surliest curmudgeon scowling at early morning light not to be pleased by that question.

By the way, at a conference that offers an agents’ or editors’ panel (and most do), do not even CONSIDER missing it. Attendees are expected to listen to what the agents and editors are seeking at the moment and — brace yourself for this — note where it does not match what was said in the conference guide blurb or on the agents’ websites.

Oh, did I forget to tell you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Tastes change. So does the market. But blurbs tend to get reused from year to year. Even the standard agency guides, resources that actually are updated yearly, often don’t represent what any given member agent wants right this minute.

No comment — except to say that you will be a much, much happier camper if you keep an ear cocked during the agents’ and editors’ fora to double-check that the agent to whom you were planning to pitch a vampire romance isn’t going around saying, “Heavens, if I see ONE more vampire romance…”

In addition to noting all such preferences in my trusty notebook, I always like to carry a few sheets of blank printer paper in my bag, so I can draw a diagram of the agents’ forum, and another of the editors’, to keep track of who was sitting where and note a few physical characteristics, along with their expressed preferences in books.

Why do I do this? Well, these fora are typically scheduled at the very beginning of the first full day of the conference — a very, very long day.

By the time people are wandering into their appointments at the end of the second day, dehydrated from convention hall air and overwhelmed with masses of professional information, I’ve found that they’re often too tired to recall WHICH editor had struck them the day before as someone with whom to try to finagle a last-minute appointment.

Being able to whip out the diagrams has jogged many a memory, including mine. It’s also a great help a month or two after the conference, to help you remember which of the dozen agents who spoke struck you as worthwhile to query instead of pitching, and which left you with the impression that they eat books, if not aspiring writers, for breakfast.

On my diagrams, the latter tend to be depicted with horns, pitchfork, and tail. But that’s just me.

I always, always, ALWAYS advise writers to bring bottled water to conferences — even to ones where the organizers tend to be very good about keeping water available. A screw-top bottle in your bag can save both spillage and inconvenience for your neighbors.

Why? Well, when you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers in a classroom, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make your way to the table with the pitcher on it, nor to step over people’s legs with a full glass in your hand.

If I seem to be harping on the dehydration theme, there’s a good reason: every indoor conference I have ever attended has dried out my contact lenses, and personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime.

I’m wacky that way.

If your eyes dry out easily, consider wearing your glasses instead. Men may not make passes at girls who wear ‘em, to paraphrase the late great Ms. Parker, but looking bookish is seldom a drawback at a writers’ conference.

Even if you have perfect vision, there’s a good reason to keep on sippin’. If you are even VAGUELY prone to nerves — and who isn’t, while preparing to pitch? — being dehydrated can add substantially to your sense of being slightly off-kilter. You want to be at your best. Lip balm can be helpful in this respect, too.

Both conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of foot traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is NOT the time to skip the vitamins. I go one step further: at the conference, I dump packets of Emergen-C into my water bottle, to keep my immune system strong.

If this seems like frou-frou advice, buttonhole me at a conference sometime, and I’ll regale you with stories about nervous pitchers who have passed out in front of agents. Remember, if you find yourself stressed out:

*Take deep breaths. Not just every so often, but on a regular basis.

*Don’t lock your knees when you’re standing. People who do tend to fall over.

*If you need to sit down, say so right away, no matter who happens to be standing in front of you. Trust me, that editor from Random House doesn’t want to have to pick you up off the floor.

*Don’t drink too much coffee, tea, or alcohol. (Even though everyone else will be doing so with enthusiasm.)

*Go outside the conference center every so often. A glimpse of blue sky can provide a lot of perspective.

*Make some friends. You’ll have more fun, and you can meet in the hallway later to swap notes about seminars happening simultaneously.

*If you’re feeling nervous or scared, talk about it with some nice person you met in the hallway, rather than keeping it bottled inside.

*Be willing to act as someone else’s sounding board. Just for the karma.

Trust me, this is a time to be VERY good to yourself. A conference should not be an endurance test. If I had my way, the hallways at any pitching conference would be lined with massage chairs, to reduce people’s stress levels.

While I’m sounding like your mother, I shall add: don’t try to pitch on an empty stomach.

I’m VERY serious about this — no matter how nervous you are, try to eat something an hour or so before your pitch appointment. When I ran the Pitch Practicing Palace (a safe space for those new to the game to run their pitches by agented writers BEFORE trying them out on an agent or editor, to weed out potential problems), I used to keep a bowl of candy on hand, because so few pitchers had remembered to feed themselves.

Trust me, even if your stomach is flipping around like the Flying Wallendas on speed, you’ll feel better if you eat something. If you are anticipating doing a lot of hallway pitching, or dislike the type of rubber chicken and reheated pasta that tends to turn up on conference buffets, you might want to conceal a few munchies in your bag, to keep yourself fueled up.

It’s also not a bad idea to bring along some mints or ginger candy, just in case you start to feel queasy. As a fringe benefit, the generous person with the tin of Altoids tends to be rather popular in the waiting area near the pitching appointments.

Since you will most likely be sitting on folding chairs for many, many hours over the course of the conference, you might want to bring a small pillow. I once attended a conference where instead of tote bags, the organizers distributed portable seat cushions emblazoned with the writers’ organization’s logo.

You should have heard the public rejoicing.

In the spirit of serious frivolity, I’m going to make another suggestion: carry something silly in your bag, a good-luck charm or something that will make you smile when your hand brushes against it. It can work wonders when you’re stressed, to have a concealed secret.

Honest, this works. I used to advise my university students to wear their strangest underwear on final exam day, for that reason — it allowed them to know something that no one else in the room knew.

(It also resulted in several years’ worth of students walking up to me when they turned in their bluebooks and telling me precisely what they were wearing under those athletic department sweats — and, on one memorable occasion, showing me, à la Monica Lewinsky. So I say from experience: resist the urge to share; it’s disconcerting to onlookers.)

If you suspect you would be uncomfortable wearing your 20-year-old Underroos or leather garter belt (sorry; you’re going to have to find your own link to that) under your conference attire, a teddy bear in your bag can serve much the same purpose. Anything will do, as long as it is special to you.

So far, my advice has been concerned with your comfort and welfare. From here on out, the rest of today’s tips will be all about networking.

That’s right, I said networking. Conferences are about CONFERRING, people.

Because you will, we hope, be meeting some God-awfully interesting at your next writers’ conference, you will want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it: a business card, for instance, or comparably sized sheets from your home printer.

I mention this now, so you may prepare in advance. Having to scrabble around in your tote bag for a stray scrap of paper upon which to inscribe your vitals every time you meet someone nice gets old FAST.

Besides, if you file a Schedule C to claim your writing as a business, the cost of having the cards made is usually tax-deductible – and no, in the US, you don’t necessarily have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. Talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with artists. Heck, all of those books you buy might just be deductible as market research.

Seriously, it is VERY worth your while to have some inexpensive business cards made, to print some up at home, or to ask Santa to bring you some professional-looking jobs for Christmas. First, it’s always a good idea to be able to hand your contact info to an agent or editor who expresses interest in your work. They don’t often ask for it, but if they do — in a situation, say, where an editor from a major press who is not allowed to pick up an unagented book REALLY wants to hook you up with an agent — it’s best to be prepared.

Second, unless you make a point of sitting by yourself in a corner for the entire conference, you are probably going to meet other writers that you like — maybe even some with whom you would like to exchange chapters, start a writers’ group, or just keep in contact to remind yourself that we’re all in this together.

