Book marketing 101: but what happens if they LIKE it?

Congratulations to reader Kari Diehl, who took third place in the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association’s literary contest’s romance genre division! Well done, Kari!

That’s the second placer amongst the 8 blog readers that I now know were nominated (reader Amy Fisher won the memoir/NF book category, as I announced over the weekend. Wahoo!), but as I did not go to the ceremony and the results are not yet posted online, I do not know how the rest did.

But please join me in a big round of applause to everyone who was nominated, and I’ll keep reporting good news as it rolls in. Or not, as the case may be. But I’m proud of all the finalists, and everyone who was brave enough to enter.

Okay, back to serious business:


I feel as though I have been engaging in hypnosis for the last couple of weeks: you are relaxing, I tell you, RELAXING in the face of your upcoming pitching appointment… your only goal is to get these people to ask to see your work… you are buttonholing agents in at conference events and successfully giving your hallway pitch… you are calmly going through your 2-minute pitch to an agent who is delighted to hear it… your only goal is to get these people to ask to see your work, and you are thrilled when they do…

And you will read Sinclair Lewis (whose picture that is, incidentally: I love the intensity of those early 20th-century author photos; they always look as if they’re about to take a big bite out of the photographer)… and not think his work is dated… not dated, I tell you…

So let’s assume for the moment that the mantras I’ve been chanting at you for all these weeks have worked, and an agent or editor has asked to see the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or even the entirety of your manuscript. What do you do next?

In the first place, you send your submissions simultaneously to everyone who asked for them, for reasons I explained on Saturday. Your heart may tell you to give that dreamy agent who was so nice to you an unrequested exclusive, but believe me, your brain should be telling you to play the field.

Don’t tell me that love is blind. Follow Sinclair’s example and wear your glasses, for heaven’s sake.

Second, you send precisely what each agent asked you to send. No slipping in an extra five pages because there’s nifty writing in it, no adding a videotape of you accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor, no cookies or crisp $20 bills as bribes.

Need I say that I know writers who have done all these things, and now know better?

The first 50 means just that: the first 50 pages in standard format, even if that means stopping the submission in mid-sentence. (And if you aren’t absolutely positive that your manuscript IS in standard format or if you were not aware that manuscripts are NOT formatted like published books, please run, do not walk, to the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

If you’re asked for a specific number of pages, don’t count the title page as one of them — but no matter how long an excerpt you have been asked to send, include a title page. (If you don’t know how to format a professional title page, or even that there is a professional format for one, please wend your way to the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right. You see, I really have been preparing my readers for this moment.)

Under no circumstances should you round up or down, even if pp. 49 or 51 is the last of the chapter: part of the point of this exercise is to show that you can follow directions, a rather desirable attribute in a potential client who might be expected to meet sudden deadlines or make surprise revisions down the line.

If asked for a synopsis, send one; do not enclose one otherwise. Ditto for an author bio (don’t worry; I’ll be talking about how to build one next week), table of contents (unless you’ve been asked to submit a book proposal), illustrations, letters of recommendation from your favorite writing teacher, and the aforementioned cookies.

Just send what you’ve been asked to send: no more, no less. With two exceptions: first, you should include a SASE. industry-speak for a stamped (not metered), self-addressed envelope for the manuscript’s safe return. Second, you should include a cover letter.

Why the cover letter? Well, in the first place, render it as easy as humanly possible to contact you — the last thing you want is to make it hard for them to ask for more pages, right? But also, you should do it for the same good, practical reason that I’m going to advise you to write

(Conference name) — REQUESTED MATERIALS

in 3-inch letters on the outside of the envelope: so your work doesn’t end up languishing in the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts (which are, incidentally, almost invariably rejected). Agents and editors hear a LOT of pitches in the course of the average conference; no matter how terrific your book is, it’s just not reasonable to expect them to remember yours weeks after the fact (which it almost certainly will be, by the time they get around to reading it) simply by its title and your name.

Thus, it is in your best interests to remind them that they did, indeed, ask to see your manuscript.

