Pitchingpalooza, part XVIII: location, location, and did I mention location?

Is it me, or did someone assume that the folks driving the delivery trucks needed just a tad more prompting about where to drop those packages than a reasonable person might in fact need? Wouldn’t everyone’s life have been a whole lot simpler if the manager of this facility just sprung to have a sign made that would blare LOOK — IF YOU HAVE A DELIVERY, COME DOWN THIS ROAD. EVERYONE ELSE SHOVE OFF or some similarly blunt and unambiguous statement?

You know me, folks — I’m a huge fan of clarity. (Oh, that didn’t occur to you during last January’s 23-part series on how to format a book manuscript? Next winter, it will be 24 parts — a reader asked a really good question in the archives.) I’m also, when it comes to hallway pitching, a big fan of writers’ being absolutely clear on where and when it is and is not appropriate to accost an agent in a hallway (or bar) at a writers’ conference, politely ask if s/he could spare thirty seconds, and give the shortened version of your pitch known as the elevator speech.

Where is particularly important. And not only because the single most frequently-expressed concern writers have about hallway pitching is appearing rude.

It’s not surprising that first-time pitchers tend to be worried about this — a hefty percentage of the information on conference pitching floating around out there consist of some form of there are agents and editors who just hate it when a writer comes up to them at a conference and pitches a book without an appointment. Therefore, all agents and editors must hate it. Even if a writer happens to find herself seated next to the agent of her dreams at a rubber chicken luncheon, under no circumstances should she even consider preparing a coherent answer to the friendly question, “So what do you write?”

I get that fear; honestly, I do. If you happen to have heard an agent say point-blank in an interview that he hates being buttonholed in hallways, by all means, do not buttonhole him in hallways. But to assume that all agents and editors share identical opinions on this subject is to fall into the same trap that aspiring writers so often do about querying and submission: it doesn’t take very many repetitions for a single agent’s personal preference, expressed on a conference dais or on a blog, to get magnified by that great game of Telephone we call the Internet into a dictum ostensibly crafted to be applicable to every pitching opportunity, anytime, anywhere: thou shalt not pitch at all outside a scheduled pitch meeting — and if the conference organizers schedule you for an appointment with someone who does not represent your kind of book, well, too bad. Better luck at next year’s expensive conference.

I’ve spoken at some length in this series about the vast difference between a polite, professional pitch — one that includes delightful and emollient phrases like, “Excuse me, may I disturb you for a moment?” “You mentioned at the agents’ forum that you represent books like mine, and I could not obtain an appointment with you,” and/or “Thank you very much for your time. I shall be going now.” — and the kind of rude, blustery pitch that most hallway pitch-haters have in mind when they express negative opinions about it. While it might be safe to draw a general conclusion about the inadvisability of being rude to any stranger one wants to approach to ask any favor, it seems like overkill (rather like the signage above) to swear off the possibility of making a connection with an agent who might love your work because some other agent got offended once. It just isn’t logical.

But it makes a whole lot more sense if one bears in mind the possibility that the original, “Ooh, I hate it when aspiring writers stop me in the hallway to pitch,” statement was part of a sentence that continued, “when I am trying to race to the bathroom,” does it not? And who could blame the agent — or indeed, any agent — for feeling that way?

I suspect, though, that the primary appeal of the surprisingly pervasive conference circuit truism against hallway pitching is not so much its underlying logic as its implicit permission — nay, admonition — for a would-be pitcher at a conference not muster the courage to walk up to that agent who is three feet away and ask politely to pitch. For the nervous, the ostensible ban on hallway pitching is a virtual Get Out of Pitching Free card, relieving them of the obligation to try to find an agent via a face-to-face approach.

Unfortunately, many literary contest winners and finalists regard their status (and the fact that at many conferences that give out such awards, winners and placers are singled out for public praise, always delightful) as a Get Out of Pitching Free card, too. They expect — wrongly, usually, but not without reason — that having done so well in the contest sponsored by the same organization that is throwing the conference, the agents and editors in attendance would seek them out, not the other way around. Or at least that the conference’s organizers would go out of their way to throw contest winners and agents who might snap ‘em up together in the same room.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but this happens surprisingly seldom. Most of the time, contest winners and finalists are given no more pitching opportunities than other conference attendees, and it’s far from the norm that contest winners are automatically mobbed by agents. The latter are usually more receptive to winners and finalists, but by and large, it’s the writer’s responsibility to walk up and make that connection.

Which generally entails — wait for it — giving a hallway pitch.

I say this, incidentally, not just as the writers’ booster who often ends up holding contest-winners’ hands at the end of the conference as they say over and over again, “I can’t believe that no agent asked me to submit pages!” I also say this as a writer who has actually been in this position. When I won my first big award for my memoir, I was lucky: the president of the award-granting organization actually did corral yours truly and the winner of the main fiction award, lecture us on the importance of not wasting any or all of the pitching opportunities that the rest of the conference would afford, and herded us into a party with a couple of dozen agents.

We both pitched more or less non-stop for the rest of the conference. Fortunately, I had come prepared for it: several friends of mine had won similar contests, so I had been on the receiving end of many a pep talk. I walked out of it with more than a dozen requests for pages. As a direct result, I had the luxury of choosing between offers from several agents.

How many requests do you think I would have generated had I not pitched like a fiend? Ask the winners from subsequent years, the ones who did not heed the president’s pep talk. I’ve ended up holding their hands at the end of conferences, too.

I’m bringing this up not to gloat about my success, but because not all contest winners and finalists were as lucky as I was to know that it was my job, not the attending agents’, to take advantage of that first-place ribbon fluttering from my name tag. I’m hoping my experience will believe me when I tell you a basic truth of conference pitching: while the pitch you are bold enough to make might get rejected, the pitch you never work up nerve to give will certainly be rejected — by you.

Please, contest winners and finalists, do not remain passive here: although contest wins are undoubtedly excellent Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC), at no place or time will your having done so well in that contest be as easy to parlay into a conversation with an agent as when that agent has just seen you handed a ribbon. How might a savvy contest winner initiate such a conversation? How about like this: “Excuse me, but could you spare me a moment? I’ve just won Award X for my book, and you mentioned at the agents’ forum that you represent work in that book category. Would you be interested in hearing a quick pitch?”

I can already hear those of you whose entries did not do quite so well breathing a sigh of relief. “Okay, Anne,” the time-conscious cry, “that lets me out. Unless I just happen to fall into conversation with an agent — if, say, someone digs a large pit in the middle of a conference center’s hallway and we both tumble into it at the same time — probably won’t be pitching. But even assuming that I’m willing to prepare a pitch for that particular eventuality, I’m not going to memorize two different speeches. If the elevator speech is so effective at piquing interest, why shouldn’t I just use it as my pitch in my meetings with agents and editors? Since I’m already crunched for time to write, let alone to find an agent, why do I need to invest the time in preparing more than one conference pitch?”

The short answer: so you can be flexible. As I pointed out last time, you never know when — or where — you may end up pitching.

The long answer: let’s face it, it’s not as though simply memorizing a pitch, be it 3-sentence or 2-minute, is sufficient to prepare a writer for a meeting with an agent or editor who might be interested in the book. In fact, a pretty good argument could be made for not memorizing either, but reading one’s pitch from a handy piece of paper, index card, etc., to avoid the glassy-eyed, zombie-like delivery that regurgitation of memorized material.

Besides, as intrepid reader Dave likes to point out each time we discuss pitching (and bless you for it, Dave), a full-scale pitch is an interactive process, not a speech declaimed to an audience who can only clap or boo at the end. If an agent or editor likes your hallway or full pitch, she’s probably going to ask some questions.

Perhaps — and this comes as a substantial shock to most first-time pitchers — even DURING your pitch. Do you really want to be caught tongue-tied and unable to speak coherently about your book?

Stick your head between your knees until the dizziness induced by that last image passes. I’ll wait.

That’s why I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to nudge all of you away from the all-too-common notion of the three-line pitch, practiced over and over as if they were lines in a play. If you concentrate too much on the words themselves, and the short amount of time you have to say them, it’s too easy to freeze up when an unexpected question knocks you off script.

Call me zany, but in my experience, helping people learn to talk about their work professionally and comfortably in a broad variety of contexts works far better in practice than ordering people to write, memorize, and blurt a specific number of lines of text.

The rules lawyers out there aren’t satisfied with those excellent reasons, though, are they? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I can always add to my pitch on the fly, but I can hardly subtract from it. So why wouldn’t I be best off just preparing the 30-second version and using it no matter where I’m called upon to pitch?”

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it: a lot of people do use the 3-sentence elevator speech as their only pitch; to be fair, it has been known to work, just as hallway pitches work.

Just let me ask you a couple of questions: a 30-second pitch leaves quite a bit of a 10-minute appointment unused, doesn’t it? And why would you want to trade an opportunity to say MORE about your book for a format that forces you to say LESS?

I have another, more strategic reason for advising you to prepare both a short and a long pitch: not all conferences are equally open to hallway pitching. Especially, I’ve noticed, the ones that charge would-be pitchers per pitching appointment. Not too astonishing, I suppose.

Brace yourself, because I’m about to be subversive again: my experience has been that even at pay-for-pitch conferences, a brave writer can pretty much always buttonhole an agent or two after an agents’ forum or in the lunch line. It’s pretty difficult for conference-organizers to prevent any extra-appointment chance encounters between agents and the writers who came to the conference to pitch to them.

However, even at some conferences that don’t charge by the appointment, the organizers do try to discourage hallway pitching. I’ve seen many a conference brochure that featured rhetoric telling attendees that it is always rude to pitch outside a formal appointment, for example, or that forbade attendees to switch appointments after their assigned agents announced from a dais that they’re no longer accepting a particular kind of book.

Other conferences offer only a small handful of appointment times on a first-come, first-served basis, so late registrants are left with only the options of hallway pitching or not pitching at all. It’s also not at all uncommon for agents and editors to be whisked away to private parties or hospitality suites, so that they are seldom seen in the hallways for accosting purposes.

Seldom seen sober, at any rate (allegedly). Not much point in pitching to someone who thinks you’re just one of the dancing pink elephants.

Even when the rules and/or schedule do not discourage casual pitching, it can require significant bravery to place oneself at the right place at the right time. Even at fairly inclusive conferences, attendees often report feeling like comparative outcasts, unwelcome at the luncheon tables where the bigwigs hobnob. I’ve been to many a conference where the organizers and invited guests sat on one end of a banquet hall, and the paying attendees on the other.

Heck, I stopped by a conference (which shall remain nameless) a couple of years back where the visiting literati were whisked off their respective airplanes, driven immediately to a party at a local NYT bestselling author’s house for abundant merry-making, and then plied with alcohol so steadily throughout the course of the conference that the following Monday morning, one of the agents e-mailed me from New York to ask what had happened over the weekend. Rumor has it that some of the invited guests did not even show up for scheduled a.m. pitch meetings.

Which, I imagine, played some havoc with those pitchers whose assigned pitchees did not appear.

My point is, writers often pay a lot to attend these conferences, yet find themselves with relatively few pitching opportunities — and not always the ones they expected to have. Sometimes, a writer has to be pretty creative in order to snag those precious few moments for pitching, at least without coming across as obnoxious.

Which brings me to a perfectly marvelous question posted earlier in this series by insightful first-time commenter Penelope. So trenchant was it that I’ve been saving it to share with the entire class:

This is a wonderful post! I especially like the advice on what to do in the case that you’re paired with an agent who doesn’t represent your genre; which I had no idea could happen.

I do find one part of this post confusing, though. I have read on the internet (agent’s blogs, mostly) of how much agents despise being cornered and pitched to in places like elevators, hallways, bars, etc, yet you seem to be saying that this is okay. Is there a certain way to go about pitching in an elevator (for example) that would help an agent be more open to the pitch?

I find this question excellent — rather than passively accepting that what I’ve been advising is true, Penelope has thought it over, weighed advice from a variety of sources, and asked for clarification. This is a great strategy when dealing with anyone who has been immersed in the biz for a good, long while — as counter-intuitive as its ins and outs may be, once one gets used to them, their underlying logic can start to seem obvious, believe it or not.

Bear that in mind the next time you hear confusing pronouncements from the dais at a literary conference, please.

Back to the matter at hand: Penelope is quite right that there are some agents out there who hate, loathe, and detest aspiring writers asking to pitch outside scheduled appointments. Perhaps because they’ve never been in the position of a writer assigned to meet with an inappropriate match, these agents don’t believe that a polite writer would ever accost them in a hallway.

Fortunately, the relative few who feel this way — and they are few, at least amongst agents who habitually go to writers’ conferences — tend to be quite vocal about it. They post it on their websites; they announce it from the conference dais; they write articles and give interviews about it.

Thus, they have good reason to be insulted if an aspiring writer walks up to them and just starts pitching: they could hardly have made their preferences clearer. Approaching them on the fly, then, is every bit as likely to offend as picking up the phone and cold-calling an agent instead of sending a query letter. Or querying an agency that states on its website or in the standard agency guides that it is not currently accepting queries. The result of ignoring these stated preferences will be the same: instant rejection.

So here is my advice: do not, under any circumstances, attempt to pitch informally to an agent who has ever stated publicly that s/he abhors it.

How can a writer new to the biz avoid this faux pas, you ask? At the risk of repeating myself, do your homework. Performing a simple Google search on each attending agent before you head off to the conference should turn up any statements on the subject. If not, listen closely to what the various agents have to say at the agents’ forum.

Chances are, though, that you won’t turn up too many hallway-haters; it’s a common enough practice that folks who are seriously turned off by it tend to avoid the conference experience altogether. (Hey, it’s stressful for the pitch-hearers, too — listening to that many people’s hopes and dreams is mighty tiring.) After all, agents go to conferences in order to pick up clients, and it honestly is a waste of everyone’s time if they only hear pitches from the 10 writers who happen to be assigned formal appointments with them, if there are 75 writers there who write what they’re looking to represent.

Especially if 5 of those appointments turn out to be mismatches, where writers are pitching types of books that they do not represent.

If a writer’s polite about approaching, it’s usually fine. That’s a big if, though — unfortunately, there are PLENTY of rude aspiring writers up there who will simply walk up to an agent they’ve never met before and start launching into a pitch, without so much as a “Hello” or “Could you spare me thirty seconds to tell you about my book?”

Typically, when agents complain about informal pitches, that’s the kind they’re talking about, by the way, not the nice folks who approach them respectfully. You can’t really blame them for resenting the rude approach: anyone would despise being accosted right after he had just swallowed a mouthful of pasta or as she was unlocking the door to her hotel room.

Yes, it happens — but I cling firmly to the belief that none of my lovely readers would be that obnoxious.

Use your common sense, be polite at all times, and be prepared for the possibility that any given agent may have a personal pet peeve about being disturbed in some specific locale. As far as I have been able to tell in a couple of decades of going to writers’ conferences, the only UNIVERSALLY agreed-upon do-not-pitch zone is the bathroom. Other than that, whether the smoking area or the make-up mirror in the ladies’ lounge is off-limits honestly is a personal preference.

Hey, not everyone considers that part of the bathroom per se. I would err on the side of caution and avoid pitching at all between the WOMEN’S sign and the stalls, but hey, that’s me.

The trick to approaching gently lies in both timing and courtesy. If an agent is lying prone on a hallway bench with a wet towel over her face, clutching her head and moaning about a migraine, that might not be the best time to try to catch her eye, for instance. Nor is the moment just after she walks out of the room where she has been listening to pitches all day, or when she is deep in conversation with an author she hasn’t seen in 25 years.

Remember, she is under no obligation to agree to hear you out. Listening to an informal pitch is a favor, and should be treated as such.

So don’t, for instance, walk up to an agent who is laughing with her friends, tap her on the shoulder, and start talking about your book. Instead, walk up to the dais after she’s given a talk, wait politely until it’s your turn, and say something along the lines of:

“Excuse me, but I was enthralled by how you talked about your clients. I couldn’t get a pitch appointment with you, but I think you may be interested in my book. May I give you my thirty-second pitch? Or if now is not a good time, could we set up an appointment later?”

Hard to find that offensive. It clearly gives the agent the opportunity to say no, but still makes it flatteringly plain that you are taking her time seriously. Works in an elevator, too, as long as the would-be pitcher remembers that no really does mean no.

And no, in response to what some timorous souls out there just thought very loudly indeed, none of this is particularly pushy; it’s being smart about promoting your work. By preparing to be able to speak about your book in a variety of contexts, social and official both, you can be ready to take advantage of that chance meeting with the agent with whom you found it impossible to make a formal appointment.

In, say, an elevator.

The other way a hallway pitcher can avoid seeming rude is to keep the hallway pitch BRIEF. If you ask for 30 seconds of the agent’s time, do not take up more unless he asks follow-up questions.

I’m quite serious about this: don’t go overboard. This is not the appropriate time to give your full-fledged 2-minute pitch; save that for a scheduled pitch meeting or, if you’re lucky, the appointment the agent you caught in the hallway agreed to give you later in the conference.

This is where the formula we discussed last time will save your bacon:


If you follow this prescription (oh, there I go again; the book doctor is apparently in), you should not go over the promised 30 seconds. That means that you won’t have to keep checking your watch while you’re talking.

See why I’ve been so adamant about urging you to prepare an elevator speech in advance? An audience granted at the last minute is no time to wing it.

Out come the broken record and the dead horse again: by emphasizing the 3-sentence pitch to the exclusion of all others, I think the standard sources of writerly advice have left first-time pitchers ill-prepared to address those other vital issues involved in a good pitch, such as where the book will sit in Barnes & Noble, who the author thinks will read it, why the target market will find it compelling…

In short, all of the information contained in the magic first 100 words.

All that being said, if an agent has stated publicly (on an agent’s panel, for instance) that he hates informal pitches, steer clear — but don’t necessarily write that agent off as a possibility. Instead, send a query letter after the conference, beginning, “I enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and since I was not lucky enough to obtain a pitch appointment with you…”

But whatever you do, don’t swear off hallway pitching just because a few agents dislike being pitched informally. Not everything every agent says is applicable to all agents — nor do the agents who make such pronouncements necessarily expect everything they say in public on the subject to become codified as The Law Eternal.

Sometimes, a personal preference is just that: personal. By preparing yourself to talk about your work in a variety of contexts, you will be substantially less likely to be caught with nothing coherent to say when the pitching opportunity of your dreams presents itself.

Trust me, you will be happier in the long run if you don’t self-reject your pitch. Try it on the agent of your dreams; the results might be spectacular.

Oh, I’m sensing some impatient seat-shifting out there again, amn’t I? “I get it, Anne,” some of you say, rolling your eyes, “you believe that I’ll be happier in the long run if I prepare to be able to give my pitch in a house, with a mouse, in a hat, near a rat, and anywhere else that an agent with a successful track record selling books in my category happens to be. Fine — I’m going to practice my elevator speech AND my pitch. But I’m hardly going to forget my own name or the title of my book. I do have social skills — I don’t seriously need to practice introducing myself, do I?”

I’m sure that you have social skills that are the pride and joy or your mother under normal circumstances, but hear me out, please: while it may seem a tad silly to have to practice saying your own name, or to remind yourself to mention that your book is a novel (or a memoir, or a nonfiction book), most writers are nervous when they pitch.

I know; shocking.

Practice will help you remember to hit the important points, no matter how brief or how strange the locale of your pitching experience. Especially if you practice saying them in a number of different ways.

Yes, you did extrapolate correctly: I am seriously suggesting that you do dry runs where you have only a minute, only thirty seconds, five minutes, etc., in order to get comfortable talking about your work. And I’m not just saying that because I once found myself stuck in the same tiny airport with a very famous agent for five hours, waiting for the same flight.

True story. Nice guy.

But surprise openings are not the only reason practicing rolling with the punches is a good idea. You’d be amazed (at least I hope you would) at how many first-time pitchers come dashing into their scheduled pitch appointments, so fixated on blurting those pre-ordained three sentences that they forget to:

(a) introduce themselves to the agent or editor, like civilized beings,

(b) mention whether the book is fiction or nonfiction,

(c) indicate whether the book has a title, or

(d) all of the above.

I find this sad: these are intelligent people, for the most part, but their too-rigid advance preparation has left them as tongue-tied and awkward as wallflowers at a junior high school dance.

We’ve all been there, right?

And don’t even get me started on the sweat-soaked silence that can ensue after the 3-sentence pitcher has gasped it all out, incontinently, and has no more to say. In that dreadful lull, the agent sits there, blinking so slowly that the pitcher is tempted to take a surreptitious peek at his watch, to make sure that time actually is moving forward at a normal clip, or stick a pin in the agent, to double-check that she isn’t some sort of emotionless android with its battery pack on the fritz.

“And?” the automaton says impatiently after approximately 150 years of silence. “Are you done?”

Call me unorthodox, but I don’t think this is a desirable outcome for you.

But that doesn’t mean that you should just prepare a hallway pitch and trust your luck to be able to handle questions about it for the rest of your pitch appointment. You will be happier in that meeting if you have prepared at least the outline of a 2-minute pitch. (And yes, Virginia, we are going to talk about that next time.)

And, by the way, you should time it as you say it out loud, to make sure it can be said in under two minutes without leaving you so breathless that oxygen will have to be administered immediately afterward.

