Pitchingpalooza, part XXIV: the bare necessities of conference life

Okay, so maybe a gin-and-tonic isn’t actually a necessity of conference life. However, if an alien descended from the planet Targ to make the rounds of a few dozen writers’ conferences, you could hardly blame him/her/it from reaching that conclusion.

I’m not saying that people drink a lot at writers’ conferences. I’m just saying that if Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Graham Greene stumbled into the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, they probably would not be drinking alone.

Because the hired hands — agents, editors, conference presenters, visiting authors, etc. — have been known to congregate in that bar, it’s typically a pretty good place for an aspiring writer to make some literary connections. Or at least to strike up the ilk of conversation that leads to being asked, “So what do you write?”

Word to the wise: you’re going to want to be able to answer this question in a lucid manner, even very late in the evening. If you want to keep in fine pitching fettle — and you do — watch what you’re drinking, and remember to eat something. If you feel the heavy weight of peer pressure (or just don’t want a drink), club soda and lime is cosmetically identical to the aforementioned gin concoction.

I just mention. It’s also pretty good for rehydration — and believe me, after spending a day in most conference centers, your body will probably need it.

Seem like a frivolous concern, compared to the weightier issues of pitching? Darned right. 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 strong nerves, an iron stomach, and a firm conviction that your book is the best literary achievement since MADAME BOVARY, of course.

At minimum, you’re going to want to bring a trusty, comfortable pen and a notebook with a backing hard enough to write upon, so you can take good notes during seminars, agents’ fora, and the like. If you want to make friends quickly, throw a few extra pens and paper into your bag, for handing around to total strangers less prepared than you.

Even if you have no interest in making friends and influencing anyone other than an agent or editor at a conference, consider being the friendly neighborhood pen supplier. They are inexpensive, easily portable, and a small price to pay for making the acquaintance of some kind souls who will buy your books someday.

Oh, you weren’t planning on jotting down all of your new writer friends’ contact information, so you could let them know when your first book is about to come out? Why ever not? Who is going to understand better what a triumph that is — or be more likely to understand that the best way to support a writer is to buy her books?

You should also tote along all of the paperwork the conference organizers sent you, including a copy of your conference registration, information about your scheduled 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 particularly long in the tooth.)

I’m 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, dedicated, and sometimes overwhelmed teams of volunteers, not crack teams of hyper-efficient event organizers assisted by an army of support staff with Krazy Glue on their fingertips. Details have been known to fall through the cracks occasionally.

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 or which agent you asked to see. 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.

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. And as I said only moments ago, who do you think is going to buy your book? You may well want to be a speaker at this conference someday; be charming.

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.

Starting to sound like you’ll be carrying a lot of stuff? You will — so 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 — or at least a table — devoted to convincing you to buy the collected works of conference speakers, local writers, and the fine folks who organized the conference. Don’t expect to receive discounts on books sold at a conference, though: 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. This is usually the case, incidentally, even if the author in question is a household name. So if you are looking for an excuse to walk up to a world-famous author and burble how much you love her writing, look no farther than this bookstore. It’s rare to find an author so jaded that she will not be willing to take a few minutes to sign the book a fan was kind enough to purchase.

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?

Again, though, use discretion. No one likes to be accosted with a pen and a hardback in the bathroom, or while deep in conversation with a friend one has not seen for seven years. The words, “Excuse me,” are your friends here.

Be aware, too, 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, if the book sounds interesting. However, you might want to ask the author if s/he would prefer for you to buy it elsewhere. An author with a strong preference will be only too glad to steer you in the right direction.

Don’t be surprised if the question results in a book’s being shoved under your nose the next moment, though. The author may well elect to carry around half a dozen copies in his shoulder bag, just in case an eager reader turns up when the bookstore is closed. You may also be treated to a long litany of complaints about how much lower the royalties are when books are sold someplace like Costco (much of that steep discount typically comes out of the author’s end), or how much more work book promotion is for the author now than ten years ago, but that’s precisely the kind of behind-the-scenes insight you came to the conference to glean, right?

Speaking of requests folks in the industry are thrilled to get, you can hardly ask an agent or editor a more flattering question than, “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 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 take 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, don’t always 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’ forum to double-check that the agent to whom you were planning to pitch a vampire romance isn’t going around saying, “I swear, if I see ONE more vampire romance, I shan’t be responsible for my actions.”

Because attendees are expected to memorize such preferences — and, if necessary, to switch pitching appointments accordingly — it’s a good idea to jot ‘em all down. Yes, even if an agent is declaring her undying love for semi-explicit love scenes in science fiction, and you happen to write futuristic Westerns. I guarantee you that at least one of those writers who showed up without pens or paper will be asking within the next few hours, “Wait — what did that SF agent say she was looking for in a manuscript?”

Help him out, if only for the karma. And who do you think is going to buy…oh, you know the tune by now.

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’. That way, I can remember who was who by who was sitting where. I also note a few physical characteristics for each, along with their expressed preferences in books.

Why should I care what they look like and where they were sitting? 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, 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.

Or to be sure that the redhead to whom they were just introduced in the bar was the agent with the romantic tastes in science fiction — or the one who said she was interested primarily in historical fiction about nuns. You wouldn’t want to mix them up after your third gin-and-tonic, would you?

Being able to whip out those diagrams for a surreptitious last-minute check can be very helpful. It’s likely to be even more helpful a month or two after the conference, to assist you in remembering 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, and consume illustrators for lunch with an amusing côte de Rhone.

On my diagrams, the author-consumers tend to be depicted with horns, pitchfork, and tail. But that’s just my little memory-jogging device.

I always, always, ALWAYS advise writers to bring a big bottle of water to a conference — 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 to your neighbors.

How so? Well, when you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers, 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 unmercifully. Personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime.

I’m wacky that way. I also prefer for my voice to be audible when I speak, rather than rasping.

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.

Conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is most emphatically 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. I’ve also been known to hand out chewable Vitamin C tablets like candy and bars of chocolate like medicine to those waiting in hallways for their pitch appointments.

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. To stave off feeling woozy during a pitch meeting, here are some tips:

* Take nice, deep breaths. Not just every so often, but on a regular basis. You might even consider taking it up habitually.

* 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, no matter how much she liked your pitch..

* Don’t drink too much coffee, tea, or alcohol prior to your pitch meeting. (Even though everyone else will be doing so with enthusiasm.) You will want your perceptions sharp, not wired or dulled.

* 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. Do it for the karma. And who do you think is going to buy your books in years to come?

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, simply 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. I like to toss a couple of oranges into my conference kit: in a room with stagnant air, the aroma produced in the peeling process can lift everyone’s spirits. Even people who hate oranges may ask for a section.

The generous person with the tin of Altoids also tends to be rather popular in the waiting area near the pitching appointments. Even if you don’t aspire to being the waiting room’s Easter Bunny, it’s not a bad idea to bring along some mints or ginger candy for your own use, just in case you start to feel queasy.

Since you will most likely be sitting on comfortless chairs for many, many hours over the course of the conference, you might want to bring a small pillow, either to sit upon or for back support. Those metal chairs can be brutal. I once attended a conference where instead of tote bags, the organizers distributed portable seat cushions emblazoned with the writers’ organization’s logo to attendees.

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. When you’re stressed, it can work wonders 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. 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; I suspect it will not be difficult) 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, I 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 in the US, you don’t necessarily have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. I’m not a tax attorney, though, so talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with writers — not just artists. Heck, all of those books you buy might just be deductible as market research.

Seriously, it is 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. 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. Even if the agent of your dreams just ends up using your card as a bookmark, she will see your name again.

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. Or to add to that Notify When the Book Comes Out list I sincerely hope you have been maintaining for years. (How do you think all of those people who have said, “Gee, I’d like to read some of your work sometime,” will find out about your book if you do not tell them?)

It works the other way, too, of course. The easier you make it for those nice writers 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, isn’t it? 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 — and it’s not that these are the loyal friends who will not only buy your books, but sneak into bookstores across this fine land of ours and turn them cover-out, so browsers are more likely to notice them. 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 sweet writer with whom you chatted about romantica at lunch?

Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it. (An opening line that I’ve seldom seen fail: “Excuse me, but I wanted to thank you for that speech. You said exactly what I needed to hear right now.” Few public speakers, no matter how talented, are so secure that they won’t want to know what in particular struck you so.) But try not to let star-gazing distract you from interacting with the less well-known authors 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.