Be subtle about the reminder — no need to state outright that you are worried that they’ve confused you with the other 150 people they met that day — but it is a good idea to provide some context. Simply inform the agent or editor him/her where you met and that s/he asked to see what you’re sending. As in,

Dear Mr. White,

I very much enjoyed our meeting at the recent Conference X. Thank you for requesting my fantasy novel, WHAT I DID TO SAVE THE PLANET.

I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and look forward to hearing from you soon. I may be reached at the address and phone number below, or via email at…


A. Writer

That’s it. No need to recap your plot or re-pitch your concept. Just simple, clean, businesslike. (But NOT, I beg you, in block-indented business format; many folks in the industry regard business format as only marginally literate, at best. I don’t care what you do in the multi-million dollar factory you run: indent those paragraphs whenever you are dealing with anyone in publishing.)

Oh, and if other agents or editors requested it, say so. Considered good manners, and often gets your submission read a bit faster.

The other reason that mentioning where you met is a good idea is — and I tremble to tell you this, but it does happen — there are some unscrupulous souls who, aware that pitch fatigue may well cause memory blurring, send submissions that they CLAIM are requested, but in fact were not.

“Oh, like he’s going to remember ANY pitcher’s name,” these ruthless climbers scoff, stuffing first chapters into the envelopes of everyone who attended a particular conference.

Such scoffers occasionally receive a comeuppance redolent with poetic justice: VERY frequently, the roster of agents and editors scheduled to attend a particular conference changes at the last minute. How well received do you think a, “I enjoyed our conversation at last weekend’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named,” letter goes over with an agent who missed a plane and didn’t show up at that particular conference?

Tee hee.

Do remember, though, for the sake of your blood pressure, you do NOT need to drop everything and mail off requested materials within hours of a conference’s end. The standard writers’ conference wisdom advises getting it out within three weeks of the conference, but actually, that’s not necessary. The publishing industry pretty much shuts down from early August until after Labor Day, anyway.

As I believe I said half a dozen times in the week leading up to the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, a nice conversation with an agent or editor at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference, not a blood pact.

Nothing has yet been promised — and it can’t have been. As I have mentioned several dozen times throughout this series, no agent is going to sign you on a pitch alone; no matter how good your book concept is, they are going to want to see actual pages before committing.

Why? That old industry truism: “It all depends upon the writing.”

By the same token, you are not bound to honor the request for materials instantaneously. And no, the fact that you said you would send it the moment you got home from the conference does NOT mean that you should send it off without proofing and performing any necessary revisions; unless they asked for an exclusive, they do not expect you to send it within a day or two, or to overnight it.

Besides, it is very much to your advantage that they see your work at its absolute best, after all, not as our work tends to be before a hard-copy proofing.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: take the time to read EVERY page you intend to submit to ANYONE in the industry in hard copy, out loud, every time.

There is no better way to weed out the mistakes that will strike you a week later as boneheaded (for a sample of these, see the archived Let’s Talk About This on the subject), and the extra couple of weeks fixing any problems might take will not harm your chances one iota.

Trust me, agents and editors meet too many writers at conferences to sit around thinking, “Darn it, where is that Jane Doe’s manuscript? I asked for it two weeks ago! Well, I guess I’m just going to reject it now, sight unseen.”

A common writers’ negative fantasy, but it just doesn’t happen. These people are simply too busy for that. If you wait 6 months to send it, they may wonder a little, but 6 days or 6 weeks? Please.

So unless you already have the manuscript in apple-pie order (which includes having read it — take a deep breath now, so you can say it along with me — in its ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and ALOUD), it’s worth your while to take the time for a final polish. You want your book to be pretty for its big date, right?

Don’t worry: I’ll be talking about that final polish in the days to come, and a bit more about timing your submissions tomorrow. In the meantime, heaps of congratulatory applause to Kari, Amy, and everyone else whose bravery in pitching resulted in requests for material. Way to get out there and market your work!