Why? Well, even more common than pitchers who dry up after 45 seconds are writers who talk on and on about their books in their pitch meetings so long that the agent or editor hasn’t time to ask follow-up questions. You really do want to keep your pitch to roughly two minutes (as opposed to your hallway pitch, which should be approximately 30 seconds), so that you can discuss your work with the well-connected, well-informed industry insider in front of you.

A pitch meeting is a conversation, after all, not a stump speech: you want it to start an interesting exchange, not to engender stony silence, right? Come prepared to talk about your work — and in terms that will make sense to everyone in the industry.

In a box, with a fox — or balanced in a crabapple tree with a dirt-encrusted good luck charm. (I thought I wouldn’t make you guess that time.)

Trust me, you can do this. I have faith in you.

Okay, now we’re coming up on the main course: the two-minute pitch. But that, my friends, is a subject for another day.

Thanks for the fabulous questions, Penelope and the rest of you who contacted me privately. (You’d be amazed at how often the floating voices I cite here are the result of ex parte approaches; just for the record, I vastly prefer that questions be posted as comments on the blog, so everyone may benefit from the answers.) Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part XVI: take a deep breath. You have not blown it irretrievably.

Smack dab in the middle of this last weekend’s Conference that Shall Remain Nameless, I received one of the most pitiful types of calls a pitching coach can get: a frantic “What do I do now?” cri de coeur from a talented aspiring writer who had just realized that she had missed one of her scheduled pitching appointments. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really; he had simply written down the wrong day in her calendar.

In the midst of trying to navigate a busy conference schedule, it isn’t all that hard to do. In fact, it’s not all that uncommon a snafu. (So in response to what a third of you thought very loudly while reading the last paragraph: yes, there are agents and editors who do read this blog, but no, the petitioning writer would not be identifiable from this description. He probably wasn’t even the only scheduled pitcher who missed an appointment at this conference; because people have been known to panic at the last minute, agents and editors are used to no-shows.)

My first thought was for him, of course, but my second thought was for you, campers. It ran a little something like this: my God, is it possible that I have never covered this situation on Author! Author! at any point within the last 6 years? (My third thought, should you care to know it: wait, aren’t we coming up on our iron anniversary any day now? Indeed we are: I posted for the first time as the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless’ Resident Writer on August 11th, 2005. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of one single thing a blogger might actually need that is made of iron, other than a hammer to batter home a point or two, but I’m open to suggestions.)

My alarmed second thought was, alas, depressingly accurate. Not only have I never written anything here about this rather common conference faux pas; a panicked would-be pitcher who realized with a start at 2:15 that his meeting with the agent of his dreams had been a 12:15 — oh, for the loss of a digit! — might end up scrolling through dozens of posts searching for an answer.

Obviously, that’s not acceptable to me; I try very hard to make this site panic-friendly. I hope all of you who are not planning to pitch anytime soon will forgive me, therefore, if I devote part of today’s post to addressing this question, so I may establish a category for it on the archive list toute suite.

The first thing to do upon realizing that one has spaced out (or chickened out; no shame in that) of a scheduled appointment with an agent or editor is to relax. The pro is not going to hate you for all eternity, nor is s/he going to regale all of her friends in the publishing industry with the tale of how (insert your name here) didn’t show up for the meeting. As I said, it’s just too frequent an occurrence to generate much umbrage — and it’s definitely too common a conference phenomenon to make a good anecdote.

“Oh, that’s happened to all of us,” the tellers coworkers will say, yawning. “Writers get too stressed out to pitch all the time.”

You feel better already, don’t you? Excellent. What you should do next is march up to the meeting-scheduling desk (or, if it’s closed, march up to the nearest well-marked member of the conference’s organizing committee) and boldly admit that you got your scheduling wires crossed. “Is there any way at all,” you should ask politely, “that I could reschedule?”

Yes, really. Try dangling your head between your knees until the urge to faint passes.

You’d be surprised how often the schedulers will say yes, provided that you are hugely apologetic about imposing upon their time. Pitchers cancel appointments all the time; they may be able to give you an abruptly emptied appointment, if you are willing to hang around on the off chance that one might open.

Why do they tend to be willing to do that? Well, rescheduling meetings is part of their job. Not only do first-time pitchers come tiptoeing up to them to whisper regrets about suddenly having developed a case of laryngitis; It’s also not unheard-of for — brace yourselves — an agent or editor to miss a scheduled meeting. In either case, they’re going to need to do some appointment-shuffling.

Head back from its second field trip between your knees yet? “But Anne,” excited pitchers everywhere gasp, “how on earth is that possible? I prepared for weeks for that meeting — what do you mean, they might not show up?”

I mean that as powerful as aspiring writers perceive agents and editors to be, they do not control flight schedules; if a plane gets delayed at JFK, they might well be late arriving at a conference in Austin. If (heaven forfend) a child gets sick, a parent might very well decide not to arrive in St. Louis to hear pitches until the next day. I’ve even heard rumors (mostly over bloody Marys the day after a conference party) that people simply oversleep.

It happens. If it happens to you, your first and second steps should be precisely the same: take a nice, deep breath, remember that it wasn’t the conference organizers’ fault, and go make a polite request to reschedule.

Believe me, courtesy counts here: if the agency decided at the last minute to send a different agent with different tastes at the last minute because the one originally scheduled has a client whose revision deadline just got moved up by a month (again, it happens), plenty of writers will be scrambling to switch appointments. Stand out from the crowd by being the one who is nice about it, especially if you are willing to stick around and wait for any last-minute openings.

Say, because someone forgot about a pitching appointment. Their gaffe may be your gain.

Please remember, though, that it’s in your interest to be polite even if the answer is no. Think about it: when a slot opens up unexpectedly three hours later, who is the scheduler more likely to flag down for it, the writer that yelled at her, or the one who commiserated with the craziness of trying to juggle so many irate people’s demands?

If you cannot make a fresh appointment (as is likely to happen, if the agent does not turn up at the conference at all), don’t lose hope; you still have two quite good options, the gutsy and the shy. The gutsy route involves doing precisely what we’ve been discussing over the last few posts: walking up to an agent or editor in the hallway or other non-bathroom conference venue, courteously attracting her attention, and asking if you can pitch.

Wow, you are prone to attacks of dizziness, aren’t you? Have you tried not locking your knees?

Actually, a pro is more likely to say yes to a hallway pitch if the requester mentions a missed pitching appointment. No need to say why you weren’t there (or to remind the agent that he was the one who didn’t show); just apologize briefly if it was your doing, and ask if you can have some time now. Or later.

Can’t imagine yourself saying it? Come on, it’s easy.

Writer (edging up to agent chatting with editor at the end of rubber chicken luncheon): Excuse me for disturbing you, Ms. Pickyperson, but may I have a moment?

Agent (clutching her coffee cup; she didn’t get a lot of sleep last night): Yes?

Writer: I’m terribly sorry, but there was a mix-up, and I missed our appointment this morning. Is there any possibility that you could make a few minutes for me? I’d be happy to work around your schedule.

Agent (shoving out a chair with her foot so she need not remove the coffee cup from her mouth): I’ll give you two minutes right now.

See? Your mother was right; politeness pays. Do be prepared to be equally polite, however, if she gives you a different time to meet, or if says no.

Writer: I’d be happy to work around your schedule.

Agent (glancing at her watch): I’m afraid that I just don’t have time. My plane leaves in two hours.

Writer (disappointed, but hiding it well): Oh, I understand. May I send you a query?

Agent (hoisting her carry-on bag): Yes, that would be fine.

Wasn’t our writer clever to suggest that last option? He could also just have gone there directly, if he was shy, skipping the face-to-face approach altogether and dispatching a query that builds upon the missed meeting.

I prefer e-mail for these sorts of missives, if the agency accepts them; that way, it’s apparent that the writer is trying to follow up as soon as possible on that canceled appointment. Again, there is no need to raise the issue of fault.

SUBJECT LINE: I missed you at the Greenwater Conference

Dear Ms. Pickyperson,

I am so sorry that our scheduled appointment at Greenwater did not happen; I was looking forward to talking to you about my romance novel, OOPS, I LOST MY CALENDAR. I hope that you are still interested in hearing about it now.

(Follow with the body of your regular query, absent the usual first paragraph.)

Perfectly polite and reasonable, isn’t it? This method can also work delightfully well for agents whom one did not have the nerve to buttonhole in the hallways.

SUBJECT LINE: post-Greenwater Conference query

Dear Mr. EyeofSharpness,

I enjoyed your talk at the recent Greenwater Conference. Unfortunately, I could not obtain an appointment to speak with you about my thriller, THE BUTLER DID IT TWICE.

(Follow with the body of your regular query, absent the usual first paragraph.)

What you should most emphatically not do — but need I add that these are the most popular choices in practice? — is either dash up to the scheduling desk to demand a fresh appointment on the spot, trail weeping after the agent in the hallways, loudly berating yourself for having spaced out on your meeting, or decide in humiliated silence to do nothing at all. None of these methods is likely to turn a missed opportunity into a saved one.

Is everybody clear on that? Please feel free to pepper the comments with follow-up questions and hypothetical situations, if not. I would much, much rather that you ask me now than send me a breathless e-mail as you hyperventilate at a conference a month hence.

Call me zany, but I prefer it when my readers can breathe. They tend to think more clearly that way.

Back to our originally scheduled programming. Next time, I shall be talking about how to make the actual approach for a hallway pitch, because it requires a certain amount of finesse not to end up as the subject of an anecdote about how pushy aspiring writers can be. Today, however, I want to bring up another common trait of the successful hallway pitcher: freshness.

As I pointed out a couple of days ago, the first commandment of a winning elevator speech is THOU SHALL NOT BORE. Actually, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb for any pitch, query letter, or submission, but if a hallway pitch is snore-inducing, the results can be instantly fatal.

Not boring is a while lot harder than it sounds, you know. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but most 3-line pitches sound a great deal alike, at least to someone who has been hearing them for three days straight.

Agent (eying the bottom of her empty coffee cup): Tell me about your book.

Writer: Well, it’s called GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and it’s the story of (insert protagonist’s name, age, profession, if any, and geographic location here), a (insert adjective) man/woman/group who face (insert conflict here). The stakes couldn’t be higher, because (insert barrier to achieving goal here). In pursuing his/her/its collective dream and/or saving his/her/its (insert treasured resource here), he/she/they will discover (insert life lesson here).

Agent (overcome by certain sense of déjà vu): Hmm. Sounds interesting. Tell me more.

The structure is, let’s face it, awfully darned restrictive. No wonder the people who hear them for a living tend to remember my students: the mere fact of their introducing themselves prior to pitching is out of the ordinary.

Add to that structural similarity all of the pitches for books that sound suspiciously like the big bestseller from two years ago, as well as the ones that lift plots, character traits, and situations from movies, TV shows, pop culture, and good, old-fashioned clichés, and is it still surprising that pitches start to blur together in the hearer’s mind after a startlingly short while?

Hands up, anyone who still doesn’t understand why that agent who requested the first fifty pages of a manuscript last Saturday might not recall the details of the pitch today. (On the bright side, that agent was probably downright grateful when her eighteenth pitch appointment was a no-show; it gave her time to grab an extra cup o’ joe.)

Is that abject terror I’m sensing creeping around out there, or have the trees outside my window suddenly taken up moaning for fun and profit? “Gee, Anne,” the newly nervous pipe up, “I had no idea that part of the goal of my pitch — 3-line or otherwise — was to strike the agent or editor as original. Now I’m quaking in my proverbial boots, petrified that the agent of my dreams will burst into laughter and shout, ‘Is that the best you can do? I’ve heard that story 15 times in the last week!’”

Take a nice, deep breath; it’s the too-common structure that is snore-inducing, not necessarily any individual pitch’s subject matter. Besides, no agent or editor can possibly judge the quality of your writing solely through a verbal pitch, so even in the unlikely event that a pro said something like that to your face, it would be a response to your book’s premise or plot as you have just presented it, not to the book itself. As practically everybody in the industry is fond of saying, it all depends on the writing.

And I have even more good news: if you can make your elevator speech resemble your narrative voice, it is far, far more likely to strike the hearer as original.

Yes, you read that correctly: I’m advising you to work with your elevator speech or pitch until it sounds like YOUR writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire. Or like a pitch for a book that’s already on the bestseller list.

Was that giant thud I just heard the sound of the jaws of all of you who have attended conferences recently hitting the floor? “But Anne,” these astonished souls protest, cradling their sore mandibles, “you’re got that backwards, don’t you? I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard agents and editors say at conferences, ‘Oh, THAT kind of book isn’t selling anymore.’ Wouldn’t it be better strategy for me to imply that my book is just like something that is selling well right now?”

Perhaps, if your manuscript actually is similar to a current bestseller. Even if you find yourself in this position, though, you’re going to want to figure out what makes your book original and work some inkling of it into your pitch. After all, any agent who represents those types of books will have been inundated with carbon copies of that bestseller since about a month after it hit the big time.

Seriously, do you have the slightest idea how many YA vampire books Millicent the agency screener sees in any given week?

In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important. Or writers might even — sacre bleu! — derive the erroneous impression that their work is SUPPOSED to sound as if it had been written by someone else. To be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list.

Can’t imagine where so many aspiring writers get this idea. Unless it’s from all of those conferences where agents, editors, and marketing gurus speak from behind the safety of podiums (podia?) about how helpful it is to mention in a pitch or a letter what bestseller one’s opus most resembles.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And somnambulant Sally sells salacious seashells by the sordid seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a book to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually at least a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. Often two. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice will be sought-after several years hence.

If you doubt this, tell me: have you met many agents lately who are clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY? Or even the next DA VINCI CODE? How about something that’s selling immensely well in your book category right now?

In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. As long, that is, as that voice is a good fit for the project at hand.

That’s as true of a pitch as it is for a novel or memoir, you know. A generic pitch isn’t going to show off an honestly original voice, or even a fresh story — it’s just going to sound like two-thirds of the other pitches an agent or editor has heard that day.

See why I so discourage writers I like from embracing the ubiquitous 3-line pitch formula? The way that new pitchers are typically encouraged to do it tends to flatten original stories. Squashes some of ‘em flat as pancakes, it does.

“Wait just a minute,” that Greek chorus of conference-goers pipes up again. “I’m confused. We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks here about making my book project sound marketable. So if I make it sound like something that’s already a bestseller, why won’t that lend my pitch the shine of marketability?”

An excellent question, with two even more excellent answers. First, there’s just no getting around the fact that a pitch (or query, or manuscript) that sounds too similar to a well-known publication is inevitably going to come across as derivative. Which, in case any of you had been wondering, is why those periodic experiments where some wag tries to query and submit the first five pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in order to demonstrate that good writing no longer stands a chance are not actually measuring agents’ responses to high-quality writing. At this point in literary history, the first five pages of any Jane Austen novel would strike any literate Millicent as being derivative of Jane Austen.

Not that quite a few authors haven’t made a killing in recent years being derivative of Jane Austen, mind you. So much so that even copying her style has been done.

The second answer is that what is already in print isn’t necessarily indicative of what agents and editors are looking for NOW. (If you’re not sure why, I refer you back to that section above where I talked about the usual lapse between acquisition and publication.) The third answer — I’ll throw this one in for free — is that not all published writing exhibits an original narrative voice, so copying it is going to seem even less fresh.

That “Wha–?” you just heard was Author! Author!’s own Pollyanna chorus. Take a bow, everyone. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls cry as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers — take a nice, deep breath. I’m not going out on a particularly lengthy literary limb by suggesting — or even stating categorically — that not all published writing is good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege.)

I seem still to be standing, so allow me to continue: books get published for all kinds of reasons. The platform of the writer, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction in the five years before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a Pulitzer winner’s ex-husband. (One hears rumors.)

But in the vast majority of instances, a published book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will be clear. Perhaps not full of insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective, and strenuously pretending that any issue affecting humanity has two equal sides — and only two sides. But the author is not going to lean toward either. Uh-uh. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

To have a literary voice, though, is to take a side. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option. In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the writer chose for this appropriate for the story?”

Not all voices fit all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would you want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? A political thriller whose first-person narrator is a senator by day, a hacker by night, but speaks all the time like a Barbary pirate? What about a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

At the moment, I work in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, my fiction voice, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself not to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write. Nor would it best serve my literary purposes to pitch my fiction in the same voice as my memoir.

Honestly, if I used my wistful-yet-tough memoir voice here to discuss the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor in 42 second flat. Because Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please. I have some masses to mobilize.

One of the great things about gaining a broad array of writing experience is developing the ability to switch voices at will; you have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. I’ve written everything from political platforms to fashion articles to promotional copy for wine bottles to lectures on Plato. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these topics, because the audiences were very different.

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting (although believe me, you need some pretty good comic timing to keep hung-over frat boys awake throughout the entirety of an 8 a.m. lecture on ancient Athenian political theory), and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner date left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to this experience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

Just as there are millions of different ways to tell any given story, there are millions of different ways to pitch it. Tone, voice, vocabulary choice, rhythm — a skillful writer may play with all of these tools in order to alter how a reader or pitch hearer receives the story.

Speaking of stories, let me tell you one that you may find enlightening.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay very young, very naïve Harvard students a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area.

Alone. All summer. In my case, throughout the wildlife-rich Pacific Northwest. I awoke once near Mt. St. Helens to find a ground squirrel tap-dancing on my head; something with awfully big paws made off with my frying pan outside of Bend, and a tourist bureau employee in Walla Walla told me I was “asking for it” by wandering around town, inquiring about motel rates. (He offered to explain over dinner what “it” was, but I declined.) My gig was heaven, however, compared to my friend who got a switchblade in his gut while asking some perfectly straightforward questions about the freshness of the fish in a bar in Barcelona.

The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, but my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire. You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Not entirely coincidentally, Let’s Go’s tone at the time was very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on a picnic table by candlelight.

Clearly an assignment that called for simple, impersonal clarity, right? Not so.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket. It was raining so hard on the outskirts of Eugene that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

”Excuse me?” I said, thinking that she had somehow intuited that I was here to critique her obviously underdeveloped customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge. (If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework, please, and don’t accept any job offers that involve hitchhiking.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to slip into her jeans after checking around the corner for the manager. After I deposited my backpack in my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“Jay, I have $8.15 to my name.” The combination of the rain noisily battering the phone booth and the angry mob urging me not to impinge upon their territory rendered his response inaudible. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

He had to shout his response three times before I could understand what he was saying. ”Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night, so Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston – ate it up. He’s an extremely respectable English professor at a well-known liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest now. He tells me that he thinks about my motel adventure every time he meets a student from Eugene.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether another type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

How would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

In other words, presenting the story in the same flat, just-the-fact voice that dogs the average conference pitch. You’d be surprised at how many pitches for interesting, imaginative books come across with all of the stylistic verve of a police report.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go anecdote, compressed into a standard 3-line pitch:

A 22-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby and tells the clerk she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity, but the manager confirms the information. Noting the 7’ x 10’ wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lamé huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman suspects that she might not be in the right place and telephones the editor who sent her there.

Not the apex of colorful, is it? It’s the same story, essentially, but an agent or editor hearing this second account and think, “Gee, this story might have potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story. I think I’ll pass.” Millicent would probably just yawn and yell, “Next!”

I might not garner precisely the same reactions if I pitched this story in the style of a bestselling writer, but the end result — “Next!” — would probably be the same. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), then bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing over how often aspiring writers pitch and submit books that bear suspicious similarities to theirs.

To an experienced pitch-hearer, the resemblance doesn’t have to be too overt for the kinship to be obvious, if you catch my drift. You wouldn’t believe how many stories were told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or how many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

All that being said, I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting some agents’ and editors’ attention, at least on the Hollywood hook level:

“My memoir is ANGELA’S ASHES, but without all of that pesky poverty!”

“My chick lit manuscript is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!”

“The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or the death!”

However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out (and I like to remind my readers she liked to point out), while copycats may hit the big time in the short term, for the long haul, what audiences find memorable is originality.

That’s as true for a pitch as for a manuscript, you know. Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a pitch is this: three days after an agent has heard it, will he remember it on the airplane back to New York? Even if the storyline escapes him, will he remember the interesting way in which the pitcher told it, the narrative voice, the details he’d ever heard before?

In 99% of 3-line pitches, the answer is no. Partially, that’s the fault of the flattening format. Partially, it isn’t.

So at the risk of boring you, allow me to repeat the advice I’ve been hawking for the last couple of posts: the best use of your pre-pitching time — or pre-querying time — is to figure out precisely how your book is different from what’s currently on the market, not trying to make it sound like the current bestseller. A fresh story told in an original manner is hard for even the most jaded pro to resist.

Provided, of course, it’s presented in a polite, professional manner. Next time, I’ll give you some tips on how to give a hallway pitch without impinging upon the hearer’s boundaries. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part III: the horror, the horror

I had originally intended to keep pressing forward into the wild and wooly world of pitching your book to agents over the last couple of days, campers, but something about the quality of the horrified silence that greeted Part II prompted me to pause and let it sink in for a little while. This is stressful stuff for writers, even when discussed in the abstract.

Just acknowledging that pitching is frightening for every writer the first time around can be very helpful, but do I spot a few thousand newly raised hands?

“Um, Anne?” those of you joining us in mid-series inquire nervously. “That last paragraph scared the heck out of me, and I’m not even sure why! I’ve only just shown up because I heard an online rumor that you were doing an in-depth pitching series. I’m gearing up to attend a conference this summer, and I’m pretty nervous about being face-to-face with the agent of my dreams. Since I’m already jumpy, may I please read your introduction as permission to skip the earlier posts in this series? And may I assume that you’re only going to concentrate upon the happy, upbeat parts of pitching from here on out?”

I’m afraid not, nervous ones: part of what makes this process so intimidating to aspiring writers is its mystery. It may be distressing to ponder worst-case scenarios, but trust me, it’s in your best interest. Far, far better for us to talk about them here than for you to walk into a conference unprepared — and walk out laboring under the unfortunately common impression that a difficult or unsuccessful pitch meeting is a sign that you should just give up on the book.

Besides, even the grimmest actual pitch meeting typically does not rise to anywhere near the terror level of what writers picture might happen. The entire horror oeuvre of Vincent Price pales in comparison to what the average first-time pitcher fears might jump out at her after hello.

Oh, the prospect of being dunked into boiling wax doesn’t seem ever so slightly preferable to a high-powered agent laughing unkindly as soon as you begin to pitch?

That’s not particularly likely to happen, you know. Or don’t you know?

Since the overwhelming majority of first-time pitchers actually don’t know what to expect, I like to pull a few more realistic bogeymen out from under the bed, so my readers can get used to what they look like in captivity before facing them in the wild. To that end, last time, I raised the scary, scary specter of the mismatched pitch meeting, the not uncommon conference nightmare scenario where a writer walks into a scheduled pitching appointment, only to discover to her horror that the agent won’t even consider representing her kind of book.

Not in a Vincent Price-toned “You think anyone in the publishing industry would be interested in THAT? Mwahahaha!” sort of way, but in a “Gee, I’m going to have to stop you there, I’m afraid, because I can already tell that this book wouldn’t fit comfortably on my client list” sort of way.

Yes, it could happen. Not because the agent is mean or hates literature, mind you; usually, a response like this just means that he specializes in some other kind of literature.

That doesn’t make it less horrifying in the moment, though. The writer sits through the appointment, fighting back tears, wondering what on earth she’s done in a past life to deserve missing out on her one conference pitching opportunity — and stomps out breathing fire, cursing the conference’s organizers for having enticed her to the conference with the promise of pitching to an agent, then not providing a contact that could possibly do her any good.

Hideously nightmarish, isn’t it? Would it frighten you to know that I’ve seldom attended a large conference where it didn’t happen to at least a handful of attendees?

Before you scream in terror, let me hasten to add: I can tell you from long experience that those who are most likely to succumb to this terrible fate are aspiring writers who rely blindly upon conference schedulers to hook them up with the perfect agent for their work. As I have suggested in my last couple of posts, this level of trust may not pay off for the writer.

Specifically, it may result in an agent’s stopping a pitcher half a sentence in with one of the hardest-to-hear sentences in the English language: “Oh, I’m sorry — I don’t represent that kind of book.”

I can feel some of you shying away from reading the rest of this post — or even from signing up to pitch at a conference at all. “What a bummer, Anne. Way to scare me out of wanting to pitch at all.”

Actually, I have some really, really good reasons for bringing this up at the beginning of this series, rather than after I go over its nuts and bolts. First, obviously, now that I have brought up the possibility that all of you conference-goers might not be assigned to meet with the best agent for your book, I didn’t want you to be waking up in the dead of night, hyperventilating over the prospect of a mismatched meeting. Let’s exorcise that poltergeist as soon as possible.

The second and far more important reason: so you may be prepared if it ever happens to you. Heaven forbid, of course, but think about it: would you rather learn how to perform the Heimlich maneuver BEFORE the person next to you at the rubber chicken banquet, or during?

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

Who, being a different individual, will inevitably have different literary tastes than the first. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: there is no such thing as a manuscript or book proposal that every agent in the industry will love. Agents specialize — and they have personal preferences, like anyone else.

At the risk of pointing out that the emperor’s garments are a tad scanty as he dodges around that great big elephant in the room, agents and editors’ preferences sometimes switch rather abruptly and without a whole lot of publicity. So do market trends. It is not at all uncommon, for instance, for an agent whose sister has just had a baby suddenly to be interested in parenting books. Or for an editor who has just been mugged to stop wanting to read true crime.

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

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

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may end up pitching to someone who is categorically disinclined to listen — which more or less guarantees rejection, no matter how great the book concept or writing may be. Isn’t it better that you hear it from me now, rather than having it come as a stunning mid-conference surprise?

Most of you were a trifle slow in responding. Allow me to provide the answer: yes, it is. In fact, being aware of the possibility is the only way you can arm yourself against it. Preparation, and lots of it, is your best defense.

Did half of you just go pale with dread? “Good heavens, Anne,” the newly-wan stammer, “is it really so bad as that? Can’t I, you know, just wing it if I find myself in that unfortunate situation?”

Well, you could, but it’s usually not the best option. Most pitchers, not having anticipated this particular possibility, will either:

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” the pale concede nervously. “So what should I do if I end up in an inappropriate meeting? Run away screaming, clutching my heaving bosom?”

No, of course not. Nor should you shoulder the quixotic task of trying to convince an industry professional to change utterly how s/he has decided to do business — which is what pitching to an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of book amounts to, incidentally. Yet conference after conference, year after year, writers will bullheadedly insist upon acting as though every agent represents every conceivable type of book — and responding to the practically inevitable rejection by concluding that their books simply aren’t of interest to the publishing industry.

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

But you already know that you’re looking for Ms. or Mr. Right Agent, don’t you? Let’s get back to the practical issue of what you should do if you end up with Mr. or Ms. Wrong. (And for those of you new to the game who’ve been shaking your heads and muttering, “What the heck is a book category?” please either hold that question for a few days or see the BOOK CATEGORIES section on the archive list on the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

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

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

Stop that embittered guffawing and hear me out. You decided to attend the conference not merely to make contacts with people in the industry, but to learn how to market your work better, right? Yes, you will be disappointed if you end up in an inappropriate pitch meeting, but I can absolutely guarantee that an hour afterward, you will be significantly happier if you didn’t just sit there, feeling miserable and helpless, until it ended.

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

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

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

If the agent or editor seems even remotely friendly, you might even want to ask, after the other questions, “Look, I know it isn’t your area, but you must hear thousands of pitches a year. Would you mind listening to mine and giving me some constructive criticism?”

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

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

So if you can pull yourself together enough to get past the fact that you two shouldn’t have been assigned to meet in the first place and move on to topics that you’re both comfortable discussing, 99% of agents will appreciate it. Not enough to pick up your book, but still, enough to think of you kindly in future.

And don’t underestimate how helpful that may be down the line: both agents and editors move around a lot these days. Just because the guy in front of you isn’t interested in your current project doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t be interested in your next. (If the first sentence in this paragraph made you gasp, please remind me after this series to blog about what happens to a relocating agent’s clients.)

Approaching the disappointment as a learning experience can make the difference between your stalking out of your meeting, biting back the tears, and walking out feeling confident that your next pitch will go better. Besides, agents are often flattered by being asked their opinions, I find.

There’s such a thing as human nature, you know. Few people are insulted by being admired for their expertise.

So it’s worth your while prepping a few questions in advance, as bad match insurance. Remember, though, that when you ask for advice, you are requesting a FAVOR. Be accordingly polite — and grateful.

Particularly the latter, if you want to win friends and influence people.

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

Hey, the pros harbor pitching-related fears, too. Often, they involve a writer who mistakenly assumes that a little well-intentioned advice is an invitation to a lifetime of friendship — and whose idea of friendship is to send 17 e-mails per day, demanding assistance getting published.

A word to the wise: remember, stalking is illegal, and no amount of friendly helpfulness means that “I’m sorry, but I don’t represent that kind of book,” is code for “I don’t usually handle your kind of book, but because I like you personally, I’ll be delighted to make an exception if only you are pushy enough.”

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

Here again, advance research helps. Knowing something about the agent or editor will not only minimize the probability of ending up in an inappropriate pitch meeting, but also help you calm down before giving your pitch. Instead beginning with a nervous “Hi,” followed by an immediate launch into your pitch, wouldn’t it be great if you could stroll in and break the tension with something along the lines of, “Hello. You represent Author McFamouson, don’t you? I just loved her last book. Will she be coming out with another soon?”

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

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

Boning up on the facts will also enable you to ask intelligent questions about how he handles his clients’ work. For instance, in the past, most fiction was published first in hardcover; until fairly recently, newspapers refused to review softcover fiction. However, increasingly, publishing houses are releasing new fiction in trade paper, a higher-quality printing than standard paperback, so the price to consumers (and the printing costs) may be significantly lower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does that sudden bout of shrieking indicate that some of you find this notion petrifying? I’m not all that surprised; there are a lot of half-truths about informal pitching floating around the conference circuit and the Internet. The last time I did an in-depth series on pitching in this forum, I was inundated with comments on the subject. A representative sample:

I especially like the advice on what to do in the case that you’re paired with an agent who doesn’t represent your genre, which I had no idea could happen. I do find one part of this post confusing, though. I have read on the internet (agent’s blogs, mostly) of how much agents despise being cornered and pitched to in places like elevators, hallways, bars, etc, yet you seem to be saying that this is okay. Is there a certain way to go about pitching in an elevator (for example) that would help an agent be more open to the pitch?

The short answer to that last question is yes; I’m going to be covering this later in the series at my usual great length. However, because I know that some of you will be staring at your bedroom ceilings at 4 a.m., worrying about this, let me address this common concern briefly right now.

Yes, there are indeed individual agents who hate hallway pitching, and if you hear (or read about) them saying so, you should certainly avoid informal pitches to those particular individuals at all costs. Fortunately, the ones who hate it tend to be quite vocal about it — which is why, I suspect, aspiring writers who have heard little else about pitching tend to have been exposed to this particular pet peeve.

However, it’s been my experience that agents willing to attend conferences but unwilling to meet any writer with whom they do not have a pre-scheduled appointment form the minority of pitch-hearers. Usually, it’s the conference organizers who object to it. Agents go to conferences in order to pick up clients, and it honestly is a waste of everyone’s time if they only hear pitches from the 10 or 20 writers who happen to be assigned formal appointments with them, if there are 75 writers there who write what they’re looking to represent.

If a writer’s polite about approaching, it’s usually fine. That’s a big if, though — unfortunately, there are PLENTY of rude aspiring writers up there who will simply walk up to an agent they’ve never met before and start launching into a pitch, without so much as a “Hello,” “I’m pleased to meet you,” or “Could you spare me thirty seconds to tell you about my book?”

Typically, when agents complain about informal pitches, that’s the kind they’re talking about. Anyone would despise that. No one likes having total strangers bark at him or her with no preamble.

But as far as I have been able to tell in a couple of decades of going to writers’ conferences, the only UNIVERSALLY agreed-upon do-not-pitch zone is the bathroom. Other than that, it honestly is a personal preference.

The trick to approaching gently — and again, I’ll be going over this in excruciating detail later in this series, so please don’t panic at this juncture — lies in both timing and courtesy. Listening to an informal pitch is a favor, and should be treated as such. So don’t, for instance, walk up to an agent who is laughing with her friends, tap her on the shoulder, and start talking about your book. Instead, walk up to the dais after she’s given a talk, wait politely until it’s your turn, and say something along the lines of, “Excuse me, but I was enthralled by how you talked about your clients. I couldn’t get a pitch appointment with you, but based on what you said, I think you may be interested in my book. May I give you my thirty-second pitch? Or if now is not a good time, could we set up an appointment later?”

Hard to find that offensive. It clearly gives the agent the opportunity to say no, but still makes it flatteringly plain that you are taking her time seriously. Works in an elevator, too, as long as the would-be pitcher remembers that no really does mean no.

Accept it and move on. Preferably to an agent who has sold scads of books like yours within the last couple of years.

All that being said, if an agent has stated publicly (on an agent’s panel, for instance) that he hates informal pitches, it’s only basic common courtesy to steer clear; send a query letter after the conference instead, beginning, “I enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and since I was not lucky enough to obtain a pitch appointment with you…” Ditto if the conference materials state categorically that any writer who attempts to pitch outside the context of a pre-scheduled meeting will be unceremoniously thrown out on his audacious ear. But it’s not in your book’s best interest to assume that just because a few agents dislike being buttonholed doesn’t mean that all do — and it shouldn’t mean that writers are doomed to pitching to only those agents conference organizers have picked for them.

For our purposes at the moment, please just remember that the last thing on earth that’s going to win you friends and influence people in the publishing industry is coming across like a stalker. It’s illegal in most states, anyway, but it’s a bad idea, no matter how badly you want a particular agent to hear about your book.

Everyone feeling a bit better? Good. Let’s avert our eyes from the worst-case scenario and glide quickly on to — well, not really a happier one, but at least a different kind of disaster, a problem that has nearly paralyzed legions of first-time pitchers.

I refer, of course, to the bizarrely ubiquitous conference advice that insists a book pitch must be three sentences long, not a syllable longer. It’s printed in most conference guides. And because most writers just aren’t very experienced in speaking or even thinking about their work as people on the business side of the industry do, they believe that three sentences is in fact the norm for a book pitch.

Remember what I was saying earlier about the disadvantages of blind trust? Well…

I’ll start out gently: while the three-line pitch certainly has brevity on its side — not an insignificant plus, form the point of view of an agent or editor who has had to sit through a meeting with a writer who talks non-stop for twenty minutes, yet only makes it up to page 72 of his book — but It has some under-advertised drawbacks. Chief among which: the assumption that the ability to create a three-sentence teaser well is necessarily reflective of the quality of the book it describes, which is certainly not always the case.

The super-short pitch format also most assuredly places the shy at a serious competitive disadvantage. Every year, countless conference-goers are petrified into a state of horrified inertia by the prospect of producing a three-line pitch that effectively conveys all of the complexity of a 400-page book.

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

Hey, I asked you first. But if I must give my opinion (“You must! You must!” my readers clamor), in my experience, the three-line pitch conference organizers are so apt to tell prospective pitchers is the ONLY possibility often isn’t what agents and editors expect to hear. At least, not the ones who represent books for a living.

Script agents, well, that’s another story; screenplays are not my area of expertise, so please do not look to me for advice on the subject. The three-beat (not three-sentence) screenplay pitch is quite a different animal than a book pitch. There’s a reason for that: the practice of writers’ pitching stories verbally not indigenous to publishing, but the movie industry; writers’ conferences have simply borrowed it.

In my experience, three-beat pitches don’t work particularly well in 10-minute book pitch meetings. Like every other conference attendee, I’ve been hearing for 15 years that agents will stop listening after three sentences, but that simply hasn’t been my experience as a successful conference pitcher, nor the experience of any other successful conference pitcher I know, or of anyone who has ever taken one of my pitching classes and reported back to me…

You get the picture, I’m sure. The problem with the assumption that the type of pitch appropriate for a screenplay must perforce be appropriate for a book is based, I have long suspected, on the simple fact that they are called the same thing. Is there another reason to leap to the conclusion that the structure that works for pitching a screenplay can be adapted without modification to books? Their goals are different: the screenplay pitch is intended merely to establish the premise, piquing the hearer’s interest enough to prompt a request to see pages. Yes, a book pitch is also intended to spark sufficient interest to generate a request to see the manuscript, but there’s quite a bit more that any agent or editor is going to need to know about a book before saying yea or nay.

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

Well pointed out, imaginary shouters — as I mentioned above, this is quite standard boilerplate advice. But think about it: the average conference appointment with an agent is 5, 10, or sometimes even 20 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous.

So I have one question to ask you: do you really want to have only about 20 seconds’ worth of material prepared, so you have to wing it if the agent of your dreams wants to hear more?

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

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

Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its utility: it is helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in an elevator, when you might genuinely have only a minute and a half to make your point. That’s why it’s called an elevator speech, in case you were wondering; it’s short enough to deliver between floors without pushing the alarm button to stop the trip.

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

However, an elevator speech should not be confused with a full-blown book pitch. To do so, I think, implies a literalism that cannot conceive that a similar process called by the same name but conducted in two completely unrelated industries might not be identical. It’s akin to assuming that because both the programmers of Microsoft Word and editors at publishing houses are concerned with word count, both sets of people in entirely unrelated industries must be estimating it precisely the same way — because it’s just not possible for a single term to mean more than one thing to different groups of people, right?

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

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

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

Even stories that are factually nothing alike can begin to sound alike. The hearer’s brain gets that story-numb.

I can tell you from experience that pitch fatigue can set in pretty quickly. Several years ago, at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, a group of intrepid writers, including yours truly, set up a Pitch Practicing Palace, collectively hearing over 325 individual pitches over the course of three very long days. (Good for aspiring writers or not? Opinions differ — which is why I no longer organize this benefit for attendees of that particular conference, which happens to be my local one.)

Now, all of us on the PPP staff are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, it is safe to say, were pretty much always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. And we heard quite a number of truly exceptional pitches. By the end of the first day, however, all of us were starting to murmur variations on, “You know, if I had to do this every day, I might start to think the rejection pile was my friend. My ability to listen well deteriorates markedly after the fifth or sixth pitch in a row.”

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

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

Let’s do some role-playing. Summon up all of those environmental factors I described above into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent who has been listening to pitches for the past four hours.

Got it? Good.

Now ask yourself: which is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a terse three-sentence pitch, which forces you to make the effort of drawing more details about the book out of a pitcher who has been told to shut up after conveying a single breath’s worth of information? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why? And wouldn’t it be nice to hear enough about the protagonist and the central conflict of the book that it would be possible to differentiate them from the protagonist and central conflicts of the 30 similar books you have just heard?

Hey, if the pitchers did their homework, that’s a likely outcome. Books within the same category often contain similar elements.

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

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

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

By the time we reach the end of this series, my hope is that you will not only be able to give a successful pitch AND elevator speech — I would like for you to be prepared to speak fluently about your work anytime, anywhere, to anybody, no matter how influential. My goal here is to help you sound like a professional, market-savvy writer, rather than the nervous wreck most of us are walking into pitch meetings. To achieve that, a writer needs to learn to describe a book in language the industry understands.

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

But I cannot urge you strongly enough not to take my word for any of this blindly: if anything I suggest does not make sense to you or seem like the best way to promote your book, PLEASE leave a comment on the post in which I suggest it, asking for clarification. There honestly is a great deal of conflicting advice out there, and to be completely honest, not everyone agrees with my take on this process.

Of course, I could be catty and point out that unlike many of the advice-givers out there, I have personally landed an agent by pitching, but don’t follow my advice for that reason. Follow my advice if — and only if — I have explained why you should to your satisfaction. As I hope anyone who has been hanging around Author! Author! could attest, I work very hard to provide extensive explanations for everything I advise.

Why take the trouble? Because blindly following anyone’s dictates on how to handle your writing career just isn’t wise. They might just lead you into the House of Wax or someplace similarly horrifying.

Make up your own minds, my friends — and don’t let rumors keep you up at night. The real potential problems are quite intimidating enough without embroidery, thank you very much.

Keep up the good work!

Trolling for agent leads-palooza, part IV: a little assistance in angling for the big fish

puffer fish and friend

No, your bugged-out eyes are not deceiving you: I did in fact manage to work two — count ‘em, two — puns on the ubiquitous landing an agent trope into that capacious title, thank you very much. I can keep coming up with new names for this series until the proverbial cows come home, people, but until I hear some suggestions from my audience, the puns are just going to keep getting worse.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (And yes, I did take the disturbing photo of the floating fish myself.)

All week, we have been talking about how to generate a nice, substantial, and — dare I say it? Apparently, I do — appropriate list of agents to query. Because it’s a waste of your valuable time to write (not to mention Millicent the agency screener’s to read) letters to agents who do not regularly represent books in your category, the unfortunately common would-be querier’s strategy of simply opening one of the standard agency guides, casting a quick glance that the index, and sending essentially the same letter to every agent who seems remotely feasible is not in your best interest. While it can take some serious effort to come up with an intelligently targeted list, containing only agents with a proven track record of recent sales of books like yours (ideally, first books like yours), in the long run, selective querying is far more likely to yield requests to see manuscript pages than a scattershot approach.

And why is that, campers? Pull out your hymnals and sing out: agents specialize. So does a savvy querier.

To that end, we concentrated last time upon the sometimes difficult task of tracking down who represents whom, so that you may query agents who represent books similar to yours. I recognize, though, that to the more impatient among you — an aspiring writer impatient to see his work in print? Alert the media! — the level of background research I suggested yesterday might well have seemed a bit arduous. So today, I thought I would make a slight detour to a cut-to-the-chase agent-finding strategy long favored by the bold: walking up to a published writer (or a pre-published but agented one) and simply blurting out, “Excuse me, writer-whom-I-envy, but do you mind if I ask who represents you?”

You’d be surprised how often the answer is something along the lines of, “Why, no, not at all. My agent is Dealmaker McWheelerdealerson at Rainmaker Literary.” Writers tend to be nice people; they’re often very happy to give a spot of advice and encouragement to someone new to the game.

Given how very useful responses to this question can be for aspiring writers, it’s kind of astonishing how infrequently one hears it at author readings. Perhaps aspiring writers are shy; perhaps, too, they don’t go to as many book readings — especially by first-time authors — as they should.

Oh, you know a better place to run into a kind soul who demonstrably already has an agent? Or one more eager to talk to a potential reader? At an under-attended reading, a respectful aspiring writer might end up chatting with that new author for hours.

Yet even when aspiring writers are clever, resourceful, and community-supportive enough to find out when authors of books in their chosen categories are going to be signing and committed enough to show up, they are often afraid to come right out and ask the crucial question. They don’t want to bore other reading attendees. If you should happen to be laboring under this belief, allow this veteran of thousands of author readings to set your mind at rest: these days, “Who represents you, and how did you land your agent?” almost always elicits a response that’s interesting enough to entertain the non-writers in the audience, too.

Especially if you ask anyone who has landed an agent within the last seven or eight years, when the trolling has been quite a bit more difficult than in days of yore. I’ve seldom met a new author who isn’t positively relieved to launch into a diatribe about the 147 agents she approached before she heard those happy words every aspiring writer longs to hear: why, yes, I’d be delighted to represent your writing.

While you have your hymnals out, let’s sing another ditty: contrary to popular belief, good manuscripts do not always get snapped up right away. In the current ultra-competitive literary market, a savvy writer should expect to send out many, many queries before finding the right agent for her work.

So trot on out there and start asking some questions of the recently-published. If you live in or near a big city with some good bookstores, chances are very good that there are readings going on somewhere in town practically every day of the week. Again, don’t be afraid to ask some questions at your local bookstore or library: trust me, if you walk into the best bookstore in town, saunter up to the register or information desk, and ask for a calendar of readings, the staff will be OVERJOYED to direct you to one. Or put you on a mailing list.

Here in Seattle, we’re pretty lucky: not only do we have several very good independent bookstores that regularly host readings and signings, but we also have The Stranger, a free newspaper that routinely lists all of the author readings for any given week, along with brief summaries of their books. Heck, it’s even the rare newspaper that still — gasp! — reviews books. (Possibly because the editorial director, Dan Savage, won the PEN West award for a memoir a few years back.)

When you’re agent-hunting, it’s usually more worth you while to go to readings by first-time authors than people whose names have graced the bestseller lists for quite some time. Often, new authors are downright grateful to anyone who shows up, and doubly so to anyone who asks an interesting question. And if they are not grateful enough to their agents just after their first books come out to want to talk about them, they probably never will be.

As a fringe benefit, new authors will often blandish their local writer friends — publishers’ publicity departments generally ask authors for lists of cities where they have lots of friends, and set up readings accordingly — into attending their readings, just so someone shows up. Sometimes, these helpful friends are willing to tell you who their agents are, and what they represent.

Seriously, it’s always worth inquiring, especially if the reading author is new to the publishing biz. To be blunt about it, you’re far more likely to garner an actual referral from a first- or second-time author than a better-established one, especially if you listen politely, laugh at the jokes in the reading, and hang out to talk afterward.

Why do the established tend to be more stand-offish about it, you ask? Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not usually because they’re snooty. Just experienced.

Let’s face it, the etiquette in this situation can be a little murky from both sides of the podium — after all, authors at public readings need to regard anyone who approaches them at a reading as a potential book buyer, and thus may come across as friendlier than they intend. And because the road to recognition is so very long and winding, many aspiring writers seek to speed things up a trifle by enlisting the help of the already established on their behalf by not only asking for information about who represents them, but by requesting (or, in some unfortunate cases, demanding) to be allowed to open their query letters with the eye-catching statement, Your client, Madeitaftertwentyyears Paidherdues, recommended that I contact you about my book…

Half of you just started salivating, didn’t you? Before you get too slobbery, I hasten to add: experienced authors tend to make this sort of recommendation fairly rarely.

To illustrate just why an author might become rather jaded to this species of request over time, allow me to introduce you to who a few hypothetical souls who gamely walked up to published authors and asked for their help — badly. Like everything else, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way.

The right way to ask an author for information about his agent, should you care to know it, involves treating him with precisely the same respect you would enjoy were you in his shoes. Approach politely, say something nice about his writing before you ask anything, and don’t be pushy. When you do come out with the big question, phrase it as the greatest of favors — which, incidentally, a referral to one’s agent undoubtedly is.

No need to be craven — anything beginning, “I’m sure you get this question all the time, Your Wonderfulness, but would you mind terribly if I asked…” is probably a bit over the top — but do indicate that you are aware that the author might not want to grant this request to a total stranger. Then, too, asking for advice usually works better than a direct request: something along the lines of, “My novel is rather similar to yours, and I was thinking of querying your agent. May I ask for some suggestions about the best way to approach her?” is often more successful than, “Hey, can I tell your agent that you sent me?”

That’s the right way. Journey with me now to the land of hypotheticals, to explore the wrong way. Or, more accurately, several wrong ways.

Author-approaching scenario 1: Isabelle notices in her local paper that Ignatz, a writer whose work is similar to hers and is aimed at the same target market, will be giving a reading at a local bookstore. She makes a point of attending the reading, installs herself in the front row, and bides her time, awaiting her moment. During question time, she stands up and asks point-blank who represents him, couching the question within a request for permission to use him as a query reference.

Ignatz laughs uncomfortably, tells an agent-related anecdote, and when she presses for a name, tells her to see him after his talk is over. Any other questions?

Isabelle waits patiently until all those who have bought books have presented them to Ignatz for signing, then repeats her question. “I haven’t read your book,” she tells him, “but from the reviews, our writing has a lot in common.”

Ignatz, professional to the toes of his well-polished boots, casts only a fleeting glance at her empty hands before replying. “I’m sorry,” he says, “my agent has asked me not to refer any new writers to him.”

What happened here, and how did Isabelle harm her own chances of success? For extra credit, what about Ignatz’s response marks it as a brush-off, rather than a simple statement of his agent’s feelings on the subject?

Isabelle committed two cardinal sins of author approach. First, she did not evince ANY interest in Ignatz’s work before asking him for a favor — and a fairly hefty favor, at that. She did not even bother to buy his book, which is, after all, how Ignatz pays his rent. But since he is quite aware, as any successful author must be, that being rude to potential readers may mean lost business down the line, he can hardly tell her so directly.

So he did the next best thing: he lied about his agent’s openness to new clients.

How do I know he lied? Experience, my dears, experience: had his agent actually not been accepting new clients, his easiest way out of this awkward situation would have been simply to say so. He did not, however: what he said was that his agent asked him — personally — not to recommend any new writers.

A subtle difference, but a crucial one, as far as tactfully refusing requests like Isabelle’s is concerned. Most agents rather like it when their clients recommend new writers: it saves the agent trouble to use the client as a screener. So if an agented writer says, “Oh, my agent doesn’t like me to recommend,” he generally really means, “I don’t like being placed in this position, and I wish you would go away. Please buy my book anyway.”

How has Isabelle placed Ignatz in a tough position? Because she has committed another approach faux pas: she asked for a reference from someone who has never read her work — and indeed, didn’t know she existed prior to the day of the request.

From Ignatz’s point of view, this is a no-win situation. He has absolutely no idea if Isabelle can write –- and to ask to see her work would be to donate quite a bit of his time gratis to someone who has just been quite rude to him. Yet if he says yes without reading her work, and Isabelle turns out to be a terrible writer (or still worse, a terrible pest), his agent is going to be annoyed with him for sending her along. And if he just says, “No, I don’t read the work of every yahoo who accosts me at a reading,” he will alienate a potential book buyer.

So lying about his agent’s availability is Ignatz’s least self-destructive way out. Who can blame him for taking it?

Because I’m a great believer in the try, try again approach to agent-seeking, let’s next assume that Isabelle has learned something from this encounter. Manuscript in hand, she decides to try her luck at another author reading.

Author-approaching scenario 2: this time, Isabelle makes a smarter choice, going to hear an author with whose work she has already read. Wisely, she digs up her dog-eared copy of Juanita’s first novel and brings it along to be signed, to demonstrate her ongoing willingness to support Juanita’s career. She also brings along a copy of her own manuscript.

After the reading, Isabelle once again stands in line to have her book signed. While Juanita is graciously chatting with her about the inscription, Isabelle slaps her 500-page manuscript onto the signing table. “Would you read this?” she asks. “And then recommend me to your agent?”

Juanita casts a panicked glance around the room, seeking an escape route. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to read anything new right now,” she says, shrinking away from the pile of papers.

Oh, you may laugh, but #2 happens even more that the first scenario –- and with even greater frequency at writers’ conferences than book signings. Just as some aspiring writers have a hard time remembering that agents have ongoing projects, lives, other clients, etc. whose interests may preclude dropping everything to pay attention to the total stranger who has just pitched or queried them, the pushy often forget (or never knew in the first place) that many, if not most, working authors who show up at conferences are there to promote their books, teach writing classes, and give lectures in order to supplement their incomes, not merely to win karma points by helping out the aspiring.

That’s an important distinction in this instance — basically, Isabelle has just asked a writing teacher she has never met before to give a private critique of her manuscript for free. Just as querying and pitching necessarily cuts into your precious writing time, so do requests of this nature cut into established writers’ writing time. And for very little benefit.

Oh, you hadn’t thought of it that way? Okay, tell me: other than Isabelle’s admiration and gratitude, what would Juanita get out of saying yes? A single book sale, at most?

This not to say that some established writers don’t like to offer this kind of help; surprisingly many will routinely read at least a few pages of politely-offered aspiring writers’ work. But even the most generous person tends to be nonplused when completely strangers demand immense favors. Establishing some sort of a relationship first –- even if that relationship consists of nothing more than the five-minute conversation about the author’s work that will prompt her to ask you, “So, what do you write?” — is considered a courteous first step.

This particular set of problems is not discussed much on the conference circuit – or, to be precise, they are not discussed much in front of contest attendees; they are discussed by agents, editors, and authors backstage at conferences all the time, I assure you, and in outraged tones.

Why? Because, alas, for every hundred perfectly polite aspiring writers, there are a handful of overeager souls who routinely overstep the bounds of common courtesy –- and, as I can tell you from direct personal experience, it’s not always easy being the first personal contact a writer has with the industry: one tends to be treated less as a person than as a door or a ladder.

No one, however famous or powerful, likes being climbed. Case in point:

Author-approaching scenario 3: at a large writers’ conference, Karl meets Krishnan, a writer who has recently acquired an agent. The two men genuinely have a great deal in common: they live in the same greater metropolitan area, write for the same target market, and share a love of the plays of Edward Albee. (Don’t ask me why; they just do. Suspend your disbelief a little, for goodness’ sake.) After hanging out together in the bar that is never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference venue, it seems perfectly natural for Karl to e-mail Krishnan and ask him to have coffee the following week.

Within minutes of Krishnan’s arrival at the coffee shop, however, he is plunged into embarrassed confusion: Karl pulls a hefty manuscript box out of his backpack. “Here,” Karl says. “I want to know what you think before I send it to the agents who requested it at the conference. And after you read it, you can send it on to your agent.”

Krishnan just sits there, open-mouthed. As soon as his cell phone rings, he feigns a forgotten appointment and flees.

Okay, what did Karl do to make Krishnan feel like he was being used? Partially, he echoed Isabelle’s mistake: Karl just assumed that by being friendly at the conference, Krishnan was volunteering to help him land an agent. Because he was so focused on his own career, he didn’t pause to consider Krishnan, either as a writer or as a person.

In Karl’s mind, the only reason Krishnan could conceivably have agreed to have coffee with him was to discuss how he could help Karl land an agent. However, there are a LOT of reasons that industry professionals are nice to aspiring writers at conferences. A small sampling, in descending order of probability:

(1) Krishnan might have just been polite because his mother brought him up to be nice to strangers.

(2) Krishnan might have regarded Karl as a potential buyer of his books, and as such, did not want to alienate a future fan.

(3) Krishnan might have been teaching a class at the conference, or hoping to do so in future, and wanted to make a good impression.

(4) Krishnan is lonely — writing is an isolating craft, right? — and is looking for other writers with whom to have coffee every now and again between chapters. (Was it too much to expect a nice conversation about Zoo Story?)

(5) Krishnan is looking for local writers with whom to form a critique group and wanted to test-drive Karl as a conversational partner.

(6) Karl is a heck of a lot more attractive than he thinks he is.

(7) Krishnan has long been desperate to get some feedback on Chapter 3 of his doctoral dissertation, Edward Albee, A Study of Every Line of Every Play in Exhaustive Detail. His backpack contains a draft for Karl’s perusal.

(8) Krishnan is actually a serial killer who lurks at writers’ conferences, trolling for victims because he likes to bury body parts and manuscript pages together, or,

(9) Krishnan’s agent might have asked him to be on the lookout for new writers at the conference (rare, but it does happen occasionally).

Of these possibilities, only #5 would dictate ANY willingness on Krishnan’s part to read Karl’s work — and only if feedback would be exchanged, not a one-way arrangement. Even if #9 were true, it would be highly unusual for Krishnan to volunteer himself as a first reader; it’s a time-consuming task, and potentially awkward if Karl’s work does not turn out to be something that might conceivably interest Krishnan’s agent. Again, what would be in it for the agented writer?

Regardless, if either #5 or #9 had actually been Krishnan’s intent, it would have been polite for Karl to wait to be ASKED to share his work. As any Millicent would be only too happy to tell you, even a cursory scan of a manuscript can take quite a bit of time.

But what of Karl’s request that Krishnan pass the manuscript on to his agent? This, too, placed Krishnan in an awkward position. Even with a super-open agent, an agented author cannot recommend others indiscriminately. Think about it: if Krishnan recommends Karl, and Karl turns out to be a bad writer, a constant nuisance, or just plain nuts, that recommendation will seriously compromise his ability to recommend writers in future.

That’s right: writers like Karl, while usually well-meaning in and of themselves, collectively make it harder for everyone else to garner recommendations to agents.

There’s another reason Krishnan would be inclined to run from such an approach: resentment. Not of Karl’s rather inconsiderate assumptions that he would automatically be willing to help someone he’s just met, but of Karl’s attempt to cut into a line in which Krishnan probably stood for quite some time.

See earlier comment about just how long it can take even the most gifted writers to land an agent these days. Karl was unwise to assume that Krishnan would be eager to speed up the agent-finding process for anyone else. For all Karl knows, Krishnan invested a decade in finding absolutely the right agent for his work — and, unhappily, human nature does not always wish to shorten the road for those who come after.

Just ask anyone who has been through a medical residency. Or a Ph.D. program.

Err on the side of caution: presume that the more recently a writer landed an agent, the more difficult and time-consuming the agent-finding process was. And if he is in the throes of submission to editors, assume that he may be stressed out about that, too.

If an agented writer’s fretting about submissions seems a little strange to you, I can only conclude that your experience listening to those whose first or second books are currently being marketed by their agents is not vast — and thus that you have probably not been hanging out after very many new authors’ readings lately. Almost universally, a writer’s life gets harder, not easier, in the initial months after of being signed: practically any agent on earth will ask for manuscript revisions of even a manuscript she loves, in order to make it more marketable, and no one, but no one, on the writer’s end of the game is ever happy about his agent’s turn-around time.

Don’t see how that relates to Karl’s request? Well, think about it: even if Krishnan’s agent is a saint and habitually works at a speed that would make John Henry gasp, every second she spends reading new work is one second less devoted to reading Krishnan’s latest revision — or marketing it. Some authors are a mite touchy about that, so tread carefully.

Note, please, that all of the above applies even if Krishnan actually has time to read the manuscript in question. Which, as the vast majority of agented-but-not-published writers hold full-time jobs and have to struggle to carve out writing time — as, actually, do many of the published writers I know; not a lot of people make a living solely from writing books — is most emphatically not a foregone conclusion.

The best rule of thumb: establish an honest friendship before you ask for big favors. Until you know an author well, keep your requests non-intrusive.

And be polite, always. Krishnan probably would not have minded at all if Karl had simply asked for his agent’s name after half an hour of pleasant chat. Heck, Krishnan might have offered the information unsolicited in that time — or even permission to use his name in the first line of a query letter.

I can picture it now: since you so ably represent Krishnan Jones, I hope you will be interested in my novel… Too bad Karl blew such an opportunity by being hasty, eh?

Another good reason to get to know your intended helper a bit first: it may well have turned out that Karl had a skill – computer repair, eagle-eyed proofreading, compassionate dog-walking — that Krishnan would be pleased to receive in exchange for feedback on Karl’s book. Krishnan might even have asked Karl to join his critique group, where such feedback would have been routine.

But Karl will never know, because he jumped the gun, assuming that because Krishnan had an agent, the normal rules of favor-asking did not apply to him.

The same rule applies, by the way, to any acquaintance whose professional acumen you would like to tap unofficially. If I want to get medical information from my doctor about a condition that is plaguing a character in my novel, I expect to pay for her time. (And have actually done so, by the way.) Nor, outside of a formal conference context, would I expect a professional editor to read my work, an agent to give me feedback on my pitch, or an editor to explain the current behind-the-scenes at Random House to me unless we either already had established a friendship or I was paying for her time, either monetarily or by exchange.

That does not mean, of course, that you should be shy about asking an agented writer who represents him. Just tread lightly, and be very aware that you are asking a favor, and a big one, when you ask an author to help you reach his agent. Not only are you asking the author to invest time and energy in helping you — you are also implicitly imploring him or her to put credibility on the line.

And that, my friends, is something that most authors — and most human beings — do not do very often for relative strangers.

Next time, I shall examine a few more pitfalls that commonly open up under the unwary feet of aspiring writers seeking assistance in generating their query lists. Not exactly cheerful, I know, but I would far, far rather that you hear some of these unpleasant truths from me than for even a single member of the Author! Author! community accidentally tumbled into one of them. Keep up the good work!

How to find agents to query-palooza, or, hunting and gathering the smart way

hunter cave painting

I had planned to move away from practical marketing issues today, campers, and back to the nitty-gritty craft issues that we all so love. After a quick barefoot run through some of your comments in the earlier ‘Palooza series, I realized with the proverbial shock that I had entirely forgotten that I had promised another: a how-to on how to come up with a list of agents to query.

That would render all of those beautifully-written queries quite a bit more useful, wouldn’t it? I was stunned to discover that I hadn’t done an in-depth series on generating a query list since 2007. (How time flies when we’re talking craft, eh?) And there’s no time to lose if I’m going to ‘Palooza on the subject this fall, because savvy queriers aiming for the New York-based agency market will, naturally, be aiming to get the rest of the season’s queries out before Thanksgiving week.

That’s the fourth Thursday in November, for those of you reading this in foreign climes. Try to crank those queries out before then. It’s even a good time to send out a few additional queries for those of you already on the query-a-week plan.

Why treat this as a general querying deadline for the year, you ask? Well, not a lot goes on in the U.S. publishing industry between Thanksgiving and Christmas; I know many, many agents who, as in August, simply do not bother to send submissions to editors between mid-November and the New Year.

It’s a time for merrymaking — and for catching up on all of that reading that’s been piling up over the preceding 10 1/2 months. Given that the average agent’s office is well enough insulated with as yet unread piles of paper to allow him to survive the next ice age in toasty comfort, the comparatively great time to read is universally regarded as a boon.

What does that mean from the aspiring writer’s perspective? Chances are good that a query or a manuscript sent during these yearly doldrums would languish unopened for a month — or more.

Why more? A couple of reasons. By law, US-based agencies have to produce tax information for the previous year’s earnings by the end of January: paperwork central. And since agenting tends to attract former English majors, rather than accounting majors, this deadline can result in a few weeks of rather frayed tempers.

Which tend to be exacerbated by the positive avalanche of queries they receive within the first couple of weeks of the new year. It’s not uncommon for Millicent to greet a gray January morning by seeing 4 or 5 times the usual volume of mail dumped upon her desk.

That’s enough to make anyone burn her lip with a too-hasty sip on her latte.

Does Santa Claus bank down the reindeer engines from his Yuletide travels by bringing good little agency screeners buckets of additional queries? No, it’s a phenomenon of group think: virtually all of the aspiring writers of North America make it their New Year’s resolution to query the heck out of their books.

The result: the first few weeks of January finds Millicent the agency screener overwhelmed, her bosses stressed, and everyone concerned in an even more rejection-happy mood than usual.

I know; hard to picture. But true. I always advise my clients to avoid querying, or even submitting requested material, before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — or, to translate that into European terms, before Federico Fellini’s birthday on January 21.

Hey, if we’re taking nominations for a patron saint of aspiring writers, Fellini isn’t a bad choice. An enhanced appreciation of the surreal, the advent of the miraculous in modern life, and the value of sitting around in cafés, brooding and looking fabulous, is actually very helpful for those of us trudging the long path to publication.

So let’s talk hunting and gathering. Specifically, hunting down names of agents who might be interested in your work and gathering that information into a list that will carry even the most intrepid querier through the end of the year. Or at least until Thanksgiving.

But where, as writers everywhere routinely cry to the heavens, does one FIND agents to query? Opening the Manhattan Yellow Pages and sticking a pin randomly on the page? Tracking down the four biggest agencies and querying every agent in them? Just querying every name listed in the Herman Guide?

The short answer, of course, is no. (The long answer is NOOOOOOOO.)

Bear with me, long-time readers, while I repeat an underappreciated truth of the industry: not every agent represents every kind of book, or even every stripe of book within a particular genre.

Instead, agents specialize; they nurture connections primarily in their areas of interest. And they uniformly tell their screeners — our old friend Millicent and her ilk — to reject outright any query that falls outside those parameters.

Yes, you read that correctly: agencies typically reject ANY query about a book category they do not represent, regardless of quality. Even if it’s the most marketable idea for a book since Helen Fielding said, “You know, I think I’m gonna rewrite Pride and Prejudice in a modern setting, with more sex.” This is the primary reason that agents prefer queries to state the book category in the first paragraph, if not the first line: so they may weed out the kinds of books they have no experience representing.

Ready for another hard, oft-overlooked truth? It is simply a waste of an aspiring writer’s time, energy, and resources to send a query to an agent who does not specialize in that writer’s type of book. No matter how well-written a query may be or how inherently marketable a book concept is, it is futile to query an agent who has devoted her life to promoting bodice-ripper romances with a futuristic fantasy where bosoms remain unheaved, and vice versa.

Oh, the misery that would be averted if more aspiring writers were aware of this salient fact! Every year, hundreds of thousands of hours are wasted in both writing misdirected query letters and summarily rejecting them, causing needless depression on one end and habitual chagrin on the other. Although, really, Millicent should be grateful that so many aspiring writers make this mistake: queries sent to the wrong agent are self-rejecting, after all.

To heighten the wails of woe even further, it isn’t even enough for a writer to target an agency that represents his kind of book: he needs to target the right agent within it. One of the classic agency screener pet peeves is to see the same query letter sent simultaneously to every agent on staff at a particular agency a query in the hope of hitting the right one.

To all too many queriers, the necessity to do some homework on who represents what comes as a gargantuan surprise — and an annoying inconvenience. After all, it just seems efficient to write to every member agent listed under an agency’s listing. “Who’s going to know there’s overlap?” these busy souls mutter to themselves, industriously stuffing envelopes. “The average agency receives 800-1500 queries per week!”

Actually, it’s fairly likely that someone will notice: Millicent is often opening the mail for more than one agent. And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the vast majority multi-member agencies have a policy that they will reject such blanket queries outright.

Not that an agency will usually tell writers that they’re being rejected for this reason, mind you; blanket queriers almost invariably get the same form-letter rejection as everyone else. Which is why, in case you were wondering, there are invariably so many blankly dismayed faces in the audience after an agent casually mentions from a conference podium that he and his colleagues won’t even consider a project proposed to everyone in the agency simultaneously.

Before anyone jumps to any conclusions: this pervasive practice of rejecting multiple queries to the same agency is often mistakenly confused with the writers’ conference circuit myth that agents uniformly become incensed if they learn that a particular writer is sending out queries to agents at different agencies simultaneously. The former is a common pet peeve; the latter is most emphatically not. To drag out my broken record player yet again:

broken-recordUnless an agency states SPECIFICALLY in its agency guide listing or on its website that it insists upon an exclusive for any submission it considers, these days, it is assumed that a market-savvy writer will be sending out simultaneous queries.

Why would they presume any such thing? For one very simple, very practical reason: querying agents one at a time, waiting weeks (or even months) to hear back from one before sending out the next, can add YEARS to the agent-finding process.

Trust me, agents understand this. They tend to be impatient people by nature.

So why would they find a writer’s querying every agent in a particular agency simultaneously annoying? To insider eyes, it’s a sign of inexperience, an indicator that the querier has not sufficiently researched who represents books in a given category sufficiently — and is thus unlikely to be a very industry-savvy client.

Why? Chant it with me now, ‘Palooza followers: writers who don’t do their homework are likely to need more of the process explained to them, and are thus significantly more time-consuming to represent than those who already know how the process works. (Than, say, aspiring writers who had invested the time in reading through the posts in the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category on the archive list at right. Conveniently placed, is it not?)

Realistically, there is another, more practical reason for the one-agent-per-agency policy: if 5 of the 150 envelopes Millicent slits open tomorrow morning have the same name on the letterhead, or sport the same title in the first paragraph, she can save many valuable minutes by rejecting #2-#5 as soon as she spots the repetition.

And she may not even get as far as the first paragraph of an e-mailed query that lists half a dozen agents on its recipient list.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “that isn’t fair! How on earth is a writer new to the industry to learn who represents what?”

Glad you asked, disgruntled mutterers. My project for the rest of the week shall be to answer this question.

Yes, readers who have had your hands in the air since the beginning of this post? “I know how to solve this one, Anne!” you announce proudly. “I would go to one of the many online agent search engines, plug in my book’s category, and query everyone whose name comes up!”

Well, yes, you could do that, proud hand-raisers. You could also pick up one of the standard agency guides, turn to the index, and see who is listed as representing your book category. Either would be a terrific first step toward generating a query list.

Yes, I did say first step, now that you mention it. Neither method is likely to give you the information you need in order to prioritize which agents you should query first. That’s problematic, as it tends to prompt writers brand-new to the querying process to produce a single generic query letter to send to all 50 — or 70, or 212, depending upon the popularity of one’s chosen book category — who are listed as being interested in their type of book.

Three months later, they find themselves saddled with 21 rejections, 29 non-responses, and a query list with no more names on it. Since one of the unspoken-but-universal expectations of agency life is that a writer may query a particular agent only once with the same project, where is the disappointed mass-querier to turn next?

Hold that horrifying thought, please. I have another few species of query-list nightmares with which to frighten you.

Some aspiring writers query only one agent at a time — so by the time they hear back (or not) from the first ten, the information upon which they based their initial agent-ranking preferences may have become obsolete. This can happen for a lot of reasons: the market for in a particular book category may have changed; individual agents may have changed what they are looking to represent; editors who had bought reliably an agency in the past may have been laid off. Then, too, agents move from agency to agency all the time, not to mention taking maternity leave, getting fed up with a difficult literary market, or even dying.

Oh, you may laugh, but do you really want to be the writer who queries the agent who died six months ago? To be useful over years of querying, a query list should be updated and its facts rechecked about twice a year.

Is all of that groaning I hear coming from those of you who had been querying one or two agents at a time? “But Anne,” you protest, and who could blame you? “I’ve been querying slowly because I didn’t have the time to do extensive research on many agents at once! I have a general list, of course, but I only look up the person I am planning to query next. Are you saying that I also need to check that general list that I gleaned from the index of Guide to Literary Agents three years ago, to check that the agents on it represent what they did back then?”

In a word, yes. (In several words: yes yes yes yes yes.) Agencies are very fluid places these days.

But let’s pause a moment to consider this practice of querying one agent and waiting to hear back before moving on to the next. If you’re intending to approach agencies with a we-will-only-respond-if-we-are-interested policy (sometimes stated openly on agency websites and in guide listings, but not always), it’s just not realistic. Unless you have your heart set on an agency that demands an exclusive look at queries — extremely rare, by the way — it’s disrespectful to your own time not to continue to send queries out on a regular basis while you’re waiting to hear back from your first choice.

I suspect that is an argument that will resonate with some of you one-at-a-timers, not necessarily because you believe the old saw about agents’ expecting querying exclusivity (although many who embrace this practice do), but because, let’s face it, it takes a heck of a lot of work and emotional energy to send out even one query, let alone keeping six or ten out at any one time. It will probably make less sense to the ilk of one-at-a-timers who have such high expectations for their books’ prospects that they just assume that the first agent they query will snap the manuscript up immediately.

For each of these rather disparate initial rationales, the subsequent reasoning is surprisingly similar: why should I bother to send out more queries? If the first agent on my list says yes, it will just be wasted effort. And once a writer starts thinking that way, the reasoning seems just as valid for one’s 85th query as one’s second.

I understand exhaustion, hubris, or just plain lack of time, but in these days of months-long turnaround times and not hearing back at all if the answer is no, what usually ends up happening to queriers who reason this way is that they wake up one day a year into the querying process to discover that they have barely made a dent in their querying lists — and thus have to research them all over again. Or, even more common, they simply have given up by a year into the agent search.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll send it again: because the object here is not to land just any agent, but the right one for a specific book, even the most talented writers often have to send out dozens or even hundreds of queries before finding the right one. It honestly is in your manuscript’s best interest, then, to keep pressing forward. The only book that has NO chance of getting published is the one that no agent or editor ever sees.

You’re going to want to keep sending out those queries. Yes, even if the best agent in the known universe has the full manuscript of your novel sitting on her desk even as I write this.

Was that loud crash a multitude of jaws hitting floors across the English-speaking world? Believe me, you will be a much, much happier camper if you already have queries, or even submissions, in other agents’ hands if — heaven forfend — the one who asked to see a partial or full turns you down.

Think of keeping the query flow going as insurance: if something goes wrong with your top prospect, you will have possible alternates waiting in the wings. Or at the very least will be spared the effort of having to come up with a new prospect from scratch. Besides, contrary to pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, being sought-after by more than one agent is a GOOD thing — after all, nothing speeds up reading turn-around like the news that another agent has already made an offer.

I know it’s tempting to rest on your laurels while waiting to hear back on a partial or a full, but The law of inertia tells us that a process already in motion tends to remain in motion; as anyone who has done serious time in the querying trenches can tell you, it takes quite a bit more energy to restart your querying engines again after they have gone cold than to keep plowing forward.

I know you’re tired of querying; it’s a whole lot of work. You have my sympathy, really. Now go out and send a couple of fresh queries this week. And next, and the week after that. Repeat until you’re picked up — although if you wanted to take a break between Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King, Jr., day, that might save you some effort.

As my long-time readers are well aware, I’m of the keep-querying-until-the ink-is-actually-dry-on-the-contract school of thought. But to keep that flow going, you’re going to need to generate a hefty list of prospects of agents who represent writing like yours.

And by writing like yours, I don’t mean books along vaguely similar lines — I’m talking about books in the same marketing category. Those of you who worked your way through Querypalooza should already have a fairly clear idea of which categories come closest to your work — and if you do not, please run, not walk, toward the posts under the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY listing at right.

Why is nailing down your marketing category so important? Because it is the language agents and editors use to describe books. Until you know in which category (or categories; many overlap) your baby falls, you will have great difficulty not only understanding agents express their professional preferences at conferences, but also deciphering their wants as stated in agency guides and on their websites.

As you may perhaps have gathered from how often I have said it in this post, I cannot overstress the importance of targeting only agents appropriate to your work, rather than taking a scattershot approach. (See? I even put it in boldface that time.) There’s a reason I’m hitting the point so hard: if you’ve ever heard a successful agent talk about the business for five consecutive minutes, chances are you’ve already heard four times that one of the biggest mistakes the average aspiring writer makes is to regard all agents as equally desirable, and thus equally smart to approach.

As a rule, they don’t like being treated as generic representatives of their line of work, rather than highly-focused professionals who deal in particular types of books. This is true, incidentally, even of those agents who list every type of book known to man in the agency guides, because they are loath to miss out on the next bestseller, regardless of whether they typically represent that type of book or not. Go figure.

So as those of you Querypalooza survivors may recall, the single best thing you can do to increase your chances of acceptance is to write to a specific person — and for a specific reason, which you should state in the letter. Agents all have specialties; they expect writers to be aware of them.

Later in this series, I will go into why this isn’t a particularly fair expectation, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s expected. Respecting the agents’ preferences in this respect marks the difference between the kind of writer that they take seriously and the vast majority that they don’t.

This is probably old news to most of you, right? If you’re taking the time to do research on the industry online, you have probably encountered this advice before. Although perhaps not its corollary: it’s not an efficient use of your querying energies to approach agents — at conferences, via e-mail, or through queries — unless they have a proven track record of representing your type of writing successfully.

Limiting your queries by past sales records is for your protection, as much as to increase your probability of querying success. Think about it: do you really want to be your new agent’s FIRST client in a particular genre?

Of course not; it will be twice as hard to sell your book. Just expressing interest in your type of book may not be sufficient; you want an agent who already has connections with editors who buy your type of work on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the most logical first step for seeking out agents to query.

1. Agents who attended the same conference(s) you did
If you attended a conference within the last year, now is the time to send letters to the agents to whom you were not able to pitch. However, be smart about it: don’t bother to query those who client lists do not include books like yours.

I’m serious about this. No matter how much you may have liked the agent personally at the conference: the second easiest ground of rejection — after a generic “Dear Agent” salutation — is when the query is for a kind of book that the agent does not represent. Like “Dear Agent,” an agency screener does not need to read more than a couple of lines of this type of query in order to plop it into the rejection pile.

Allow me to repeat: this is true, no matter how much you may have liked the agent when you met her, or how well you thought the two of you clicked, or that the second agent from the left on the panel bears a startling resemblance to your beloved long-ago junior high school French teacher. Deciding whom to represent is a business decision, not a sentimental one, after all — and it will save you a tremendous amount of time and chagrin if you approach selecting your querying list on the same basis.

So do a little homework first. If you didn’t take good notes at the conference about who was looking for what kind of book (and didn’t keep in touch with the person sitting next to you, scribbling like a fiend), check out the standard agents’ guides, where such information abounds. Or the agency’s website.

Then, when you find the right fits, go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of your query envelopes, and mention having heard the agent speak at the conference in the first line of your letter; at most agencies, this will automatically put your query into a different pile, because conference attendees are generally assumed to be more industry-savvy, and thus more likely to be querying with market-ready work, than other writers.

If you went to a big conference, this strategy might yield half a dozen more agents to query. Where do you go after that?

This is a serious question, one that I have argued long and hard should be addressed explicitly in seminars at writing conferences. Far too many aspiring writers abandon their querying quests too soon after their first conferences, assuming — wrongly — that once they have exhausted the array of attending agents, they have plumbed the depth and breadth of the industry.

This is simply not true. The agents who show up at any given conference are just that — the agents who happened to show up for that particular conference, people with individual tastes and professional preferences. If you didn’t strike lucky with that group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you would have the same luck with another.

But obviously, conferences are expensive; few writers can afford to attend an unlimited number of them. So how else can you find out who is eager to represent what?

2. Agents who represent authors you respect within your chosen book category
The common wisdom on the subject, according to most writing guides and classes, is that you should start with the agents of writers whose work you like, advice predicated on the often untrue assumption that all of us are so myopic that we will only read writers whose work resembles ours.

Me, I’m not so egocentric: I read books by a whole lot of living writers, most of whose styles are nothing at all like mine; if I want a style like my own, I read my own work.

However, especially if you write in a genre or nonfiction, querying your favorite authors’ agents is not a bad idea. Certainly, the books already on your shelves are the easiest to check the acknowledgments page for thank-yous.

Actually, you should get into the habit of checking these pages anyway, if you are planning on a career in this business: one of the best conversation-starters you can possibly whip out is, “Oh, you worked on Author X’s work, didn’t you? I remember that she said wonderful things about you.”

Trust me, there is not an agent or editor in the business who will not be flattered by such a statement. You would be amazed at how few of the writers who approach them are even remotely familiar with the average agent’s track record. But who doesn’t like to be recognized and complimented on his work?

So, knowing this about human nature, make an educated guess: would an agent would be more or less likely to ask to see pages from a writer whose well-targeted query began, “Since you so ably represented Author X’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I believe you will be interested in my work…”

You bet your boots, baby.

So I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you call out, “I already knew about querying agents I saw at conferences and checking acknowledgement pages. (Which, due to the rising costs of paper and binding, aren’t nearly so common in newly-published books as they used to be in the past.) Aren’t there more creative ways to expand my query list?”

As a matter of fact, there are — but that’s a topic for next time. Hang in there, campers, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part VII: writing a nonfiction synopsis so it doesn’t sound like just another big fish story


I’d like to start out with a request for clemency today, campers. Since the advent of Querypalooza early last month, I’ve been inundated with eager questions from anxious queriers. I’m thrilled about this, honestly — I do not think that writers, aspiring or otherwise, talk about this vital among themselves nearly enough. For that reason, I would like to make a formal request (or, more accurately, to codify a policy I had to adopt in self-defense a while back).

Ahem: would you mind posting questions in the comments section of the blog, rather than sending them to me via e-mail? Ideally, in either the comments section of the most recent post or, even better, in a post related to the question?

I ask for several reasons — and not due to the predictable it’s considerably less time-consuming for me to answer blog-related questions during my designated blogging time, rather than throughout my rather packed workday excuse. First, it’s more generous to other members of the Author! Author! community: if you have a question, chances are others do, too. Asking me to address your concerns privately deprives other readers of the opportunity to see the answer and ask follow-up questions. Second, it’s inefficient; it makes more sense for me to spend 20 minutes answering a question in the comments than to answer the same question 20 times individually, at 4 or 5 minutes per answer. Third, while I’m flattered that readers feel that I am approachable, it goes against the fundamental nature of a blog to follow up on discussions here by contacting me in secret.

Let’s all enjoy the discussion, shall we? I’d appreciate it.

Back to business. So far in Synopsispalooza, we’ve discussed what a synopsis is and isn’t, how it should be formatted, how to make it as brief as a single page, and how to cobble together something longer. I’ve also reminded you repeatedly — look, I’m about to do it again now — that there is no such thing as a standard length for a query or submission packet synopsis. Check EACH agency’s submission requirements for its individual preferences.

“But Anne!” those of you simultaneously querying or submitting to many agencies wail, and who could blame you? “Won’t that take a lot of extra time? Doesn’t it imply that instead of churning out one all-purpose synopsis, I may have to write several of different lengths? And what do I do if an agency’s guidelines do not specify a length, but merely says something like include a brief synopsis? Is that code for a particular length?”

My, you ask a lot of questions within a single breath, multiple queriers. In the order asked: yes, but it’s necessary; yes, but it’s necessary; I’ll get to that three paragraphs hence, and no — why would it be in an agency’s interest to trick aspiring writers about that?

Hey, nobody said that this process was going to be easy — or easy to figure out. It isn’t, even for the most talented first-time writer. If any malignant or ill-informed soul ever tells you otherwise, you would be better off whacking yourself in the head with a 15-pound carp than taking that ridiculous counsel to heart.

Not that I’m advising anyone’s whacking himself in the head with a fish of any size, of course. It’s not good for the fish, and it’s not good for you.

The general rule of thumb for everything an aspiring writer sends an agent is send them precisely what they ask to see. If their guidelines (usually available on its website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides; check both) ask for a 1-page synopsis, send a 1-page synopsis; if it asks for 4 pages, send 4. If, however, neither an agency’s published guidelines (for a query packet) nor the letter requesting materials (for a submission) specify how long a requested synopsis should be, it is up to you. Just don’t make it longer than 5 pages.

Why 5? Because, as I have mentioned in previous posts in this series, 5-page synopses have historically been standard for agents to ask clients they have already signed to produce for their next projects. If an agent does for some esoteric reason of his own expect queriers to guess what number he is thinking, it’s probably 5.

Not that the point of this exercise is to guess what the agent is thinking. Not about synopsis length, anyway.

Last time, if you will recall, we established that a nonfiction synopsis has six goals — that’s one more than we discussed last year, for those of you keeping track; the market’s continually evolving — and that those aims are different from the primary goals of a novel synopsis. To recap, a successful nonfiction synopsis should:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter (even at an agency that specializes in your type of nonfiction, it’s unlikely that either Millicent or the agent will be very well-read in your particular area of expertise);

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it (or, to put it another way: why should Millicent care about it?);

(3) mention any large group of people or organization who might already be working on this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject (if the group or organization is large, go ahead and say how large, so Millicent the agency screener can’t accidentally underestimate it);

(4) give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail and saying what kind of proof you will be offering in support of your points;

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (again, ideally, backed up with statistics), and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the known universe to write the book.

Let’s go back to the statistics issue, as it puzzles many first-time queriers and submitters. I ended yesterday’s post with a cliffhanger: no matter how large the prospective market for your book is, I told wide-eyed readers gathered around the virtual campfire, you can’t legitimately assume that an agent or editor will be aware of just how many potential readers inhabit it. Thus, when you are crafting a synopsis — or query letter, or book proposal — it’s prudent to assume that they will underestimate it.

And thus the market appeal of your book — or any nonfiction book, actually. Unless it’s a tell-all by a celebrity fresh out of rehab or somebody who used to work at the White House, few manuscripts’ market appeal is self-evident on the title page.

Do I already hear some impatient huffing out there? “This doesn’t seem right to me, Anne,” a few nonfiction writers protest. “While I understand why I am forced to descend to the sordid mention of market conditions and readership in my book proposal, my query letter, and any verbal pitch I might work up nerve to give in a conference elevator, the synopsis is supposed to be a summary of what the book is about. Therefore, it must be entirely about content, a pristine run down of just the facts, ma’am. Kindly mend your ways accordingly, missie.”

You’re partially right, impatient huffers: a fiction synopsis should indeed concern itself entirely with its book’s subject matter, rather than marketing concerns. A professional nonfiction synopsis, on the other hand, is mostly about content, but as we discussed yesterday, often is effectively a micro-proposal as well.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly: if you want to query or pitch nonfiction to the pros, there’s no way to avoid discussing marketing issues. It’s the price a nonfiction writer pays for not having to write the entire book before selling it.