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? Won’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.

Even the world’s most charmed writer, blessed with immense talent AND vast quantities of pure, dumb luck, has days of wondering whether all the effort is worth it. 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. While you’re at it, toss in a folder containing several copies of your synopsis and the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents will want to see them, 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. It’s the same basic principle governing agency submission guidelines that request a few pages to be tucked into the query packet.

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. Especially if you had the foresight to carry them in a folder, so they would not wrinkle, and to print them on 20-lb or better bright white paper.

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 of the conference’s literary contest. You will never 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 asks 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. 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 a contest winner’s 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.

Don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. And 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. Ideally, it should be the opening of the book, but if you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that. Using the first five pages is widely considered more professional, though — 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 perspective, 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 norms of the industry!” You want the formatting to be unprovocative, showcasing rather than distracting from your writing.

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 BOOK MANUSCRIPT category. 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 no one told him or her what the rules of submission were.

Again, I’m funny that way.

Okay, that’s enough practicalities for one day. Avoid dehydration, make some friends, and, as always, keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XXIII: how soon is too soon, how much information is too much, and other burning questions of conference life

lie-detector

Remember back at the beginning of this series, when I introduced you to the world’s worst salesman, that genial soul who evinced continual exasperation because consumers insisted upon wandering into his flooring emporium and demanding, well, flooring? If only all of the benighted souls pursuing Marmoleum and carpet would leave him alone for a while, perhaps he could get some real work done — like, say, selling some flooring.

I may have met his match over the weekend: a delightful gentleman whom Home Depot had, perhaps unwisely, entrusted with the task of translating the customer’s choice of paint chip into a bucket of something that might conceivably resemble that hue if applied judiciously to a wall. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly match that,” he told me in a tone that implied I was a mad scientist, bent upon world domination through vicious color manipulation. “I’d have to special-order the base for something like that. Might take weeks.”

The color in question was, should you care to know it, royal blue. The wall behind him was painted approximately the same color as my proffered paint chip. I could, had I been so inclined, simply reached onto the shelf immediately behind his head and grabbed a can of spray paint in the shade I was requesting.

Besides, he had said something quite similar to the beige-loving lady in front of me in line. I waved paint chips from three different manufacturers under his nose, suggesting that if he did not have the base for my first choice in stock, he might conceivably be able to try one of the others.

He snorted derisively. “Yeah, but I’d have to go into the back for either of those.” He was visibly surprised when this piece of sterling logic did not instantly dissuade me from wanting to paint anything, ever. He pointed out that he would actually have to walk all the way to the back of the store in order to fulfill my madcap request, but I remained adamant. “Maybe you could come back tomorrow,” he suggested.

Eventually, I cajoled him into attempting to mix some royal blue for my trim, just to see if it was possible. If it turned out not to be, I assured him, I would follow his advice and paint the room in question flat white. But at least the question of whether royal blue was a color extant only in theory would have been resolved for the ages.

Mirabile dictu, it is in fact feasible for a well-equipped hardware store to produce a can of non-white paint. Feeling that the paint gods were on my side, I recklessly requested a couple of gallons of light blue paint for the rest of the room.

He sighed so gustily that customers in adjacent aisles wheeled around to see who had been punched in the gut. “Lady, if you want colors like that, you should go to a specialty store. Now, if you could pick something more reasonable…”

“Well, I could gold-leaf the room, but that might be a trifle hard on the eyes.”

He appeared pleased with the suggestion. “That would be beautiful. Of course, we don’t carry anything like that here.”

Clearly, the man was a minion of the wallpaper industry. By dint of persistent cross-examination, however, I did manage to elicit an admission that a light blue could in fact be produced by — I hope I’m not giving away an artist’s secret here — mixing a blue tint with white paint. Who knew?

Not wanting to press my luck, I apprehended my paint cans and fled. I was halfway through turning the third wall light blue before I was forced to resort to the second gallon. The paint within appeared to be a brilliant orange.

“Well, that happens,” my hero informed me when I returned. “Some of these tints are unstable.”

Why am I sharing this story of woe and disillusionment toward the end of Pitchingpalooza, you ask? Because like this paint-monger, many a conference pitcher seems to believe, wrongly, that communicating his resentment about having to pitch at all will not fundamentally color his hearer’s perception of whether he knows what he is talking about. Judging by the tone and speed of many conference pitches, quite a few pitchers’ primary goal is just to get the agent or editor listening to it to decamp as swiftly as possible.

But we know better, right? Pop quiz: what’s the actual purpose of a conference pitch?

Help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash if you instantly shouted, “Why, to convince the agent or editor to ask to see pages!” But if your first instinct was to say, “Um, to survive my pitch meeting without dying of fright?” we need to talk.

Conference pitching was not invented by sadists in order to torture innocent writers, you know — in theory, it’s intended to save aspiring writers some time. Instead of having to proceed through a tedious and often protracted querying process that does not always result in requests for pages, a writer can approach several agents at a conference, present her book’s premise convincingly, and walk out with one or more materials requests.

But that doesn’t mean that the people hearing your pitch won’t notice if you appear to be hurried, hostile, or just plain petrified; how you present yourself and your book does matter. It’s okay to acknowledge that you’re nervous; it’s not okay to act as though the agent or editor harbors a grudge against writers in general and you in particular, simply because she asks what category would most comfortably fit your book.

Resentment of the process shows up beautifully within the context of a tense pitching appointment, and for good reason. Just as a query that begins Since agents like you have set yourself up as the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, I guess I have to go through you to get published is much less likely to succeed than on that introduces one’s book politely, a pitch accompanied by a bitter denunciation of the business that keeps the hearer shod, fed, and with a roof over her head is substantially less likely to engender a request to see pages than one that doesn’t.

Go figure. Remember, it’s human nature to prefer to work with upbeat, friendly people, rather than angry, sullen ones. A good agent will expect to have a lot of contact with his clients; you’re going to want to come across as easy to work with on a long-term basis.

You don’t have to smile constantly, naturally, or heap the agent with compliments on her attire. (“A blue suit — well, I can certainly see that you live in the fashion capital of North America.”) Just be pleasant, will ya?

I sense some disgruntlement out there. Go ahead, get it out — far better that you air it here than in a pitch meeting. “But Anne,” the annoyed many cry, “that’s not fair! I want my book to be judged on its writing and my great premise, not how likable I am.”

Seriously? If the agent of your dreams asks to see the first 50 pages of your manuscript, you’re going to quibble about why?

But okay, if you insist: logically, it is impossible for an agent or editor to assess anyone’s writing based upon a verbal pitch alone. The pro can glean quite a bit of information about whether he is likely to be a good fit for a particular book project from a pitch — the book’s category, for instance, or its target audience, the inherent excitement of its central conflict, whether the intended reader will sympathize with the protagonist’s dilemma — but if the only way that you will accept representation is if the agent reads your first two sentences and falls in love with your voice, pitching is not going to produce the outcome you want. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

If, however, you are the kind of writer who approaches conference pitching as a means of leap-frogging over the query stage and straight to submission, it’s in your best interest to be as pleasant as possible. It will get your great premise a more hospitable hearing.

Is everyone clear on that? If not, please speak up; that’s what the comments section is for, people.

Remember, too, that in addition to maintaining a positive attitude, striving for clarity, rather than mere accuracy of description, will help you win friends for your book. Aspiring writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book. Your agent will be pitching it to editors; the editor that picks it up will be pitching it to an editorial committee.

Indeed, it’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that one of the main points of conference pitching is to render pitching a book someone else’s responsibility. Making it pellucidly clear what your book is about will go a long way toward convincing an agent that it would be worth her time to take a gander at your pages.

Obviously, clarity of presentation is especially challenging for writers of multiple-protagonist novels. Earlier in this series, 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.

So please, I implore you, do not open your pitch with, “My novel is a multi-perspective first-person narrative, alternating between the point of view of a color-blind house painter, a tone-deaf piano teacher, and a pianist who has entirely lost the sense of touch.” It’s not that these characters are uninteresting; your hearer will want to hear the story.

Don’t make that face at me, multiple perspective-lovers. Presumably, you chose the multiple POV narrative style because it fits the story you want to tell, 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. It really does behoove you, then, not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view. If you 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. What makes me so sure of that? 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.

