Pitchingpalooza, part XVII: there are boundaries, and there are BOUNDARIES

oath-of-the-horatii

Before I launch into Pitchingpalooza’s much-anticipated step-by-step guide to approaching a real, live agent to ask if you may pitch without an appointment, would everyone please stand and salute? Today may not be a national holiday in the country at large, but here at Author! Author!, it could hardly be more important.

As of today, I have been writing this blog for six years. That’s 1,442 posts, about 5,000 questions, and so many thousands of pages of text that I actually don’t have time right now to sit down and tote them up.

The publishing world has changed quite a bit over that period, has it not? Back when we first began confabbing about the life literary, aspiring writers would complain about the necessity of promote their work to agents; published writers would grumble about the imperative to show up for readings and book signings scheduled by their publishing houses. Pretty much everyone on the writing side of the equation was vaguely disgruntled about having to put in that level of effort, or at least the fact that a first-time author’s advance no longer enabled her to take any serious time off work to make requested revisions. One might, if one was lucky, be able to purchase a used car, but unless one happened to toss off a surprise bestseller, small-but-serious authors often did not quit their day jobs until their fourth or fifth book was doing rather well.

At the time, we writers liked to get together and bemoan how much harder it was to get published and have one’s books sell well than it had been a dozen years before. Those concerns seem almost quaint now, don’t they?

In the interim, we’ve all watched in hushed anticipation as the publishing industry has been declared dead, not just once, but over and over again. Not since the advent of television had so many prophesied so much literary doom so often. Forget the fact that used book sales actually went up during this period, e-books have taken off, U.S. self-publishing releases have risen to three times the annual rate of traditional publishing (which, contrary to popular opinion, has hovered around a quarter of a million releases per year), and the increase in library patronage has almost exactly matched the decline in the new book sales market. As of 2008, we were all told, the world simply stopped reading.

Poppycock. If you look at even new book sales in the U.S. today, they are up in every major category. The book market is expanding. People haven’t stopped reading, bless their literature-loving hearts; they are simply doing it in different venues and in different formats.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re necessarily going to see a reversal in all or even any of the shifts in how writers are expected to relate to their books. Now, aspiring writer not only need to market themselves in an ever-more-competitive agent-seeking market, but first-time authors also frequently end up as their books’ primary pusher to the reading public at large. It’s common for an editor to tell the author of a newly-acquired to ramp up her web presence on her own, and pronto; authors often schedule their own book signings, as budgets for book tours have dried up. This, at a juncture when the average advance on a first novel often is not enough to purchase a new laptop upon which to write the second.

As editing staffs at the major publishers have dwindled, it has become commonplace for the acquiring editor not to follow the book all the way through publication, and for the new sheriff in town to want to take the book in a different direction; I’m constantly hearing from authors flabbergasted at learning that their book has just fallen into the hands of its fourth or fifth editor. Editorial staffs are more crunched for time, too, as are agencies. In the face of less hands-on support and greater competition for readers’ attention, many authors now chooses to bring in book docs like me to help whip their manuscripts into shape before plopping them into the print queue.

And because we writers are so devoted to seeing our words in print, as a group, we have done all of this largely without complaining (well, at least in front of company), during a period when we have seen advances for celebrity memoir and established bestselling novelists skyrocket, but advances for first novels drop precipitously. It’s not our imagination; it genuinely is harder than it used to be, by quite a bit.

Yet if the members of the Author! Author! community have groused about anything, it has tended to be about manners. And who could blame you? Six years ago, most first-time submitters considered it rude if their submissions were rejected by form letters at the end of two-month reading periods. I used to field incredulous comments from writers who had not yet heard back a couple of weeks after sending out queries. Three weeks used to be standard for exclusives.

Today, we barely blink at agency websites that announce up front that they will not respond at all to queries if the answer is no. Six- to eight-month turn-around times are the norm now, even if the writer grants an exclusive, and it’s not unheard-of for a writer to be left wondering nine or ten months after sending off requested materials if the manuscript is still being considered, has been rejected without notice (as is increasingly common), or just didn’t arrive in the first place.

These have been a hard six years to be a writer, but still, I have tried to remain upbeat through it all. There have been times — and now that they are behind me, I can admit this with impunity — when ambient conditions have been so bad that I have felt a trifle guilty for continuing to be your practical-minded cheerleader, urging you to keep moving forward down the path to publication. There have been weeks when I simply couldn’t bring myself to look at the lists of new book acquisitions, because I knew I would find so few first-time authors there. I had moments, days, and even months when, as I boldly answered questions about whether it is okay to contact an agent who has had your manuscript for four months to ask what’s going on (it isn’t) or whether a writer can submit adult fiction to the major publishing houses directly (you can’t) or whether it was still possible to land a first novel that didn’t include a supernatural element (it has always been, but sometimes just barely), I wondered bleakly if I should be advising you instead to rush out and become a celebrity in another field, so that you could get a book published in your chosen one.

And let’s not even talk about the many, many dark nights of the soul where I bearded heaven with my bootless cries of, “Why do I seem to be the only writing guru talking about standard format, when there actually is only one way to present a manuscript properly to a U.S. agent? And why are my mother and I apparently the only people in the nation who still wince when writers mix up farther and further, much less to, too, and two?” It’s important to have standards: surely, I felt, there must still be at least a small cadre of us who believe that the distinction between imply and infer should be recognized and maintained by all right-thinking people, even though it’s difficult even to remember now the literary outrage in the 1980s when newscasters first began using impact as a verb.

When did feeling this way stop being the norm amongst writers? I did not start out with ambitions to be a literary radical. But now that I’ve been besmirched (or honored, depending upon how one chooses to look at it) with the moniker, there’s something else I’ve been dying to get off my chest: real vampires do not sparkle.

Under any circumstances, really. Refraction requires the ability to reflect light, so a beastie who cannot admire himself in a mirror will in all probability have a hard time bouncing those light particles back at easily-dazzled virgins. Especially if he is prone to bursting into flames the instant a stray shaft of sunlight hits him.

I’m just saying. If a writer decides to present the world with a physically-limited being, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that writer to respect those boundaries.

These have indeed been trying times to be literate. Let’s hear it for all of us for hanging in there, scrambling to bolster the printed page’s apparently crumbling plaster ceiling while the same types of Chicken Littles who had placed the written word on the critical list sometime in the middle of the Boer War have run around screaming that the entire building is about to crash to the street. But people are still reading. And good writers are still producing great books.

I like to think that we here at Author! Author! have done our small part in perpetuating that. Three cheers for persistence!

That’s enough frivolity for one day, I think. Let’s get back to work.

This pitch-preparing series been a long road, hasn’t it? And not an easy one: I’ve been blithely asking each and every one of you to knuckle down and take your own work seriously enough to learn to talk about it in the language of the publishing industry. I’m aware that it’s been hard, intensive work, both time- and emotion-consuming.

But trust me: all of this effort will feel very worthwhile indeed ten minutes before your first scheduled pitch meeting. Or thirty-two seconds into your first hallway pitch.

Feeling positively faint at the prospect of the either, particularly the latter? Don’t worry; more timorous souls than you have braved the hallway pitch and survived it. Oh, they may not have enjoyed it while it was going on, but I’ve never yet had a pitching student keel over at the moment of truth.

Honest. I wouldn’t put you through the pain of creating an elevator speech unless I were very confident that you’d actually be able to put it to some use.

And yet, I feel as though I have been discussing elevator speeches — those 3-4 line gambits for use in informal pitching situations, as opposed to the 2-minute pitch reserved for formal appointments and other actual sit-down conversations — so intensely over the past few post that I may be inducing a phobia of lifts in my readers. (Not the shoes, the elevators.)

So I’m going to take out my magic wand and relieve you of a bit of that tension.

glinda-the-goodAs of this moment, you have my permission to get into an elevator with an agent or editor without pitching, if you so desire. Live long and prosper.

Feel better? Good. In return, I am going to ask something else of you. Here and now, raise your dominant writing hand (or both of ‘em, if you work primarily on a keyboard) and repeat after me:

johnson-taking-the-oath-of-officeI hereby solemnly swear that I shall not have learned the magic first hundred words and elevator speech in vain. The next time I attend a writers’ conference, I will pitch to at least three agents or editors with whom I do not have a previously-scheduled appointment.

I’m going to hold you to that, you know. Oh, and you can put your hand(s) down now.

Why did I foist such a dreadful oath upon you? Because I know from experience that the only thing better than walking out of a conference with a request to send pages to an agent you like is walking out with 5 requests to send pages to agents you like.

Is that not a good enough reason for some of you? Okay, here’s an even better one: I’ve heard from no less than seven members of the Author! Author! community that at a certain local literary conference that shall remain nameless, every single available agent appointment was booked. That meant that those attendees who were mistakenly assigned to meet with agents who did not represent their book categories were simply out of luck.

Too bad; come back next year and try again. You weren’t in a hurry to find an agent for your work or anything, were you?

In instances like this, the only other alternative is hallway pitching. So even if you think that you will never, ever, EVER be able to work up the nerve to buttonhole the agent of your dreams outside of a pre-arranged meeting, I strongly recommend coming up with a plausible hallway pitch.

You just never know when you’re going to need it, do you? But even if you never (knock on wood) find yourself in the unenviable position of not being able to pitch formally at a conference whose main selling point is pitching appointments, a savvy writer honestly does need to be aware of her own book’s selling points and how to market them.

Why, you ask? Well, in this economy and the current publishing market — see above — it’s actually not all that astonishing that the Conference That Shall Remain Nameless’ appointments sold out. Writing a book is a LOT of people’s Plan B, after all. Predictably, that fact translates into higher writers’ conference attendance in slow economic times, a greater volume of queries and submissions arriving at well-established agencies, and, ultimately, significantly heightened competition for both agents and publishing contracts.

Sorry to depress you, but one of the reasons you keep visiting Author! Author! because you know I won’t whitewash the truth just because it’s unattractive, right?

So let’s take arms against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, shall we? Let’s talk about how to instigate a hallway pitch.

I just felt you tense up, but relax. You already have in your writer’s tool bag all of the elements you need for a successful hallway pitch — or, indeed, an informal pitch in virtually any social situation.

Did that one creep up on you? I swear, it’s true:

singing-in-the-rainMAGIC FIRST 100 WORDS + ELEVATOR SPEECH = HALLWAY PITCH.

Ta da! It honestly is that simple.

You thought I was talking at random when I made you promise that at the next conference you attended, you would pitch to at least three agents or editors with whom you do NOT have a pre-arranged appointment, didn’t you? Well, gotcha: I already knew that you the skills to do it.

How did I know? Well, we’ve been working hard for weeks on your toolkit. We’ve gone over how to narrow down your book’s category, identify your target market, as well as coming up with graceful ways of letting an agent know how big that audience might be, brainstorm selling points for your book,) and a platform for you, and construct a snappy keynote statement. We’ve seen how to introduce ourselves and our work with the magic first 100 words, as well as how to tease the premise with the elevator speech. Not only that, but we’ve also wrested some of the most basic fears most writers harbor about pitching out from under that space under the bed that they share with the bogeyman and dealt with ‘em as they came up.

So you have all of the requisite tools. All that you need to add to that mix is the guts to walk up to an agent who represents your type of book, smile, and begin:

salesman

“Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).” Wait for encouraging look, nod, or ask if it’s okay to continue. “(ELEVATOR SPEECH).”

