What happens if they like it, Part II

Hello, readers —

Yesterday, I was talking about what really happens (as opposed to the pervasive fantasy about what happens) if an agent falls in love with your book at a conference. (For an explanation of what an editor from a major publishing house does in the same situation, see my post for May 22nd.) Contrary to popular belief, the pitch meeting is not generally where decisions to sign an author are made: it is merely the first step in an ongoing conversation.

However, by having that conversation, and being able to write REQUESTED MATERIALS — PNWA on the outside of your submission, your work will be able to skip several steps in the querying process. Which alone is worth the price of admission.

Incidentally, you do not need to have a meeting with or pitch to an agent who attends the conference in order to benefit from having seen him at the conference. Agents ADORE writers who attend conferences — in their eyes, it’s a mark of professionalism in a writer, a desire to learn the marketing side of the business. So if you see several agents whom you like at the agents’ forum, but feel too shy to buttonhole them for a quick pitch, go ahead and query them right after the conference, mentioning in the FIRST LINE of your query letter that you enjoyed hearing them speak at PNWA. This will assure that your submission goes into the savvy conference-goers pile, rather than in the pile with the other 99% of the week’s submissions.

One caveat, however: NEVER write REQUESTED MATERIALS on an envelope addressed to an agent or editor UNLESS the recipient has actually asked you to send the material. True, agents are often so swamped at conferences, particularly big ones like PNWA, that they will not necessarily remember every pitch they heard, or even every pitch they liked, by the time they get back to their offices, but it’s NEVER a good idea to start a new relationship on a lie.

Which makes it very much to your advantage to approach as many agents in your area as possible at the conference. It’s been my experience that an agent caught after a class, on the dais after the forum, or even in the hallway is marginally MORE likely to hand a business card to a writer than an agent seated comfortably, hearing several hours of pitches in a row. In the pitch meetings, your pitch is being measured against the other 15-minute meetings, where there is quite a bit of time to consider the book concept — and sometimes reject it. The more they can winnow submissions at that point, the less work for them and their staffs after the conference.

But when an agent’s in motion, her instinct is usually to get through the interaction quickly — and what’s the quickest way for an agent to part with an aspiring writer on friendly terms? Why, to hand the writer a business card and say, “Why don’t you send me the first chapter?” It’s a win-win situation.

Yes, yes, I know — we would all prefer that the agent of our dreams fall in love with our book on the spot, so it seems almost underhanded to use an agent’s overbooked schedule as a means to obtain a reading. But to be brutally honest, the 30 seconds or minute you take of the agent’s time in the hallway is approximately the same amount of time the screeners at her agency spend on reading the average unsolicited query letter — shocking, isn’t it? — and that informal in-person meeting is statistically far more likely to result in your being asked to send manuscript pages than would the same book pitched the same way in a query letter.

As long as you’re polite, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with using the hallway pitch to get your work read. Try to avoid buttonholing agents who are obviously rushing into the bathroom, of course, or juggling a food plate and a drink in a buffet line, and always ask if this is a good time. If they say no, ask when would be a better time — or would they prefer it if you just sent the first chapter? To an agent trying to help himself to his third bowl of pasta salad, the latter option might seem just dandy.

Seeing a pattern here?

It’s always nice to begin a buttonhole pitch with a specific compliment: “I know that you must be swamped this weekend, but I just loved what you said in the agents’ forum about X. I couldn’t get an appointment with you, but would you mind giving me a couple of minutes, to hear about my book, either now or after you finish your dessert?” Be profuse in your thanks, regardless of whether they say yes or no, and then leave immediately. (This last part is essential, to avoid giving the impression of being a stalker. Oh, and perhaps this goes without saying, but to prevent any possible confusion: DON’T STALK THESE PEOPLE. Approach them only in the well-lit, well-populated areas of the conference, and with respect.)

Think about the interaction I’ve just described from the agent’s POV. It’s kind of flattering, isn’t it? People LOVE to be told that they made a good point in a speech, as long as the compliment is sincere — almost everybody has some fears associated with public speaking, even people who speak in public regularly.

I hear some of you out there grumbling: if it’s that easy to charm an agent, why isn’t it possible to charm one so much that he will want to grab the manuscript now and read it on the airplane home? Or in his hotel room, so he can sign me before another agent at the conference snatches me up?

The airplane question has a very, very simple answer: because manuscripts are heavy. Ever tote more than one 400-page manuscript in your shoulder bag? Agents have. They know better than to add three or four more to their carry-on luggage. Far, far better to allow the stalwart shoulders of the USPS to bear the burden.

As for an agent’s reading the book in his hotel room… well, perhaps my view on this is colored by the fact that I have been attending literary conferences since I was very young and VERY cute, but in my experience, agents and editors who use the phrase “in my hotel room” have not usually been talking about literature at the time. (For the benefit of those of you who are new to the conference scene, or just very young and very cute, there is NO legitimate book-related reason that a writer would need to visit an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry in his hotel room at a conference. Nothing you could possibly do there, other than lock him outside until you write a brilliant novel from beginning to end, will help you get published. If anyone at any writers’ conference ever tells you otherwise, walk away as fast as you can.)

The only exception I have ever encountered on the conference circuit was an eager-beaver agent who practically assaulted the winner of the night’s literary biggest prize immediately after it was awarded, demanding to see the book that instant. The nonplused writer rushed home (thank goodness she was local), printed out a copy, and rushed back to deliver it. The agent did in fact read the first chapter that night, gushed over it the next day — and then took it back to Los Angeles, where she took three weeks to read it.

In the end, from the writer’s POV, despite all of that nocturnal running around, the eager-beaver agent ended up doing precisely what most of the other agents at the conference did, reading the book after she got back home. So, in the long run, what was the difference between merely asking the author to mail her the book, and demanding it on the spot, other than inconveniencing the writer?

There endeth today’s lesson. For those of you who are planning to attend the conference: yes, the conference is not until July, but remember, registration is $50 cheaper if your form is postmarked by June 6th.

And yes, I’m going to repeat this, to the boredom of those of you who have been reading through the whole series: if you are looking for information about the agents and editors coming to the conference, so you can choose your appointment preferences wisely, check out my posts about the scheduled attendees, April 26 — May 12 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

If I seem to be harping on the contest in general and registration deadlines in particular, it is because I would like to meet as many of my readers as possible at the conference — yes, I will be there, well marked with a nametag and eager to answer people’s questions. I’m going to be running a pitch practicing booth, where you can get feedback on your pitch BEFORE you give it to an agent or an editor, so come on by and say hello.

And had I mentioned: on June 24th, I’m teaching a PNWA Writing Connections class (translation: free) on how to polish your pitch for the conference. Advance preparation REALLY pays off when you’re sitting face-to-face with an agent, so do try to attend, if you can.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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