Blame it on 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’s 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 occurs 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. 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 down the road to catch discrepancies between the pitch and the book. But realistically, 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.

At a conference, the average agent or editor might be hearing as many as hundred pitches per day. Multiply that by the number of days of the conference — and 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 feelings, but now that you’ve done the math, I ask you: how likely is it that she’s going to retain the specifics of, say, pitch #472?

You shouldn’t fret about that, because — pull out your hymnals, long-term readers — the purpose of a 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, admittedly, 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 Pitchingpalooza 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 take the time to whip your manuscript into shape before submission.

The upside of short memory spans: 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 honestly is up to you. As long as the story is a grabber, that is.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about 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 the 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 she has a complete draft in hand, 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. Take, for instance, 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, she’s not in that great a hurry — and trust me, she’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 category 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, when overnighting a manuscript would have been a rarity 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 the agent is going to be on vacation until after Labor Day…and if you could really get away with sending requested materials anytime between now and Christmas…and if the agent has 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 the 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. If you can get requested materials out the door within a few months, you should be fine.

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 librarian 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 — in a word, don’t. 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 about every syllable of the current text, right?

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.

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.) Standards do vary a bit by genre, though — check the recent offerings in your area to get a general sense.

If your book runs much over 400 pages, be prepared for some unconscious flinching when you mention the length. Or just don’t mention the length in your pitch; it’s not a required element.

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 past post.)

If at all possible, then, you will want to stay under that benchmark. If you have not, don’t mention the length in your pitch or query.

Not just for marketing reasons, or at any rate not merely 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 distrust aimed at memoirists these days, 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 has a policy requiring Millicent to reject 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?

I’ll answer that one for you: no, it isn’t. For any reason.

Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XIX: mustering the wherewithal to deliver the pitch proper, or, hey, watch out for that tree!

Perhaps I am inspired by this genuinely gorgeous photo of Lou Gehrig — taken, I am reliably informed, in the midst of the famed “I am the luckiest man in the world” speech — but I’ve been feeling the urge to blog about memoir-writing lately, campers. I know, I know: I generally spend the annual publishing world holiday stretching from the second week of August until after Labor Day filling your heads with practical details aplenty; I am still planning to talk about querying in September. After I wrap up Pitchingpalooza next week, however, I think I shall indulge myself with some in-depth discussion of the writing about the real, both as memoir and as fiction.

So start digging up those scraps of paper marked ask Anne about this. As always, I like to incorporate readers’ concerns, questions, and ideas into all of my series. And call me psychic, but I’m willing to bet a nickel that somewhere out there at this very moment, some member of the Author! Author! community is rending her garments over some seemingly insurmountable problem in holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.

Oh, and I may be announcing a new contest next week. It’s been a while since I’ve offered my readers the chance to generate any new Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC), after all.

Back to the matter at hand: here comes the attraction for which you have all been waiting so patiently. Today, I shall begin to talk about the pitch proper, the full 2-minute marketing statement a writer is expected to give at an honest-to-goodness, meet-’em-in-the-flesh appointment with an agent or editor at a conference.

Goosebump-inducing, isn’t it? Don’t worry; you’re up for it. So far in this series, we’ve been learning how to describe our work in terms that make sense to the publishing industry, as well as how to benefit from an impromptu pitch opportunity.

Now, we are ready to stack up all of those building blocks into, well, a building.

But not right away; I shall be presenting you with step-by-step guidelines this weekend. First, because there are so many misconceptions floating around out there about what that building should look like, how many rooms it should contain, whether to call where you drink coffee the porch, the veranda, or the lanai, and someone please extricate me from this metaphor before I spontaneously begin producing blueprints, I’m going to begin not by telling you immediately how to do a pitch right, but by pointing out what the vast majority of 2-minute pitchers do wrong.

Here, for your cringing pleasure, are the most popular formal pitching faux pas, so that you may avoid them. To echo the title of this post, watch out for that tree!

crooked-tree(1) As with the keynote and the elevator speech, most pitchers make the mistake of trying to turn the pitch proper into a summary of the book’s plot, rather than a teaser for its premise.

That’s going to be a Herculean task for a book whose plot’s complexity is much beyond the Dr. Seuss level. No wonder so many pitchers just start at page one and keep retailing details of the plot until the agent or editor says gently, “Um, I’m afraid it’s time for my next appointment.”

By which point, naturally, the pitcher has made it all the way to page 42 in a 387-page novel. Which leads me to another low-hanging branch to avoid:

lonely-tree(2) Most pitchers don’t stop talking when their pitches are done.

Yes, yes, I know: all throughout the posts on hallway pitching, I have been harping on the advisability of getting out there, saying your pitch, and then ceasing to have any sound coming out of your gullet. That’s as good advice for a formal pitch as for the elevator variety.

A 2-minute pitch means just that: the pitcher talks for two minutes about her manuscript. Possibly a bit more, if the agent or editor interrupts to ask questions (which is a good sign, people — don’t freeze up if it happens), but the pitch itself should not run longer.

In case I’m being too subtle here: plan to stop talking at that point.

Why? Well, among other things, you’re going to want to hear what the agent of your dreams has to say about your book project, right? Also, an active resolve to say what one has planned to say and then stop can be a powerful tool to keep a writer from rambling.

And why do writers tend to ramble in their formal pitches, other than pure, unadulterated nervousness? Glad you asked.

trees-without-leaves(3) The vast majority of conference pitchers neither prepare adequately nor practice enough.

Now, if you have been working diligently through this series, you shouldn’t fall prey to the first problem; here at Author! Author!, we always have our fine-toothed combs at the ready, do we not? I’ve noticed , however, that my magic wand seems to have lost the ability to compel my students to say their pitches out loud to at least 25 non-threatening human beings before they even dream of trying it out on a big, scary, Bigfoot-like agent.

Okay, so maybe I was exaggerating about the Bigfoot part. Or maybe I wasn’t: having spent years holding first-time pitchers’ hands at writers’ conferences, I’m not entirely sure that some of them would have been more terrified if they were about to be trapped in a room with a yeti.

Why? Well…

negative-tree(4) Most pitchers harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of memorizing their pitches, and thus do not bring a written copy with them into the pitch meeting.

This one drives me nuts, because it is 100% unnecessary: no reasonable human being, much less an agent accustomed to listening to nervous writers, is going to fault you for consulting your notes in a pitch meeting. Or even reading the pitch outright.

This is not an exercise in rote memorization, people; you don’t get extra credit for being able to give your pitch without cue cards. A successful pitch is a communication between two individuals about a manuscript. Everyone concerned loves books — so why on earth would an agent or editor object to a demonstration that you can read?

More to the point, having the text (or at least an outline) of what you want to say in your perspiring little hand is not only acceptable — it’s a grand idea. It’s smart. Its time has come.

It’s also a good idea to invest some pre-pitching energy in ramping down the terror level, because, let’s face it, this is a scary thing to do. Not because a writer might muff any of the technical aspects of pitching, but because of what’s at stake.

green-tree(5) Most pitchers don’t realize until they are actually in the meeting that part of what they are demonstrating in the 2-minute pitch is their acumen as storytellers. If, indeed, they realize it at all.

Raises the stakes something awful, doesn’t it? Relax — for someone who legitimately is a talented storyteller, coming across as one isn’t as hard as it sounds, as long as you avoid Tree #1, the temptation to summarize.

Rightly understood, the 2-minute pitch is substantially more intriguing than a mere summary: it’s an opportunity to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflicts in language and imagery that convinces the hearer that not only is this a compelling and unusual story, but that you are uniquely gifted to tell it.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun than trying to cram 400 pages of plot into seven or eight breaths’ worth of babbling?

I’m going to assume that giant gasp I just heard was the prelude to a yes and move on. While your elevator speech is the verbal equivalent of the introduce-the-premise paragraph in your query letter (a good secondary use for an elevator speech, as I mentioned a few days back), the pitch itself is — or can be — a snapshot of the feel, the language, and the texture of the book.

Wait — is that another tree I see heading straight for us?

joshua-tree(6) Few pitches capture the voice of the manuscript they ostensibly represent. Instead, they tend to sound generic or vague.