You are relaxing about getting those requested materials out the door, I tell you… relaxing…

Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: please share your pitching experiences

I’ve been getting such great feedback from readers returning, exhausted, from the Conference That Shall Not Be Named about their pitching experiences that I want to extend an open invitation for attendees (of this or any other pitch-centered conference) to post their insights as comments here.

There’s nothing like a writers’-eye view for getting the skinny on the perils of approaching agents and editors — and it would be hard for the dispatches from the pitching front to be any more up-to-date than this.

So do share your thoughts: how was it different from what you expected, and what part of preparation helped you the most? What do you wish you had known before you pitched, and what did you hit out of the ballpark?

I’m sure writers gearing up to pitching for the first time would love to hear it. Heck, we’d all like to hear it, wouldn’t we?

A couple of caveats: keep your observations G-rated, please, and for your own sake, please forbear from naming names. (I learned at a recent after-hours party that my readership amongst industry types is quite a bit broader than I had realized, and I don’t want to be the means of anyone’s burning any bridges that might conceivably be handy in crossing rivers down the line.)

To get the ball rolling, at a recent conference that I shall not identify, I noticed (and so did the agents and editors) that the pros’ schedules had been set up so tightly as to minimize their non-appointment time wandering around the hallways to a practically unprecedented low. To put it as delicately as possible while still conveying meaning, their scheduled social obligations seemed often to result in oversleeping and an aversion to loud noises in the morning hours.

Which necessarily sharply limited the hallway pitching opportunities for anyone who was not habitually distributing bloody marys with one hand and coffee with the other.

Frankly, I’d never seen this happen before, at least not to the extent of — and this is just a rumor, mind you — cancelled a.m. pitching appointments. It made me wish that I had given my readers a heads-up about the possibility of having either structurally or socially limited access. I promise that I shall be racking my brains to come up with a few clever strategies for dealing with it in future, but I would love to hear how readers handled it in the present.

So I am turning it over to you: what did you learn from your pitching experience that might help others? What worked for you?

PS: If you have complaints, compliments, or suggestions about how any conference you attend could be improved, you should contact the organization that threw it directly about them; please don’t assume that anything you say here will necessarily get back to them. Most conference organizers do take attendee feedback fairly seriously, and sharing your views might result in a better conference for everyone next year.

Book marketing 101: are you really ready to go steady?

Since yesterday’s was SUCH a long post — being giddy over the book sale certainly seems to have made me chatty, doesn’t it? — I’m going to be a bit less garrulous today. And the topic is much more fun: what you should do if you find yourself being wooed by an agent at a conference.

In a professional way, I mean. In the other, more common sense of the word, it’s naturally up to you how to handle it, if you are both consenting adults. (Although for a few insights about how that kind of behavior tends to be regarded at writers’ conferences, please see my post for February 22: Is It Hot in Here, or Is It Just the Guy in the Leather Pants?.)

If an agent does fall deeply in love with your book premise at a conference, you might 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, and the second is not in your best interests.

Why? Well, manuscripts are heavy, and overnight shipping is expensive. And 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. Even manuscripts that are of burning interest often sit on desks for a month or two, because other projects are more pressing — after all, acquiring new clients is not how an agent makes a living; commissions come from selling books.

A deal in the hand is worth 128 down the road, I guess.

So when agents and editors say, “I want it now,” or even “I want it NOW!!!” it’s not usually a statement of intention that may be legitimately translated as, ‘I am going to read it as soon as it arrives.” Rather, it’s an expression of serious interest, a way of telling you that they are excited about it — and will read it immediately after the other 17 exciting projects already on their desks.

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. It’s expensive; it will require endless trouble on your part; it will preclude your having time to give the manuscript a last read to catch errors — AND it probably will not get your work read any faster.

Save yourself the dosh.

Besides, it’s pretty generally understood that most of the rest of the country has a slower pace of life than New York. If you are pitching at a conference in the Pacific Northwest, the agent may not be sure if you even have clocks on the walls of your vegetarian commune yurt.

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 so does her screener Millicent. A few extra days in the mail will not make any difference at all.

Or, for that matter, a few extra days of proofing it in your vegetarian commune yurt.

I have a firm policy for my editing clients and myself: NEVER overnight ANYTHING to an agency or publishing house unless the RECEIVER is paying the shipping costs; instead, I use the USPS’ Priority Mail, which is infinitely cheaper. Packages with overnight stickers on them are NOT attended to more quickly than those that do not; Priority Mail packages with REQUESTED MATERIALS written on the outside are opened just as fast.

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.

An exclusive, for those of you new to the term, is when a writer agrees not to show a manuscript to anyone else while an agent is trying to make up his mind whether to represent it.

It is almost never in the writer’s interest to agree to this — 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.

In fact, it’s a VERY good idea to send submissions to every agent and editor who requests them simultaneously — and mention in your cover letter that others are reviewing it as well. This often results in a quicker read on the agency end.

What you should NOT do is submit to your top choice, wait for a reply, then submit to the others who have requested it. Effectively, this is granting an unrequested exclusive, and it’s not to your advantage, no matter how much you liked the agent when you met.

Writers new to pitching grant unrequested exclusives all the time, unfortunately, under the assumption that hooking up with an agent is like making a best friend in junior high school: if you even talk to anyone else, your new BFF might get huffy.

But this is a business. Unless the agent of your dreams has actually ASKED to see the material exclusively, she does not expect to be the only one looking at it.

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, if you haven’t heard back, bite the bullet and submit it to another agency — and send an e-mail or call the first agency and tell them another agent is now looking at it. If they really are rushing to read it in time, trust me, they’ll call you to ask for an extension.

More on dealing with good news on Monday. Keep up the good work!

Gloat, gloat, GLOAT!

I posted a great big ol’ missive earlier in the day, but I couldn’t resist logging on with some good — no, make that GREAT — news that just came winging through my telephone:

Congratulations, long-time reader Amy Fisher, for winning the Memoir/Nonfiction Book category of the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association’s literary contest!

Everyone, please join me in a big round of applause for Amy — and for all of those good writers who keep plugging away until their work is recognized. It CAN be done, and hooray for everyone with the courage to put her work on the line to be judged.

I was not at tonight’s ceremony (for reasons that render a member of the Author! Author! community’s winning an award that I won a few weeks before I started this blog all the sweeter for me personally, I must admit), so I do not know how our other 6 nominees fared. Please, folks, let me know, so we can all jump up and down for you, too.

Book marketing 101: it ain’t necessarily so

Yesterday, I wrote about one of the great fringe benefits of conference attendance, making friends with other writers. The person sitting next to you at the agents’ forum might well be famous five years from now, you know, and won’t you be glad that you made friends with her way back when?

Today, I am going to talk about the other end of the spectrum, the naysayers and depression-mongers one occasionally meets at writers’ conferences. And, still more potentially damaging because they’re harder to pin down, the infectious rumors that inevitably sweep the halls from time to time.

You need to inoculate yourself against them. So think of what I’m about to tell you as an adult cootie shot.

Let me step outside the writing world to give you an example of the classic naysayer. Last summer, I went over to a friend’s house for a “let’s save the garden from being reclaimed by the jungle” party. Lopping off branches and deadheading roses in the hot sun, I couldn’t help but notice that another party guest — let’s call her Charity, because she was so VERY generous with her opinions about how other people should be spending their time — kept looking askance at everything I did. I could not so much as pull a weed without her telling me I was doing it wrong.

It was exactly like cooking Christmas cookies with my mother-in-law.

At first, I thought she just didn’t like me, but I soon noticed that Charity was striding around the yard, correcting everyone, in the most authoritative of tones. We all took it meekly, because she seemed so sure that she was right.

However, the third time she gave me advice on pruning that I — the girl who grew up in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard, pruning shears in hand — knew to be balderdash, I realized something: she was barely doing any gardening herself. She had no idea what should be done. And yet, she had appointed herself garden manager.

Why am I telling you this? Because I can guarantee you that no matter which writers’ conference you choose to attend in your long and I hope happy life, you will run into at least one of Charity’s spiritual cousins.

