What happens if they like it

Hello, readers —

My, I’ve been receiving a mountain of e-mails from your collective selves of late! It really seems to have hit home for a lot of you that conference season is now officially upon us. Summer is the time when serious writers’ minds should turn to marketing their work.

If you are still vacillating about whether to attend this summer’s PNWA conference, do bear in mind that if you can make a commitment by June 6th (that’s five days from now, according to my calendar), you will get $50 off the price of admission, and a whopping $100 off if you are a member. Regardless of whether you decide before or after next Tuesday, do take a gander at my write-ups about the agents scheduled to attend the conference (posts from April 26 — May 12; check the archives), as well as the editors (May 18 — 26), to help you decide whom to rank where in your conference choices.

At the risk of sounding like a tape recorder, do bear in mind that the information I have compiled on these fine people was gleaned from the standard industry databases and conference circuit talk, neither of which are noted for being 100% accurate. The main deals database, for instance, reflects the publishing world’s understanding of what a book is GOING to be, as of the point at which it is sold, not the book as it is when it is ultimately published. The deals lists are like book proposals that way: the originally projected image is not always identical to the eventual product.

I mention this not merely to give you a heads-up, but to admit that I was apparently misinformed about something I reported in my piece on agent {name removed at agent’s request; if you liked the books I am about to mention, I can only suggest that you contact the authors directly and ask who represented them.}I can only suggest that you c: I received a very nice e-mail the other day from his client Don Hoglund, DVM, author of the very interesting-sounding NOBODY’S HORSES (check out my post of May 9 for details), informing me that the coauthor listed in the deals database ultimately did not end up collaborating on the book! I’m making arrangements this very minute to change that tidbit in the archives, Dr. H, and thanks for bringing it to my attention.

The Mystery Agent’s clients seem to keep a very close eye on their web presences — which is an extremely smart thing for an author to do these days, now that the Internet has made every reader a prospective book reviewer — because I received a darling message from ANOTHER of his clients this morning. Bob Tarte, author of ENSLAVED BY DUCKS (certainly one of the best titles ever produced by human pen), mentioned in his courtly note that he had just finished final edits on his next book, FOWL WEATHER (another grand title), due out from Algonquin in the spring of 2007.

I was delighted by his timing, because this information provides a lovely and apt example of the post-signing timelines I was discussing yesterday: a LOT of time can pass between signing a contract and the book’s coming out, as all of you who have been following my memoir’s saga are no doubt already aware. If the databases are correct, Algonquin acquired FOWL WEATHER in February, 2005. Now, in June, 2006, the final edits have been completed, and it’s coming out next year. Just so you know, this is a fairly standard timeline — print queues are established months and months in advance of actual printing.

It just goes to show you: if you plan to see your work in print, expect something of a wait after each time you sign something major. It’s a long, long road, so do celebrate each milestone on the way to publication. (It also goes to show you, I suppose, that a nice little thank-you note to someone who mentions you online is never amiss. Your mother was right: good manners pay off. Incidentally, if you want to see a great example of an offbeat-but-professional writer’s bio, Mr. Tarte’s bio is quite an excellent example.

All right, enough about my past advice — on to the future. Since I was so full of grim realities yesterday, today I want to talk about what happens when an agent falls in love with a pitch at a conference.

We all know the fantasy version, right? Timid author creeps into meeting, clutching manuscript, blurts out a few halting sentences about the plot — and the agent climbs onto her chair, screaming at the top of her lungs, “At last, the book I have been seeking for my entire professional life!” She signs the author on the spot, of course, and the book is published before the end of the year. Career made!

Um, no.

I have very mixed feelings about the verbal pitching process, precisely because its immediacy does raise this kind of expectation — which, in turn, leaves good writers new to the game disappointed when they get an ordinary positive response. Verbal pitching by authors, as I have mentioned before, is not all that common in the publishing industry; it’s really the province of screenwriters and literary agents. This is a printed page-based industry, not one based on elocution, or even electronica, although increasingly, books are marketed via the latter two means. Still, most of the industry prefers the old-fashioned ways: the paper query, the printed-out manuscript, the rejection letter handled by someone in a postal uniform.

Which is why, incidentally, many agencies still do not accept e-mail queries: they simply prefer to deal in paper. Of those who do, most are either newer agencies, searching for younger, hipper authors, or more established agencies that suddenly became post-shy after that rash of anthrax threats a few years back.

There are pluses and minuses to dealing with agencies that accept e-mail queries. Undoubtedly, e-mail queries are more convenient and planet-friendly — but they are also far, far easier to reject. One keystroke, and your heartfelt plea is deleted. It actually takes someone licking an envelope to reject you the traditional way.

While I’m on the subject, do be wary of agents or editors who ask you to send significant parts of your manuscript electronically for their review. In the first place, the same ease of rejection applies as with e-mailed queries: the first word that displeases them, and they can hit the DELETE key. The second reason has greater long-term ramifications. Since forwarding e-mail is so easy, you have absolutely no way of knowing where your work will end up, and since copyright consists partially in controlling where and when your work is available to be read, e-mailing chapters is not particularly smart legally, at least until you already have a signed contract with those to whom you are sending it.

It is considered perfectly acceptable within the industry to respond to a request for an electronically-transmitted chapter with a polite note saying that you have just dropped a printed copy in the mail, along with a SASE. This is legitimate, even if you originally contacted the agent by e-mail.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. Let’s assume that you and your book made an exceptionally favorable impression on the agent sitting in front of you. What happens next? Well, 99% of the time, the agent will smile warmly and slide his business card across the tabletop toward you. “Send me the first chapter,” he will say. Or the first 50 pages. Or, sometimes, the whole book. “I’m pleased to have met you.” Then your meeting will end.

And you will rush home, read every syllable of those requested pages OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY (I hadn’t harped on THAT in awhile, had I?) to make sure that it is utterly error-free, in standard format, and charming to boot, and carry it to the post office. Make sure to include a SASE and a cover letter thanking the agent for his interest and reminding him both where he met you AND that he asked for the manuscript. Take the largest marking pen provided by the USPS and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of the envelope or box, too, so it does not languish in the unsolicited manuscript pile when it gets there.

Not nearly so dramatic as the fantasy version, is it?

And then you will wait while your submission makes its way through the levels of screeners at the agency (the agent is seldom the first reader). And in the summertime, that can take a while, but there is absolutely no way that any agent is going to pick up a book without having read it. Because, really, books are not sold to agents on the author’s ability to make a persuasive verbal pitch, no matter how good the premise. They are sold on the writing — and there are plenty of people out there who speak well but who cannot write. And vice versa.

See why I advised you a few days ago to have a writing sample in hand at your meeting? A well-constructed sentence is the lingua franca of the realm you are entering. Come to the meeting with your pockets fairly jingling with that kind of coin, as well as with a killer pitch on the tip of your tongue, and your follow-though will be as productive as your serve.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: For those of you PNWA contest entrants who have been wondering, the finalists will be notified by mail by June 15th, I’m told. So if you were holding off on early registration for the conference, pending learning whether your nametag would be graced with a rainbow-hued ribbon, you might want to reconsider your strategy.

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