Often, running afoul of Tree #6 is the result of getting bonked on the head of Tree #1: most pitchers become so obsessed with trying to stuff as many plot points as humanly possible into their limited time face-to-face with the agent that they abandon voice altogether. As is often (unfortunately) true of synopses, summary for its own sake is seldom conducive to graceful sentence construction.

Neither, alas, is a hard sell. Is that a tree I see sneaking up behind you?

(7) Too many pitches sound more like back jacket copy than a serious statement of the book’s premise and central conflict or question — and a disturbingly high percentage of these are riddled with descriptive superlatives.

You wouldn’t believe how many pitches sound like standard advertising copy. But a writer does not go to a formal pitch meeting to review her own book — she’s there to describe it.

Trust me on this one: from the pitch-hearer’s perspective, every pitch that strays into advertising-speak is going to sound very similar. All of those soi-disant the next great bestsellers, Great American Novels, the book you won’t want to misses, novels that will appeal to every woman in North America, and it’s a natural for Oprahs (which people still use, believe it or not) have one thing in common: their pitchers are wasting time that could be used to describe what is genuinely unique about the book in puffing the book concept in terms that no agent is going to believe, anyway.

Lest some of you have gotten lost whilst wandering around in that epic last sentence, let me restate that simply: boasts about the importance of a book simply do not work in pitches. Agents are accustomed to making up their own minds about manuscripts; why would they look to the writer, of all people, to provide them with a review?

So what should a savvy pitcher do instead? Here’s an idea: rather than talking about the book, why not use the 2-minute pitch as your opportunity to give the agent or editor a sense of what it would be like to READ it?

To borrow from that most useful piece of nearly universal writing advice, this is the time to show, not tell. Yes, your time is short, but you’re going to want to include a few memorable details to make your pitch stand out from the crowd.

Ah, I see we are about to run afoul of another tree.

desert-trees(8) Very few pitches include intriguing, one-of-a-kind details that set the book being pitched apart from all others.

Do I hear some incredulous snorts out there? “Details in a 2-minute speech?” the scoffers say. “Yeah, right. Why not advise me to tap-dance, wave sparklers, and paint an abstract in oils at the same time? In two minutes, I’ll barely have time to brush the edges of my plot with generalities!”

That’s an understandable response, but actually, cramming a pitch with generalities is a rather poor strategy. It’s the unholy fruit of Tree #1.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps, but the straightforward “This happens, then that happens, then that occurs…” method tends not to be very memorable, especially within the context of a day or two’s worth of pitches that are pretty much all going to be told chronologically.

Strong imagery, on the other hand, sensual details, unusual plot twists — these jump out at the pitch-hearer, screaming, “Hey, you — pay attention to me!”

To understand why vivid, story-like pitches tend to be effective, sneak with me now into a garden-variety conference pitch appointment room. For the benefit of those of you who have never experienced a pitch session first-hand, let this serve as a warning: if you were expecting a quiet, intimate, church-like atmosphere, you’re bound to be surprised.

If not actually stunned, because…

snowscape-tree(9) Most pitchers assume that a pitch-hearer will hear — and digest — every word they say, yet the combination of pitch fatigue and hectic pitch environments virtually guarantee that will not be the case.

Don’t take it personally. It honestly is the nature of the beast.

In the first place, pitch appointments are notorious for being both tightly booked and running long, frequently more and more of the latter as the day goes on. But while it’s not at all uncommon for an appointment booked for 4 PM not to commence until 5:23, obviously, a pitcher cannot afford to show up late, lest his agent be the one who zips through appointments like Speedy Gonzales.

The result: the writer usually ends up waiting, gnawing her nails like a rabbit on speed, in a crowded hallway filled with similarly stressed-out people. Not an environment particularly conducive to either relaxation or concentration, both of which are desirable to attain just before entering a pitching situation.

Eventually, the writer will be led to a tiny cubicle, or perhaps a table in the middle of a room, where s/he is expected to sit across a perhaps foot-and-a-half table’s width away from a real, live agent who in all probability has drunk far more coffee that day than the human system should be able to stand, possibly to counteract the lingering effects of that big party the conference’s organizers were kind enough to throw the night before.

I don’t mean to frighten the timid by bringing up that last detail, but it’s actually not beyond belief that you might be seated close enough to the pitch recipient to smell the coffee on her breath. Or the vodka seeping out of her pores.

Heck, you might be close enough to take a whiff of all kinds of people. At a big conference, other pitchers may well be close enough for our hero/ine to reach out and touch; one may need to speak in a near-shout to be audible. Indeed, at some conferences, the pitchers simply move one seat to the right (or left, depending upon how the room is set up) to pitch to the next agent or editor. It’s rather like the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

In this relaxing environment, the writer introduces him to the agent (if he remembers his manners, that is), and then spends approximately two minutes talking about his book. Then — brace yourself for this — the agent responds to what the writer has said.

Possibly even while the writer was saying it. Which leads us straight into the path of another tree — or perhaps a thicket.

white-trees(10) Few pitchers are comfortable enough with their pitches not feel thrown off course by follow-up questions.

Oh, you thought it was an accident that I’ve kept bringing up this possibility every few days throughout Pitchingpalooza? Au contraire, mon frère: I was poking you in the ribs during practice so you would develop the sure-footedness not to lose your balance during the performance.

If a writer is prepared to have an actual conversation about her book, this part of the pitch meeting can be, if not actually pleasant, then at least informative. The agent might ask a question or two, to try to figure out how the manuscript might fit into his agency’s current needs; at this point, a writer may feel free to ask questions about the agency or the market for your type of book as well.

But I’m not going to lie to you — sometimes, the agent’s first response is to say that she doesn’t handle that type of book, or that kind of story isn’t selling well right now, or any of a million other reasons that she isn’t going to ask to see pages. (Yes, they will usually tell you why; generic pitch rejections are not as common as form-letter rejections.)

Either way, at some point in the meeting, the agent is going to tell the writer whether the book sounds like it would interest her as a business proposition. She’s not saying whether she liked it, mind you — whether she thinks she can sell it.

You will be a much, much happier pitcher if you cling to that particular distinction like an unusually tenacious leech. Not to mention steering clear of our next obstacle…

fruit-tree(11) Far too many pitchers labor under the false impression that if an agent or editor likes a pitch, s/he will snap up the book on the spot. In reality, the agent or editor is going to want to read the manuscript first.

Believing otherwise only makes aspiring writers unhappy. It sounds like a truism, I know, but realistic expectations are the most important things a writer can carry into a pitch meeting.

In that spirit, let me alert you to two things that will not happen under any circumstances during your pitch meeting, no matter how good your pitch is (or even your platform): the agent’s signing you on the spot, without reading your work, or an editor’s saying, “I will buy this book,” just because he happens to like the pitch. If you walk into your pitch meeting expecting either of these outcomes — and scores of writers do — even a positive response is going to feel like a disappointment.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital to your happiness: contrary to common writerly fantasy, no reputable agent will offer representation on a pitch alone. Nothing can be settled until she’s had a chance to see your writing, period. And no viable promise exists between a pitcher and an agent or editor until both parties sign a formal contract documenting it.

Don’t feel bad, even for a nanosecond, if you have ever thought otherwise: the implied promise of instant success is the underlying logical fallacy of the verbal pitch. There are plenty of good writers who don’t describe their work well aloud, and even more who can speak well but do not write well.

The practice of verbal pitching is undermined by these twin facts — and yet conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are lead to believe that they will be discovered, signed by an agent, and lead off to publication fame and fortune after a simple spoken description of their books.

It just doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid. Chant it with me now, long-term readers: the purpose of the formal pitch is not to induce a decision on the spot on the strength of the premise alone, but to get the agent to ask you to send pages so she can see for herself what a good writer you are.

Anything more, from an interesting conversation to praise for your premise, is icing on the cake: it’s nice if it’s on the menu, of course, but not essential to provide a satisfying dessert to the pitching meal.

So once again, I beg you, don’t set yourself up to be shattered: keep your expectations realistic. Professionally, what you really want to get out of this meeting is the cake, not the frosting. Here is a realistic best-case scenario:

cakeIf the agent is interested by your pitch, she will hand you her business card and ask you to send some portion of the manuscript — usually, the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or for nonfiction, the book proposal. If she’s very, very enthused, she may ask you to mail the whole thing.

Mail is the operative term here. A request to see pages should never be construed as an invitation to hand her the whole thing on the spot.