I’m not saying that working up the guts to do this is easy; it certainly isn’t, especially the first time. But if you watch the flow of bodies at conferences, as I do, you will notice something: except for when the agents and editors are in assigned locations — on a dais, teaching a class, in pitching appointments — or socializing amongst themselves, they have two states of social being: swamped and alone.

With virtually no significant chunk of time that cannot legitimately be categorized as one or the other.

Sit in a corner and watch — you’ll see that I’m right. In social situations, there will always be many, many more writers giving an agent or editor a wide berth, in order to avoid the possibility of having to give a hallway pitch, than walking up and saying hello. For this reason, it’s often easier than one might think to engage an agent or editor’s attention at a conference.

Especially if the people in question happen to smoke. At any literary shindig thrown within the continental United States, the designated smokers’ area outside the hotel or conference center will be positively swarming with agents looking for a light. Be there to offer it to them, strike up a conversation along with the match — and then, after a discreet interval, ask if they would be willing to spare a moment or two to hear your 30-second pitch.

As with any alone-phase approach, the key is to be unobtrusive and polite. Ask before you pitch, and always give the agent the opportunity to say she’s too tired or busy to hear a pitch right now. You can always offer to meet her later in the conference, if another time is better for her.

Your mother was right, you know: good manners are the best calling card.

Don’t be shy; you’re prepared for this now. Just walk right up to ‘em. Remember, they come to the conference in order to meet writers — writers, in fact, provide their bread and butter on a daily basis.

Actually, it’s not uncommon for an agent or editor not to know anyone at a conference, other than other agents and editors. If the agent of your dreams is standing alone, waiting for his turn in the coffee line, he may not mind at all if you introduce yourself. He might, believe it or not, actually be grateful.

(He will mind, however, if you pursue this line of logic in the bathroom, the swimming pool, the sauna, the shower in the hotel’s gym, or anyplace else that finding oneself barricaded in a small space with a stranger might be a tad, well, uncomfortable. Trust me on this one; there’s a fine line between persistent and creepy.)

Public venues are safer: hallways, seminar rooms, and banquet halls, especially just after the keynote speaker has signed off for the night. Agents tend to get swamped in those places, true, but at least you don’t need to worry about whether you’re imposing.

Another fringe benefit to choosing one of the more conventional venues: the approach is typically easier. Heck, if you choose to walk up to an agent immediately after the agents’ forum, you may even be able to stand in line with other would-be informal pitchers. In fact, if it’s your first time giving a hallway pitch, I would recommend going and standing in one of those let-me-talk-to-you line.

That way, you can watch others in action before you jump in yourself.

Where would I recommend you try after that? Moments when a formal presentation is giving way to whatever is scheduled next tend to be rife with informal pitching opportunities. Between the morning’s last seminar and the rubber chicken luncheon, for instance, or immediately after the dinner’s speaker has reclaimed her seat. Or during the break in a seminar the agent happens to be teaching, just before it starts or right after it ends.

Another popular choice: remember that bar I keep mentioning, the one that is reliably a hundred yards or less from any writers’ conference? Guess where the pros — agents, editors, authors in town to promote their books, local authors seeking companionship amongst their own kind, vampires savvy enough to realize that if they want to talk literature, it would behoove them to track down those who love to chat about it late into the night — tend to hang out in their spare moments?

Suppose that’s a good place to find pitching prospects?

One very important caveat about bar or party pitching: if an agent or editor is already engrossed in social conversation in said bar, it is considered a trifle rude to interrupt that conversation so you can give your hallway pitch. The accepted method is to act as though this were any other party, introducing yourself and chatting until someone asks you, “So, Georgette, what do you write?”

Yes, that IS the invitation you think it is. Grab it.

Don’t equivocate, as so many aspiring writers do, by sighing and giving an evasive or 20-minute answer. Instead, smile and answer like the professional writer that you are:

mr-smith-goes-to-washington

“I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE). Would you like to hear more? Yes? (ELEVATOR SPEECH).”

After you have said all this, though, both etiquette and strategy dictate that you do one thing more. Chant it with me now, campers: stop talking.

Most hallway pitchers — at least, the ones who muster the nerve to go through with it — get so excited that they have absolutely no idea when to shut up. Don’t let nervousness prompt you to keep chattering. This is a social situation, after all, not a pitch appointment: if the agent or editor who asked what you write is intrigued, trust me, she’ll ask you to continue. Or, if you really hit the pitch out of the park, she’ll hand you a card and ask you to send pages.

If she does neither, don’t push. Treat it like any other business interaction that hasn’t gone as you would like: smile, thank the agent for her time, and retreat.

The same rules apply to the bar and the smokers’ area, by the way. These are public spaces, true, but they are also designated as relaxation places, rather than places of business. If the agent of your dreams is disinclined to shop talk, you are honor-bound to honor that preference. (Oh, and if you plan to pitch in the bar, keeping the refreshments light on the alcohol is an excellent idea. I usually settle for club soda and lime — the better to keep my wits about me, my dear.)

Regardless of the locale you pick for your informal speech, stick to the script. That way, you will know for a fact that you’re not rambling on endlessly.

I’m not kidding about this. Other than serving as a reliable, professional-sounding introduction for yourself and your work, this formula for a hallway pitch has another benefit: if you put it together properly, you will not have to waste precious seconds of informal pitching time checking your watch.

The hallway pitch is self-timing, you see. With advance preparation and practice, you should be able to say all of it comprehensibly within 30 – 45 seconds, certainly a short enough time that you need not feel guilty about turning to the agent next to you in the dinner line, or walking up to her after that interminable class on nonfiction proposals, and asking if she can spare a minute to hear your pitch.

To set your conscience at ease, we’re not talking about a big imposition here: if you follow the guidelines above, you will be taking up less than a minute of her time. So you may feel professional, not intrusive, by giving your hallway pitch immediately after saying, “Please pass the rolls.”

I had I mentioned that you should always ask first to make sure it’s okay, right?

Oh, and because hallway pitches are almost invariably delivered standing, do me a favor: just before you start speaking, bend your knees a little. No need to do a deep, ballerina-style plié; just soften those joints. Pitching with locked knees can make a person get light-headed. Which means that she can faint.

Don’t think about it too much; it will only give you nightmares. As should a vampire that sparkles, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

The hallway pitch and its constituent parts are tools of the trade, nothing more. It’s up to you to use them effectively and appropriately. How? Well, as many benefits as a pre-prepared hallway pitch offers for interacting with agents and editors, the elevator speech also gives you a concise, professional follow-up after ANYONE you meet at a conference responds to your magic first hundred words with, “Wow. Tell me more.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Don’t be afraid to give your hallway speech to other writers at the conference — it’s great practice, and it is absolutely the best way imaginable to meet other people who write what you do.

Other than starting a blog, of course. Conservatively, I’d estimate that in the last six years, it’s been the medium of my meeting in the neighborhood of 15,000 writers at various stages of their careers. Not reaching that many readers, mind you — my statistics have been stronger than that — but making actual personal connections.

Top that, sparkle boy.

The elevator speech has other uses as well. It makes a stellar describe-your-book paragraph in your query letter. There, too, you will be incorporating the elements of the magic first hundred words — minus the “Hi, my name is” part, they make a terrific opening paragraph for a query.

We have, in short, been pulling together a complex set of implements for your writer’s tool bag. A hammer is not going to be the right tool for a job that requires a screwdriver, but that doesn’t mean that a hammer doesn’t have a heck of a lot of uses.

All of which is a nice way of saying: while you might not want to give everyone you see at a conference a 5-minute pitch, you could conceivably work the magic first hundred words into any conversation. But now that you have the tools to make a hallway pitch, get out there and do it!

But let the agent finish her drink, for heaven’s sake. She’s only just gotten rid of that pesky vampire.

Happy sixth anniversary, campers, and keep up the good work!

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