A couple of years ago, in the midst of the test of human endurance and sheer grit known as the Seattle Ring Cycle — four Wagner operas over the course of five days, presented by the same group of singers — I saw something I had never seen before: the orchestra leaving its pit during the curtain call, at precisely the moment when the singer playing the lead in Die Walküre was walking forward for her solo curtain call. (And no, that’s not a picture of Brünnhilde; it’s Frank Gorshin as the Riddler on the old Batman show, a national treasure.)
Why would this very respectable and accomplished group of people have done such a rude and unprofessional thing? Were they simply exhausted, as the audience was, by so many consecutive hours of sitting? Did the golden hour of overtime click in thirty seconds hence? Had a swarm of hornets abruptly descended upon the string section?
All valid possibilities, I suppose, but my guess would be that they staged a walk-out for the same reason the audience members in my part of the balcony stopped yelling “Bravo,” sat down, and engaged in barely-audible golf claps when Brünnhilde tripped lightly to the front of the stage. They felt disappointed.
It wasn’t because the singer didn’t have a marvelous voice; far from it, as she demonstrated in Act III. Nor was the problem her acting: the lady was — and is — world-famous for playing this role. Unfortunately, in anticipation of Act III, she had chosen not to sing at full voice in Act II. As a result, the Valkyrie most closely associated with belting out the top notes was barely audible past the tenth row for a good hour.
An hour, alas, that contained the single best-known aria in Western opera, a little ditty that runs something like this:
To an audience committed enough to risk permanent nerve damage to its collective derrière in order to hear the famed lady with the horns on her head call her similarly-hatted sisters home, this was, at best, perplexing. Did Brünnhilde have a sore throat? Had she lost her nerve? Did her command of German fail her? Or did she merely figure that this was Seattle, not New York or Berlin, so she could afford to phone in half of her performance?
Performance anxiety or medical excuse, linguistic difficulties or apathy — we in the audience will never know. The only basis we had for judging her was how she had sung that night.
Just as, say, an agent or editor hearing a pitch can only respond to what actually tumbles out of the writer’s mouth during the meeting. It doesn’t matter how brilliantly the writer may have described his book out in the hallway 15 minutes ago, or how trenchant and gripping the pitch is on paper, or even how beautifully-written the manuscript may be. If the pitcher is inaudible due to nerves, loses his place in the middle of his tale, or falls prey to any of the million other perfectly understandable contretemps that routinely befall writers approaching agents and editors at literary conferences, the pitch’s chances of success are inevitably going to suffer.
Had I mentioned that it would behoove you to practice?
Performance anxiety is much on my mind today, campers, because I’m going to be concentrating in this post upon the delicate art of working up nerve to approach agents to pitch. Rather than focusing primarily upon what could go wrong — that way lies madness — I would encourage you to try to think of the pitching process as your interviewing agents as much as their interviewing you.
Okay, perhaps not quite as much, given just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days, but certainly, it’s not a meeting to approach uncritically. As, alas, the vast majority of pitchers (and queriers, for that matter) seem to do.
Oh, I’m not saying that it isn’t understandable. In the soul-grinding crush of pitching and querying, signing with an agent can start to feel like the end goal, the point at which all of the hard work is going to cease, rather than a victory to be celebrated along the long, long road to publication. Yes, you do want an agent to fall in love with your writing — but never forget that the point of having an agent is to market your book.
Before an army of Valkyries shouts, “Well, duh!” at me at a volume certain divas would have done well to emulate, allow me to add a spin to that observation that may not have occurred to some pitchers. Since a pitch meeting is a professional encounter, not a social event, it is very much in your interests to consider whether the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication, rather than whether you happen to like this person.
Yes, even if you happen to feel an instant personal rapport with the interesting soul across the pitching table — perhaps especially so. You’d be stunned how often a successful pitcher’s assessment of a meeting that went like gangbusters is not, “Wow, that agent really seems like she would be good at marketing my book, ” but, “I really felt like we clicked.” However simpatico an agent and writer may be at first, a pitching situation is not primarily about making friends or interpersonal chemistry; it’s about both parties trying to figure out whether they would be a good fit to work together on an ongoing basis.
There’s more to an agent-writer relationship than friendship, you know. In fact, that’s often a relatively small element. Obviously, you’re going to want to be able to trust your agent, but whether the two of you hit it off during your ten-minute chat is far less important to how well you will work together than your ability to communicate — and, yes, the agent’s contacts with editors who happen to publish books in your category.
So the common writerly fantasy that a friendly pitch meeting automatically equals a long-term connection is not only seldom true in actual practice; it can lead aspiring writers do make foolish choices. “Oh, but I felt such a strong connection with Agent Z,” they will protest. “I couldn’t possibly submit those pages Agent Q requested until I hear back from Z.”
Sound familiar, conference-goers? No? How about this one: “Since I had such a great pitch session with Agent R, why should I bother to pitch to anyone else at this conference? He’s sure to sign me.”
Or the ever-popular: “Yeah, it’s been 10 months since I submitted those pages Agent B requested, but I’m not going to keep querying or contact the agency to see if they have lost my submission packet. She seemed to like me; I don’t want to mess up our relationship.”
News flash: you don’t have a relationship with Agent B, or a connection with Agent Z, or a commitment from Agent R. What you did have, pitchers, was a nice conversation at a conference. Period.
So all of the statements above reflect poor strategic choices, based upon a misunderstanding of the pitching relationship. Successful pitchers’ hopes often rise sky-high, leading them to confuse a request for pages for an implied commitment. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be interpreted as such.
Far too few pitchers seem to understand that. Here’s a useful rule of thumb: until an actual offer is on the table, a good pitch meeting is just — wait for it — a nice conversation at a conference.
But even if a smilingly-presented request for materials did imply more (and it doesn’t), the mere fact of liking an agent personally is not the best determinant of whether this is the right person to represent your manuscript. Or even whether the two of you can work well together under stressful conditions.
Yes, I did repeat the phrase work together, now that you mention it, and with good reason. Believe me, the author’s work does not end when the ink dries on the agency contract: its nature merely changes. It’s rare that a manuscript or proposal does not go through at least some revisions after the agency contract is signed, generally at the new agent’s request. The agent will also be the person deciding which editors will be seeing your writing, how many will be seeing it at a time, and how many rejections add up to tabling the project.
They will, in short, have a heck of a lot of power over you and your manuscript. So before you think about committing your manuscript or proposal to anyone’s hands, you’re going to want to ask some questions about who these people are, what they typically represent, and how they like to work with writers.
Stop cringing — if you’re going to be a successful author, this is crucial information.
Why? Well, agenting styles vary wildly. Some are very hands-on, line-editing the work they represent, and some prefer to, as the saying goes, leave the writing to the writers. Some enjoy explaining the publishing process to their clients, and some are infuriated by it. Some want their authors to check in regularly, while others roll their eyes if a client has the temerity to inquire whether the manuscript the agent sent out six months ago has met with any results yet.
It’s really in the best interests of everyone concerned, therefore, that such preferences be aired up front. If it drives you nuts when people don’t return phone calls within a day, you’re going to be miserable if that agent with whom you clicked is a habitual message-ignorer, right? By the same token, if the agent is given to supplying his clients with tons of marginalia, he’s going to be unhappy if you’re the type of writer who regards even the slightest revision suggestion as an occasion to challenge the critiquer to a duel.
Wordplay at twenty paces. Have your second meet mine at dawn by the unabridged dictionary stand at the nearest public library.
I know: a pitch meeting is an intimidating situation, and you don’t want to offend anybody. But remember, these people come to a conference to discover writers like you. Don’t talk yourself out of approaching them — and don’t be intimidated out of finding out what you need to know. Yes, the deck is stacked, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to make it: writers find agents at conferences all the time.
Including, incidentally, yours truly. After asking simply mountains of very pointed questions. I was merely being honest about the kind of client I would be.
Fortunately, you need not wait until your pitching appointment or you have buttonholed an agent in the hallway to ask: most writers’ conferences feature panels where agents and editors talk about what kind of books they are seeking and how they like to work. Almost invariably, the moderator will ask for questions from the audience.
That prospect should make you start rubbing your hands in glee like the villain in a melodrama. Here’s a risk-free chance to ask many agents at once about what they like in a book — and in a client.
It’s a golden opportunity, yet much of the time, it is squandered by what I shall politely term apple-polishing, rather than hard-hitting inquiries. Let’s face it, “Isn’t it difficult to choose between so many marvelous submissions?” isn’t exactly cross-examination. Nor is it likely to elicit information that might enable a savvy pitcher to choose which agents to approach in the hallways and which to eschew.
Another common question-time misstep: the too-specific inquiry of the conference newbie who thinks being called upon by the moderator constitutes an invitation to make a mass pitch to everyone on the dais. “Would you be interested,” such a fellow will stand up and ask, “in a book about a starship captain who finds himself marooned on a deserted planet where only mistletoe grows, and his only chance of escape is to court the ancient Druidic gods?”
Now, personally, I would probably want to take a gander at that particular book, if only for giggles, but that’s not really the issue here. Universally, this kind of approach-disguised-as-question falls flat on its face.