Why, yes, that does tend to be a trifle satisfying to novelists everywhere, now that you mention it. They have to write the whole darned book before they can legitimately start sending out queries and submissions; typically, all a nonfiction writer has to polish off is a sample chapter and a book proposal. And proposals, for the benefit of those of you who have not yet written one, are made up almost exclusively of marketing material.

There’s a reason for that, of course. I hate to break anyone’s bubble about the marriage of art and business, but marketability typically plays a far, far more important role in whether an agent, editor, or even contest judge will be interested in a nonfiction project than in novel. Most of the time, nonfiction sells better.

Don’t believe me, fiction-readers? Okay, try this little experiment: walk into the nearest large chain bookstore and take a good, long look around. Are most of the books fiction or nonfiction?

Assuming it is the latter (as is the case in most non-specialist bookstores), how are the bookstore’s nonfiction sections arranged? 99.99% of the time, it will be by subject matter — unlike the fiction, which is usually arranged by author’s last name, with perhaps separate sections for the better-selling genres.

Which means, at the querying and submission stages, that a nonfiction synopsis that acts like a fiction synopsis — that is, sticking to the story and nothing but the story — is typically a less effective marketing tool than one that gives some indication of what kinds of readers are in desperate need of this particular book and why.

Stop waving that dead fish at me. I didn’t set up this system; I just attempt to render it a trifle less opaque for newcomers.

Yes, the quality of the writing does make a difference in any query or submission, but the fact is, while novels can — and do — sell on the writing alone, even the best-written nonfiction is seldom marketed primarily upon the quality of the writing. In fact, that it’s not at all unusual for an author to be able to sell a nonfiction book, even if it’s a memoir, based on only a single chapter and a book proposal.

More huffing? Okay, go ahead and spit out that resentment: “But Anne, I’ve seen agency websites/listings in agency guides/heard one agent make an offhand comment at a conference and took it as an indicator of how every agent in North America feels insisting that they will ONLY look at memoirs that are already 100% written. So I guess you just misspoke about memoirs being sold by proposal, right?”

Well, I could see where a reader might think that as a memoirist who sold two books via proposal, my view might be a trifle skewed, but no: the vast majority of memoirs sold every year to U.S. publishers come in proposal form, not as finished manuscript. There’s a pretty good reason for that, too — not only are proposals significantly quicker for Millicent the agency screener and her cousin Maury the editorial assistant to read; it’s commonplace for publishers to ask for content change in a nonfiction book after acquiring it. Or even as a condition of acquisition.

Yes, even in memoirs — the writer may have lived the life, but ultimately, the editor is the one who decides what parts of that life are and are not included in the published book. And yes, that sometimes does involve editorial feedback like, “What if you approached this real-life incident in a completely different manner on the page than you did when it happened?”, “Is the mother character really necessary to the story?” and “How would you feel about leaving out that 50-page digression on three years of your childhood?”

Sorry, Mom — the editor says you’re toast. And apparently, 1974-1977 weren’t that interesting.

Given the likelihood that the acquiring editor will request changes, why would an agency stipulate that a memoir that’s probably going to undergo significant revision be completed before the writer queries? Well, a couple of reasons.

Topping the list: memoir can be emotionally devastating to write; I know plenty of perfectly wonderful memoirists who went through years of angst about whether they would be able to commit their lives to paper at all. An agency that doesn’t accept partially-written projects can be relatively certain that the writer will deliver the goods. Also — and again, I don’t want to send any of you memoirists out there spinning into shock, but better you hear this from me — it’s not unheard-of for agencies with this requirement to expect memoirists to construct a book proposal for the already-completed manuscript after they’re signed to a representation contract.

Yes, you read that correctly: a memoirist with a finished draft will probably have to write a book proposal for it, anyway. Working with an agency with a finish-it-first requirement does not necessarily equal a get-out-of-writing-a-proposal pass.

Try to look on the bright side. Since a proposal must talk about the storyline as if the book were already completed, it’s quite a bit easier to write with a manuscript already in hand. Why, all you have to do to come up with an annotated table of contents is to flip through the book, see what each chapter is about, and summarize it.

Besides, the goal of a nonfiction query packet is to prompt Millicent to ask to see the proposal and/or sample chapters, right? So if you’re querying a nonfiction project, the pros will expect you to have a proposal already in hand. So why wouldn’t you make it pellucidly clear in the synopsis who your target market is, why your book will appeal to them, how and why your subject matter is interesting — and, if you’ll pardon my committing the sacrilege, why a non-expert in the field might find it fascinating?

And before anyone asks: no, “Because I spent seven years writing it!” is not a sufficient answer to any or all of the last four questions. In the throes of writing, revising, and composing marketing materials for a book, it can be hard to remember that.

Remember, too, that for the synopsis to whet an agent, editor, or contest judge’s appetite for reading the proposal — the essential task of every syllable of a query packet, right? — the book’s content needs to come across as not merely intriguing to its target readership, but to industry types as well. So if you ever find yourself saying, “Well, that’s a trifle unclear, but my end readers will get it,” take it as a sign from the heavens that you should be rushing to revise that particular piece.

As with a fiction synopsis, you’re going to want to show why the book is appealing, rather than merely telling Millicent that it is — and the trick to that, often, lies in eschewing generalities in favor of juicy, intriguing specifics.

In this spirit, I reiterate: when writing a synopsis, it’s merely prudent to assume that professional readers will underestimate the size of your target audience…and thus the market appeal of your book. This is particularly true if you are pushing a book about anything that ever occurred west of, say, Pittsburgh to a NYC-based agent or editor, or any story set north of Santa Barbara or east of Los Vegas to an LA-based one.

Oh, should I have warned you to sit down before that one? It tends to come as a shock to writers living outside the Boston-DC Amtrak corridor.

Naturally, I’m not saying that northeasterners are myopic; let’s just say that the news media are not the only folks who think that little that happens to anyone outside of a day’s drive of their workplaces is likely to affect Americans. The rest of the country is far more likely to know about the general tenor of life in NYC or LA than the fine denizens of those megapoli (megapolises looks so silly) than the other way around. Of course, if those of us who lived outside of the major urban centers thought this way about, say, New York City or London, we would be called provincial.

I know, I know: this attitude seems rather odd in the age of lightning-fast electronic communication and swift travel across time zones, but regional differences still run strong enough that you might actually find yourself explaining to a charming, urbane agent with an MA in American Literature from Columbia or a law degree from Yale that yes, the inhabitants of Seattle CAN support a symphony, and indeed have for many years.

And schools. And indoor plumbing. I’m not entirely sure that my agent believes I don’t live in a tent with a yeti. He likes to boast that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the New York City hospital where he was born.

The first time he said it to me, he was taken completely by surprise when I, a 6th-generation West Coaster, instantly responded, “Oh, that’s so sad. You should get out more.”

I’m not bringing this up to rib him — okay, so I am just a little bit — but because being aware that agents may not be completely hip to your target demographic means that you, savvy marketer that you are, can compensate for it by coming right out and saying in your synopsis just how big and eager your market actually is for a book like yours.

You might want to bring it up in your query as well. And perhaps in the cover letter you tuck into your submission packet.

What can happen if you don’t, you ask? Only triggering one of the most common rejection reasons for nonfiction: it’s very, very easy for a book to be labeled as appealing to only a niche market. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, niche marketis industry-speak for “Well, no one I know would buy this book…”

Okay, so I’m exaggerating a trifle: technically, it means that the pros think that a book would only be marketable to what they assume to be a tiny demographic. Trout fisherfolk, for instance, or people with cerebral palsy.

Ten points to all of you who just gasped in annoyed disbelief: you are quite right that, in actuality, both of these groups are quite large — Trout Unlimited has 150,000 volunteers, and an estimated 1.5 – 2 million children and adults have cerebral palsy. The extended demographic of people who love members of both of those groups must logically extend into the millions.

Yet someone unfamiliar with those demographics might not be aware of that — which means that in many instances, if not most, a professional reader will be relying solely upon the information that you provide or his own guesstimate if you do not. I implore you, don’t assume that an agent, editor, or contest judge will necessarily be charmed enough by the writing in your synopsis (or book proposal — or book, for that matter) to conduct a little independent research before deciding whether to reject your query packet or submission.

“But Anne,” astonished veteran web-browsers everywhere exclaim, “why should I have to go to that trouble in the age of the Internet? If Millicent is curious about the size of my target market, all it would take is a 10-second web search to see if her guesstimate is correct.

Ah, but you’re assuming that she would drop everything to perform such a search. She’s not: screeners in agencies and publishing houses simply don’t have the time, and often, contest organizers specifically tell their judges that they may rate entries ONLY what’s on the page.

Which means, in practice, that Millicent is extremely unlikely to dismiss that book aimed at anglers without bothering to find out just how many people there actually ARE who habitually fish for trout.

Such as, for instance, our pal Ernest Hemingway, above. As anyone who has ever lived near a good fishing river could tell you, he had — and has — a whole lot of company. But I suspect that you’d have to run into a trout fisherperson or two before you’d see a book on trout and spontaneously cry, “By gum, there’s an immense market for this!”

The same often holds true for regional interest, alas. Due to the reality of where books get published in the United States, a story set in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or San Francisco will often be deemed of national interest, meaning that book buyers in other parts of the country (and world) might reasonably be expected to flock to the bookstores for it.

Because, obviously, readers the world over are sitting on the edges of their seats, wondering what’s going on in Brooklyn these days. Or so I surmise, from the immense number of books set there over the last hundred years. But let that same story be set in Minneapolis, Shreveport, Olympia, or Halifax, and NYC, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco-based agents and editors tend to dismiss it as appealing only to audiences in the region where it was set.

Think about it: if THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA hadn’t been set in Manhattan, do you honestly think that any major publishing house would have given it a second glance?

Which brings me to another very common piece of conference lore: over the years, I’ve heard many, many agents and editors tell writers of so-called works of purely regional interest that they’d be better off submitting their nonfiction, memoirs, and even novels to regional publishers. In recent years, I’ve begun to wonder to whom they are referring. The publishing industry is not, after all, like theatre — not every major city will spontaneously see a publishing house spring up out of the ground, started by spunky youngsters in their dorm basements, if necessary.

Can’t you just picture it? “I’ve got a barn,” a would-be publisher pants breathlessly, “and you have a mimeograph machine. Let’s publish some books!”

Doesn’t happen very often, alas. It’s a lovely fantasy, though, isn’t it?

Admittedly, there are a quite a few more regional publishers for nonfiction than for fiction or memoir; that’s true of small, independent presses in general. Even for nonfiction, though, it is definitely trickier to interest agents at the big agencies in subject matter unfamiliar to denizens of the Eastern seaboard or LA.

What strategy tip may we derive from this? Since it’s a safe bet that Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel will in fact be perusing your query, submission packet, or contest entry with an eye to determining national interest, it’s a stellar idea to use your marketing materials — yes, including your synopsis — to make the case that your subject matter IS of national interest.

In the synopsis, as in the query letter and pitch, statistics can be your friend — and they needn’t be statistics about just how many people have already bought books on your topic, either. If you’re writing a blistering exposé of bear abuse in Montana, for instance, it would a very good idea to mention in your synopsis just how many visitors Yellowstone sees in a year, because chances are, Manhattanites will have no idea. (For some handy hints on how to find statistics to back up such claims, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category at right.)

Okay, impatient huffers, your time has once again come. Have at it: “But Anne, every time I go to a writers’ conference, all of the agents and editors keep saying that the most important thing for me to show up front is my platform. How does all of what you’ve been saying here fit in with that?”

Very well, actually — and I’m glad that you brought this up, oh huffers. In a nonfiction book synopsis, you not only need to establish the importance of the subject matter — you need to demonstrate that you are an expert in it. Seriously, it’s the first question almost anyone in the industry will ask after you mention casually that you are writing a nonfiction book. “So,” they’ll say, reserving comment about the marketability of your topic until after they hear the answer to this particular question, “what’s your platform?”

So if “Why are you the best person to write this book?” seems secondary to the subject matter, I’m guessing that you probably haven’t pitched a nonfiction book lately.

To clear the brows of those of you knitting them right now, platform is industry-speak for the background that qualifies you to write the book — the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic. Put another way, platform is the industry term for why anyone should trust a nonfiction author enough to want to believe what he says in his book, as opposed to any of the other similar books on the market. The platform need not consist of educational credentials or work experience — in fact unless you write in a technical, scientific, or medical field, it generally has less to do with your educational credentials than your life experience.

But by all means, if you happen to be a former Secretary of State, a child actor on a hit TV show, or NBA superstar, do mention it — but don’t be downhearted if you haven’t yet held a cabinet post in your field of expertise, however. As we discussed in Querypalooza, your platform consists ANY reason, or collection of reasons, that you are the single best person currently residing in the universe to write this particular book — and that members of the reading public might flock to see you do it.

Not books in general: this book. It’s a great idea to devote some serious thought to your platform before you begin to market your book — and yes, that means before you sit down to write the synopsis, too.

Don’t look at me that way; I’m doing you a favor here, not just assigning extra work for its own sake. All of you nonfiction writers out there should not only be prepared to answer questions about your platform before you have ANY contact with an agent or editor — you should be able to talk about yourself as an expert on the subject matter of your book. Trust me, you’ll be happier in the long run if you get used to thinking of yourself that way before you walk into a publishing house to meet with your new editor.

Synopsis-writing time is a great opportunity to start, because your synopsis should contain at least passing mention of your expertise. This is true, incidentally, even if your book happens to be a memoir.

“Wait just a memory-picking minute!” I hear the memoirists out there cry. “Isn’t it pretty darned obvious that I would be the single best living authority upon my own life?”

Not necessarily, from the industry’s point of view. A memoir is always about something in addition to the life story of its author, after all. Ideally, any statement of your platform should include some reference to why you are qualified to write about that other subject matter as well.

So should your synopsis. For instance, if your memoir is about spending your teenage years in a foreign country, invest a sentence or two of your synopsis in talking about how being an outsider gave you a unique perspective on the culture. If your memoir rips the lid off the steamy secrets of a cereal factory, you’ll be better off if you use your decade’s worth of experience filling those boxes as evidence that you are a credible expert on flakes. And if your childhood memoir deals with your love affair with trains, make sure you include the fact that you spent 17 years of your life flat on your stomach, singing “woo, woo” at a dizzying array of models.

You get the picture. It’s not enough to make your subject matter sound fascinating: in your synopsis, your account needs to come across as both fascinating and credible.

For what it’s worth, novels are generally about something other than the beauty of their writing, too. They have settings; characters have professions. For instance, the trilogy I am working on now is set at Harvard; I got my undergraduate degree there. Think that is going to make the books more credible in the eyes of the industry? You bet.

I could feel fiction writers’ blood pressure rising throughout the last few paragraphs, but don’t panic: technically, a novelist doesn’t NEED a platform. Go back and reread that comforting earlier bit about fiction often selling on the quality of the writing alone; repeat as often as necessary until your head no longer feels as though it’s about to explode.

It’s always a nice touch, though, if a fiction writer can mention a platform plank or two in her query, since (brace yourself, novelists) in this tough market, most agents will be pleased to see it. But for fiction, keep your synopsis platform-free; self-promotion in a novel synopsis tends to be regarded as compensation for some heretofore-unsuspected weakness in the plot or the writing.

Whew, that was a lot of gut-wrenching reality to cover in a single post, wasn’t it? I’m sure all of us could use some nice down time. If only we knew someone who might take us fishing…

More wit and wisdom on the synopsis follows tomorrow, of course. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part VII: where you stand depends on where you sit. Or read, as the case may be.

sagrada familia ceiling3

We begin today with a pop quiz, inspired by sharp-eyed reader Jinnayah’s comment on yesterday’s post. Quick, tell me: did I take the photo above while looking down into an abyss, sideways into an alcove, or up at an impossibly high ceiling?

Hard to tell which way is up, isn’t it? (But here’s a hint: the purple stuff is flying dust.) Without some orienting landmarks, it’s difficult even to know for sure what you’re looking at, or from what direction.

That’s more or less the same problem the average aspiring writer faces when looking at her own first manuscript or book proposal with an eye to figuring out whether it is formatted correctly, right? Let’s face it, very, very few as-yet-to-be-published writers have ever seen a professional manuscript up close and personal; still fewer have had the opportunity to glance through a professional book proposal. Oh, there’s plenty of advice out there on how it should be done, of course, but as many of you have no doubt noted with chagrin, sources differ.

So how on earth is someone new to the game supposed to figure out which end of the manuscript is up, figuratively speaking?

The trick lies in remembering that the principles governing manuscript formatting are practical and historical, not aesthetic. Thus, while two-inch margins and a cursive typeface may strike a writer as the perfect expressive extension of the spirit of his novel, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, they’re just puzzling. And distracting.

Where you stand, in other words, depends on where you sit. From where Millicent is sitting, deviation from standard format demonstrates a lack of knowledge about how the industry works, not creativity. She has good reason to feel that way: because professional manuscripts and book proposals are formatted in a particular way, she knows that her boss, the agent of your dreams, would have a hard time convincing an editor at a major publishing house to read even the first page of an unprofessional formatted manuscript.

Which brings be back to where we left off last time, right? For the past couple of posts, we’ve been engaging in compare-and-contrast exercises, showing common examples of title pages and fine-tuning your binoculars so you might see how our old friend Millie — or her boss, or an editor, or a contest judge — might view them. As I sincerely hope those of you who read the post can attest, it was pretty obvious that the professionally-formatted title page won the beauty contest hands-down. Or, if the bulk of you aren’t yet willing to attest to that, may I at least hope that everyone is now aware that as far as presentation goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit?

Case in point: a choice as small as a typeface can make an astonishingly great difference to how professional your work looks to the pros. That comes as something of a surprise to most aspiring writers — who, not entirely surprisingly, tend to regard that particular decision as a purely aesthetic one. “Why,” they ask, and not unreasonably, “should it even matter to Millicent? Good writing’s good writing, isn’t it?”

Well, yes and no. Yes, good writing is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. No, insofar as good writing tends to have less impact on the average Millicent when it’s presented in an unusual typeface.

Yes, really. To see why, let’s once again start at the top of the submission packet, taking a gander at the same title page in three different typefaces. Here it is in 12-point Times New Roman, one of the two preferred typefaces:

Austen title good

That’s what anyone sitting in Millicent’s seat would expect to see. Now let’s look at exactly the same information, assuming that Aunt Jane favored 12-point Helvetica:

Austen title helvetica

The letters appear quite a bit bigger, don’t they? Not enough so to appear to be, say, 14-point font, but large enough to make Millicent wonder whether the word count is accurate. (Estimated word count does, after all, vary by typeface: Times New Roman is estimated at 250 words/page, Courier at 200. More on that below.) And do you really want her speculating about your credibility before the first page of your manuscript?

So if we seat ourselves in Millicent’s office chair, we can see that Aunt Jane’s choice of Helvetica, while not a deal-breaker, does not necessarily present her manuscript to its best advantage. And now you want to see a typeface that might be a deal-breaker, don’t you? Happy to oblige.

Austen title brushscript

Can’t really blame Millicent for not wanting to turn the page on that one, can we? Despite containing all of the information that a title page should include, in the right places and in the right order, it’s unprofessional-looking. Not to mention hard to read.

Got Millicent’s perspective firmly imbedded in your mind? Excellent. If you want to switch back to the writer’s point of view, all you have to do is remember that the manuscript that follows even this last title page is SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

The moral: even the best writing may be placed at a competitive disadvantage by unprofessional presentation.

I assume that all of that clanking is a thousand writers’ hackles being raised. “But Anne,” outraged voices thunder “aren’t you assuming that Millicent’s pretty shallow? Whenever I’ve heard agents and editors asked at conferences or on their websites about whether cosmetic issues can get a manuscript rejected, they often disclaim the notion with scorn. I’ve even heard a few of them say that they don’t care about issues like typeface, spaces after periods and colons, or where the chapter title lies — and that strikes me as significant, as I’ve never, ever heard one say it was okay to let a query letter run longer than a single page. Isn’t it the writing that matters in a submission, ultimately?”

Again, yes and no, hackle-raisers. Yes, the writing matters — but it’s not all that matters.

Naturally, the writing matters most in a submission, with freshness, audience-appropriateness, marketability, and fit with the agent or editor reading it jostling for second place. Equally naturally, and something that I often point out here, individual agents, editors, and even contest judges harbor individual preferences as well and have been known to express them at conferences. Or on their blogs, Twitter feeds, and over drinks at that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any literary conference in North America.

One person’s pet peeve, however, may not be another’s, and since few aspiring writers of my acquaintance either take the trouble or have the information required to find out the preferences of every agent to whom they are submitting, adhering to standard format minimizes the probability of running afoul of unknown annoyance-triggers. Because, honestly, trying to apply every single one of the expressed opinions floating around out there to your manuscript will drive you 100% nuts. The pet peeves are too often mutually contradictory, for one thing.

Which is to say: if an agent to whom you are submitting asks for something different, for heaven’s sake, give it to her; if, as is almost always the case, you just don’t know, keep the presentation unprovocative and professional so that your writing may shine.

In other words, adhere to the strictures of standard format, rather than assuming, as so many aspiring writers do to their cost, that the writing is the only thing that matters.

Remember, where you stand depends on where you sit. And from both Millicent and the aspiring writer’s perspective, taking the time to present writing professionally is honestly worth it.