Seriously. Not even if you happen to have a complete copy in the backpack at your feet.

Why? Well, manuscripts are heavy; agents almost universally prefer to have them mailed or e-mailed) rather than to carry them onto a plane. (If you think that your tome will not make a significant difference to the weight of a carry-on bag, try carrying a ream of paper in your shoulder bag for a few hours.)

Yes, I know: you have probably heard other pitching teachers — ones who got their agents a long time ago, for the most part, or who have not tried to land an agent recently — urge you to lug around a couple of complete copies of your book. It’s not even all that uncommon for conference brochures to recommend this method. This is WILDLY outdated advice, sort of like advising a 16-year-old nervous about taking her driver’s license test to bring along a buggy whip, in case the horse gets restless.

Just say neigh. No one is going to fault you for not pulling a manuscript out of your hip pocket.

At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, but trust me, he will have a few pages in mind, not 300. If you’d like to be prepared for this eventuality, the first five pages of a book is a fairly standard writing sample. You could also use the first few pages of a favorite scene.

In the extremely unlikely event that the agent asks for more right away, murmur a few well-chosen words about how flattered you are by his interest, and offer to pop anything he wants into the mail as soon as it’s feasible.

In the interests of covering the gamut of reasonable expectations, I’m afraid I must, at least briefly, take us on a walking tour of the other logical possibility: it’s imperative to understand what a no means as well.

(I’d number that, too, but I’ve run out of tree pictures. What, you thought they just grew on…oh, never mind.)

When an agent or editor says, “Well, that’s not for me,” it is not always because the story is a bad one, or the pitch was incoherent (although pitch-hearers routinely encounter both): it is very frequently because they don’t handle that type of book, or a similar book just bombed, or someone who can’t stand family sagas has just been promoted to publisher, or…

Getting the picture? Rejection is very, very seldom personal — at least from the point of view of the rejection-bestower. Try not to take it as if it is.

Regardless of the outcome, remember to thank the agent or editor for his or her time. Politeness always counts in this industry, so do be nice, even if it turns out that the agent simply doesn’t represent your kind of book. (Trust me — if this is the case, the agent will tell you so right away. For a fuller discussion of how and why mismatched meetings happen and how to handle them, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Is your mind reeling, trying to picture this situation in full and vivid detail? Good; that means you’re grasping its complexity.

If you find yourself interrupted mid-pitch by a terse, “Sorry, but I don’t represent that kind of book,” express regret BRIEFLY — and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work. Chances are pretty good that she will know all of the agents attending; wouldn’t you like to be able to begin a hallway pitch with, “Excuse me, but agent Selective Notforme recommended that I speak with you. Would you have a moment to hear my pitch?”

Whatever you do, don’t panic; you can avoid the wicked trees with relative ease. Over the next few posts, I am going to give you a template for presenting your story — fictional or not — in a vivid, exciting, memorable manner. I know that this prospect is daunting, but believe me, you’re gaining the skills to pull this off beautifully.

Trust me on this one. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part II: resisting the urge to run screaming

Happy Bastille Day, everyone! How are you all feeling after our first foray into pitching, the much-feared practice of approaching an agent face-to-face to try to interest her in your manuscript, rather than via the far less intimidating query letter or e-mail?

That good, eh? If I had to picture the array of your reactions, I imagine they would look something like this:

Within mere seconds of posting yesterday, I felt the ether fill with four discordant emotions rising in a cloud from my readers: extreme panic, terrible annoyance, blank disbelief at having to write yet another marketing piece for your book over and above the query and synopsis, and a clawing, pathological fear that the thoroughness of the ‘Palooza approach would mean I would still be blithely dispensing advice on the subject a month after you were scheduled to pitch — or that somehow, you would manage to stumble into the one species of pitching situation I wouldn’t have covered. (Actually, there was a fifth miasma, gratitude from those of you who aren’t scheduled to pitch anytime soon, but the other smogs were so virulent that it took me a while to notice #5.)

Let me address the last and most complicated set of concerns first, as those who harbor them are likely to be the most impatient. Because writers at conferences do occasionally find themselves pitching in some rather odd and unanticipated contexts — hey, there’s a reason that one hears about elevator pitches — Pitchingpalooza will cover a broad array of hypotheticals for your preparation and worrying pleasure: formal pitches (the kind writers make appointments at conferences to give), impromptu pitches (the kind writers give when they happen to find themselves seated next to an agent at a conference luncheon or, yes, sharing an elevator), answers to the dreaded question, “So, what do you write?”, what to do after a pitch is successful, the works. I’m even going to be talking about how to transform a great verbal pitch into a fabulous query letter, and vice-versa.

So you might want to get comfortable; we’re going to be at it a while. For those of you who are heading out to conferences right away — there’s one in my neck of the woods in a couple of weeks, for instance — and need to pull together a pitch, pronto, I’ve lassoed a set of posts that will walk you through the absolute basics in record time and made them instantly available to the rushed under the evocative title HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE. You’ll find the category on the archive list on the lower right-hand corner of this page.

Don’t say I never did anything for procrastinators. For those of you who have a little more time to kill, let’s take the scenic route.

For those of you stunned by the prospect of having to take still more time away from your writing in order to construct yet another document intended to impress agents into wanting to read your book, who could blame you? I’ve literally never met an aspiring writer who didn’t resent, at least a little, having to sell his work to the people he would like to sell his work. The good news about pitch-writing is that, unlike queries and synopses, writing one is completely optional for your first book. You are perfectly at liberty to pursue representation by means other than pitching.

Oh, you caught that emphasis on first book? As I mentioned last time, agented writers often pitch new projects to their agents and editors; like synopsis-writing, it’s a standard professional skill. Unlike learning to write a query — necessary at the beginning of a writing career, but not all that useful after one lands an agent — once you learn the basic technique for writing a pitch, you’re likely to be using it for the rest of your professional life.

But at the agent-finding stage, shy writers may breathe a sigh of relief: it is entirely possible, and indeed the norm, to approach agents in writing, not face to face. For you, this series will be more a tutorial in figuring out what your book’s selling points are and how to express them than a cheerleading session on how to work up nerve to walk up to an agent after she speaks at a conference and say, “Excuse me, Agent X, but I’m a great admirer of your work, and I could not get an appointment with you. Could you possibly spare me 30 seconds to hear my pitch?”

I know that last sentence made half of you break out in a cold sweat, but never fear: by the end of Pitchingpalooza, you might actually want to try that approach. Preparing both an elevator pitch (the 30-second variety) and a formal pitch (the 2-minute version one gives in a meeting) maximizes the probability of being ready no matter what pitching opportunity presents itself.

On to the most common reactions to constructing a pitch, panic and annoyance. Both are completely understandable, of course: the prospect of sitting down with an agent who may very well reject you on the spot, much less stopping her in a conference hallway, can be monumentally frightening. Rejection’s bad enough when it comes in the mail or in your inbox, right? And believe me, I can certainly identify with the annoyance of learning that connecting successfully with an agent or editor in a pitch appointment often requires substantial advance homework; conference brochures and websites tend to imply that all a writer has to do in order to impress the agent of her dreams is to show up ready to talk about her book. Preferably in three sentences or less.

Honestly, I’ve been blogging and teaching about pitching long enough to expect these reactions — and to know that there is only one thing I can say that will help the panicked and annoyed see why I’m so committed to making absolutely certain that all of my readers learn the basic skills of pitching, rather than just the ones who have appointments with agents at conferences in the weeks to come. It’s this:

A good 90% of pitch rejections have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book being pitched

Yes, really: the vast majority of the time, pitch recipients say, “I’m sorry,” because of other factors, such as bad fit, a book category that the agent does not represent, an insufficient platform (that’s for nonfiction; don’t worry, we’re getting to that), an incoherent pitch (a common side effect of panic), lack of freshness in the story, the agent’s having had no success selling a manuscript, the writer’s looking just like someone who was really, really mean to the agent in high school (hey, they’re human), and so on, ad infinitum. Some of these factors, like the coherence of the pitch, lie within the writer’s control; some, like the resemblance to the high school bully, do not.

Throughout this series, we’re going to talk about how to tell the difference — and to prepare to handle the parts of the process you can control beautifully.

There. That made you feel a whole lot better, didn’t it?