The easier you make it for them to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact. It’s just that simple.

I’m sensing some ambient rustling again. “But Anne,” some rustlers exclaim, “I’m going to the conference to meet folks in the industry who can help me get my work published. Why would I waste my time chatting up other aspiring writers, who are ostensibly there for precisely the same reason?”

A very good question, oh rustlers, and one that deserves a very direct answer: because it’s far from a waste of time.

Besides, avoiding the unpublished is just a wee bit snobbish, I think. I would urge you to avoid the extremely common mistake of walking into ANY writers’ gathering thinking that the only people it is important for you to meet are the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the keynote speakers. It requires less energy to keep to yourself, true, but it is a tad elitist, not to say short-sighted: in the long run, casting a wider acquaintance net will pay off better for you.

Why? For one very, very simple reason: the more writer friends you have, the easier it is to learn from experience.

Why make your own mistakes, when you can learn from your friends’, and they from yours? What better source for finding out which agents are really nice to writers, and which are not? And who do you think is going to come to your book signings five years from now, if not that nice writer with whom you chatted about science fiction at lunch?

Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it — I once spent several hours stranded in a small airport with Ann Rule, and she is an absolutely delightful conversationalist. (Especially if you happen to have an abnormally great interest in blood spatter patterns; she’s a well-respected expert on the subject.)

But try not to let star-watching distract you from interacting with the less well-known writers teaching the classes — who are there to help YOU, after all — or the writer sitting next to you in class. I have met some of the best writers I know by the simple dint of turning to the person rummaging through the packaged teas on the coffee table and saying, “So, what do you write?”

Don’t tell me that you’re too shy to handle this situation — I happen to know that you have a secret weapon. Remember those magic first hundred words? This is the time to use ‘em.

Believe me, it’s worth doing. Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves — realistically, can you rule out the possibility that the person sitting next to you in the session on writer’s block ISN’T the next Stephen King? — and don’t you want to be able to say that you knew them when?

And even if this were not true (but it is), writing is an isolating business — for every hour that even the most commercially successful writer spends interacting with others in the business, she spends hundreds alone, typing away. The more friends you can make who will understand your emotional ups and downs as you work through scenes in a novel, or query agents, or gnaw your fingernails down to the knuckle, waiting for an editor to decide whether to buy your book, the better, I say.

Even the most charmed writer, the one with both the best writing AND the best pure, dumb luck, has days of depression. Not all of us are lucky enough to live and work with people who appreciate the necessity of revising a sentence for the sixth time. Writers’ conferences are the ideal places to find friends to support you, the ones you call when your nearest and dearest think you are insane for sinking your heart and soul into a book that may not see print for a decade.

So stuff some business cards into your conference bag along with a folder containing several copies of your synopsis AND five copies of the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents do this, but many, when they are seriously taken with a pitch, will ask to see a few pages on the spot, to see if the writing is good enough to justify the serious time commitment of reading the whole book.

Having these pages ready to whip out at a moment’s notice will make you look substantially more professional than if you blush and murmur something about printing it out, or simply hand the agent your entire manuscript.

Don’t, however, bother to bring your entire manuscript with you to the conference, UNLESS you are a finalist in one of the major categories. You will never, ever, EVER miss an opportunity by offering to mail or e-mail it instead.

In fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is often true, bizarrely, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.

Why the exception for the contest finalists? Well, I don’t think it should come as much of a surprise to anyone that agents tend to be pretty competitive people. The primary reason that an agent would ask for the whole thing right away, in my experience, is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it — and the writers who tend to be the objects of such heart-rending scenes of jealousy are almost invariably those sporting blue ribbons.

So while I have known agents to read a chapter or two of the winners’ work in their hotel rooms, the chances of its happening in the normal run of a pitch day are roughly the same as finding the complete skeleton of a dinosaur in your back yard.

It could happen — but it doesn’t really make sense to plan your life around a possibility that remote.

Otherwise, don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. And no, don’t bother to bring an electronic copy of your book — it’s actually considered rather rude to hand out CD-ROMs willy-nilly.

Why? Well, because not everyone is as polite as my lovely readers. It’s not at all uncommon for a total stranger to come charging up to an agent, editor, or someone like yours truly at a conference, shove a soft copy into our astonished hands, and disappear, calling back over her retreating shoulder, “My contact information’s on there, so you can let me know what you think of it.”

Without exception, electronic media presented in this manner ends up in the trash, unread.

Why? Well, apart from the general impoliteness involved in insisting that just because someone is in the industry, s/he has an obligation to read every stranger’s work, there’s also the very real risk that a stranger’s disk is going to be infected with a computer virus; it would be rather imprudent even to try to check out its contents.

Even if the recipient happened to have a really, really good firewall, this method also conveys a tacit expectation that the recipient is going to go to the trouble and expense of printing the book out — or risk considerable eyestrain by reading an entire book onscreen. Not very likely.

These days, if an agent or editor wants an electronic copy of your book, s/he will ask you to e-mail it. Trust me on this one.

Regardless, your 5-page sample should be in hard copy. If you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that, but if you can at all manage it, choose the first five pages of the book as your sample — it just exudes more confidence in your writing, as these are the first pages a screener would see in a submission.

From the writer’s POV, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so although I hammer on this point about twice a month here, I’m going to say it again: as with everything else you submit to any industry pro, make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format.

Seriously, this is not a moment when you want your pages to cry out, “The author’s unfamiliar with the standards of the industry!”

If the fact that there IS a standard format for manuscripts — and that it does NOT resemble the formatting of published books — is news to you, rush into the archives at right immediately, and take a gander at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right. Even if you’re relatively sure you’re doing it right, it isn’t a bad idea to double-check.

Stop groaning, long-time readers; we all could use a refresher from time to time. As long as I am writing this blog, no reader of mine is going to have his or her work rejected simply because s/he didn’t know what the rules of submission were.

Again, I’m funny that way.

Keep practicing those pitches, everyone, avoid dehydration like the plague, and keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXII and Writers’ Conferences 101, part II: how soon is too soon, how much information is too much, and other burning questions of conference life

lie-detector

I must confess something, dear readers: yesterday’s post about hyper-literalism lifted a weight off my weary shoulders. At this point in my long and checkered blogging career, I feel like the kid who pointed out that the emperor was ever-so-slightly under-dressed. It does become rather a strain, conference after conference, year after year, not to stand in the back of the room and bellow, “But don’t knock yourself out following that advice to the letter!”

I guess it’s a corollary of what I find myself saying here every few months: it’s honestly not a good idea to take anyone’s word as Gospel, even if the speaker purports to be an expert. Perhaps especially if.

Logically, this sterling advice must apply to yours truly, right, and what I say here? Of course — which is why I encourage any and all of you to pipe up with questions about pitching, querying, submitting, craft, or whatever else is on your writerly mind. Seriously, I don’t want anybody to take my advice blindly, and I would much, much rather that you asked me than run afoul of Millicent the agency screener down the line.

In case anyone reading this does not already know how to leave a question or comment: all you have to do is click on COMMENTS at the bottom of this post (or any post, for that matter). That will lead you to a simple little form, designed not to annoy you but to help me keep my comment sections spam-free for your reading pleasure. Then just type in your question and hit SUBMIT. Easy as proverbial pie.

To get you in the question-asking mood, I’m going to spend today tackling a couple of excellent questions about the pitch proper sent in by readers over the years. (Keep ‘em coming, folks!) In that spirit, I’m going to begin by continuing my thoughts from an earlier post where I, you guessed it, answered a reader’s question.

Late last week, I went over a few reasons that it’s a better idea to pitch the overall story of a multiple perspective book, rather than try to replicate the various protagonists’ personal story arcs or talk about voice choices. It tends to be substantially less confusing for the hearer this way, but there’s another very good reason not to overload the pitch with too much in-depth discussion of HOW the story is told, rather than what the story IS.

Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book. In fact, one of the points of conference pitching is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility.

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple POV narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting for a month now. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your pitch may raise some red flags. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

If you really get stuck about how to tell the overarching story of a book with multiple protagonists (or multiple storylines, for that matter), you could conceivably pick one or two of the protagonists and present his/her/their story/ies as the book, purely for pitching purposes.

Ooh, that suggestion generated some righteous indignation, didn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “isn’t that misleading?”

Not really. Remember, the point of the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book: it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it.

No one on the other side of the pitching table seriously expects to learn everything about a book in a 2-minute speech, any more than he would from a synopsis. If it were possible, how much of a storyline could there possibly be? Why, in fact, would it take a whole book to tell it?

“But Anne,” the upright whimper, “I don’t want to lie. Won’t I get in trouble for implying that my book has only two protagonists when it in fact has twelve?”

Trust me, this strategy is not going to come back and bite you later, at least not enough to fret over, because frankly, it would require the memory banks of IBM’s Big Blue for a pitch-hearer to recall everything he heard over the average conference period.

Remember last week, when I was talking about pitch fatigue? After an agent or editor has heard a hundred pitches at a conference this weekend, and two hundred the weekend after that, he’s not going to say when he receives your submission, “Hey! This has 4 more characters than the author told me it did!”

I know, I know: we all want to believe that our pitches are the exception to this — naturally, the agent of our dreams will remember every adjective choice and intake of breath from OUR pitches, as opposed to everyone else’s. But that, my dears, is writerly ego talking, the same ego that tries to insist that we MUST get our requested submissions out the door practically the instant the agent or editor’s request for them has entered our ears.

In practice, it just isn’t so.

And shouldn’t be, actually, in a business that rewards writing talent. Given the choice, it’s much, much better for you if the agent of your dreams remembers that the writing in your submission was brilliant than the details of what you said in your 10-minute meeting.

As to the question of being misleading…well, I’ll get back to the desirability of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth a little later in this post. For now, let’s move on to the next reader question.

Insightful long-term reader Janet wrote in some time ago to ask how to handle the rather common dilemma of the writer whose local conference happens whilst she’s in mid-revision: “What do you do when you realize that you might have to change the structure of the novel?” she asked. “Pitch the old way?”

I hear this question all the time during conference season, Janet, and the answer really goes back to the pervasive writerly belief I touched upon briefly above, the notion that an agent or editor is going to remember any given pitch in enough detail a month or two down the road to catch discrepancies between the pitch and the book.

Chant it with me now, experienced pitchers: they’re going to be too tired to recall every detail by the time they get on the plane to return to New York, much less a month or two from now, when they get around to reading your submission.

Stop deflating, ego — this isn’t about you. It’s about them.

It’s also about our old friend, pitch fatigue. At a conference, the average agent or editor might be hearing as many as hundred pitches a day. Multiply that by the number of days of the conference — multiply THAT by the number of conferences a particular agent or editor attends in a season, not to mention the queries and submissions she sees on a daily basis, and then you can begin to understand just how difficult it would be to retain them all.

I hate to bruise anyone’s ego, but now that you’ve done the math, how likely is it that she’s going to retain the specifics of, say, pitch #472?

But you shouldn’t fret about that, because — pull out your hymnals, long-term readers — the purpose of ANY book pitch is to get the agent or editor to ask to read it, not to buy the book sight unseen. Since that request generally comes within a few minutes of the writer’s uttering the pitch, if it’s going to come at all, what you need to do is wow ‘em in the moment.

Although it IS nice if yours is the pitch that causes an agent to scrawl in her notes, “Great imagery!”

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, I’ve been harping so much throughout Pitching 101 about the desirability of including memorable details in your pitch. You have the pitch-hearer’s attention for only a few moments, and 9 times out of 10, she’s going to be tired during those moments. A vividly-rendered sensual detail or surprising situation that she’s never heard before is your best bet to wake her up.

Under the circumstances, that’s not an insignificant achievement. Don’t lessen your triumph by insisting that she be able to reproduce your pitch from memory six weeks hence — or that you need to get those requested materials to her before she forgets who you are.

Accept that she may not remember you by the time she gets on the plane to go home from the conference and trust that she has kept good notes. Then read every syllable of your submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you even consider rushing it off to her.

The upside of the short memory span: you don’t really need to worry if your story changes between the time you pitch or query it and when you submit the manuscript pages. That’s par for the course. Writers rewrite and restructure their books all the time; it’s not considered particularly sinister.

That being said, your best bet in the case of a book in the throes of change is to tell the story that you feel is the most compelling. If you haven’t yet begun restructuring, it will probably be the old one, as it’s the one with which you are presumably most familiar, but if you can make a good yarn out of the changes you envision, it’s perfectly legitimate to pitch that instead.

It really is up to you. As long as the story is a grabber, that is.

The final questions du jour, which the various askers have requested be presented anonymously, concern the ethics of not mentioning those aspects of the book one is afraid might negatively influence a pitch-hearer’s view of the manuscript. The most popular proposed omissions: the book’s length and whether it is actually finished on the day of your pitching appointment.

Let me take the second one first, as it’s easier to answer. There is a tacit expectation, occasionally seen in print in conference guides, that a writer will not market a novel until it is complete, because it would not be possible for an agent to market a partial first novel. In fact, most pitching and querying guides will tell you that you should NEVER pitch an unfinished work.

Except that it isn’t quite that simple. Agented writers pitch half-finished work to their agents all the time, for instance.

Does that mean that you should? Well, it depends. It would most definitely be frowned-upon to pitch a half-finished book that might take a year or two to polish off — unless, of course, the book in question is nonfiction, in which case you’d be marketing it as a book proposal, not as an entire manuscript, anyway.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: nonfiction books are typically sold on proposals, not the entire manuscript. Yes, even if it’s a memoir; although some agents do prefer to see a full draft from a previously unpublished writer, the vast majority of memoirs are still sold in proposal form.

So I ask you: could you realistically have your novel in apple-pie order within the next six months? If so, that’s not an unheard-of lapse before submitting requested materials. And if you have a chapter of your memoir in terrific shape, could you pull a book proposal together within that timeframe? (For some guidance on what that might entail, please see the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

If the answers to all of those questions are a resounding “No, by gum!” you should consider holding off. Unless, of course, you’d just like to get in some pitching practice while the stakes are still low. But if you are pitching a novel just to get the hang of it (a marvelous idea, by the way), don’t make the mistake of saying that the manuscript isn’t done yet.

It’s considered rude. You’re supposed to have a fiction project completed before you pitch or query it, you know.

Confused? You’re not alone. Like so many of the orders barked at conference attendees, the expectation of market-readiness has mutated a bit in translation and over time. You’re most likely to hear it as the prevailing wisdom that maintains you should have a full draft before you pitch BECAUSE an agent or editor who is interested will ask you for the entire thing on the spot.