Yes, admittedly, one does hear of cases where a kind, literature-loving agent has looked past bizarre formatting in order to see a potential client’s, well, potential, one also hears of isolated cases where a manuscript rife with spelling and grammatical errors gets picked up, or one that has relatively little chance of selling well in the current market. The age of miracles has not entirely passed, apparently.

But — and this is a BIG but — these cases get talked about because they are exceptions, and rare ones at that. 9,999 times out of 10,000, any of these problems will result in, if not instantaneous rejection, then rejection upon Millicent’s lighting upon the next problem in the manuscript.

Those hackles are clacking again, aren’t they? “Okay,” the hackled admit, “I can understand how Millicent would be tempted to skip reading a submission like #3 above, where she’s likely to strain her eyes. I can seen see why she might leap to some negative conclusions about #2, since, as you have mentioned before, she knows that it’s going to be more time-consuming, and thus more costly, to take on a client who needs to be trained how to present her work professionally. But if presentation is so darned important, why don’t aspiring writers hear about it more often at conferences, in articles about submission, or even just in discussions amongst ourselves?”

Excellent question, h-raisers. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that’s not just because a sane, sensible individual with a reputation to protect is unlikely to stand up in front of 500 eager potential submitters and say, “Look, if you’re planning to submit a grimy photocopy of your book, or insist upon presenting it in 10-point type, or not indenting your paragraphs, just don’t bother to query me.”

Having actually seen a well-meaning agent tell an indignant crowd that he really only took seriously query letters from writers he met at conferences (yes, really; there were many, many witnesses), I can tell you precisely what would happen if some honest soul did take this astounding step: instantly, 500 pens would scrawl on 500 programs, DO NOT QUERY THIS ONE; HE’S MEAN.

Which would rather defeat the agent’s purpose in coming to the conference to recruit new clients, wouldn’t it?

As someone who frequently teaches writing and formatting classes, I can think of another reason that a speaker might want to be careful about such pronouncements: an agent or editor doesn’t have to speak at many conferences (or blog for very long) before recognizing that anything she says about submissions is likely to be repeated with the éclat of a proverb for years to come amongst the writing community.

Seriously, it’s true. I’ve heard offhand comments made from the dais, or even jokes, being debated for hours in conference hallways, particularly if those comments happen to relate to the cosmetic aspects of querying and submission. 5-4 Supreme Court decisions are routinely discussed with less vim and vitriol. Some of Miss Snark’s pronouncements have been more commented upon than St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Okay, so that last is a slight exaggeration. My point is, the very notion of from-the-horse’s-mouth rightness carries such a luster that such speakers are constantly in extreme danger of having everything they say quoted back to them as an inflexible rule.

Which is why, I must admit, I occasionally experience qualms about presenting the rules of standard format as inflexible rules. On the pro-regulation side, we are talking, after all, about an industry that both values creativity and considers submitting a book proposal in anything but a black folder dangerously radical. (Yes, really.) On the con side, literally nothing else I talk about here consistently raises as much writerly ire.

The very topic of presentation seems to be emotionally trying for a lot of writers — disproportionately so, from where Millicent is sitting. Tell an aspiring writer that his dialogue is turgid, or his pacing drags, or that he’s left a necessary section out of his book proposal, and most of the time, he’ll be at least curious about why you think so. (If a bit defensive.) Yet suggest to the same writer that he might be better off reformatting his manuscript to include such niceties as paragraph indentation or moving his page number to the slug line, and a good quarter of the time, he’ll look at you as though you’d just kicked his grandmother. Thrice.

Go figure, eh?

Presentation issues definitely do matter — which is, again, not to say that the quality of the writing doesn’t. But — and again, this is a BIG but — as we’ve discussed, rejection decisions are often made on page 1 of a manuscript. Sometimes even within the course of the first paragraph. And if the manuscript is hard to read, due to a funky typeface or odd spacing or just plain poor print quality, it may not be read at all.

While these phenomena are, in fact, quite widely recognized as true, the person who announced them this baldly from the dais at a literary conference would be covered head to foot with flung tomatoes in twenty seconds flat. Metaphorically, at least.

Which is why I’m going to keep saying it until I’m blue in the face and you die of boredom: from the perspective of someone who reads manuscripts for a living, professional formatting is simply the least distracting way a book can possibly be presented. Perversely, adhering to the industry’s cosmetic expectations renders it MORE likely that an agent or editor will concentrate upon the beauty of the writing, not less.

Think about it: they can’t fall in love with your good writing until they read it, can they? So don’t you want to do everything within your power to convince them that your manuscript is the one that deserves more than a cursory glance?

Of course you do; if you didn’t, you would have given up on this series a paragraph into it, right? Instead of thinking of the rigors of standard format as a series of unimportant (or even silly) superficial choices, try regarding them as translating your calling card, a means of catching Millicent’s tired eye and informing her that this is a manuscript that should be taken seriously.

Have I got you sufficiently fired up about superficial manuscript prettiness yet? Grand; let’s get back to the incredibly nit-picky issue of typeface.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, I would highly recommend using either Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces, both on the title page and in the manuscript as well. These are the standards of the industry, and thus the least likely to raise Millicent’s ever-knitted eyebrows. But like some of the other strictures of standard format, there’s a pretty good reason for this one: from where she is sitting, word count estimation is always predicated upon one of these typefaces.

Why is the question of estimating relevant on a title page? Again, we must look to Millicent’s perspective: word counts in book manuscripts are generally estimated, not the actual count; for short stories and articles, use the actual count.

Was that giant gust of wind that just knocked my desk over your collective gasp of astonishment? I’m not entirely surprised; a lot of aspiring writers are confused on this point. “But Anne,” they protest, and who can blame them? “My Word program will simply tell me how many words there are in the document. Since it’s so easy to be entirely accurate, why shouldn’t I be as specific as possible? Or, to put it another way, why would an agent or editor ask for the word count, then expect me to guess?”

Would you throw something at me if I said once again that this is a matter of perspective? From Millicent’s seat, the answer is pretty obvious: industry practices dictate how manuscripts are handled, not the whims of the fine folks at Microsoft. I mean, the Microsofties I know are sterling human beings to a man, but hardly experts on the publishing industry’s requirements. And really, why should they be?

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, just because Word is set up to allow certain things — giving you an exact word count, for instance, or access to 200 typefaces — doesn’t mean that the publishing industry wants writers to do things that way. (And if you doubt that, consider the doubled dash vs. the automatic emdash Word favors.) Word processing programs came into use long, long after standard format for manuscripts, after all; why should agents, editors, and Millicents allow computer programmers to dictate what strikes them as professional?

Perspective, people: which makes more sense, assuming that the word count on your title page will be read by Millicent, or Bill Gates?

I cannot, naturally, speak to Mssr. Gates’ point of view on the subject, but here is why Millicent would care on the estimation front. The Times family is estimated at 250 words/page; Courier at 200. So a 400-page manuscript in Times New Roman is estimated to be roughly 100,000 words if it’s in Times — something Millicent should be able to tell as soon as she claps eyes on the submission’s title page, right? — and 80,000 if it’s in Courier. (If the logic behind that is at all confusing, please see the WORD COUNT category on the archive list at right for further explanation.)

Now, in actual fact, a 400-page manuscript in TNR is probably closer to 115,000 words; as any writer who has compared the estimated word count for her book with the total her word processing program so kindly provides, they tend to differ wildly. But word count, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: a novelist whose title page reported, accurately, that her 400-page novel was 115,000 words might well see it rejected out of hand on the grounds that it was too long.

Why? Well, math may not have been Millicent’s best subject (as one might expect, the inmates of agencies tend overwhelmingly English majors), but she can do third-grade multiplication in her head: 115,000 words at 250 words/page would equal a 460-page manuscript. That’s quite a bit longer than editors tend to expect first novels in most genres to be these days; at around 450 pages, binding costs rise significantly.

In other words, next!

Boy, those hackles are getting a workout today, aren’t they? “But Anne, why is Millicent estimating at all? If she wants to know how long it is, why doesn’t she just flip to the last page and check the page number, for heaven’s sake?”

I could give you a long song and dance about how much her wrists hurt from opening all those query envelopes all day, or how her secret midnight e-mail orgies have rendered pinching a torture, but in practice, the answer is far less personal than practical: because the word count is right there on the title page.

Tell me, oh submitters: why on earth should she doubt its accuracy? Unless, say, the title page were in a non-standard typeface like Helvetica, she’s going to assume that an aspiring writer familiar enough with standard format to include the word count on the title page would also know how to estimate it accurately.

I know, I know: from a writerly perspective, that’s kind of a wacky assumption. But her chair boasts a different view than ours.

Besides, how exactly could she manage to turn to page 400 of a manuscript, when her boss requested that the writer send only the first 50, without resorting to some pretty impressive maneuvering through time and space?

I’m aware that I’m running quite long today, but in the interest of clarity, let’s invest another few minutes in turning to the first page of the submission, to see how much of a difference font and typeface make at first glance. Here’s a correctly-formatted page 1 in Times New Roman. Just for giggles, I’m going to use that notorious editor’s nightmare, the opening paragraphs of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

Pretty spiffy, eh? And definitely not how this opening would appear in a published book, right?

Now let’s take a peek at the same page, also correctly formatted, in Courier. Note how many fewer words per page it allows:

Got both of those firmly imbedded in your brainpan? Good. Now format your first pages that way for the rest of your natural life.

Well, my work here is obviously done.

Just kidding — you want to see why it’s a good idea, don’t you? Okay, take a gander at the SAME first page, not in standard manuscript format. See how many differences you can spot:

Fascinating how just a few small formatting changes can alter the presentation, isn’t it? It’s exactly the same WRITING — but it just doesn’t look as professional. To Millicent, who reads hundreds of pages per day, the differences between the last three examples could not be clearer.

And yet, if we’re going to be honest about it, there were really very few deviations from standard format in the last example. For those of you playing at home, the typeface is Georgia; the chapter title is in the wrong place, and there isn’t a slug line. Also, the page is numbered in the wrong place — the default setting, incidentally, in many word processing programs.

Again, in all probability, none of these infractions against the rules of standard format are serious enough to cause Millicent to toss a submission aside as soon as she notices them. But when poor formatting is combined with literary experimentation — like, say, that paragraph-long first sentence ol’ Charles managed to cough up — which do you think she is going to conclude, that Dickens is a writer who took the time to polish his craft, or that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing?

Don’t tempt her to draw the wrong conclusion. Remember, where a manuscript stands depends upon where the reader sits.

Before any hackles start heading skyward again, I hasten to add: where the submitting writer sits often makes a difference to Millicent’s perception, too. Millicent’s reception of that last example is very likely to be different before Dickens became a household name or after, although once he was established. Unless you happen to be famous, I wouldn’t advise taking the risk.

And if you do happen to be famous, could I interest you in writing a back jacket blurb?

In fairness to Millicent, though, it’s highly unlikely that it would even occur to our Charles to deviate this markedly from standard format, if he already had experience working with an agent or editor. The longer you remain in the business, the more those little things will strike you as just, well, matters of right and wrong. As, fortunately or not, they do Millicent and her ilk.

Come to think of it, that sense of fitness may well be the reason that discussions of formatting tend to become so vitriol-stained: we all like to be right, and after all, propriety is in the eye of the beholder. After all, each of us is most familiar with the view from her own chair.

Pulling back from one’s own perspective can be most helpful. There’s a reason that it’s called the bigger picture, people. In that spirit, let’s take a longer view of the photo above, to situate ourselves:

sagrada familia ceiling

Easier to tell up from down, isn’t it? With a broader perspective, you can see that the green light on the left is coming from a stained-glass window; on the left, there’s a decorative support beam. From a myopic tight shot, we can now tell that this is a picture of a ceiling — as it happens, in the cathedral whose photo graced my last post. (Hey, Jinnayah said she liked the building.)

More show-and-tell follows next time, of course. Keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part V: let’s start from the top — of the submission stack, that is

sagrada familia construction

Has everyone recovered from the last few posts’ worth of inoculation with professional formatting know-how? Yes, that was indeed a whole lot of information to absorb at once, now that you mention it. It may have left a bit of a sore place, but much better a one-time quick sting than engendering years of rejection without knowing why, I always say. Once you’ve gotten exposed to the correct way to format a book manuscript, chances are that you’ll be immune to formatting problems in the future.

Why, yes, I have run that metaphor right into the ground. How kind of you to notice.

There’s a reason I’m hammering on it so hard, however: one of the great fringe benefits of inoculation is that, as unpleasant as it may have been at the sticking-point, so to speak, the stuck usually doesn’t have to think all that much about smallpox or whooping cough for quite a long time afterward.

So too with standard format for book manuscripts — once a writer gets used to how a professional submission is supposed to look, everything else is going to look wacky. As I have been threatening begging you to believe promising you repeatedly every few minutes while running through the standard format strictures, once you get used to how a professional manuscript is put together, any other formatting is going to feel downright uncomfortable.

And to prove it to you, I’m going to spend the rest of this series let you see precisely HOW different standard format and non-standard format appears to the pros. In the spirit of that old chestnut, SHOW, DON’T TELL, I shall be sliding in front of your astonished eyes pages that follows the rules right next to ones that don’t.

That way, you’ll learn to tell which is which when I don’t happen to be standing next to you, whispering in your ear. I find that writers tend to work better with minimal nearby murmurings.

But before I launch into it, the usual caveats: what I’m about to show you is for BOOKS and BOOK PROPOSALS only, folks. At the risk of repeating myself (and repeating myself and repeating myself), I’ve been talking for the last few posts only about how books and book proposals should be formatted, not about short stories, screenplays, poetry, magazine and newspaper articles, or anything else.

If you’re looking for formatting tips for any of the latter, run, don’t walk, to consult with those knowledgeable souls who deal with that kind of writing on a day-to-day basis. By the same token, it would be a trifle silly to look to those who deal exclusively with other types of formatting for guidance on constructing a book manuscript, wouldn’t it?

Yes, I’ve mentioned this before, and recently. I shall no doubt mention it again, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who believe, mistakenly, that writing is writing, and thus all of it should be formatted identically. That’s just not the case. Book manuscripts should be formatted one way, short stories (to use the most commonly-encountered other set of rules) another.

Please recognize that not everything that falls under the general rubric writing should be formatted identically. So if your favorite source — other than yours truly, of course — tells you to do something diametrically opposed to what I’m showing you here, may I suggest double-checking that the other source is indeed talking about book manuscripts and not, say, submissions to a magazine that accepts short stories?

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but contrary to popular belief, submission standards differ by type of publication. Yet surprisingly often, those giving practical to aspiring writers will conflate the format for, say, short stories, one with that for book manuscripts, resulting in a first page that will look incorrect to either. (Although, generally speaking, such guidelines tend to stick closer to the short story format than to the book.)

So if you have encountered conflicting bit of advice on the internet — and if you’ve done even the most minimal search on the subject, I’m sure you have — consider the source. And if that source does not make a distinction between book and short story format, be wary.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because I wouldn’t want any of you to be submitting short stories to magazines using the format we’ve been talking about here.

Caveat #2: check submission guidelines before you submit. I’ve been presenting standard format here, but if the agent of your dreams (or the agent with whom you are currently signed, if they don’t happen to be the same person) has expressed a strong preference for his clients formatting in a manner opposed to what you see here, for heaven’s sake, run with that.

But only for submission to that particular agent. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: not every piece of formatting advice writers hear at conferences or online refers to a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes, an expressed preference is merely personal.

Which is to say: major deviations from standard format are genuinely uncommon — among manuscripts that agents are currently submitting to editors at major US publishing houses, at least — but let’s face it, you’re not going to get anywhere telling an established agent that no one else’s clients are using 18-point Copperplate Gothic Bold if he happens to have an unnatural affection for it. Part of working with an agent entails trusting that he knows more about marketing books than you do. If he doesn’t, you wouldn’t want to be working with him, right?

I must have misheard all of the query-weary submitters out there. The answer you meant to give is a resounding yes.

And before my last statement sends anyone out there into that time-honored writerly I’ve just signed with an agency but what if I chose the wrong one? panic, remember this: if you’ve done your homework before you signed, and thus are certain that he has a solid recent track record selling books in your category, you have every reason to have faith in your representative.

Or so I keep telling myself when I can’t sleep at night. Hey, handing one’s hopes and dreams to someone else to market is hard.

Please study the examples to follow very, very carefully if you are planning to submit book-length work to a North American agent or editor anytime soon: writers often overlook odd formatting as a possible reason that an otherwise well-written manuscript might have been rejected.

Oh, not all by itself, generally speaking, unless the violation was truly egregious by industry standards, something along the lines of submitting unnumbered pages or not indenting paragraphs, for instance, the kind of faux pas that might actually cause Millicent to cast the entire submission aside unread. But in a garden-variety well-written manuscript that combines non-standard format with even just a couple of the common agents’ pet peeves — a cliché on page 1, for instance, or several misspellings in the first paragraph — the result is generally fatal.

Certainly, other rejection reasons get a lot more airplay, particularly at writers’ conferences. If you want to take a long, hard look at some of the better-discussed reasons, I would urge you to gird your loins and plunge into the REJECTION ON PAGE ONE category at right. (Not for the faint of heart: I went over list of instant-response rejection reasons given by a group of agents going over a stack of actual submissions at a conference, one by painful one.)

Yet surprisingly little conference time seems to be devoted to deviations from standard format for manuscripts. Why shouldn’t conference speakers take thirty seconds of their speaking gigs to pointing out, for instance, that the ways in which a professional manuscript does not resemble a published book — ways that are unfortunately quite obvious to an agent, editor, contest judge, etc., from practically the moment their eyes light upon a submission?

Why is it so very apparent, you ask? Because much of the time, submitting writers will work overtime to make it apparent.

Seriously, many aspiring writers clearly go out of their way to format their submissions to resemble published books, in the mistaken belief that this will make their work seem more professional. As we’ve already discussed in this series, the opposite is generally true — and often, it’s apparent in a professional reader’s first glance at the first page of a submission.

If the implications of that last assertion made you dizzy — if, for instance, you found yourself picturing our old pal Millicent the agency screener pulling a submitted manuscript out of its envelope, casting a critical eye over the first page, hooting, and stuffing the whole thing into the handy SASE along with a photocopied rejection letter — try placing your head between your knees and breathing slowly.

Go ahead. I’ll wait until you recover.

And then follow up with a hard truth that may get those of you new to the game hyperventilating again: the VAST majority of submissions are rejected not only on page 1, but within the first few lines of page 1. Heck, a harried Millicent will derive a negative impression of a manuscript even prior to page 1.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths. That dizziness will pass shortly.

Ah, some of you have found your breaths again, haven’t you? “Oh, come on, Anne,” I hear some hard-boiled submission veterans scoff, “she makes up her mind that this isn’t a submission to take seriously before to page 1? How is that even possible?”

Well, the most common trigger is the absence of any title page whatsoever. Many submitters, for reasons best known to themselves, omit the title page altogether — often, I suspect, because they are unaware that a professional book-length manuscript always has a title page.

Why? Long-time readers (or even those who have been paying attention over the last several posts), pull out your hymnals and sing along with me now: a properly-formatted title page tells an agent precisely how to contact the brilliant author who wrote it — and tells an editor precisely how to contact the agent who represents her.

Was that gargantuan gasp a signal that those of you who have title page-free submissions circulating at the moment are just a teeny bit worried? If so, relax: forgetting to include a title page almost certainly won’t prevent Millicent from reading your submission at all. She tends to read even the most bizarrely-formatted submissions for at least a line or two (although often no more than that). But that initial impression of an author’s lack of professionalism — or, to call it by a kinder name, of having a lot to learn about how the publishing industry works — does often translate into a rather jaundiced reading eye for what comes next.

Why? Well, let’s take a peek through her reading glasses, shall we? The first thing Millicent sees when she opens the average requested materials package is something like this:

If you’re having trouble reading the fine print, try double-clicking on the image.

Have it in focus now? Good. Our Millie might also encounter a first page like this:

Or, heaven help us, like this:

So tell me: why might Millicent take one look at these and conclude that the respective submitters of these three first pages could use a good class on manuscript formatting — and thus would be time-consuming clients for her boss to sign?

I see all of you long-term blog readers out there with your hands in the air, jumping up and down, eager to tell everyone what’s wrong with this as a first page of text — and you’re absolutely right, of course. We’re going to be talking about precisely those points in the days to come.

For now, however, I want you to concentrate upon how this example has failed as both a title page and a first page of text: by not including the information that Millicent would expect to see on either.

What makes me so sure she would find this discovery disappointing, at best? Because what she (or her boss agent, or an editor, or a contest judge) would have expected to see on top of that pile of paper was this:

good title

This is a standard manuscript title page for the same book — rather different, isn’t it? Visibly different, in fact, from several paces away, even if Millicent isn’t wearing her reading glasses.

Again, submitting the earlier examples rather than that last would not necessarily be instantly and automatically fatal to a manuscript’s chances, of course. Most of the time, Millicent will go ahead and plunge into that first paragraph of text anyway.

However, human nature and her blistering reading schedule being what they are (for those of you new to this screener’s always-rushed ways, she has a stack of manuscripts up to her chin to screen — and that’s at the end of a long day of screening queries; manuscript submission is in addition to that), if she has already decided that a submission is flawed, just how charitable an eye do you think she is likely to cast upon that typo in line 13?