Throughout Pitchingpalooza, I’m going to talk you through how to avoid the pitfalls that scuttle the average pitch. Let’s begin with the single most common reason agents give for rejecting both pitches and queries: they just don’t represent that book category.

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

Feel free to derive an important corollary from this excellent axiom: from this moment on, resolve that you will pitch or query your book to agents who represent that kind of book. Approaching those who do not is a waste of your valuable time and nerve.

Seems so simple, put that way, doesn’t it? Yet every year, literally millions of aspiring writers either take a scattershot approach, querying fairly randomly (thus all of those “Dear Agent” letters that folks in the industry hate so much) or let the conferences do the selection for them, pitching to whoever is there with a winsome disregard for matching their books with the right agent.

Please don’t do that to yourself; as I pointed out last time, it can only end in tears.

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

Believe it or not, even the surliest agent who ever strode contemptuously into a literary conference and brushed off a pitcher wants this as well. Good agents don’t like hurting aspiring writers’ feelings, after all; they merely want to sign authors of books they know they can sell — and believe me, they walk into pitch meetings quite aware of what the editors to whom they have already successfully sold books are looking to buy at the moment.

Being intimately familiar with the publishing market is, after all, part of their job. Pretending otherwise just to spare the feelings of the pitcher trembling in front of them at the moment may seem like kindness, but in the long run, it merely raises unwarranted hopes.

Don’t believe me? Go to any writers’ conference that provides pitching opportunities and have a chat with a few writers who are glowing because they talked an agent who doesn’t represent their kind of work into agreeing to read the opening pages. (Which is occasionally possible; many agents feel bad about saying no.) Then talk to those same writers a month or two hence, after those nice agents said no because — wait for it — they simply don’t handle that type of book.

“But I thought he liked me!” these rejected writers will wail. “We hit it off so well! It felt like we made a real connection.”

Perhaps you did, but at the risk of sounding cynical, a pleasant conversation at a conference is just a pleasant conversation at a conference; it’s not a commitment. For the sake of your own happiness, it’s vital to understand before you set foot in a pitch meeting that whether the agent likes a pitcher or not typically has very little to do with acceptance or rejection.

It’s nice if you get along, but remember, this is a business meeting, not speed dating. Despite what astonishingly many conference brochures imply, you’re not going to get signed on the spot, no matter how good your pitch is. Unless you happen to be a celebrity (in which case, why are you reading a blog about constructing a pitch? That’s what minions are for, is it not?) , no agent in her right mind is going to sign a client without reading a manuscript or book proposal.

As a writer, you should be happy about that: you want an agent to fall in love with your voice, don’t you? And weren’t some of you grumbling only yesterday about the unfairness of judging a book on a verbal pitch, rather than on the manuscript itself?

Besides, the agent you want for your work will not take on your project unless she thinks she can sell it in the current market with the connections she already has. So if she does not have a track record of selling books like yours to the editors who habitually acquire in that category, telling you so up front is actually doing you a favor, believe it or not. And although it won’t feel like it in the moment, so is explaining to you any difficulties books like yours are facing in the current literary market.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement amongst those of you who have pitched before (an improvement on panic and annoyance, certainly, but still). “But Anne,” these veterans of the conference wars protest, “that’s just an excuse to say no, isn’t it? There are plenty of books like mine on bookstore shelves right now, but I’ve had agents tell me that there’s no market for a book like mine. What gives?”

I’m very glad you brought this up, disgruntled protestors: many, many aspiring writers aren’t aware of the distinction between the current publishing market (what editors are looking to buy right now) and the current literary market (what’s occupying the shelves at your local bookstore). Books for sale to consumers right now were on the literary market at least a year ago — in most cases, more like two years — and since agents are seldom able to sell new clients’ books within a few days of signing them to an agency contract, any of those books by first-time authors were probably making the rounds of conferences and/or being queried three or more years ago.

Thus, what’s on the shelves right now isn’t necessarily the best indicator of the needs of the current literary market. An agent who is good at his job has to aware of both.

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

Don’t believe me? Ask any author who has found herself spending a few years in the purgatory of a representation contract with an agent who didn’t have the contacts to sell her book, but still snapped up the book because it was in an at-the-time-hot book category. (Yes, it happens. Far more often than either the agented or agents themselves like to admit.)

So if an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of work rejects you — and this is equally true if it happens in person or in writing — be open to the possibility that it may not have anything to do with the quality of your writing or the idea you are pitching. It might just be a bad fit with that agent, or the agent’s current connections may not be looking for your kind of book.

Yes, no matter how beautifully it’s written. This part of the process is as much about practicality as about art.

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

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s awfully important: a manuscript’s being rejected by an agent or editor who doesn’t represent that type of work is most emphatically not a viable test of its marketability amongst those who do.

Thus it follows with an elegant inevitability that if you want to know whether your book is marketable, you should pitch or query it only to those with whom such a test WOULD be a good indicator of how the publishing industry might view it. Or, to put it another way, the best way to avoid this kind of rejection is not to pitch or query your book to any agent that isn’t predisposed to be interested in it.

The same logic applies to pitch meetings with editors, by the way. No editor in the business acquires across every conceivable genre; in fact, most editors’ ability to acquire is sharply limited by their publishing houses to just two or three types of book. So it would be a waste of your pitching energies to, say, try to interest an editor who does exclusively mysteries in your fantasy novel, right?

Check before you pitch. Fortunately, at most conferences, gleaning this information is almost absurdly simple: virtually every conference that hosts pitching sessions will schedule an agents’ forum before the pitch meetings start, so attendees can hear from the agents’ very lips what they are there looking to acquire — and what kinds of pitches they most definitely do not want to hear. If you intend to pitch at the conference, do not, under any circumstances, skip this forum.

Yes, even if you were my rare prize student who went to the trouble of finding out prior to registering for the conference what the attending agents have been selling lately. Even for you, gold-star winner, attending the forum may have tangible benefits: since the publishing market mutates so often and so rapidly, the agent of your dreams may well be looking for a different kind of book today than last week. If so, she’s going to announce it at the forum.

Another solid reason to go hear the agents speak is — brace yourselves; this one is a trifle disillusioning — just because an agent is scheduled to attend a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that he will show up, particularly if the conference is a large one. Most of the time, it’s not the absentee agent’s fault. Crises come up at agencies all the time, so last-minute changes to the roster of pitchable agents attending a conference are common enough that veteran conference attendees regard it as the norm, rather than the exception.

Try not to think of this as rude; regard it as an opportunity. Chances are, someone on that panel is going to represent your kind of book; it may well be someone you had not previously considered. Keep an open mind, and listen well.

Speaking of pitching to editors, here’s another thing that any writer pitching at a North American conference absolutely must know: all of the major NYC publishing houses currently have policies forbidding their editors to acquire work by unagented writers.

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

This means, in essence, that the BEST that could happen if you pitched your book to an editor from one of these houses is that he might help you hook up with an agent. That’s rare, however. A far more frequent benefit: once you have independently landed an agent, it can give your book a slight advantage if your agent can say to an editor, “Oh, by the way, you met this writer at Conference X.”

Sort of changes how you view those much-vaunted conference appointments with bigwig editors, doesn’t it? Pitching to an editor at a major house might help your book in the long run, but it will not enable you to skip the finding-the-agent step, as so many aspiring writers believe. And although it’s somewhat counterintuitive, meeting with an editor at a smaller or regional house might be better for your publishing prospects than one from a major house: the former will generally have more leeway to pick up your book.

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

We all know the tune by now, right? Conference today, contract tomorrow, The Colbert Report on Thursday.

In reality, even if an editor was blown over (figuratively, at least) by a pitch, he might buttonhole one of the attending agents at a conference cocktail party on your behalf, and they might together plot a future for the book. That does occasionally happen (although it’s not nearly as common as it was ten years ago), but regardless, you’re still going to have to impress that agent before you can sign with the editor. And before you can impress either, the agent is going to have to request and read your manuscript. Although a surprisingly high percentage of conference brochures and websites tell attendees point-blank to bring copies of the manuscripts, just in case an agent or editor wants to read it on the spot, these days, that request is exceedingly rare.

Why? Have you seen what airlines are charging for checked luggage these days? Manuscripts are heavy; it’s almost invariably more convenient for the agent to have you mail or e-mail requested materials than for him to tote them home.

If it sounds as though some conference brochures have not been updated within the last decade, well, that’s not necessarily untrue. Frankly, I think it’s quite unfair to the editors from these houses that more conference promotional materials are not up front about the agented-work-only, considering that it’s hardly a secret. It’s common knowledge, at least amongst those already intimately familiar with the publishing market. Which means, incidentally, that most editors will assume that a writer attending the conference is already aware of it. It’s not as though the individual editor could change the status quo, after all, or as if he’s following the policy merely because he likes to taunt the hopeful.

Before any of you protest that at the last conference you attended, editors from the Big Five asked to see your opening pages regardless of your representation status, let me hasten to add that you are not alone: the we-accept-only-the-agented is most assuredly not the impression that most conference pitchers to editors receive. Unless they are asked point-blank during an editors’ forum how many of them have come to the conference empowered to pick up a new author on the spot — a question well worth asking at an editors’ forum, hint, hint — most editors who attend conferences will speak glowingly about their authors, glossing over the fact that they met these authors not in settings like this, but through well-connected agents.

See earlier comment about common knowledge. They honestly do think you know. It doesn’t mean that they can’t give you some valuable advice, or that pitching to them isn’t good practice. But trust me, no editor is going to jeopardize his job at Broadway by handing a contract to a writer his boss would throw a fit if he signed.

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

This is an important question, because editors from the major houses request manuscripts from pitchers all the time, but not because they are looking to sign the author instantly on the strength of the book. Sometimes, conference organizers will insist that attending editors must agree to read at least a few pitched books; that doesn’t mean that those editors can waive their houses’ policies. In other cases — and editors talk about this one more than you might expect — they just want to get in on the ground floor if the book is going to be the next major bestseller.

No editor wants to go down in publishing history as the guy who passed on the next DA VINCI CODE or TWILIGHT, after all. It’s a gamble, pure and simple.

So even though they would almost certainly not in fact pick up the next DA VINCI CODE if its author did pitch to them at a conference, having a personal connection with the author is a great means of queue-jumping. If one of them is nice enough to you, you might tell your agent (once you hook up with one) that you want your potential bestseller sent to that editor first. Heck, if she’s nice enough to you, you might be gullible enough to insist that she gets an exclusive peek at it, so there cannot possibly be competitive bidding over the book.

Don’t laugh: it’s not a bad gamble, from their perspective. Aspiring writers have been known to get some strange ideas about loyalty owed to industry types who met them for a grand total of fifteen minutes once.

“But he liked me!” writers will tell their incredulous new agents. “We hit it off so well! It felt like we made a real connection.”

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

The overall moral: learning what individual agents and editors are looking for AND what their bosses will allow them to pick up (aside from the next DA VINCI CODE, of course) will help you target both your conference pitches and your queries more effectively. Everyone — not only you, but the agents and editors to whom you pitch — will be happier if you do.

Honest. Nobody concerned wants to break your heart gratuitously; it’s would be a waste of their scant bestseller-seeking time.

Getting a trifle depressed? Keep repeating to yourself: they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean. They’re doing it to fight their way to the book they can support wholeheartedly.

Again, as a writer, you really should be glad of that. Trust me: after you do hook up with the right agent for your book, you’re going to be happy that they’re so selective.

Yes, really. Keep up the good work!

Just what am I getting myself into? Part II: the money matters

After our long, in-depth foray into the delights of standard format for manuscripts, and as a segue into what I hope will be an extended romp through craft, with particular emphasis upon problems that tend to generate knee-jerk rejection responses, I’m devoting a few days this week to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. (My, that was lengthy sentence, was it not? The late Henry James would have been so proud.) There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for now, I’m concentrating upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok, or to a small publisher domestically? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time. While we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come.

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor the author approached liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, it’s the acquiring editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not necessarily only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of the editorial committee, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, who will in turn discuss it with the author, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, they will stipulate that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, please recall, is already completely written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. If the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

Some of you just had a strong visceral reaction to the idea of being asked to alter your manuscript, didn’t you? If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Camomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book. Such as…

Control over the text itself
While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will go into the finished book. The contract will say so. And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book.

Sorry to be the one to break the bad news, but it’s better that you know the score going into the situation. Pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your misguided boneheaded downright evil suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling. Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press? It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine those last couple of paragraph having that effect — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling with your editor over every single requested change. Editorial control is built into the publishing process, after all; if you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

A few matters that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like. Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

Hey, I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly, a coy reference to A Scanner Darkly, which is in itself a reference to 1 Corinthians 13), believe me, my sympathies are squarely on the writers’ side on this one. (And no, Virginia, no employee of my former publishing house was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant.)

The moral, should you care to know it: while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, take a gander at the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the archive list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book — and no, it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. Historically, the author’s percentage has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback; until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has increasingly been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a pocket or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel.

Hey, a Kindle’s an electronic device — it has to be turned off for takeoff and landing.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, they will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is typically months prior to the print date. This often comes as a great big surprise to a first-time author.

If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence. The main manifestation of this: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad or news story, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year. More often two.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

So although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

I could go on and on about timing and control issues, but I’m seeing some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the excellent folks attached to those hands ask timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
An author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Thus, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. And because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every six months is fairly standard.

Don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so.

Yet another moral: it behooves you to read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers. Many aspiring writers believe, mistakenly, that all that’s necessary for a book to get published is to write it. However, as any author whose first book came out within the last decade could tell you, bringing one’s writing to the publishing industry’s attention can be almost as much work as the composition process — and has been known to take just as long or longer.

Again, sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s vital to a good writer’s happiness to understand that extended, frustrating, and difficult roads to publication are the norm for first books these days, not the exception.

Clinging to the common writerly misconception that if writing is any good, it will always be picked up by the first or second agent who sees it, or that a manuscript that doesn’t find a publisher within the first few submissions must not be well-written, is a sure road to discouragement, if not outright depression. Certainly, it makes a writer more likely to give up after just a few rejections.

Since the competition in the book market is fierce by the standards of any industry, realistic expectations are immensely helpful in equipping even the most gifted writer for the long haul. It can also be hugely beneficial in tracking down and working well with the helpful friend who will be toting your manuscript to publishers for you, your agent.

So how does a writer go about acquiring this valuable assistant? Unless one happens to be intimate friends with a great many well-established authors, one has two options: verbally and in writing.

But first, let’s talk about what an aspiring writer should NEVER do
Querying and pitching are an aspiring writer’s only options for calling a US-based agent’s attention to his or her work. Picking up the phone and calling, stopping them on the street, or other informal means of approach are considered quite rude.

Translation: they’re not going to work. Don’t even try.

The same holds true for mailing or e-mailing a manuscript to an agent without asking first if s/he would like to see it, by the way. This is universally an instant-rejection offense. Unlike in the old days, simply sending to an agent who has never heard of you will only result in your work being rejected unread: uniformly, agencies reject pages they did not actually ask to see (known as unsolicited submissions).

Is everyone clear on how to avoid seeming rude? Good. Let’s move on to the accepted courteous means of introducing yourself and your book.

Approaching an agent in writing: the query letter
The classic means of introducing one’s book to an agent is by sending a formal letter, known in the trade as a query. Contrary to popular belief, the query’s goal is not to convince an agent to represent the book in question — no agent is going to offer to represent a book or proposal before she’s read it — but to prompt the agent to ask the writer to send either the opening pages of the manuscript or the whole thing. After that, your good writing can speak for itself, right?

Think of the query as your book’s personal ad, intended to pique an agent’s interest, not as the first date.

Always limited to a single page in length, the query letter briefly presents the agent with the bare-bones information s/he will need in order to determine whether s/he wants to read any or all of the manuscript the writer is offering. This will be familiar to those of you who worked through my Querypalooza series last fall, but for the benefit of all of you New Year’s resolvers new to the game, here’s a list of the information a good query should include:

(1) Whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. You’d be surprised at how often queriers forget to mention which.

(2) The book category. Basically, the part of the bookstore where the publishing book will occupy shelf space. Since no agent represents every kind of book, this information is essential: if an agent doesn’t have connections with editors who publish the type of book you’re querying, he’s not going to waste either your time or his by asking to see it. (For guidance on how to determine your book’s category, please see the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY listing on the archive list on the lower-right side of this page.)

It’s also a good idea, but not strictly required, to point out who might be interested in reading your book and why; an agent is going to want to know that at some point, anyway. Of course, I’m not talking about boasting predictions like, “Oh, Random House would love this!” or “This is a natural for Oprah!” (you wouldn’t believe how often agents hear that last one) or sweeping generalizations like, “Every woman in America needs to read this book!” Instead, try describing it the way a marketing professional might: “This book will appeal to girls aged 13-16, because it deals with issues they face in their everyday lives. (For tips on figuring out who your book’s audience might be with this much specificity, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right.)

(3) A one- or two-paragraph description of the book’s argument or plot. No need to summarize the entire plot here, merely the premise, but do make sure that the writing is vivid. For a novel or memoir, this paragraph should introduce the book’s protagonist, the main conflict or obstacles she faces, and what’s at stake if she does or does not overcome them. For a nonfiction book, this paragraph should present the central question the book addresses and suggest, briefly, how the book will address it.

(4) The writer’s previous publishing credentials or awards, if any, and/or expertise that renders her an expert on the book’s topic. Although not necessarily indicative of the quality of a book’s writing, to an agent, these are some of your book’s selling points. For tips on figuring out what to include here, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category on the list at right.

(5) Some indication of why the writer thinks the agent to whom the letter is addressed would be a good representative for the book. As I mentioned above, agents don’t represent books in general: they represent specific varieties. Since they so often receive queries from aspiring writers who are apparently sending exactly the same letter indiscriminately to every agent in the country, stating up front why you chose to pick THIS agent is an excellent idea. No need to indulge in gratuitous flattery: a simple since you so ably represented Book X or since you represent literary fiction (or whatever your book category is) will do.

Should any of you have been considering querying every agent in the country, be warned: it’s a sure route to rejection, especially if a writer makes the mistake of addressing the letter not to a specific person, but Dear Agent. Trust me on this one.

(6) The writer’s contact information. Another one that you might be astonished to learn is often omitted. Yet if the agent can’t get hold of you, she cannot possibly ask to you to send her your manuscript, can she?

(7) A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the agent’s reply. This isn’t part of the letter, strictly speaking, but it absolutely must be included in the envelope in which you send your query. No exceptions, not even if you tell the agent in the query that you would prefer to be contacted via e-mail.

I’m serious about this: don’t forget to include it. Queries that arrive without SASEs are almost universally rejected unread. (For tips on the hows and whys of producing perfect SASEs, please see the SASE GUIDELINES category on the list at right.)

Is there more to constructing a successful query letter than this? Naturally — since I’ve written extensively about querying (posts you will find under the perplexingly-named HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the archive list, if you’re interested) and how it should look (QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED), the list above is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to how to write one.

Speaking of realistic expectations, do not be disappointed if you do not receive an instantaneous response to your query. Because a well-established agent may receive 800 to 1500 queries per week (yes, you read that correctly), it’s not uncommon for a regularly mailed query not to hear back for a month or six weeks. Some agencies do not respond at all if the answer is no. So it’s just poor strategy to query agents one at a time. (For a fuller explanation, please see the QUERYING MULTIPLE AGENTS AT ONCE category at right.)

Approaching an agent in writing, part II: the electronic or website-based query
Because of the aforementioned slow turn-around times for queries sent via regular mail, increasing numbers of aspiring writers are choosing to send their query letters via e-mail. There are pros and cons to this — which I shall go over at length in a day or two, when I fulfill a reader request for a Formatpalooza take on the subject.

Some agencies ask queriers fill out an electronic form that includes some or all of the information that’s in a traditional query letter. While some aspiring writers have landed agents in this manner, I tend to discourage this route, since typically, the word count allowed is sharply limited. (Some agency sites permit as few as 50 words for plot summaries, for instance.) Also, most writers just copy and paste material from their query letters into the boxes of these forms, substantially increasing the likelihood of cut-off words, missed punctuation, and formatting errors.

If you just cringed, in recognition of how people who read manuscripts for a living tend to react to these types of tiny errors: congratulations. Your chances of querying successfully are substantially higher than someone who doesn’t know to conduct intense proofreading upon ANYTHING that’s s/he sends an agent.

Remember, literally every sentence you send a potential agent is a sample of how good your writing is. Regardless of whether you choose to query electronically or via regular mail, it’s in your best interests to make sure that every syllable is impeccably presented.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, written queries were the only means of approaching agents until just a few years ago, and still the means that most of them prefer. (Short of a personal introduction, of course. Writers whose college roommates or best friends from elementary school grew up to be agents enjoy an undeniable advantage in obtaining representation that the rest of us do not enjoy.) If a potential client has trouble expressing himself in writing, is ignorant of the basic rules of grammar, or is just plain inattentive to those itsy-bitsy details I mentioned above, a written query will tend to show it.

To be fair, aspiring writers often prefer to query in writing, because that, after all, is presumably their strength. Besides, there are a lot of very talented but shy writers out there who would infinitely prefer to present their work from a distance, rather than in person. However, direct interaction with an agent is sometimes a plus.

Approaching an agent verbally: the pitch
A face-to-face presentation of a book concept to an agent is called a pitch, and it’s actually not indigenous to publishing: it’s borrowed from the movie industry. Screenwriters pitch their work verbally all the time. The reason that the publishing industry has been rather reluctant to follow suit is a corollary of the proof-is-in-the-pudding reason I mentioned above: not everyone who can talk about a book well can write one successfully, just as not every writer capable of producing magnificent prose is equally adept at describing it in conversation.

However, since writers’ conferences often import agents to speak, many set up formal pitching sessions for attendees. Sometimes they charge extra for the privilege; sometimes it’s included in the conference fee. It’s also sometimes possible to buttonhole an agent after a seminar or in a hallway, but many conference organizers frown upon that. (Contrary to conference-circuit rumor, it’s typically the conference bigwigs who object to hallway pitching, not the attending agents. Virtually nobody objects to being approached politely immediately after a conference panel — and if they do, they simply say no and walk away. But no matter how much you want a particular agent to represent you, it’s NEVER considered acceptable to attempt to pitch in a conference or literary event’s bathroom. Don’t let me catch you doing it.)

Like the query letter, the purpose of the pitch is not to convince the agent to sign a writer to a long-term representation contract on the spot, but to get the agent to ask the writer to mail him or her chapters of the book. (To engage in another parenthetical just-between-us chat: contrary to what conference brochures often imply, agents virtually never ask a pitcher to produce anything longer than a five-page writing sample on the spot. Since manuscripts are heavy, they almost universally prefer to have writers either mail or e-mail requested pages. I don’t know why conference organizers so often tell potential attendees otherwise.)

In order to achieve that, you’re going to need to describe your book compellingly and in terms that will make sense to the business side of the industry. In essence, then, a pitch is a verbal query letter.

Thus, it should contain the same information: whether it is fiction or nonfiction, the book category, the target audience, any writing credentials or experience you might have that might provide selling points for the book, and a BRIEF plot summary. Most conference organizers are adamant about the brief part: their guidelines will commonly specify that the summary portion should take no more than 2 minutes.

Did I just hear all of you novelists out there gulp? You honestly do not have a lot of time here: scheduled pitch sessions may range in length anywhere from 2-15 minutes, but most are 5-10.

Usually, they are one-on-one meetings in a cramped space where many other writers are noisily engaged in pitching to many other agents, not exactly an environment conducive to intimate chat. At some conferences, though, a number of writers will sit around a table with an agent, pitching one after the other.

Yes, that’s right: as if this situation weren’t already stressful enough, you might have to be doing this in front of an audience.

While the opportunity to spend telling a real, live agent about your book I’m going to be honest with you: the vast majority of aspiring writers find pitching absolutely terrifying, at least the first time they do it. Like writing a good query letter, constructing and delivering a strong pitch is not something any talented writer is magically born knowing how to do: it’s a learned skill. For some help in learning how to do it, please see the HOW TO PREPARE A PITCH category on the list at right.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are looking for in-depth analysis on any of these subjects or step-by-step how-tos, try perusing the category list at right.

Since I usually tackle these issues on a much more detail-oriented basis — a hazard of my calling, I’m afraid — I’m finding it quite interesting to paint the picture in these broad strokes. Next time, I shall talk a bit about what happens after a query or submission arrives at an agency — and perhaps use that as a segue into that aforementioned additional Formatpalooza post, by special reader request.

The joint is going to be jumping here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!