Knowing your pitchee

Hello, readers —

I was felled with a migraine yesterday, so I am a day later than planned getting started on my series on pitching. But computer screens and dark rooms do not mix well, alas.

Before I get started, a word or two to the many readers new to this blog who have been writing in (or thinking very, very loudly) suggesting rather forcefully that that the blog’s archives would be easier to use if they were searchable or organized by category, rather than date. Well, yes, that is true — and if anybody out there is willing to donate the many, many hours it would take to make the archives subject-searchable, please write in, and I shall connect you with a very grateful volunteer coordinator.

Yes, it is a little hard to find specific topics in the archives, and I’m sorry if you find it inconvenient. A blog, however, is not a reference book, by definition, but an ongoing document with frequent additions over time. At some point, I probably shall organize all of this into a book, with a chapter on each major topic. But then, you would be paying for my words of wisdom, and would have a clear right to be annoyed if it were hard to find what you wanted, right?

Here, however, I am limited by the constraints of the blog form, and the fact that the PNWA is a volunteer-run organization. Again, if any of you out there have the expertise to make the archives easily searchable, and would like to volunteer your time… And to the guy who was really, really rude about it recently: why would you WANT to take writing advice from a female dog?

I am not merely writing about archive organization in order to blow off steam: my first piece of advice on pitching may well send some of you scurrying to the archives, specifically those for April 26 — May 17 (my write-ups on the agents who will be attending this summer’s PNWA conference) and May 18 — 26 (the editors). For the advice in question is this:

Whenever possible, be familiar with the work of the person to whom you are pitching.

Why? Well, there are several reasons that it is in your best interest to do a bit of research before you pitch. First, it ensures that you are pitching to someone who does in fact handle your type of book. As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: they will stop you as soon as they figure out that your book is categorically not for them. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea.

And, as it happens, I have already done quite a bit of research for you: in the aforementioned blog posts, I have gone over what the standard professional databases say these agents and editors have sold and bought over the last three years. (And when’s the last time any dog, female or male, did something like THAT for you, Mr. Smarty-Pants?) As my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. Check first.

However, sometimes agents and editors’ preferences switch rather abruptly: it is not at all uncommon, for instance, for an agent whose sister has just had a baby suddenly to be interested in parenting books. Or for an editor who has just been mugged to stop wanting to read true crime. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you end up pitching to someone who is categorically disinclined to listen — which more or less guarantees rejection.

What should you do if you end up in an inappropriate meeting?

Yes, you will be disappointed, but I can absolutely guarantee that an hour after the meeting, you will be significantly happier if you didn’t just sit there, being miserable. Remember that you are at the conference not merely to make contacts with people in the industry, but to learn how to market your work better. You have a highly-qualified, well-informed insider sitting in front of you: ask some questions.

What kind of questions, you ask? Well, for starters, how about, “if you were in my shoes, which agent here at the conference would YOU try to buttonhole for an informal pitch?” Or, “Does anyone at your agency handle this kind of work? May I say in my query letter that you suggested I contact this person?: Or, even more broadly: “I understand that this isn’t your area, but who do you think are the top five agents that handle this sort of book?”

Usually, they’re only too happy to help; don’t forget, this is an awkward moment for them, too. Only sadists would LIKE seeing that crushed look in a writer’s eyes. Mentally, I promise you, that agent will be cursing the evil fate that decreed that the two of have to spend fifteen interminable minutes together; he doesn’t want to face recriminations, either from disappointed aspiring writers or from his boss if they come back with work that he is not technically supposed to have picked up. (Editors at major publishing houses, anyone?) So many will become very frosty, in the hope you will walk away and end this awful uncomfortable silence.

So if you can move the both of you on to topics where you’re comfortable, trust me, they’ll appreciate it. Not enough to pick up your book, but still, enough to think of you kindly in future.

So prep a few questions in advance, as insurance. Approaching the disappointment as a learning experience can make the difference between your stalking out of your meeting, biting back the tears, and walking out feeling confident that your next pitch will go better. Agents are often flattered by being asked their opinions, I find. There’s such a thing as human nature: few people are insulted by being admired for their expertise.

Unless you’re rude about it, Mr. Dog-Hater.

If the agent or editor seems approachable, you might even want to ask, after the other questions, “Look, I know it isn’t your area, but you must hear thousands of pitches a year. Would you mind listening to mine and giving me some constructive criticism?”

Remember, though, that in giving you this advice, these people are doing you a FAVOR. Be accordingly polite. As someone who both teaches classes and goes to a lot of writing conferences, I both see and have first-hand experience with the ilk of writer who, having found a knowledgeable person in the industry gracious enough to answer questions, quickly becomes demanding. Literally every agent and editor I have ever met has a horror story about that writer at a conference who just wouldn’t go away.

A word to the wise: remember, in this state, stalking is illegal.

So be polite. Remember, too, that an agent, editor, or writing teacher who was glad to be helpful to you at a conference may well be less pleased if you spend subsequent months peppering her with e-mails. I can’t even count the number of times I have told someone who asked me a question, “Gee, I’m not sure. But I’d be happy to check my files and get back to you with the information” — and then returned home to find a petulant phone message or injured-sounding e-mail, demanding to know why I haven’t yet sent the information. (The usual answer is that I haven’t yet set down my bags after the airplane trip.) And trust me on this one: even if your message is very courteous, and you sent it because you were afraid that the person might not remember you or the request, if you send it before, say, a week after the event, it is going to come across as badgering.

The moral of the story: as long as you are polite, many people in the industry will be glad to share their expertise with you at a conference. When someone in the industry is generous enough to be willing to help you, express gratitude, and try not to be a pest. Free advice is best when given freely — and accepted as a favor.

This is a good rule of thumb for anyone you meet at a conference, by the way. Chances are, you’re going to meet an author who is farther along the path to publication than you are. Writers tend to be very nice people; many of them will be happy to have you solicit their advice on, say, who would be a good agent to query with your type of book, particularly if you write in the same genre. This is a perfectly legitimate question to walk up to a conference presenter and ask. However, this type of friendliness usually doesn’t mean that writer wants to be your lifetime chum — or, as happens more often, your first stop for every industry-related question that occurs to you for the next decade.

If you’re in doubt as to whether you have made a friend or not, limit your follow-up to a single polite thank-you e-mail or card. If you made a true connection, the writer will respond.

All right, back to the reasons to do research on an agent or editor before a meeting. Knowing books they have handled enables you to walk in and make a stellar impression as someone who has done her homework. It is surprisingly rare, and accordingly impressive.

It can also help you calm down before giving your pitch. Instead beginning with a nervous “Hi,” followed by an immediate launch into your pitch, wouldn’t it be great if you could stroll in and break the tension with something along the lines of, “Hello. You represent Lynne Rosetto Casper, don’t you? I just loved her last cookbook.”

Why is this a good idea? Again, human nature: we all like to be recognized for our achievements. Agents and editors tend to be genuinely proud of the books they handle; remember, the vast majority of ANY agent’s workday is taken up with her existing clients, not ones she is thinking about perhaps picking up. Trust me, she will be flattered by meeting someone who has contributed to her retirement fund by buying one of her clients’ books.

One caveat: if you plan to make mention of a particular book, do come prepared to talk about it for a couple of minutes. Don’t praise a book you haven’t read. And don’t lie about liking a book that you hated, of course.

Knowing something about the agent or editor will also enable you to ask intelligent questions about how he handles his clients’ work. For instance, in the past, most fiction was published first in hardcover; until fairly recently, newspapers refused to review softcover fiction. However, increasingly, publishing houses are releasing new fiction in trade paper, a higher-quality printing than standard paperback, so the price to consumers (and the printing costs) may be significantly lower. Why should you care? Well, traditionally, authors receive different percentages of the cover price, based upon printing format. Trade paper pays less.

So if you were speaking with an agent who had a lot of clients who were publishing in trade paper, you might want to ask, “So, I notice that several of your clients published their first novels in trade paper. Is that your general preference? What do you see as the major advantages and disadvantages to going this route?”

Knowing something about the books an agent has sold will also demonstrate that, unlike 99.9% of the aspiring writers he will see this year, you view him as an individual, an interesting person, rather than a career-making machine with legs. This is a serious advantage. Think about it: if the agent signs you, the two of you are going to be having a whole lot of interaction over a number of years. Would you prefer his first impression of you to be that you were a nice, considerate person, or a jerk who happened to be talented?

Pitch specifics follow in the days to come. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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