Why? Manners, my dears, manners. This guy is trying to side-step the rules by which every other pitcher at the conference has tacitly agreed to abide; why should any of the agents on the panel reward that kind of behavior?
Let me reformulate that, as it may sound a bit strange coming from the patron saint of the hallway pitch: the agents’ and editors’ forums should not be construed as pitch sessions. You may, if you can work up the nerve, walk up to the panelists after this forum to try out your hallway pitch, but you will make a much, much better impression if you use the question time for — wait for it, Brünnhilde — questions.
Still not convinced? Okay, let’s take a gander at what happens when our misguided friend ignores this dictum — as, I assure you, someone invariably does at every major conference. If the agents are feeling kind that morning, one of them will try to turn this too-specific question into an issue of more general concern, as in, “It’s interesting that you ask that, because the SF market right now is very much geared toward (some other focus entirely that would preclude serious consideration of the pitch above)…”
The other, less charitable, and significantly more common response is for the agents all to say no and the moderator to ask for the next question from the audience. End of pitch attempt. Like hallway pitching, the response all depends upon the mood and generosity level of the agents approached — and how politely the writer has made the request.
Even if you are Emily Post personified, however, don’t bother with the broadcast pitch approach: it’s not worth the risk. In all probability, the only result will be your getting talked about negatively in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America.
Trust me on this one. I’ve been there; I’ve heard the anecdotes.
A popular variation on this faux pas is a writer’s standing up, describing her book, and asking how much she could expect to receive as an advance. From the writer’s point of view, this certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Yet to industry-trained ears, it says very clearly that the asker has not gone to the trouble of learning much about how publishing actually works.
Why is that so evident to the pros? In the first place, advances vary wildly. Think about how deal memos are constructed: pretty much everything that has to do with the author’s cut is a matter of negotiation. (If you have no idea what a deal memo is, you might want to take a gander at the HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED? category on the archive list at right. Even aspiring writers who have done their homework often harbor misconceptions about how the process works.) Second, the manuscript that attracts competitive bidding today may not interest any editor at all six months from now.
When an aspiring writer asks such a question, what an agent tends to hear is, “I want you to predict the market value of a book you know absolutely nothing about, which may or may not be any good, and I expect this advice to be applicable at any time I may try to market this book concept.” Again: not really how the writer should be presenting herself, strategically speaking.
So how does one use question time correctly, you ask? You’re going to want to keep your question general and, if at all possible, have everyone on the panel answer it, so you don’t appear to be targeting one of them for critique.
Oh, it happens. It’s pretty to see how quickly agents — who, after all, are in competition with one another just as much as writers are — will rush to defend one of their own.
Another common faux pas is to challenge what an agent on the panel has already said. Often, the writers who go this route will cite another source, for added credibility, “You said X ten minutes ago, but Miss Snark says…”
If you take nothing else I say into the Q&A session, remember this: this type of question will not help you win friends and influence people. Human nature, I’m afraid: ho one particularly likes to be contradicted in front of a roomful of people. Being told that someone out there is laying down rules of her conduct is far more likely to raise hackles than provide clarification.
And it’s not as though the average agent reads the many writing blogs out there, even if she happens to write one herself. So any name you cite — up to and including Miss S’, who even at the height of her blog’s popularity enjoyed at best a mixed reputation amongst agents — is unlikely to seem like an unimpeachable source.
Trust me: as an opening gambit, it just won’t work.
Although should you happen to bump into may agent at a conference, you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to him with, “I really like Anne Mini’s blog,” should you be so moved. He gets a kick out of it. As long, that is, as you did not add immediately thereafter, “…and she says that what you told us a moment ago is wrong.”
So what should you ask that intimidating row of agents? Here are few suggestions that designed to elicit information you would probably have a hard time gleaning anywhere else. As a fringe benefit, these will generally provoke interesting comments, rather than the usual bleak diagnoses of how tough the market is right now:
“What was the last book each of you picked up at a conference? What made that book stand out from the others you heard pitched?” I love this question, as it gives pitchers hints about how the agents like to hear a book described; darned useful information.
“Who is your favorite client, and why?” Agents tend to love this question, as it enables them to promote a client’s work. Make a great show of writing down names, nodding vigorously to indicate that you either you are intending to rush to the nearest brick-and-mortar bookstore the instant the conference is over and buy all of that author’s books or already own that author’s entire literary output and believe that s/he is the best thing to happen to literature since Homer first got the idea of telling the story of the Trojan war.
Hey, agents make a living from their clients’ royalties. You think they don’t mention their clients at conferences in the hope of stimulating some book sales?
“How long do you stick with a book you really love that’s not selling before you give up on it?” In many ways, this is the single most important thing to know about an agent with whom you’re considering signing — and it’s an agent-friendly question, because they almost invariably answer it by talking about a pet project that was hard to place, but eventually did get published.
Word to the wise: while it’s tempting to be impressed by the story about how the agent showed a particular manuscript to 43 editors before it got picked up, it’s worth asking the follow-up question, “Is that your regular practice, or did you especially love that book?” It’s not unheard-of for an established agent to recycle a single heroic incident from the very beginning of his career throughout a couple of decades’ worth of writers’ conference panels. Bear in mind that what he was willing to do for the best manuscript he had ever read back in 1982 isn’t necessarily indicative of how he might handle your book now.
“If I were looking to understand what a great first novel (or first book in your chosen category) would read like from an agent’s point of view, what books recently out would you suggest I read?” Another question that tends to be popular with panelists — because, trust me, no agent on earth is going to name a book that s/he DIDN’T represent.
“How is selling a first-time author’s book different from selling the work of someone more established?” They’ll like this question less, but it will give you a pretty good idea of who has sold a debut novel lately and who hasn’t.
“When you consider a submission, are you looking for a career-long relationship with that writer, or are you only thinking about the book in front of you? If you thinking in the long term, how often do you expect your clients to produce new books?” This last varies a lot, but in the last couple of years, many fiction agents have specifically been on the look-out for career writers, rather than those with only one great book in them. Asking panelists this question will let you know to whom to mention the other three manuscripts you have sitting in a drawer.
“How much feedback do you give your clients before you submit their manuscripts? Do you usually ask for a revision before you send a book out? How much do you like to get involved in the revision process?” Yes, this is an enormous, multi-part question, but the agents who never edit at all will usually say so immediately.
Translation: they don’t like to take on unpolished manuscripts, even if they have great market potential. Wouldn’t you prefer to know that before you submit, rather than after?
“Is there any kind of book you specifically do NOT want to hear pitched this weekend?” Hey, someone’s got to pull the pin on that grenade. Sometimes they will answer this question unsolicited, however, so do keep an ear out during the forum.
What was the last book you picked up from a conference pitch and why? What made that pitch stand out to you? The benefits of this question are twofold: it will enable agents to gush about clients whose books have not yet been released (always fun for them), and you might just glean a pitching tip or two.
Do be aware, however, that some agents will respond defensively to this type of question, disliking the implication that they might EVER sign a writer without having read the manuscript in question. The usual deflecting response: “Well, I don’t really judge by the pitch; it all depends upon the writing.”
The other reason this question can be a bit risky is — you are sitting down, I hope? — there are some agents who habitually attend conferences, but rarely pick up new clients. Perhaps they just like talking to writers, or maybe they just want a tax-deductible excuse to get out of town for a long weekend. For this reason, pay attention to which agents on the panel don’t volunteer to answer this question; you might want to do a little checking about how many first books those agents have sold within the last couple of years.
“I’ve been hearing that many of the big agencies employ submission screeners. How many other people need to read a submission before it will reach your desk, and what kinds of comments do you like to see from them?” It can be difficult to get an answer to this question, but it can reveal quite a lot about the unwritten rules of screening.
“What’s the worst query letter you ever got, and why?” This is a great question to ask if you’re not planning to do any hallway pitching, but only intend to query the attending agents after the conference. (Beginning your query, naturally, with the magic words, I so enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent XYZ conference…)
The responses are usually pretty colorful. Take good notes; every other aspiring writer you know will probably want to see them.
Do you have any automatic red flags for submissions? Any pet peeves we all should avoid? This will feel daring as it exits your mouth, but you are well within your rights to ask this one — and everyone in the room will bless you for it. Every agent has a different representation style, and you want to know about any pet peeves or preferences before you stick your pages under their respective noses, right?
Fair warning about the response to this one: it’s very, very common for agents to imply that their individual pet peeves are shared by every other agent currently treading the earth’s crust. Sometimes it’s true; sometimes it isn’t.
However, should you ever hear an agent mention a personal pet peeve on a panel, scour your work for that problem before you send that agent anything. If an agent makes the effort to warn you, s/he means it.
What about the editors’ forum, you ask? After all that, you’ll be pleased to hear that there is really only one question that someone absolutely needs to ask the attending editors — although most of the questions above will work in this context, too. Since most publishing houses now have policies forbidding their editors from picking up unagented work, everyone in the room will be happier in the long run if you just pluck the pin from the grenade:
“If you found a fabulous book here at the conference, may I ask which of you could sign the author directly, and which of you would have to refer her to an agent?”
Yes, it’s a bit in-your-face, but the fact is, all of the major US publishing houses currently have policies forbidding editors from signing unrepresented writers — a policy of which editors tend to assume that pitchers are already aware. So much so that editors new to conferences are sometimes surprised that writers want to pitch to them. Often, senior editors are at the conference merely to give classes, network, or make connections with the already-established authors that often hang out at their local conferences; they may only have agreed to participate in pitch meetings to fill the time in between. (Hey, some conferences are boring.)
Asking to know whether you’ll be pitching to someone who could act directly or not can help you streamline your pitching attempts. Generally speaking, an editor from a small publishing house is more likely to be able to say yes to a manuscript, but if, for instance, an editor at HarperCollins is given to perusing its online competitive submission site, asking about direct submissions will probably elicit that information.
These questions will also help you decide to whom to pitch on a more professional basis than whether the agent or editor struck you as a nice person whilst speaking on the dais. This is not the best criterion to use, and certainly not the best ONLY criterion to use, because:
(a) Most people are rather different when speaking to large groups than one-on-one, which is how a signed writer would be dealing with an agent. Thus, your first impression from twenty feet away might not be an accurate predictor of what it would be like to work with them.
(b) Agent and editor fora tend to be rather early in the morning, and folks in the arts are often not morning people. (See conclusion on previous point).
(c) The pro who comes across as nastiest may in fact just be trying to save writers some chagrin. Telling the hard truth from a podium is not usually a big audience-pleaser, but the truth about the publishing industry is what you paid to come to the conference to hear, right?
(d) The pro who just oozes affection for writers and good writing may not have the best track record for picking up clients.
Finding out more about these people’s personal tastes and professional interests is also just good manners — and this is an industry where manners do count, to a surprisingly great extent. From a more self-interested perspective, wouldn’t you rather learn in an impersonal forum that Agent A isn’t remotely interested in your kind of book than during a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting?
Of course you would. See why I was so adamant about your picking a book category?
Once you have figured out which agents and editors from small houses (again, all of the major US publishers currently have policies against picking up unagented authors) represent books in your category and like your type of voice (not always the same thing, in practice), try to get appointments with ALL of them. Standing by the appointment desk and listening for cancellations is a good way to do this; so is talking to other prospective pitchers, to see if anyone is looking to switch or was so discouraged by what he heard coming from the dais that he’d changed his mind about pitching at all.
Fair warning: both practices can annoy the volunteers manning the appointment desk, so do make sure to request, not demand. Also, many conferences lay down rules barring signing up for extra appointments (unless you pay for them). However, even at such conferences, the eager beaver who happens to be standing by the desk when someone cancels can sometimes nab the extra slot.
A great, great time to take your stand: immediately after the agents’ forum. Would-be pitchers who have just heard their assigned agents declare from the dais that the appointment was a mismatch are often overjoyed to switch appointments with someone else, or even just cancel their own.
If you can’t get appointments, try to pitch to your likely candidates in the hallways. Again, immediately after the agents’ forum is an opportune moment for this.
I felt your chest seize up, but please, don’t be afraid: you’re there to learn how to market your work better, and they are there to pick up new writers. You are not a second-class citizen begging the nobility for a favor, as so many first-time pitchers seem to think. You are trying to find the best collaborators for your writing career.
As Francis I of France put it: “The sun shines for me as for others. I should very much like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share of the world.”
You deserve to be heard. Don’t let ‘em intimidate you.
But if you do find yourself too intimidated to walk up to someone in the industry and gasp out your magic first hundred words, do not despair: that information you gathered at the agents and editors’ forum will still serve you well. After the conference, you can query all of them — or at least the ones on your narrowed-down list.
And do you know what I would do in your quivered-in shoes? (Hint: I mentioned it above.)
If you said, “By Jove, you would go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope or put it in the subject line an e-mailed query,” give yourself a gold star for the day.
Why is this a dandy idea? Because in most agencies, conference-goers are regarded as a bit savvier than the average querier; their queries, therefore, tend to be taken a bit more seriously AND read with greater attention. So it’s well worth your while.
Oh, and before I forget: make sure to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the envelope or place it in the subject line of your e-mail, for the reasons above. (Assuming, of course, that an agent or editor did indeed request those materials. Don’t scrawl it otherwise.)
But whatever you do, don’t be a silent wallflower at a writers’ conference. Take a few polite risks, and don’t be afraid to approach editors from smaller presses. The Brünnhilde who perpetually saves her voice for the final act has a hard time making a good first impression.
Sing out, Hildy. This could be your big break.
Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event — and then, I have a few treats in store for the long weekend. Keep up the good work!