Post-conference etiquette

Many of you are no doubt busy prepping your work to send out to agents and editors that you met at PNWA, or perhaps are gearing up for a second round, or working up nerve to send out queries before the end of the summer, so I thought it would be a good time to pass along some do’s and don’ts for presenting requested material. This may be old hat to some of you, but this is precisely the sort of wisdom that tends to be passed only by word of mouth amongst writers.

DO write REQUESTED MATERIALS — PNWA in big, thick pen strokes on the outside of the envelope. As you probably know, agents and editors receive literally hundreds of missives from aspiring writers per week. If they asked for your work, it belongs in a different pile from the 500 unsolicited manuscripts and 1500 query letters.

DON’T write REQUESTED MATERIALS if they did not actually request your work. Instead, write PNWA with the same big, fat pen on the outside of the envelope, so they know you’ve been professional enough to attend a conference and have heard them speak.

DO write PNWA – FINALIST/PLACE WINNER (CATEGORY) on the outside of the envelope if you did get honored in the contest. Both the fiction winner and I (the NF winner) did this in 2004, and every single agent thanked us for it. It kept our work from getting lost in the piles.

DON’T send more material than the agent/editor asked to see. (A big pet peeve for a lot of ‘em.) This is not like a college application, where sending brownies, an accompanying video, or a purple envelope could get you noticed amongst the multitudes: to NYC-based agents and editors, wacky tends to equal unprofessional —- the last label you want affixed to your work. And don’t spend the money to overnight it; it will not get your work read any faster.

DO send a polite cover letter with your submission. It’s a good chance to show that you can maintain appropriate boundaries, and that you are professionally seasoned enough to realize that even a very enthusiastic conversation at a conference does not mean you’ve established an intimate personal relationship with an agent or editor.

DON’T quote other people’s opinions about your work in the query letter, unless those people happen to be well-known writers. If David Sedaris has said in writing that you’re the funniest writer since, well, him, feel free to mention that, but if your best friend from work called your novel “the funniest book since CATCH-22,” trust me, it will not impress the agent.

DO mention in the FIRST LINE of your cover letter either (a) that the agent/editor asked at PNWA to see your work (adding a thank-you here is a nice touch) or (b) that you heard the agent/editor speak at PNWA. Again, this helps separate your work from the unsolicited stuff.

DON’T assume that the agent will recall the conversation you had with her about your work. Remember, they meet scores of writers at each conference: you may not spring to mind immediately. If you had met 468 people who all wanted you to read their work over the course of three days, names and titles might start to blur for you, too.

DO mention in your cover letter if the agent/editor asked for an exclusive look at your work. If an agent or editor asked for an exclusive, politely set a time limit, say, three weeks or a month. Don’t worry that setting limits will offend them: this is a standard, professional thing to do. That way, if you haven’t heard back by your stated deadline, you can perfectly legitimately send out simultaneous submissions.

DON’T give any agent or editor an exclusive if they didn’t ask for it – and DON’T feel that you have to limit yourself to querying only one agent at a time. I’ve heard rumors at every conference that I have ever attended that agents always get angry about multiple submissions, but truthfully, I’ve only ever heard ONE story about an agent’s throwing a tantrum about it – and that only because she hadn’t realized she was competing with another agent for this particular book.

Your time is valuable. Check a reliable agents’ guide to make sure that none of the folks you are dealing with demand exclusives (it’s actually pretty rare), and if not, go ahead and send out your work to as many agents and editors who asked to see it.

DO consider querying agents and editors with whom you did not have a meeting at the conference – and tell them that you heard them speak at PNWA. Just because you couldn’t get an appointment with the perfect person at the conference doesn’t mean that the writing gods have decreed that s/he should never see your work.

DON’T call to make sure the agent received your work. This is another common agenting pet peeve: writers who do it tend to get labeled as difficult almost immediately, whereas you want to impress everyone at the agency as a clean-cut, hard-working kid ready to hit the big time.

If you are very nervous about your work going astray, send your submission with delivery confirmation or enclosed a stamped, self-addressed postcard that they can mail when they receive your package. Don’t call.

DO send an appropriate SASE for the return of your manuscript – with stamps, not metered postage. I always like to include an additional business-size envelope as well, so they can request further pages with ease. Again, you’re trying to demonstrate that you are going to be a breeze to work with if they sign you.

DON’T just ask them to recycle the manuscript if they don’t want it. There are many NYC offices where this will seem like a bizarre request, bordering on Druidism.

DO make sure that your manuscript is in standard format: at least 1-inch margins, double-spaced, every page numbered, everything in the same 12-point typeface. (Most writing professionals use Times, Times New Roman, or Courier; screenwriters use exclusively Courier. And yes, there ARE agents and editors who will not read non-standard typefaces. Don’t tempt them to toss your work aside.)

If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal, send it in a nice black or dark blue file folder. This is not the time to bring out your hot pink polka-dotted stationary and tuck it into a folder that looks like something that flew out of out of Jerry Garcia’s closet. Think of it as a job interview: a black or blue suit is not going to offend anyone; make your work look as professional as you are.

DON’T forget to spell-check AND proofread in hard copy, not only the manuscript, but also your cover letter. Computerized spelling and grammar checkers are notoriously unreliable, so do double-check. When in doubt, have a writing buddy or a professional proof it all for you.

DO give them time to read your work – and invest that time in getting your next flight of queries ready, not in calling them every day.

DON’T panic if you don’t hear back right away, especially if you sent out your work in late July or August. A HUGE percentage of the publishing industry goes on vacation between August 1 and Labor Day, so the few who stick around are overworked. Cut them some slack, and be patient.

DO remember to be pleased that a real, live agent or editor liked your pitch well enough to ask for your work! Well done!

DON’T be too upset if your dream agent or editor turns out not to be interested in your project, and don’t write that person off permanently; s/he may be wild about your next. Keep your work moving, rather than letting it sit in a drawer. Yes, it’s hard emotional work to keep sending out queries, but you can’t get discovered if you don’t try.

DO take seriously any thoughtful feedback you receive. As you may already know, boilerplate rejection letters are now the norm. If an agent or editor has taken the time to hand-write a note on a form letter or to write you a personalized rejection, you should take this as a positive sign – they don’t do that for everybody. Treasure your rave rejections, and learn from them.

Yes, waiting to be discovered is hard – but in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Who am I, and how did I get here?

I am PNWA member Anne Mini, and I am going to be hanging out on this site to answer your questions about the writing life and the publication world for the foreseeable future.

When the PNWA approached me to start blogging here, I was a bit nonplused. Yes, I won the Zola Award in 2004 for Nonfiction Book/Memoir; yes, I signed with an agent I met at PNWA within a few months afterward; yes, my memoir sold to a publisher before the next PNWA conference. Yes, my learning curve for the past year has been rollercoaster-like. But wouldn’t they prefer to have an industry insider hold this spot?

Then I started to think about how different the post-signing process has been than what I expected, about all of the million little things I wish someone had warned me about in advance.

To tell you the truth, I was a bit shell-shocked at first, despite the fact that I came into the marketing and sale process much better prepared than most first-time authors. I run a small freelance editing business, so I have held a lot of authors’ hands through the rigors of being compressed into print. I have seen novels totally rewritten five times over in accordance with the whims of editorial hirings and firings; I have seen academics’ bids for mainstream NF recognition misdirected by marketing departments who apparently had no idea what their books were about; I have seen time after time good books scuttled by bad titles that editors swore would make the difference between indifferent sales and the bestseller list. I thought I was prepared for what might happen to me.

Ha.

In the slightly more than a year since I won the contest, I have signed with an firecracker of an agent who apparently sold my memoir as she was being wheeled into the maternity ward; wrote, rewrote, and re-rewrote a NF book proposal, discovered that advances and contracts are not always the pleasant, straightforward arrangements that we authors would like them to be, had my title changed thrice, and been threatened with a lawsuit if I published my book at all.

I have, in short, learned a lot very fast.

I am glad to be able to share my experiences with my fellow PNWA members, to show you the mistakes I made (so you may avoid them) and generally learn the lay of the land. Feel free to ask me anything about the agent-finding process, query letters, conferences, residencies, editors, or the publication process as far as I’ve gotten into it.

I may not always know the answer, but when I do, I’ll tell you the truth – and when I don’t, I usually know whom to ask. Standard disclaimers about all of this being my opinion and in no way a guarantee of future success if you take my advice.

So fire away. I’m here to help, so don’t be shy about sending in questions, whether they have to do with my subject du jour or not. I’ll just keep yammering away until I hear from you.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini