Trust and mistrust: what every conference attendee should know about pitching to editors at conferences

Yesterday, I was waxing poetic on a must-follow piece of conference-selection advice — if you are looking for an agent, only invest in attending conferences where agents with a proven track record of selling with your type of book will be available for your pitching pleasure. Feel free to derive an important corollary from this excellent axiom: from this moment on, ONLY pitch or query your book to agents who represent that kind of book.

Seems so simple, put that way, doesn’t it? Yet the vast majority of aspiring writers either take a scattershot approach, querying fairly randomly (thus all of those “Dear Agent” letters that folks in the industry hate so much) or let the conferences do the selection for them, pitching to whoever is there with a winsome disregard for matching their books with the right agent.

I cannot say this often enough: you do not want to be signed by just ANY agent — although, in the throes of agent-seeking, it’s certainly easy to start believing that any agent at all would be better than none. You want the agent who is going to be able to sell your work quickly and well.

Believe it or not, even the surliest agent who ever strode contemptuously into a literary conference and brushed off a pitcher wants this as well.

Agents, perversely enough, want to sign authors of books they know they can sell. Since they are inundated with queries and pitches, it is in their best interests to weed out the absolutely-nots as swiftly as humanly possible. So if you’re rejected by an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of work — at a conference or via query — it doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of your writing or the idea you are pitching. It’s just about a bad fit.

I know it’s hard to accept when your baby is rejected out of hand, but it is vital for your professional mental health that you bear the issue of fit in mind constantly while you are pitching and querying. Not only isn’t anything personal about a bad-fit rejection — it does not even begin to be a fair test of how the book will fly with an agent who does represent that kind of work.

The best way to avoid this kind of rejection, of course, is not to pitch or query your book to any agent that isn’t predisposed to be interested in it.

Check before you pitch. Even better, check before you register for the conference where you intend to pitch.

Ditto with editors — no editor in the business acquires across every genre; in fact, most editors’ ability to acquire is sharply limited by their publishing houses to just one or two types of book. So it would be a waste of your pitching energies to, say, try to interest an editor who does exclusively mysteries in your fantasy novel, right?

One major caveat about pitching to editors at conferences: be aware that all of the major NYC publishing houses currently have policies forbidding their editors to acquire work by unagented writers. This means, in essence, that the BEST that could happen if you pitched your book to an editor from one of these houses is that he might help you hook up with an agent.

I mention this, because in most of the flavors of common being-discovered-at-a-conference fantasy, an editor from Random House or somewhere similar hears a pitch, falls over backwards in his chair, and offers a publication contract on the spot, neatly bypassing the often extended agent-seeking period entirely. Conference today, contract tomorrow, Oprah on Thursday.

In reality, even if an editor was blown over (figuratively, at least) by a pitch, he might buttonhole one of the attending agents at a conference cocktail party on your behalf, and they might together plot a future for the book, but you’re still going to have to impress that agent before you can sign with the editor.

Before any of you protest that at the last conference you attended, editors asked for your work as though they intended to pick you up, allow me to add: the we-accept-only-the-agented is most assuredly NOT the impression that most conference pitchers to editors receive.

There’s a reason for this: unless they are asked point-blank during an editors’ forum how many of them have come to the conference empowered to pick up a new author on the spot — a question well worth asking, hint, hint — most editors who attend conferences will speak glowingly about their authors, glossing over the fact that they met these authors not in settings like this, but through well-connected agents.

Adding to the mystique is the fact that few conference brochures or websites are honest enough to feature the major houses’ policies next to the appropriate attending editors’ listings. In fact, most conference rhetoric surrounding pitch appointments with editors directly states the opposite, encouraging pitchers to believe that this meeting could be their big break.

I don’t think conference organizers do this in order to be mean or misleading — I just think many of them are not hip to the current conditions of the industry. I don’t know what the declaiming editors’ excuse is, but trust me, no editor is going to jeopardize his job at Ballentine by handing a contract to a writer his boss would throw a fit if he signed.

So why, you may be wondering, do editors from the majors attend literary conferences — and, once there, why do they request submissions?

Editors from the major houses request manuscripts from pitchers all the time — but not because they are looking to sign the author on the strength of the book. They just want to get in on the ground floor if the book is going to be the next…

You guessed it. No editor wants to be the one who passed on the next DA VINCI CODE.

It’s a gamble, pure and simple. So even though they would not in fact pick up the next DA VINCI CODE if its author DID pitch to them at a conference, having a personal connection with the author is a great means of queue-jumping. If one of them is nice enough to you, you might tell your agent (once you hook up with one) that you want your potential bestseller sent to that editor first. Heck, if she’s nice enough to you, you might be gullible enough to insist that she gets an exclusive.

Don’t laugh: it’s not a bad gamble, from their perspective. Aspiring writers, as I have pointed out before, can get some strange ideas about loyalty owed to industry types who met them for a grand total of fifteen minutes once.

But trust me: deep in their steamy little hearts, those editors from major houses who ask you to send chapters will be hoping that you will land an agent before they get around to reading the manuscript they requested you send. If you are looking to pitch to an editor who might conceivably pick up your book right away, you are generally better off pitching to an editor from a smaller house.

The overall moral: learning what individual agents and editors are looking for (aside from the next DA VINCI CODE, of course) will help you target both your conference pitches and your queries more effectively.

Don’t worry — I’m not going to abandon you to attempt this formidable task alone. Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to show you how to decipher those opaque little blurbs about their preferences that conference organizers are so fond of adding to their websites and brochures, as well as how to find out who represents and buys what from other sources.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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