As in they will fly into an insensate fury if you’re not carrying it with you at the pitch meeting.

But as I have mentioned earlier in this series, demanding to see a full or even partial manuscript on the spot doesn’t happen all that often anymore (and the insensate fury part never happened in the first place). 99.9% of the time, even an agent who is extremely excited about a project will prefer that you mail it — or e-mail it.

Seriously, he’s not in that great a hurry — and trust me, he’s not going to clear his schedule in anticipation of receiving your submission. I’ll bring this up again when I go over how to prep a submission packet (probably in September; I want to go over query basics first, so PLEASE, if you have pitched within the last few weeks and are impatient to send things off, read through the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET before you drop anything in the mail) but I always advise my clients and students not to overnight anything to an agency or publishing house unless the receiving party is paying the postage.

Yes, even if an agent or editor asks you to overnight it.

I heard that horrified gasp out there, but the fact is, it’s a myth that overnighted manuscripts get read faster — yes, even if the agent asked you to send it instantly. That request is extremely rare, however; most submitters simply assume that they should get it there right away — or that their work will be seem more professional if it shows up in an overnight package.

That might have been true 20 years ago, but here’s a news flash: FedEx and other overnight packaging is just too common to attract any special notice in a crowded mailroom these days.

If you’re worried about speed, Priority Mail (which gets from one location to another within the US in 2-3 days) is far cheaper — and if you write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the package, might actually get opened sooner than that spiffy-looking overnight mail packet.

Besides, even if you did go to the trouble and expense to get your manuscript onto the requester’s desk within hours of the request, it can often be months before an agent reads a manuscript, as those of you who have submitted before already know. Which means, in practical terms, that you need not send it right away.

And that, potentially, means that a savvy writer could buy a little time that could conceivably be used for revision. Or even writing.

Catching my drift here? After all, if you’re going to mail it anyway…and pretty much everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day…and if you could really get away with sending requested materials anytime between now and Christmas…and if they’ve asked for only the first three chapters…

Or, to put it in querying terms: if the agencies are going to take a month to respond to my letter…and then ask for the first 50 pages…and that has to get by a couple of screeners before they can possibly ask for the rest?

Starting to get the picture?

There’s no reason not to work those predictable delays into your pitching and querying timeline. Naturally, I would never advise anyone to pitch a book that isn’t essentially done, but let’s face it, it may well be months before the person sitting across the table from you in a pitch meeting asks to see the entire manuscript.

And you know what? You’re under no obligation to send it out instantly, even then.

Although I would not encourage any of you to join the 40% of writers who are asked to submit requested materials but never do, anyone who has ever written a novel can tell you that where writing is concerned, there is finished — as in when you’ve made it all the way through the story and typed the words THE END on the last page — and then there is done — as in when you stop tinkering with it.

Then there’s REALLY done, the point at which you have revised it so often that you have calculated the exact trajectory of the pen you will need to lob toward Manhattan to knock your agent or editor in the head hard enough to get him to stop asking for additional changes.

And then there’s REALLY, REALLY done, when your editor has changed your title for the last time and has stopped lobbying for you to transform the liberal lesbian sister into a neo-conservative professional squash player who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan in his spare time.

But frankly, from the point of view of the industry, no manuscript is truly finished until it is sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble. Until the cover is actually attached to the book, it is an inherently malleable thing.

The fact that everyone concerned is aware of this, I think, renders a bit of sophistry on the writer’s part over the question of whether a manuscript is completed somewhat pardonable.

This does NOT mean, however, that it is in your best interests to waltz into a pitch meeting and ANNOUNCE that the book isn’t finished yet — and because agents and editors are, as a group, perfectly aware that writers are prone to levels of tinkering that would make Dante’s inferno appear uncomplex, it’s actually not a question that gets asked much.

If you are asked? Sophistry, my dears, sophistry, of the type that agented and published writers employ all the time: “I’m not quite happy with it yet, but I’m very close.”

You are close to finishing it, aren’t you? And you aren’t completely happy with that, right?

I’m sensing that the hands that shot into the air a dozen paragraphs ago are waving frantically by now. “Um, Anne?” the observant owners of those hands cry. “What do you mean, pretty much everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? I’m going to a conference this weekend — surely, despite what you said above about not needing to overnight my submission, I have to send out requested materials immediately?”

The short answer is no.

The long answer is that it means that it might behoove you to tinker with them (see distinctions amongst types of doneness above) until after the mass exodus from Manhattan is over. Because, really, do you WANT your submission to be the last one Millicent needs to read before she can head out the door to someplace cooler than sweltering New York?

Naturally, there are exceptions to the closed-until-after-Labor-Day norm; many agencies arrange to have one agent remain on-site, in case of emergencies. But since editorial offices tend to clear out then, too, it would be a kind of quixotic time to be pitching a book: even if an editor loved it, it would be well-nigh impossible to gather enough bodies for the necessary editorial meeting to acquire it.

(If all that sounded like Greek to you, and you’re not particularly conversant with the tongue of ancient heroes, you might want to take a gander at the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT category on the list at right, as well as the WHEN ARE THE BEST AND WORST TIME TO QUERY? sections.)

The question of whether to mention manuscript length is a bit more tortured, as it tends to generate a stronger knee-jerk response in pitches and query letters than the question of submission timing. Or so I surmise, from the response to the inevitable moment at every writers’ conference I have ever attended when some stalwart soul stands up and asks how long a book is too long.

And without fail, half the room gasps at the response.

I hesitate to give limits, for fear of triggering precisely the type of literalist angst I deplored a couple of days ago, but here are a few ballpark estimates. Currently, first novels tend to run in the 65,000 – 100,000 word range — or, to put it another way, roughly 250 – 400 pages. (That’s estimated word count, by the way, 250 x # of pages in Times New Roman, standard format. For the hows and whys of estimation vs. actual word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

So if your book runs much over that, be prepared for some unconscious flinching when you mention the length. Standards do vary a bit by genre, though — check the recent offerings in your area to get a general sense.

And remember, these are general guidelines, not absolute prohibitions. Few agency screeners will toss out a book if it contains a page 401. Do be aware, though, that after a book inches over the 125,000 word mark (500 pages, more or less), it does become substantially more expensive to bind and print. (For more on this point, please see the rather extensive exchange in the comment section of a recent post.)

If at all possible, then, you will want to stay under that benchmark. And if not, you might not want to mention the length in your pitch or query letter.

And not just for marketing reasons, or at any rate not just to preclude the possibility of an instinctive response to a book’s length. If a manuscript is too long (or too short, but that is rarer since the advent of the computer), folks in the industry often have the same response as they do to a manuscript that’s not in standard format: they assume that the writer isn’t familiar with the prevailing norms.

And that, unfortunately, usually translates into the submission’s being taken less seriously — and often, the pitch or query as well.

If your book IS over or under the expected estimated length for your genre, you will probably be happier if you do not volunteer length information in either your pitch or your query. This is not dishonest — neither a pitcher nor a querier is under any actual obligation to state the length of the manuscript up front.

I’m not recommending that you actually lie in response to a direct question, of course — but if the question is not asked, it will not behoove you to offer the information. Remember, part of the art of the pitch involves knowing when to shut your trap. You will not, after all, be hooked up to a lie detector throughout the course of your pitch.

Although that would be an interesting intimidation strategy, one I have not yet seen tried on the conference circuit. Given the current level of paranoia aimed at memoirists, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it come into fashion.

Yes, I know, many experts will tell you that you MUST include word count in your query, but as far as I know, no major agency actually rejects queries where it’s not mentioned. Some agents will say they like to see it, for the simple reason that it makes it easier to weed out the longest and the shortest manuscripts — but if your book would fall into either of those categories, is it really in your interest to promote a knee-jerk rejection?

Whew! We covered a lot of ground today, didn’t we? Well, the path to glory has never been an easy one, right?

Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXI, and Writers’ Conferences 101, part I: lingering on the right track, or, how not to drive yourself completely insane while preparing to pitch

All right, I’ll cop to it: I could have brought our ongoing series on how to construct various stripes of winning conference pitches to a close last Friday; I had, after all, covered all of the basics of writing both formal and informal pitches. So I could, as promised, launch right into a new series today, showing you how to use the lessons we’ve just learned in pulling together one heck of a query letter.

But I’m not going to do that — at least not today. Why not? Well, I visit conference pitching here on the site only once per year — a long visit, admittedly, of the type that may well make some of you long for the houseguests to go home, already, but still, I don’t talk about it that often.

Perhaps that’s a mistake, since writers’ conference attendance has been skyrocketing of late. Blame the hesitant economy; writing a book is a LOT of people’s fallback position. Interesting, given how few novelists actually make a living at it, but hey, a dream’s a dream.

The problem is, literary conferences can be pretty hard to navigate your first time around — and that’s unfortunate, because the darned things tend not to be inexpensive. Like pitching and querying, there are some secret handshakes that enable some aspiring writers to hobnob more effectively than others, as well as norms of behavior that may seem downright perplexing to the first-time attendee.

Up to and including the fact that there’s more to getting the most out of a conference than just showing up, or even showing up and pitching.

For the next week or so, then, I’m going to be talking about the nuts and bolts of conference attendance, with an eye to helping you not only pitch more successfully, but also take advantage of the often amazing array of resources available to aspiring writers at a good conference. Not to mention feeling more comfortable in your skin while you’re there.

So it’s out with the old series and in with the new. Everybody ready? Goo.

Last week, I brought up a couple of the more common conceptual stumbling-blocks writers tend to encounter while prepping their elevator speeches and formal pitches. The first and most virulent, of course, is coming to terms with the necessity of marketing one’s writing at all — in other words, to begin to think of it not just as one’s baby, but as a product you’re trying to sell.

Half of you just tensed up, didn’t you?

I’m not all that surprised. From an artistic perspective, the only criterion for whether an agent or editor picks up a manuscript should be the quality of the writing, followed distantly by the inherent interest of the story. For many writers, the burning question of whether a market for the book already demonstrably exists doesn’t even crop up during the composition process; they write because they are writers.

Naturally, it comes as something of a shock to learn that books do not get published simply because someone has taken the trouble to write them — or even because they are well-written. The sad fact is, an aspiring writer must make the case that this is not only a great yarn, but one that will fit into the current book market neatly, BEFORE anyone in the industry is willing to take a gander at the actual writing.

I know, I know: it seems backwards. But as I believe I have mentioned 1700 times before, I did not set up the prevailing conditions for writers; I merely try to cast them in comprehensible terms for all of you.

If I ran the universe — which, annoyingly, I evidently still don’t, as nearly as I can tell — writers would be able to skip the pitch-and-query stage entirely, simply submitting the manuscripts directly with no marketing materials, to allow the writing to speak for itself. Every submitter would get thoughtful, helpful, generous-minded feedback, too, and enchanted cows would wander the streets freely, giving chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk to anyone who wanted it.

Being omniscient, I would also naturally be able to tell you why the industry is set up this way. Heck, I’d be so in the know that I could explain why Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is so hostile to the conventions of punctuation that he wrote an entire novel, SEEING, without a single correctly punctuated piece of dialogue.

I would be THAT generous a universe-ruler.

But I do not, alas, run the universe, however, so Señor Saramago and certain aspects of the publishing industry remain mysteries eternal. (Would it kill him to use a period at the end of a sentence occasionally? Or a question mark at the end of a question?)

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if a writer hopes to get published, the marketing step is a necessity, NO MATTER HOW TALENTED YOU ARE. Even if you were Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and Madame de Staël rolled into one, in the current writers’ market, you would still need to approach many, many agents and/or editors to find the right match for your work.

And even if you approach an agent who does in fact ask writers to send pages along with the initial query, instead of by special request afterward (as used to be universal), if the marketing approach is not professionally crafted, chances are slim that those pages will even get read. Remember, a good agency typically receives somewhere between 800 and 1200 queries per week; if Millicent the agency screener isn’t wowed by the letter, she simply doesn’t have time to cast her eyes over those 5 or 10 or 50 pages the agency’s website said that you could send.

No, that’s not being mean; that’s trying to get through all of those queries without working too much overtime.

Unfortunately, the same imperative to save time usually also dictates form-letter rejections that the querier entirely in the dark about whether the rejection trigger was in the query or the pages. (Speaking of realistic expectations, please tell me that you didn’t waste even thirty seconds of YOUR precious time trying to read actual content into it didn’t grab me, I just didn’t fall in love with it, it doesn’t meet our needs that this time, or any of the other standard rejection generalities. By definition, one-size-fits-all reasons cannot possibly tell you how to improve your submission.)

All of which is to say: please, I implore you, do not make the very common mistake of believing that not being picked up by the first agent whom you pitch or query means that your work is not marketable. Or adhering to the even more common but less often spoken belief that if a book were REALLY well written, it would somehow be magically exempted from the marketing process.

It doesn’t, and it isn’t. Everyone clear on that?

Why am I bringing this up now, at the end of a long, difficult series on cobbling together a pitch? Because unfortunately, unrealistic expectations about the pitching — and querying — process can and do not only routinely make aspiring writers unhappy at conferences the world over, but frequently also prevent good writers from pitching well.

Yes, you read that correctly. Misinformation can really hurt a writer — as can a fearful or resentful attitude. Part of learning to pitch — or query — successfully entails accepting the fact that from the industry’s point of view, you are presenting a PRODUCT to be SOLD.

Not, as the vast majority of writers believe, and with good reason, a piece of one’s soul ripped off without anesthesia.

So it is a TEENY bit counter-productive to respond — as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time pitchers do — to the expectation that they should be able to talk about their books in market-oriented terms as evidence that they are dealing with Philistines who hate literature.

To clear up any possible confusion: you’re not, and they don’t.

That doesn’t mean the situation doesn’t beg certain questions, however. Why, for instance, do so many pitchers respond to the pros as though they were evil demons sent to earth for the sole purpose of tormenting the talented and rewarding the illiterate? Or why even mention in a pitch or query that the book has been rejected before, or that its author has submitted 700 queries for it already?

Selling books is how agents and editors make their livings, after all: they HAVE to be concerned about whether there’s a market for a book they are considering. They’re not being shallow; they’re being practical.

Okay, MOST of them are not just being shallow. My point is, a pitching appointment is not the proper venue for trying to change the status quo. Querying or pitching is hard enough to do well without simultaneously decrying the current realities of book publishing.

And yes, in response to that question your brain just shouted, aspiring writers DO bring that up in their pitches and queries. All the time. Don’t emulate their example.

