Before I launch for today, I have some good news: long-time reader and lyrical writer Barbara Brink has just had a delightful article in the current issue of the Minnesota Star Tribune. Congratulations, Barbara, and keep up the good work!
I’m a great believer in keeping the ol’ writing résumé fresh by adding gems like this to it from time to time — articles; contest semi-finalist, and places; writing residencies. It takes time, of course, to write and submit these résumé-builders, but they do look lovely in the credentials section of a query letter, don’t they, and in an author bio? Not to mention building one’s potential readership in the long term.
Oh, come on — you’ve never picked up a book in a bookstore because the author’s name looked vaguely familiar?
I am hoping to wrap up my series on industry etiquette (phew!) within the next couple of days, so I can move on to researching the agents and editors scheduled to attend PNWA this year who did not attend last year. (Thanks for the feedback on that, those of you who posted comments on the subject; I like this compromise.) I want to get the info out to you soon enough that you can take advantage of that nifty first-150-registrants-get-an extra-appointment offer.
Oh, by the way, in case you were not aware of it: the first 150 people who register for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference this year will receive an additional appointment with an agent!
I’ve been writing for the last couple of weeks about the ways in which writers often overstep the bounds of what the publishing industry considers courtesy, and for the most part, I’ve been concentrating on simple differentials of expectation: the pro expects one standard of behavior, and the hopeful petitioner another. Sometimes, though, the depth of the writer’s desire to be published leads to a total disregard of boundaries — which, in turn, leads the industry professional the writer is pursuing to back away quickly.
Much of the time, the boundary-blurred writer does not overstep; she merely assumes that her project is of greater importance to the pro than is actually the case. If she doesn’t transgress the expected norms of behavior, this mistaken belief will harms the writer only emotionally, not professionally, as in the case of Lauren:
Blurry boundary scenario 1: After working tirelessly on her novel to make sure it was ready for conference season, Lauren lugs it to a conference. During the agents’ forum, she is delighted to hear Loretta, the agent to whom she has been assigned for a pitch appointment, wax poetic about her great love of writers and good writing. This, Lauren decides, is the perfect agent for her book.
Since she has only pitched a couple of times before, Lauren takes advantage of the Pitch Practicing Palace, where she works on her pitch with someone who looks suspiciously like yours truly. After having worked the major kinks out of her pitch, my doppelganger asks to whom Lauren intends to pitch it.
“Oh,” Lauren says happily, “I have an appointment with Loretta.”
My apparent twin frowns briefly. “Are you planning to pitch to anyone else? As far as I know, she has not picked up any clients at this conference in years. She writes really supportive rejection letters, though.”
Lauren shrugs and walks off to her appointment with Loretta. Her pitch goes well; the agent seems genuinely interested in her work, and asks to see the first 50 pages of the novel. Walking on air, Lauren decides that since she’s made such a good personal connection with Loretta, she does not need to pitch to anyone else.
The second she returns home, Lauren prints up and ships off her first 50, along with an effusively thankful cover letter. Three weeks later, her SASE returns in the mail, accompanied by a very supportive rejection letter from Loretta.
What did Lauren do wrong?
Actually, not much: she merely responded to her meeting with Loretta based upon her hopes, not upon solid research. Lauren should have checked before making the appointment (or asked Loretta during the agents’ forum) how many debut novels she had sold lately, and how recently she had picked up a new writer at a conference. Even if she did not have the time to do the necessary background research, since the Pitch Practicing Palace lady had raised the issue, Lauren should have asked around at the conference.
If she had, she might have learned that Loretta had been attending the conference for years without picking up any new clients at all. Unfortunately, there are agents — and prominent ones — who attend conferences regularly, being charming and supportive to every writer they meet, but without seriously intending to sign anyone at all.
Unless, of course, the next DA VINCI CODE falls into their laps. Then, they might make an exception.
While this attitude is not in itself an actionable offense — I would be the last to decry any agent’s being nice to any aspiring writer — it has roughly the same effect on the hooking-up expectations of conference attendees as a mysterious young man’s walking into a Jane Austen novel without mentioning that he is secretly engaged: the local maidens may well fall in love with him without knowing that he is attached.
And who can blame Lauren for falling in love with Loretta? The absolute demands of the industry can be so overwhelming at the agent-seeking stage that when that slammed door opens even a chink, it is tempting to fling oneself bodily at it, clinging to any agent, editor, or author who so much as tosses a kindly smile in the direction of the struggling.
So what should Lauren have done differently? Done her background research, of course, and kept on pitching her book to others. Even if Loretta had actually wanted to sign her, Lauren should not have relied so heavily upon her — as it turned out, false — first impressions of her. Nice interpersonal contact may help nudge an agent toward offering a likeable writer a contract, but ultimately, no experienced agent would make such an offer upon a conversation, or even a verbal pitch, alone.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: no matter what pitching experts, including myself, tell you, a pitch alone is NEVER enough to sell a book to an agent or editor, no matter how good it is. The writing always needs to fulfill the promise of the pitch; the pitch merely opens the door to a favorable reading.
And, realistically, Loretta did not expect exclusivity from Lauren, so there is no chance whatsoever that she would have been offended had Lauren pitched to every agent at the conference. Long-time readers, chant with me now: if an agent wants an exclusive, she will ask for it.
Learn from Lauren’s example, and don’t be a cheap date: it should take more than a few kind words to make you lose your heart — and your valuable pitching opportunities — to an agent. Don’t act as if you are going steady until your signature has dried upon a representation contract.
And, of course, keep up the good work!