Hello, readers —
I’m packing up my troubles in my old kit bag and heading off to the PNWA conference shortly, but since I won’t be posting again until Monday, after all the pitching dust settles, I wanted to leave you with some final pre-conference thoughts.
First, at risk of repeating myself or sounding like a Lamaze coach, I can’t overemphasize the importance of reminding yourself to take deep breaths throughout the conference. A particularly good time for one is immediately after you sit down in front of an agent or editor. Trust me: your brain could use the oxygen right around then, and it will help you calm down so you can make your most effective pitch.
And please remember, writing almost never sells on pitches alone; you are not going to really know what an agent thinks about your work until she has read some of it. Whatever an agent or editor says to you in a conference situation is just a conversation at a conference, not the Sermon on the Mount or testimony in front of a Congressional committee. Everything is provisional until some paper has changed hands.
This is equally true, incidentally, whether your conference experience includes an agent who actually starts drooling visibly with greed while you were pitching or an editor in a terrible mood who raves for 15 minutes about how the public isn’t buying books anymore. Until you sign a mutually-binding contract, no promises — or condemnation, for that matter — should be inferred or believed absolutely. Try to maintain some perspective.
Admittedly, perspective is genuinely hard to achieve when a real, live agent says, “Sure, send me the first chapter,” especially if you’ve been shopping the book around for awhile. But it IS vital to keep in the back of your mind that eliciting this statement is not the end of your job, because regardless of how much any given agent or editor says she loves your pitch, she’s not going to make an actual decision until she’s read at least part of it. So even if you are over the moon about positive response from the agent of your dreams, please, I beg you, DON’T STOP PITCHING IN THE HALLWAYS. Try to generate as many requests to see your work as you can.
Trust me on this one: you will be much, much happier two months from now if you have a longer requested submissions list. Ultimately, going to a conference to pitch only twice, when there are 20 agents in the building, is just not efficient.
If an agent does fall in love with your work this weekend, you may well hear one or both of the following pieces of industry-speak fall from her lips: “I need you to overnight this to me” and/or “I want an exclusive look at this.” And you, in your giddiness, may be tempted to say yes immediately to one or both.
I wouldn’t advise saying yes to either, because the first will cost you quite a bit of money (manuscripts are heavy, and overnight shipping is expensive), and the second is not in your best interests.
Why? Well, in the New York-based publishing industry, the normal pace is hectic, so writers dealing with it are exposed to an odd rhythm: delay/panic/delay/panic. So when agents and editors say, “I want it now,” it’s not usually a statement of intention, as in, “I am going to read it as soon as it arrives,” but rather an expression of serious interest. Ditto with a request for an exclusive — it’s intended to convey to you that the agent is very, very interested in your work, not that she is going to clear her schedule for an entire day as soon as she gets back home to read your book.
It’s meant as a compliment, not as a time prediction — and thus there is no reason for you to break the bank in order to get your manuscript to New York before the agent has even unpacked from her trip. Besides, it’s pretty generally understood that we have a slower pace of life out here; she may not be sure if we even have clocks on the walls of our vegetarian commune yurts. There’s no reason that misconception shouldn’t work to our advantage from time to time. The fact is, it’s a good bet that the requesting agent already has a million manuscripts on her desk, and a few days will not make any difference at all.
I have a firm policy for myself and my editing clients: NEVER overnight ANYTHING to an agency or publishing house unless the RECEIVER is paying the shipping costs. Packages with overnight stickers on them are NOT attended to more quickly; Priority Mail packages with REQUESTED MATERIALS written on the outside are opened just as fast.
Save yourself the dosh.
Because of the industry’s peculiar sense of time, where having your manuscript be on the top of someone’s to-read list might mean he’ll read it tomorrow and it might mean it will still be propping up fifteen other manuscripts on his desk four months from now, I also always advise writers to refuse to give any agent, even the best in the world, an exclusive look at any book. It is almost never in the writer’s interest to do so — all you are doing by granting it is making sure that no other agent at the conference can beat the one you’re promising to the punch. It’s tying your hands so you can’t send your work out to anyone else, while at the same time depriving the agent of any possible incentive to read it quickly, since he knows that there’s no competition over the book.
Just say no.
If you absolutely must grant an exclusive — or if you read this AFTER you already have — say (and repeat it in your cover letter when you send the book), “I am happy to give you an exclusive look at my book for three weeks. After that, I shall still be eager to hear from you, but please know that I shall also be submitting it elsewhere.” Three weeks is plenty of time for anyone to read any manuscript. And then on Day 22, submit it to another agency. If they really are rushing to read it in time, trust me, they’ll call you to ask for an extension.
Okay, my attitude problem and I are heading off to the conference now. See some of you there, and everybody, keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini