More conference lore: some of the more common faux pas made innocently, or, does this boundary look blurry to you?

Hello, readers:

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I’m taking this weekend off from posting, partially to gear up for next week’s series on how to pull together a submission packet, partially because the weather is REALLY nice outside at the moment, and partially because I’ve been simply heaping the blog with information over the last few weeks. Thought you might like a bit of a breather.

While we’re on the entrancing subjects of conferences and conference pitching, I thought it might be a good time to re-run a couple of applicable posts from my ever-popular Industry Faux Pas series (collected under the less-judgmentally-titled INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category on the list at right). The manners expected of an aspiring writer at such events are not always intuitively apparent, after all.

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

Think of it as educational soap opera.

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

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

But let’s allow her to speak for herself, eh? Enjoy!

Yesterday, I switched gears a little in my ongoing series on common faux pas writers inadvertently commit, infractions of industry etiquette the eager often stumble into without realizing. I had intended, from here on out, to talk about only what you should do, rather than what you shouldn’t. However, since conference season is coming up, with its concomitant pitching opportunities, I thought it would be a good idea to follow Norbert’s example from yesterday with another unfortunately pervasive conference misstep.

This next example is the one that most consistently breaks my heart, because it is almost always merely a side effect of the nervousness most writers feel the first few times they pitch their work — and, as such, seems to me disproportionately frowned-upon in the industry. This is the one that prompted me to establish the Pitch Practicing Palace, actually, because so very many first-time pitchers do it. Case in point.

Misguided approach 2: Olive has been querying her excellent first novel unsuccessfully for some years. Having read that it is easier to make contact with an agent at a literary conference than through cold querying (which is quite true, generally speaking), she plunks down a significant amount of cash to attend a major regional conference.

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

Osprey is a nice enough guy to see that she is nervous, so he does his best not to be any more intimidating than their relative positions dictate. He shakes Olive’s hand, offers her a seat, and asks, not unreasonably, “So, what is your book about?”

His kindness is the last blow to her already tenuous composure. Staring down at the tabletop between her and the agent of her dreams, Olive is horrified to hear herself begin to babble not about the book, but about how difficult it has been to try to find a home for it. About her years of querying. About her frantic total revisions of the book after every 20th rejection or so. About how she has gotten to the submission stage a few times, but was never given any reason why her book was rejected – so when she sat down to revise again, she was doing it essentially in the dark.

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

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

“So,” Osprey says, making a note on a paper before him behind a defensive arm. “What is your book actually about?”

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

From a writer’s POV, of course, her problem was lack of confidence that led Olive to go off on a tangent unrelated to her pitch, right? But Osprey is an agent well used to dealing with nervous pitchers: her fear alone would not necessarily have put him off.

Her real mistake was telling him – indirectly, of course – that she would be hard to help.

How? By not telling him what the book was. What book category, at what target market it aimed, who the characters are, what the premise is. What the book is ABOUT. Essentially, by airing her fears of rejection at such great length, Olive turned the pitch meeting into a guessing game for Osprey.

Translation: she made it clear to Osprey that if he wanted to hear about her book project – which is, ostensibly, the primary reason they are having this conversation at all – he was going to have to invest quite a bit of energy in drawing the book out of her. Sad but true. Even sadder, Osprey never got an opportunity to hear about Olive’s book, which is actually very well written.

(Omniscient narrators know hidden facts like this, you see.)

Try not to judge Olive too harshly – she fell into a very common panic spiral. It may seem odd to those of you who have never pitched your work verbally, but in the moment, it’s amazingly common for pitchers to take five or ten minutes to calm down before they are able to talk about the book at all. This is why every conference guide ever printed will tell you to prepare your pitch in advance: so you actually talk about the book.

Advance preparation can substantially reduce the probability of falling into a panic spiral – or into the other form Olive’s faux pas often takes (I am re-using Olive here, to give her a happier lifepath):

Misguided approach 3: Olive has brought her excellent novel to pitch to agent Osprey. He shakes her hand, offers her a seat, and asks, “So,” he checks his schedule here, “Olive, tell me what your book is about?”

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

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

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

In other words, by prepping your pitch in advance (and don’t worry; I’ll do a nice, juicy series on how to do that between now and conference season), you are telling the agent to whom you pitch, “Here I am, making it as easy as humanly possible to help me. I am more than prepared to meet you halfway, and together, let’s walk the path to publication.”

Anne in the present again here. Sort of disorienting, isn’t it, to think of it that way?

Okay, let’s move on to a couple of other exemplars of misfortune.

I’ve been writing for the last couple of weeks about the ways in which writers often overstep the bounds of what the publishing industry considers courtesy, and for the most part, I’ve been concentrating on simple differentials of expectation: the pro expects one standard of behavior, and the hopeful petitioner another. Sometimes, though, the depth of the writer’s desire to be published leads to a total disregard of boundaries – which, in turn, leads the industry professional the writer is pursuing to back away quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did Lauren do wrong?

Actually, not much: she merely responded to her meeting with Loretta based upon her hopes, not upon solid research. Lauren should have checked before making the appointment (or asked Loretta during the agents’ forum) how many debut novels she had sold lately (in this case, none), and how recently she had picked up a new writer at a conference. Even if she did not have the time to do the necessary background research, since the Pitch Practicing Palace lady had raised the issue, Lauren should have asked around at the conference.

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

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

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

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

That being said, though, a nice conversation at a conference does NOT a commitment make. A writer is a free agent until a representation contract is signed, and there are agents out there who feel it’s their duty to be nice to aspiring writers. It’s very, very common for writers to interpret this as something more than it is.

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

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

And, realistically, Loretta did not expect exclusivity from Lauren, so there is no chance whatsoever that she would have been offended had Lauren pitched to every agent at the conference. Long-time readers, chant with me now: if an agent wants an exclusive, she will ask for it.

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

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

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

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

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

Much to his surprise, she does not respond.

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

Still no answer.

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

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

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

Let’s run through this chronologically, shall we? First, he made all of the same mistakes as Lauren did: he did not check Loretta’s track record for taking on previously unpublished writers, assumed that a nice conference conversation automatically meant a lasting connection, and did not keep pitching. Had he stopped there, he would have been a much happier camper.

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

Bad move, L. Arguing with an agent’s decision, unless you are already signed with that agent, is always a bad idea. Even if you’re right. Perhaps even especially if you’re right, because agents’ egos tend to get bruised easily.

More to the point, arguing with rejection is not going to turn it into acceptance. Ever. At the agent-seeking stage, this strategy has literally never worked. All it does is impress the agent (or, more likely, her screeners) with the fact that the writer in question is not professional enough to handle rejection well.

And that, my friends, is not an impression at all likely to engender a sympathetic re-read.

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

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

Anne in the present again. The moral, if you’ll forgive my pounding it with a hammer: it is ALWAYS in a writer’s best interest to pitch or query to more than one agent at a time. Always, always, always.

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

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