To use her favorite word: next!

To be fair to Millicent, while it may well be uncharitable of her to leap to the conclusion that Faux Pas’ or Ridiculous’ manuscripts are likely to be unpolished because they did not include a proper title page, agencies do have a vested interest in signing writers who present themselves professionally. For one thing, they’re cheaper to represent, in practical terms: the agent doesn’t have to spend as much time working with them, getting their manuscripts ready to submit to editors.

Let’s face it, no agent in his right mind would send out a manuscript that didn’t include a standard title page. It serves a number of important — nay, vital — marketing functions.

To understand why, let’s take another look at the professional version. So you don’t have to keep scrolling up and down the page, here it is again:

good title

Did you take a nice, long look? Good. While we’re at it, let’s also take a gander at a proper title page for a book with a subtitle):

Those formats firmly in your mind? Excellent. Now for a pop quiz: how precisely do Rightly and Collie’s first sheets of paper promote their respective books than Faux Pas or Ridiculous’ first pages?

Well, right off the bat, a good title page tells a prospective agent or editor what kind of book it is, as well as its approximate length. (If you do not know how to estimate the number of words in a manuscript, or why you should use an estimate rather than relying upon your word processor’s count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) Both of these are pieces of information that will tell Millicent instantly whether the submission in her hand would meet the requirements of the editors to whom her agency tends to sell.

Oh, yes, that’s important in a submission, whether to an agency or a publishing house. Really, really important.

Why? Well, think about it: if Millicent’s boss had decided not to represent Action/Adventure anymore, or if editors at the major houses had started saying that they were only interested in seeing Action/Adventure books longer than 90,000 words, Rightly Stepped would be out of luck.

But then, being a savvy submitter, ol’ Rightly would also want his work to be represented by an agent who just adores very long Action/Adventure novels — and regularly goes to lunch with scads and scads of editors who feel precisely the same way, right?

As I may have mentioned seven or eight hundred times before (in this post, it feels like), the standard title page also tells Millicent precisely how to contact the author to offer representation — and that’s a very, very good thing for everyone concerned. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: it’s ALWAYS in an aspiring writer’s interest to make it easy for an agent to help her.

I might be wrong, of course, but I suspect that not forcing Millicent to forage through the mountain of paper on her desk to find a misplaced cover letter with your phone number on it might be a good start toward being easily helpable.

By contrast, Faux Pas’ first page doesn’t really do anything but announce the title of the book and leap right into the story. That’s one underachieving piece of paper, isn’t it?

Starting to get the hang of how a title page is supposed to look? Don’t worry, if not — I’ll give you a little more title-spotting practice next time, when, I assure you, I have a good deal more to say on the subject. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XVI: wait, but I heard…


Sorry about the several-day silence, campers. Apparently, there are two strains of flu going around this winter; both were kind enough to stop by my house. I’m going to keep it short today, so I can get right back to such intellectually stimulating endeavors as forcing liquids and lying helplessly under a cat.

I didn’t want to leave you hanging so close to the end of this long series on how books do — and don’t — currently get published in the US market. It’s been quite a journey, hasn’t it? We debunked a few common myths about getting published (most notably, the one about good writing always finding an agent or publisher relatively quickly), approaching major publishing houses (if the houses you have in mind are located within the United States, you need an agent to do it for you), how agents handle queries and submissions from aspiring writers, and finally, what happens to a manuscript after an agent picks it up.

Did you find all that empowering, or just depressing? The former, I hope: once a writer can recognize that the formal hurdles she’s expected to jump to land an agent and/or find a publisher for her manuscript are just that, formal hurdles designed to discourage writers who haven’t done their homework, rather than a series of referenda on how talented she is, she can plan accordingly.

How so? Well, if a query, submission, or book proposal does not follow the rules, it tends not to matter how good the writing in the manuscript is. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, professionalism is almost as important as talent, at least in the initial approach.

Or, to put it less delicately, not taking the time to learn the ropes only seems as if it would speed up the trip from completed manuscript to publication. In reality, just leaping into querying or submission unprepared usually lengthens that trip.

Yes, yes, I know: those of you who have been querying or submitting for a nice, long while are shocked, shocked, to hear that the learning curve for those new to the trying-to-get-published game can be pretty steep. But remember, this honestly was news to every currently-published writer at some point.

Hey, it’s complicated stuff.

Thus this series. I habitually devote a great deal of blog space to showing aspiring writers a few short cuts, but once a year, I like to place that advice within a larger context. And frankly, every year, I take a lot of flak from the pros for doing it. Seriously.

Why, you ask? Well, every pro has a slightly different reason, but the one I (and others devoted to helping aspiring writers over the technical hurdles) hear the most tends to run a little something like this: blogs like yours have made it harder to tell the good manuscripts from the rest. Back before it was so easy for writers to find out what to do, far more queries were instantly rejectable; before you started yammering about standard format, most submissions could be dismissed at a glance.

I take this as a compliment — because why, really, should a writer brand-new to the game know how these things are done? Given how complex, counter-intuitive, and let’s face it, contrary to the prevailing societal notions of how books get published the realities are, it’s just a bit puzzling that folks in the publishing industry just expect serious aspiring writers to pick up the basics on their own. It’s not as though rejections typically include admonitions to learn how to write a professional query letter, for instance, or come right out and say, “Look, we read only the first paragraph of your submission because it was not double-spaced, contained three typos and a cliché in the opening sentence, and was printed on off-white paper instead of bright white. That’s no reflection on your writing style — but if you want to have a better shot next time, learn a little something about what we expect to see.”

What do rejected writers see instead? We’re sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. Or I just didn’t fall in love with this story.

“But what does that mean?” aspiring writers constantly ask me in despair. “I know that this agent is telling me something about how I can improve my query/submission, but I can’t figure out what!”

Actually, the agent probably isn’t: most rejections are form-letter boilerplate, and thus not personalized at all. The whole point of a form rejection is to minimize the time Millicent the agency screener has to devote to a query or submission her agency isn’t going to pick up, right? So unless a rejecter gives a specific reason, it’s just a waste of an aspiring writer’s energy to try to read anything into prepackaged phrases that are equally likely to be applied to a poorly-written query that Millie never even considered and a professional-sounding one that just didn’t read as though her boss agent would be interested in the story.

Except to consider the possibility that Millicent is implicitly saying, look, I can’t take your work seriously until you learn the ropes.

Notice how often the word serious has cropped up in the last few paragraphs? There’s a reason for that: in the publishing world, a serious writer is by definition someone who not only has talent and good ideas for books, but has taken the time to learn how to present her work professionally.

That made some of you roll your eyes, didn’t it?

I’m not too surprised. Throughout this series, I’ve been sensing a strange combination of discomfort, disbelief, and outright outrage floating around in that part of the cosmic ether where I choose to imagine my far-flung readership resides. Oh, the discontented have been too nice to kick up much of a protest over my account of these rather grim realities, but since the commenter-to-non-commenting-reader ratio on any blog is quite top-heavy, I’ve gotten good at sensing unspoken confusion. If I had to guess the single sentiment that has been muttered most often by readers of this series, it would be this:

“Hey — that’s not what I heard!”

Hands up, everyone who has thought some permutation of this sentiment, either earlier in this series or when getting the skinny from some ostensibly authoritative source like me. In a way, I applaud this reaction — since there’s such a lot of advice out there for writers, you should be thinking critically about all of the marketing and writing advice you hear. If I haven’t mentioned recently, it’s not a good idea to take any self-described publishing expert as gospel, even if that expert happens to be yours truly.

That can be an awfully tall order; as most of you are probably already aware, there are a LOT of conflicting prescriptions for writing success floating around. Including, incidentally, the information writers pick up at literary conferences. On the conference dais and even during pitch sessions, aspiring writers sometimes hear radically mixed messages.

Don’t believe me? Okay, see if any of these scenarios sound at all familiar:

* A writer preparing to attend a conference diligently wades through both the standard agents’ guides and the websites of the agents scheduled to attend the conference. Once she hears those agents speak at the conference, she finds head spinning at how different her dream agent’s speech about what she wanted to represent right now was from her stated preferences in the guide or on her website.

* After waxing poetic behind a podium about how much he loves literature in general and his favorite genre in particular, an agent or editor brushes off those aspiring writers brave enough to take him at his word and approach him to pitch, giving cold responses ranging from “I don’t handle that sort of book” (spoken in a tone that implied that you should already have known that, whether or not he specified during his speech) to “Gee, that sounds interesting, but my client roster is totally full at the moment” (so why come to a conference to solicit more?)

* The agents at a particular conference say that they are eager to find new clients, yet none of them actually end up signing anyone who pitches to them there. (A more common occurrence than most of us who teach at conferences tend to admit.)

* An agent’s (or editor’s) warm face-to-face response to a writer’s conference pitch is very much at odds with her rather tepid and slow communications during the submission process. “But she loved my idea at the conference!” the writer will protest, tears in her eyes, wondering what she has done wrong. (The probable answer: nothing. The fact is, sometimes a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.)

Why am I bringing up these mixed messages here, toward the end of this series on the basic trajectory of publication, other than to validate some writers’ well-justified confusion?

Well, remember how I mentioned that the long, long road to publication tends to be quite a bit easier for a writer who has realistic expectations than one who does not? Expecting to hear at least partially conflicting advice from the pros will at least relieve a writer of the substantial stress of suspecting that there’s a secret handshake required to break into print, a trick that may be learned by following every single piece of advice one hears to the letter.

Trust me, that way lies madness. Do your homework, figure out what you’re going to do, and do it. Listen to new input, certainly, but use your acquired knowledge of how the industry does and doesn’t work to weigh how likely any fresh piece of advice is to help you.

I’m also bringing it up to encourage all of you to use caution in evaluating whether to pay to attend writers’ shindigs in the upcoming spring and summer conference seasons. Many conferences promote their conferences by implying, if not outright stating, that they’re flying in agents and editors who will sign attendees on the spot.

However, that’s seldom the case: many agents pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend. And that’s in a year when the economy isn’t bottomed out and the publishing industry isn’t trying to figure out the whole e-book phenomenon.

I tremble to mention this, but there is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any authors. They attend simply to educate, as if their names on a conference brochure didn’t at least imply otherwise. Then there are the ones who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who just want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, and couldn’t be less interested in the writers’ conference whose dais they will be gracing.

Those last few are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m sure the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from afar.

The good news is that doing your homework about any conference you are considering attending can help you avoid wasting your time pitching to people who aren’t interested in helping you get your work published. For some tips on figuring out how to maximize your chances of ending up at a conference where you will be able to pitch to — or at least hear useful, up-to-the-minute advice from — agents who are genuinely looking to represent books like yours, please see the posts under the CONFERENCE SELECTION category on the list at right.

Nor are mixed messages limited to conferences — there’s plenty of confusing information out there, posing as authoritative behind-the-scenes skinny. See if this one rings a bell:

An agency states categorically in one of the standard agency guides and/or on its website that it is looking for new authors in a wide array of genres, a list that apparently doesn’t change from year to year? Yet when a writer queries with a book in one of the listed categories, he is crushed by a form letter huffily announcing that the agency NEVER represents that kind of work.

I have personal experience with this one, I’m sorry to report. I once made the mistake of signing with an agent (who shall remain nameless, because I’m nicer than she) who listed herself as representing everything from literary fiction to how-to books, but who in fact concentrated almost exclusively on romance novels and self-help books, two huge markets. I did not learn until the end of our rather tumultuous association that she had signed me not because she admired the novel she was ostensibly pushing for me, but because I had a Ph.D.: she hoped, she told me belatedly, that I would become frustrated at the delays of the literary market and write a self-help book instead.

I know; I was pretty flabbergasted, too.

Why would an agent advertise that he is looking for book categories she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and most editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope.

No fooling: an agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike.

A broad advertiser is always a gambler, at some level.

And yes, now that you mention it, that vagueness is very, very annoying for the writers who believed his blurb in a conference guide or website. (For some tips on how to decipher these, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

The fact is, not everything in this process is what it appears to be at first glance. Had I mentioned yet that those who do their homework tend to have an easier time?

The problem is, the very difficulty of the endeavor discourages many aspiring writers from approaching publishing as a business with ropes to learn. Fearful, they become downright superstitious: because the process can seem mean or even arbitrary to those who are new to it, it can be very tempting to cling to every new piece of information one hears.

I’m not going to lie to you: giving advice to would-be authors is big business these days. Just because a writer pays anywhere from fifty to several hundred dollars to attend a conference or intensive seminar doesn’t necessarily mean that what he will hear there is a single coherent explanation of what to do in order to get his book published.

Don’t expect it. Good seminars and conferences can be extremely informative — as long as you keep your critical faculties active at all times, because you are most assuredly going to be receiving some conflicting information.

Or at least information that might sound contradictory to a writer unfamiliar with the process. Allow me to explain.

The fine folks on the business side of publishing and those of us on the creative side of the business often speak rather different languages. If you’ve learned anything throughout this series, I hope that it was that necessarily, a writer thinks about her writing quite differently than an agent or editor does, and for the best possible reasons: for the writer, it’s self-expression; for the agent or editor, it’s a commodity to be sold.

The result: rampant communication problems between the two sides.

I wish I could refer you to a reliable, comprehensive translation guide between writer-speak and industry-speak, but frankly, I don’t know of one. Like other norms of publishing, a professional writer just sort of picks ‘em up by osmosis.

However, over the years I have gathered an accepted array of truisms that agents and editors tend to spout at eager authors they meet at conferences, in agents’ guides, and on their websites. Although aspiring writers often decide in retrospect that these statements were, at best, inaccurate and/or misleading, these are not lies so much as polite exit lines from conversations, statements of belief, and as often as not, sincere attempts to make struggling aspiring writers feel better about facing the genuinely daunting task of finding representation.

Yet from the writer’s point of view, they might as well be real whoppers.

So here’s my top ten list of confusing statements agents and editors tend to make at conferences — and, increasingly, in form-letter rejections. Because I love you people, I have also included a translation for each in writer-speak, as well as a prescription for reacting to it.

Do keep this guide by you the next time you receive a rejection letter or go to a conference, so you can keep score — and your sanity.

10. “There just isn’t a market for this kind of book right now.”
Translation: I don’t want to represent/buy it, for reasons that may well have something to do with what is selling at the moment, but may also relate to my not having the connections to sell this particular kind of book at this juncture.

Prescription: don’t waste both your time and his by approaching him with books in categories he hasn’t sold recently; move on.

9. “The market’s never been better for writers.”
Translation: I have a very strong preference for representing previously published authors. Since it is now possible for any aspiring writer to self-publish a blog or write for a website, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a really talented writer not to have a relatively full writing resume. (Note: this attitude is almost never seen in those who have ever written anything themselves.)

Prescription: approach someone who says this only after you have a few solid writing credentials gracing your query letter.

8. “I could have sold this 10/20/2 years ago, but now…”
Translation: You’re a good writer (or your pitch was good), but I’m looking for something that more closely resembles the most recent bestseller. I’m not even vaguely interested in anything else right now. Actually, I am pretty miffed at you authors for not paying closer attention to the bestseller lists, because, frankly, you’re wasting my time.


You’re a good writer, but I started being an agent/editor a long time ago, back when it was easier to sell books. Your work may have a political slant that has gone out of fashion, or it is too long, or it shares some other trait with a book I truly loved that I struggled to sell for a year to no avail. I don’t want to get my heart broken again, so I really wish you would write something else. Have you checked the bestseller list lately?


The literary market is changing rapidly right now, and so are my connections. So while I may have a respectable track record in selling books just like yours, I’m not certain that I can do it now.

Prescription: assume this one isn’t taking on new clients right now and move on.

7. “We gave your work careful consideration.”
Translation: like most submissions, we probably invested less than a minute in reading it — and by we, I really mean an underpaid intern who was looking for predetermined grabbers on the first page or in the query letter. Please do not revise and resubmit, because we’re really, really busy.


If I had actually taken the time to read it, I might have had some constructive comments to make, but I simply haven’t the time. In my heart of hearts, I do feel rather guilty for not having done so; that is why I am making this defensive statement in my form-letter reply.


Your manuscript made it past the screening eyes of three Millicents, and I stuck within it for the first 20 pages before I got distracted. But I just don’t think that I can sell this right now.

Prescription: no means no, no matter how it is phrased. Unless the rejection includes some feedback overtly applicable to your book, assume that this is a form letter and move on.

6. “The length of the manuscript doesn’t matter, if the writing quality is high.”
Translation: I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but a first novel shouldn’t be more than 400 pages for literary or mainstream fiction, 250-350 for anything else. (Anne here, breaking in mid-translation: for the benefit of those of you who just turned pale, you’ll find an explanation under the BOOK LENGTH category at right. Also, these page counts assume standard manuscript format — and if you don’t know what that is, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category.)


Frankly, I think you should have taken the time to check how long works in your genre are. However, if you’re a spectacularly talented writer, I would like a peek at your work, because maybe I could work with you to bring it under accepted limits.


I think the current length standards are really stupid, and I don’t want to give them more credibility by stating them here.

Prescription: walk into a well-stocked bookstore and flip though ten or twelve recently-published books similar to yours. (Avoid those that have been out more than three years, or it won’t be a helpful sample.) How many pages are these books, on average?

Then consider your manuscript: is it longer, bearing in mind that page count shrinks by about 2/3rds between manuscript and printed page? Much longer? If so, is there anything you could do to bring it more in line with the standards of your book category?

If not, should you really be mentioning the word count in your query letter, when a too-high count may lead to instant rejection? Contrary to popular belief, the word count is not a required element in a query letter. (See? It really does pay to do your homework.)

5. “We are interested in all high-quality work, regardless of genre.”
Translation: We actually represent only specific genres, but we are afraid that we will miss out on the next bestseller.


We are an immense agency, and you really need to figure out who on our staff represents your genre. If I am feeling generous when you pitch to me, I will tell you who that is. I may also pass your query along to the right agent within my agency.


We are a brand-new agency. We don’t have strong contacts yet, so we’re not sure what we can sell. Please, please send us books.

Prescription: do a little checking, to find out what book categories this agency actually does represent. If they don’t have a track record of selling books like yours, you’ll probably have better luck approaching those that do.

4. “I am looking for work with strong characters/a strong plot.”
Translation: I am looking for books easy to make into movies.

(I wish I had an alternate translation to offer for that one, but frankly, I’ve never heard this statement used any other way at a conference. Sorry about that. Agents looking for literarily strong plots are usually more specific about what they’re seeking.)

Prescription: if your book is filmic, go for it!

3. “We are always eager to find new talent.”
Translation: we are looking for the next bestseller, not necessarily for someone who can write well. (Yes, I know; this one is genuinely counterintuitive.)


We honestly are looking for new writers, but that does not mean that we’re going to be willing to represent work that we don’t think we can sell in the current market. Please send us only genuinely marketable work.

Prescription: again, time spent in your local bookstore can only help you. Find out what kind of stories are selling in your book category these days. If your manuscript does not overtly resemble them, is there a way you could regear your query letter to make your book’s appeal to the readers currently buying books in your category more obvious?

2. “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”
Translation: This is a definitional issue. If the book concept is a spin on something already popular or on a well-worn topic, it is fresh; if it is completely original, or does not appeal to NYC or LA states of mind, it is weird.

Yes, really. For an intensive examination of the prevailing logic, please see the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.


We are looking for young writers, and think older ones are out of touch.

Prescription: here, too, you’re going to need to do some homework to find out who the speaker represents/publishes. If he actually does habitually seek out exciting new voices, that will soon be apparent.

Remember, though: contrary to popular opinion, merely being a previously unpublished writer does not necessarily equal being a fresh new voice.

1. “True quality/talent will always find a home.”
Translation: But not necessarily with my agency.


Because I love good writing, I really want to believe that the market is not discouraging talented writers, but I fear it is. Maybe if I say this often enough, the great unknown writer in the audience will take heart and keep plowing through those rejections until she succeeds.

Prescription: this pro is telling you to do your homework. Do it; in the long run, you’ll be happier.

Confused by all of this double-speak? I don’t blame you, but don’t lose heart. There are two sentiments that always mean precisely the same thing in industry- and writer-speak:

“I love your work, and I want to represent it,” and

“I love this book, and I am offering X dollars as an advance for it.”

These, you can take at face value.

Again, I’m bringing all of this up not to depress you, but to prepare those of you new to the agent-seeking process for the earth-shattering notion that you honestly don’t want to work with an agent who isn’t excited about your type of book. And they often try to tell aspiring writers just that: if it’s a waste of your time to query someone who doesn’t have the connections to sell your book, it’s a waste of both of your time to approach someone who doesn’t even consider your book category.

In the hurly-burly of a conference or in the frustration of trying to come up with a list of agents to query next, it can be very, very easy to forget that. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, agents are not identical; they specialize.

Please remember that there are plenty of good agents and editors out there, ones with integrity who genuinely want to help talented writers sell their work. I am passing all of this along in the hope that knowing the tactics of some of the ones who aren’t so wonderful will help you figure out whose opinions are worth taking seriously — and whose should be brushed aside without further ado, so you can continue on your merry way.

Next time, I shall wrap up this series, then it’s on to the mysteries of manuscript formatting. Keep up the good work!