This isn’t just poor strategy, I suspect — it’s symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes an author successful. Selling is a word that many writers seem to find distasteful when applied to trying to land an agent, as if there were no real distinction between selling one’s work (most of the time, the necessary first step to the world’s reading it) and selling out (which entails a compromise of principle.)

C’mon — you know what I’m talking about; if not, just bring up the issue over a sandwich at your next writers’ conference.

When aspiring writers speak of marketing amongst themselves, it tends to be with a slight curl of the lip, an incipient sneer, as if the mere fact of signing with an agent or getting a book published would be the final nail in the coffin of artistic integrity. While practically everyone who writes admires at least one or two published authors — all of whom, presumably, have to deal with this issue at one time or another — the prospect of compromising one’s artistic vision haunts many a writer’s nightmares.

That’s a valid fear, I suppose, but allow me to suggest another, less black-and-white possibility: fitting the square peg of one’s book into the round holes of marketing can be an uncomfortable process. But that doesn’t mean it is inherently deadly to artistic integrity — and it doesn’t mean that any writer, no matter how talented, can legitimately expect to be commercially successful without going through that process.

That is not to say there are not plenty of good reasons for writers to resent how the business side of the industry works — there are, and it’s healthy to gripe about them. Resent it all you want privately, or in the company of other writers.

But do not, I beg you, allow that resentment to color the pitch you ultimately give. Or the query letter.

I know, I know: if you’ve been hanging out at conferences for a while, deep-dyed cynicism about the book market can start to sound a whole lot like the lingua franca. One can get a lot of mileage, typically, out of being the battle-scarred submission veteran who tells the new recruits war stories — or the pitcher in the group meeting with an editor who prefaces his comments with, “Well, this probably isn’t the right market for this book concept, but…”

But to those who actually work in the industry, complaining about the current market’s artistic paucity will not make you come across as serious about your work — as it tends to do amongst other writers, admittedly. Instead, it’s likely to insult the very people who could help you get beyond the pitching and querying stage.

Yes, you may well gulp. To an agent’s ears, such complaints tend to sound more like a lack of understanding of how books actually get published than well-founded critique of a genuinely difficult-to-navigate system.

Besides, neither a pitch meeting nor a query letter is primarily about writing, really: they’re both about convincing agents and editors that here is a story or topic that can sell to a particular target audience.

Yes, you read that correctly — and out comes the broken record again: contrary to what the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, the goal of the pitch (and the query letter) is NOT to make the business side of the industry fall in love with your WRITING, per se — it’s to get the agent or editor to whom it is addressed to ASK to see the written pages.

Then, and only then, is it logically possible for them to fall in love with your prose stylings or vigorous argument. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: no one in the world can judge your writing without reading it.

This may seem obvious — especially to those of you who read my comments-in-passing on the subject earlier in this series — outside the context of a pitching or querying experience, but it’s worth a reminder during conference season. Too many writers walk out of pitching meetings or recycle rejections from queries believing, wrongly, that they’ve just been told that they cannot write.

It’s just not true — but by the same token, a successful verbal pitch or enthusiastically-received query letter is not necessarily a ringing endorsement of writing talent, either. Both are merely the marketing materials intended to prompt a request to see the writing itself.

Which means, of course, that if you flub your pitch, you should not construe that as a reflection of your writing talent, either; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences.

I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore,” or “I could have sold that story ten years ago, but not now”) often DOES make it sound like a review of your writing.

But it isn’t; it can’t be.

All it can be, really, is a statement of belief about current and future conditions on the book market, not the final word about how your book will fare there. Just as with querying, if an agent or editor does not respond to your pitch, just move on to the next on your list.

Does all of that that make you feel any better about the prospect of walking into a pitch meeting? Did it, at any rate, permit you to get good and annoyed at the necessity of pitching and querying, to allow all of that frustration to escape your system?

Good. Now you’re ready to prep your pitch.

Did I just sense some eye-rolling out there? “But Anne,” I hear some chronically sleep-deprived preppers cry, “can’t you read a calendar? I’ve been working on my pitch for WEEKS now. I keep tinkering with it; I know I have the perfect pitch in me, but I can’t seem to bring it out.”

I know precisely what you mean — after staring for so long at a single page of text (which is, after all, what a formal pitch ends up being, at most), it can feel like it’s taken over one’s life.

One of the dangers of being embroiled for too long in the editorial process, I find, is becoming a bit too literal in one’s thinking. As with any revision process, either on one’s own work or others’, one can become a touch myopic, both literally and figuratively.

How myopic, you ask? Let me share an anecdote of the illustrative variety.

A couple of years ago, I went on a week-long writing retreat in another state in order to make a small handful of revisions to a novel of mine. Small stuff, really, but my agent was new to the project and wanted me to give the work a slightly different spin before he started submitting it. (He had taken it over from another agent within my agency — and for the benefit of those of you who just clutched your chests and whimpered that you thought you were getting into a life-long relationship: authors get reassigned within agencies all the time, especially if they write within more than one book category.)

Basically, he wanted it to sound a bit more like his type of book, the kind editors had grown to expect from his submissions. Perfectly legitimate, of course (if it doesn’t sound like that to you, please see both the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK and HOW TO BE AN AGENT’S DREAM CLIENT categories on the list at right before you even consider getting involved with an agent), and I’m glad to report that the revisions went smoothly.

At the end of my week of intensive revision, a friend and her 6-year-old daughter were kind enough to give me, my computer, and my many empty bottles of mineral water (revision is thirsty work, after all, and the retreat did not offer glass recycling, believe it or not) a ride back from my far-flung retreat site. Early in the drive, my friend missed a turn, and made a slight reference to her Maker.

Nothing truly soul-blistering, mind you, just a little light taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Fresh from vacation Bible school, her daughter pointed out, correctly, that her mother had just broken a commandment and should be ashamed of herself. (Apparently, her school hadn’t yet gotten to the one about honoring thy father and thy mother.)

“Not if God wasn’t capitalized,” I said without thinking. “If it’s a lower-case g, she could have been referring to any god. Apollo, for instance, or Zeus. For all we know, they may kind of like being called upon in moments of crisis. It could make them feel important.”

Now, that was a pretty literal response, and one that I subsequently learned generated a certain amount of chagrin when the little girl repeated it in her next Sunday school class. Not that I wasn’t technically correct, of course — but I should have let the situation determine what is an appropriate response.

Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

That’s true in pitching, too, you know. (You were wondering how I was going to work this back to the topic at hand, weren’t you?) Hyper-literalism can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress during conference prep as well.

In part, that’s the nature of the beast: since aspiring writers are not told nearly enough about what to expect from a pitching appointment (or a potential response to a query), they tend to grasp desperately at what few guidelines they are given, following them to the letter.

And to a certain extent, that makes perfect sense: when going into an unfamiliar, stressful situation, it’s natural to want to cling to rules.

The trouble is, as I have pointed out throughout this series, not everything writers are told about pitching, querying, or even — dare I say it? — what does and doesn’t sell in writing is applicable, or even up-to-date. Adhering too closely to rules that many not be appropriate to the situation at hand can actually be a liability.

Anyone who has ever attended a writers’ conference has seen the result: the causalities of hyper-literalism abound.

Let me take you on a guided tour: there’s the writer who lost precious hours of sleep last night over the realization that her prepared pitch is four lines long, instead of three; there’s the one who despairs because he’s been told that he should not read his pitch, but memorize it. The guy over here is working so many dashes, commas, and semicolons into his three-sentence pitch that it goes on for six minutes with only three periods. In another corner mopes the romance writer who has just heard an agent say that she’s not looking for Highland romances anymore — which, naturally, the writer hears as NO ONE’s looking to acquire them.

You get the picture. As writers listen to litanies of what they are doing wrong, and swap secrets they have learned elsewhere, the atmosphere becomes palpably heavy with depression.

By the end of the conference, after the truisms all of these individuals have been shared, bounced around, and mutated like the messages in the children’s game of Telephone, and after days on end of every word each attending agent, editor, and/or teacher says being treated with the reverence of Gospel, there is generally a whole lot of rule-mongering going on.

Take a nice deep breath. The industry is not trying to trick you into giving the wrong answer.

What it IS trying to do is get you to adhere to under-advertised publishing norms. While some of those norms are indeed inflexible — the rigors of standard manuscript format, for instance — most of the time, you are fine if you adhere to the spirit of the norm, rather than its letter.

In other words: at a conference, try not to take every piece of advice you hear literally. (Except that one about keeping your query letter down to a single page.)

So those of you who are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: don’t. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly.

Yes, you read that one correctly, to: no agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words in a hallway pitch, any more than he will be counting its periods.

Admittedly, they may begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words or frequency of punctuation. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some reader’s concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is NOT because there is some special virtue in that number of sentences, but to make sure that the elevator speech is SHORT, brief enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

To recast that in graphic terms, the elevator speech should be short enough to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor.

Remember, though, that no matter what you may have heard, AN ELEVATOR SPEECH IS NOT A FORMAL PITCH, but a shortened version of it. The elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them.

So if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, it actually makes far more sense to TIME your pitch than it does to count the words.

Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so. While these may not seem like big differences, you can say a lot in 30 seconds.

But DO NOT, I beg you, rend your hair in the midnight hours between now and your next pitching opportunity trying to figure out how to cut your pitch from 2 minutes, 15 seconds down to 2, or plump it up from a minute seventeen to 2, just because I advise that as a target length.

I’m not going to be standing there with a stopwatch, after all, any more than an agent is — and no matter what any writing guru tells you, none of us advice-givers is right 100% of the time. Don’t treat any rule that any of us give you as inviolable.

Seriously, not even mine. While I am fortunate enough to enjoy a large acquaintance in the industry, until I rule the universe, I can pretty much guarantee that no agent or editor, even my own, is ever going to say, “Well, that WOULD have been a great pitch, but unfortunately, it was 17.4 seconds longer than Anne Mini says it should be, so I’m going to have to pass.”

Even if I DID rule the universe (will someone get on that, please?), no one would ever say that to you. It’s in your best interest to adhere to the spirit of my advice on the pitch — or anyone else’s — not necessarily the letter.

How might one go about doing that? Well, remember that elevator speech I wrote a couple of weeks ago for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? No? Okay, here it is again:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say: sixty- two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance.

That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper, I would go ahead and add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the first hundred words as well. If I had just spent a weekend prowling the halls of the Conference-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, for instance, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I would have tried to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is women’s fiction and the title.

Oh, and to have the time to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name, and manners enough to share it with people when I first meet them.

But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds, if I were pinched for time. Nor should you.

To do so would be a literal reaction to the dicta of the proponents of the three-sentence pitch, those scary souls who have made many writers frightened of adding interesting or even necessary details to their pitches. They don’t do this to be malicious, really: they are espousing the virtue of brevity, which is indeed desirable.

It is not, however, the ONLY virtue a pitch should have, any more than every single-page letter in the world is automatically a stellar query.

Pull out your hymnals, everybody, and sing along: if you’re marketing a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the world’s best person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself (in addition to my adult professional experience, I also spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known writer around to SF conventions; aspiring writers were perpetually leaping out from behind comic books and gaming tables to tell him about their books), so I can tell you with authority:

Far more of them fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

Embrace the spirit of brevity, not the letter. If you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it.

Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will EVER tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

As the song says, spirits high, pulses low. Keep up the good work!

If this is Tuesday, it must be Minneapolis, by guest blogger Stanley Trollip

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Hello, campers –

Today, I’m giving us all a much-deserved respite from our rather taxing ongoing series on conference pitching to bring you all a reward for virtue — no, make that several rewards for virtue. Remember earlier this summer, when award-winning police procedural author and fab guy Stanley Trollip stopped by to give us his insights on publication contracts, promising to return to tell us all about his book tour for his second novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU?

Well, jump for joy, fans of thrillers and book signings: he has proven as good as his word.

For those of you who have joined the Author! Author! community only recently, Stan is best known as Michael Stanley, nom de plume of Stan Trollip and Michael Sears. It’s one of the great thriller collaborations of our time.

But don’t take my word for that: the Los Angeles Times named their last novel, A CARRION DEATH, as one of the top ten crime novels of 2008. It also raked in finalist honors for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

The flattering buzz has been even louder for their new novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for it, along with both the US cover and the cover and title you’d see if you happened to be browsing in a Canadian or UK-based bookstore:

seconddeath cover michael stanleydeadlytrade cover Michael StanleyHow can a man die twice?

That is the question facing Detective David “Kubu” Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in Northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analyzed, Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years earlier.

Kubu quickly realizes that nothing at the camp is as it seems. As the guests are picked off one by one, time to stop the murderer is running out. With rumors of horrifying war crimes, the scent of a drug-smuggling trail, and mounting pressure from his superiors to contend with, Kubu doesn’t notice there is one door still left unguarded – his own. And as he sets a trap to find the criminals, the hunters are closing on him…

Not a bad pitch, is it? Notice how those one-of-a-kind details just leap out at you? Out comes the broken record again: never, ever forget that even the most tedious chore in book description is an opportunity to show what a good storyteller you are.

I digress, however. I promised you goodies, and goodies you shall have.

A whole literary cornucopia of them, too: to keep things interesting, not only will Author! Author! be bringing you Stan’s insights today, but a newfangled high-tech treat and a good, old-fashioned contest. To avoid scaring any technophobes out there away from winning a copy of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU free, gratis, and entirely without encumbering your monetary worth even tangentially, allow me to fill you in about the contest first.

To prepare you to enter, please study this lovely photo of precisely the kind of literary event most aspiring writers would happily give their little toes to attend:

Seated at the round table are Stanley (left), Michael (right), with their agent, Marly Rusoff

Stan (left) and Michael at the round table with their agent, Marly Rusoff

To win a copy of Michael Stanley’s latest book, all you have to do is answer this question: where are Stan and Michael hobnobbing with their agent? (Hint: as public places in New York City go, it could hardly be more literary.)

Answers should be emailed to michaelstanley@detectivekubu.com with subject line “Author! Author! contest” before September 15th. Three lucky winners will be drawn randomly from all correct answerers shortly thereafter, and the results shall be announced here and on the Detective Kubu website.

So this is a chance for fame as well as (modest) fortune!

Okay, now on to the technofest. As it happens, it directly relates to what you might be winning.

HarperCollins is beta-testing a nifty promotional feature that not only enables potential readers to browse books on its website, but allows me to offer my readers that opportunity, too. It’s not the whole book, mind you, and it’s not printable, but this feature does allow you to see more than most readers skim in a bookstore before buying. Take a gander, and see what you think:

What do you think? Like it as a promotional device, or would you rather be turning pages in a brick-and-mortar bookstore? Would you feel differently about it if it were your book being promoted this way — in other words, do you prefer it as a writer than as a reader, or vice-versa?

As if all that weren’t exciting enough for one post, we haven’t yet gotten to the watermelon at the heart of the cornucopia (oh, you had a better metaphor in mind?): Stan’s promised insights into the mysteries of book tours, working with publicists, and every author’s nightmare, what happens if no one shows up to a book signing.

So please join me in a big Author! Author! welcome for Stan Trollip! Take it away, Stan!

seconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanley

June 2nd saw the launch of our second Detective Kubu mystery — The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu — at the wonderful Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis, and kicked off something of a whirlwind book tour of the US. We visited 12 cities and 20 bookstores over about six weeks, but most of the trip was concentrated over a three-week period. During that time, we were in New York, Minneapolis, Urbana-Champaign IL, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Houston, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Book signings were interspersed with radio and TV slots and online interviews, and surrounded by Book Expo, Thrillerfest, and the American Library Association convention.

We were fortunate to have strong support from HarperCollins, particularly from our in-house publicist Heather Drucker, and things went smoothly as a result. And external publicist Susan Schwartzman buzzed around getting media slots for us. It would be a big challenge to arrange this sort of tour without the support of such knowledgeable and energetic people.

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Many writers don’t understand the role of the publicist at a major house. So here is how we see it. Several months before the book is released, the in-house publicist sends out review copies of the book to influential reviewers in the various media. This list is often compiled in collaboration with the authors, who may have insights into niche areas. If you have a publisher like HarperCollins, this can amount to well over a hundred books.

Then the publicist works with the authors to map out a book-tour itinerary. The extent of this depends on the publisher’s budget, which was zero for our first book, A Carrion Death, and small but significant for the second book, as well as how much the author is willing to contribute. For both books, we chipped in a sizeable amount of our advance to fund our tours.

Then the publicist contacts the bookstores or other organizations, such as libraries, and coordinates everything with them, including providing publicity materials if available, ensuring they have enough books to sell, helping to publicize the event, and so on. The publicist also coordinates the travel and accommodation arrangements. We try to stay with friends whenever possible, not only because it reduces costs, but is also much more fun.

Finally, the in-house publicist works with the external publicist to ensure that their efforts are coordinated. For example, Heather from HarperCollins worked with Susan (an external publicist whom we hired) to support her efforts to find radio and TV spots. She did this by supplying additional review copies of the book, providing book reviews as they came out, and coordinating the sale of books if appropriate.

We have heard stories of the in-house and external publicists competing. This is not a good situation! Before you hire an external publicist, you should coordinate with your in-house publicist so that you are building a team not a pair of competitors. In our case, Heather and Susan worked together wonderfully.

So what is our perspective on our book tour, looking back two months later?

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

From the moment we launched The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, it was great fun. We talked to people who enjoy our books and had read both or intended to do so. We met booksellers who care about mystery books and have an intimidating knowledge of them and their authors. And we spent a lot of time together, enjoying the travel, sharing the experiences, and talking about our third book.

Second, we learned a lot. We discovered that people really care about the ongoing characters in the book, particularly our protagonist, Botswana police detective David Bengu (known as Kubu) and his family. Interestingly, few questions or comments related to Kubu himself, other than whether he was based on a real person (he isn’t). Perhaps people have already formed their own mental pictures of him and where he is going.

Readers really like his wife Joy and wonder what is happening with the relationship between Joy’s sister, Pleasant, and an occasional suitor, Bongani. We also heard a lot of positive comments about Kubu’s aging parents (Wilmon and Amantle). We were told they added to an understanding of the Botswana culture. This was very satisfying as we had decided early on in our writing to purposefully deal with the physical and cultural attributes of Botswana. We realized that doing so would slow the pace of the mystery a little, but hoped what it added would compensate. Our tour and the reviews we have received tell us that most readers like the style.

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers' reactions to A Carrion Death

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers’ reactions to A Carrion Death

Third, the tour was hard work. We did the Midwest, travelling by car from Chicago; there are long distances involved and the June weather was — to be polite — variable. We had plenty of good dinners with old friends, who turned out across the country to support us, but we had a few twists and turns along the way. One pit-stop restaurant we could only find sugared pop, other than tap water, and fried food. We were caught up in a demonstration in Los Angeles urging democracy in Iran. We were becalmed on the LA freeway. We had sessions with standing room only, and an event to which no one showed up.

We suspect that it is every writer’s nightmare to stand expectantly at the front of a room, and wait, and wait. Look at your watch. How long should we wait? Fifteen minutes? Thirty minutes. Feel embarrassed, awkward. Not sure what to say to the bookstore manager. She’s not sure what to say to you. It happened to us on a Sunday lunchtime on the city’s first nice summer day of the year. “Sundays are always busy,” she told us apologetically. But the first sight of the sun tempted even the most ardent readers and every chair was vacant.

In some ways, we were quite pleased it happened. We had got it out of the way — the nagging fear of an empty room. More importantly, we survived! And our egos were still intact. People on the street didn’t point at us surreptitiously and snigger. And it gave us something to write about in this blog.

All we can say is that it is going to happen. We are lucky to tour together, so at least we have each other to talk to. And maybe there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps new authors should consider doing events in tandem with another author. At least then, when there is no audience, you have a companion with whom to share the disappointment.

Stan making the most of a book signing

Stan making the most of a book signing

At a more practical level, one can ask what these book tours achieve. Certainly we find it of value to learn in person what readers think and feel about our writing, even though we get similar feedback by email and over our website. We think the readers enjoy the events and find them interesting. In addition, bookstore owners and managers now have a personal experience of us to link to the books when they sell them.

But our feeling is that this sort of discussion is irrelevant for most people in the publishing industry, especially in the current weak economic environment. Their question would be: does the time and money spent on a book tour improve book sales?

It’s a difficult question to answer. One publicist told us that they know that only half of their marketing has any impact on sales — they just don’t know which half.

The same goes for us. We are both scientists and have a constant discomfort that there are no data about the effectiveness of what we do for publicity. In reality, we believe that book tours and so on are valuable, but don’t ask us to prove it.

Then there is the 90:10 rule – ninety percent of the marketing budget goes on the ten percent of authors who are best known, best sellers, and who need marketing the least. Since we are not in that ten percent, we are grateful for the slice we got of the other ten percent. We work hard and spend a considerable amount of our advances on marketing and touring. It is reassuring that HarperCollins is willing to support us in this.

Book tours outside North America seem to be uncommon except for well-known authors. We have done no more than a few signings in other countries. Declining to organize a function in Johannesburg for our second book, our South African publicist told us that launches don’t sell books; publicity sells books. We pointed out that the launch of A Carrion Death in Johannesburg sold over a hundred copies and attracted at least twice that number of people. Her response was: “Yes, it was an excellent launch. You have a lot of friends in Johannesburg.” So we threw our own party to which 100 or so people came, and we sold seventy books.

Would the same number of books have been sold anyway? We don’t know.

So how would we sum up our feelings about the book tour? Let’s put it this way. If we’re asked to do one next year for our third book, we’ll dip into our pockets and start buying the plane tickets.

carrion-death-us-small.jpgcarrion-death-us-small.jpgcarrion-death-us-small.jpg
Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.