They’re not hard to recognize as a family. It will be the writer who tells you, in solemn tones, that there’s a national database of every query that’s ever been submitted, so agents can automatically reject ones that have been seen by too many agents. Or that if you’ve been rejected by an agency once, you can never query there again, because THEY maintain an in-house database, dating back years. Or that you’ll get into terrible trouble if you EVER have more than one query out at once. Or that you should NEVER call or e-mail an agency, even if they’ve had your manuscript for over a year.

None of these things are true, incidentally; they’re just persistent rumors that have been circulating harmfully on the conference circuit for years. To set your mind at rest, there are no such databases, and unless an agency actually specifies that it will not accept simultaneous submissions, it simply does not have that policy. Period. And if an agency has lost a requested manuscript, believe me, they want to know about it toute de suite.

But these rumors SOUND so true, don’t they? Especially after you’ve heard them 147 times over the course of a weekend. It’s like brainwashing.

I don’t think that people perpetuate them on purpose to dishearten other writers, necessarily, but I have noticed that anyone who speaks with apparent authority on the rules behind the mysterious world of publishing tends to be surrounded by an audience at the average conference. There are some definite perks to being the person who walks into a group of writers and says this and this and this is true.

For instance: you believe me, don’t you?

It works, of course, because the publication process IS often confusing and arbitrary. As anyone who has ever spent ten minutes browsing in a bookstore already knows, there are plenty of published books that aren’t very good; as anyone who has a wide acquaintance amongst writers also knows, there are plenty of perfectly wonderful writers whose work does not get published.

There IS a lot of luck involved, unquestionably. If your manuscript happens to be the first one that the agent reads immediately after realizing that her marriage is over, or even immediately after stubbing her toe on a filing cabinet, your chances of her signing you are definitely lower than if, say, she has just won the lottery. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect whether your work hits someone’s desk on a good or a bad day.

The more you know about how the industry operates, however, the better your chances of falling on the right side of the coin toss. But the right way to learn about it is not through rumors.

Ask people whom you are positive know how the industry works. Go to the agent and editor forums at the conference, and listen carefully. Learn who likes what. These are people with individual tastes, not mechanized cogs in a homogenous industry where a manuscript that interests one agent will inevitably interest them all.

Contrary to what that sneering guy in the hallway just told you.

Which is why, incidentally, you should always take it with a massive grain of salt whenever even the most prestigious agent or editor tells you, “Oh, that would never sell.” What that actually means, in the language the rest of us speak, is “Oh, I would never want to try to sell that.”

It is, in fact, a personal preference being expressed, and it should be treated as such. It may well be a personal preference shared by a substantial proportion of the industry, such as the nearly universal declaration prior to the success of COLD MOUNTAIN that historical fiction just doesn’t sell anymore, but it is still a personal opinion.

If you doubt that, consider: when the author of COLD MOUNTAIN went out looking for an agent, the platitude above WAS standard industry wisdom. And yet some agent took a chance on it. Go figure.

I am harping on this point for two reasons. First, it is a very, very good idea to bear in mind that not everything everyone who speaks with authority says — no, not even a senior editor at a major publishing house, or the agent who represents a hundred clients, or me — is necessarily accurate 100% of the time. That knowledge can save your dignity if you get caught in a meeting with an agent who dislikes your book’s premise.

Trust me, I’ve been there. Just thank the speaker for his opinion, and move on.

I’m quite serious about this: don’t be afraid to walk away. If you find yourself caught in a formal meeting with an agent or editor who tells you within the first thirty seconds that she does not represent books in your category, or that the premise isn’t marketable, or any other statement intended to prevent you from completing your pitch, you are under no obligation to remain and listen to the pro’s opinion. You are well within your rights to murmur, “Thank you for your time, then,” and leave.

Or, as I mentioned earlier in this series, you can take the moral high ground, and turn the conversation into a learning experience. You can always learn something from contact with an industry professional.

For example, you might say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you didn’t represent this kind of work,” (try to say it politely, even if the agent or editor’s conference guide blurb actually state specifically that he DID represent this kind of work) “but if you were me, who else at the conference would you try to pitch this book to, given your druthers?”

Or, “Gee, I’m sorry to hear that you think it won’t sell. Would you mind telling me why? Do you think this is a trend that will go away after awhile, or do you think books like this always have a hard time selling”

Or even, “If you were a writer just starting out, how would you try to market a book like this to agents and editors?”

Beats losing your temper, and it certainly beats bursting into tears. Often, agents and editors are happy to give you tips in exchange for your sparing them a scene.

The other reason I am harping on why you should take blanket pronouncements with a small mountain of salt. While rumors about secret ways in which the industry is out to get writers may roll off your back at the time you first hear them, they can come back to haunt you later in moments of insecurity.

And the last thing you will need if an agent has held on to your manuscript for two months without a word, and you are trying to figure out whether to call or not to check up on it (do), is a nagging doubt at the back of your mind about whether writers bold enough to assume that the US Mail might occasionally misplace packages are condemned forever as troublemakers, their names indelibly blacklisted in a secret roster to which only agents have access.

Sounds a little silly, put that way, doesn’t it?

When confronted with a hallway rumor, don’t be afraid to ask some critical follow-up questions. “Where did you hear that?” might be a good place to start, closely followed by “Why on earth would they want to do THAT?”

With an industry professional, you can use polite interest to convey incredulity, “Really? Do you know someone to whom that has happened? Did it happen recently?”

Whatever you do, if you hear an upsetting truism, do not swallow it whole. You look that gift horse in the mouth, and everywhere else, before you wheel it into Troy.

And when someone of Greek descent tells you to give a Trojan horse the once-over, believe it.

Let me just go ahead and nip the ubiquitous database rumor in the bud, since it is one of the most virulent of the breed. Since the average agency receives around 800 queries per week, can you imagine the amount of TIME it would take to maintain such a query database, even for a single agency? It would be prohibitively time-consuming. They barely have time to open all of the envelopes as it is, much less check or maintain a sophisticated tracking system to see if any given author queried them (or anybody else) two years ago.

A good rule of thumb to measure the probability of these rumors is to ask yourself two questions each time you hear one. First, would the behavior suggested serve ANY purpose to the agency, other than being gratuitously mean to writers who query it? Is its only real purpose the exercise of power?

Second, would performing the suggested behavior require spending more than a minute on each query — say, to input statistics into a database? Could the agency accomplish it WITHOUT hiring an extra person (or five) to maintain the roster of doom?

If the answer to any of these questions is no (and it almost always is), chances are, the rumor’s not true. Even unpaid interns’ time costs something. They could be opening all of those envelopes, for instance.

Okay, that’s a long enough walk on the depressing side of the street. Tomorrow, on to what happens if an agent loves your pitch. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS: Just between ourselves, my predictive abilities sometimes startle even myself: my spies — oh, they’re everywhere — at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named tell me that 100% of the pitching info being taught there is toward a 3-line pitch. Sigh. I’m glad at least some of the attendees will have more to say for themselves and their books. I’ve also heard from several sources that the wining and dining (mostly the former) of the pros has been unusually lavish this year, to the extent that a savvy writer might want to wait until after their second cup of coffee to pitch to them in the mornings. But that’s just what about a dozen little birds told me; might not be true. But it does raise a possibility that one might want to bear in mind for future conferences, eh?

Book marketing 101: strategizing your conference time, part II

Still hanging in there? Still breathing at least once an hour?

As a veteran of many, many writers’ conferences all over the country, I can tell you from experience that they can be very, very tiring. Especially if it’s your first conference. Just sitting under fluorescent lights in an air-conditioned room for that many hours would tend to leech the life force out of you all by itself, but here, you will be surrounded by a whole lot of very stressed people while you are trying to learn as much as you possibly can.

As you may have noticed, most of my advice on how to cope with all of this ambient stress gracefully is pretty much what your mother probably said to you when you went to your first party: be polite; be nice to yourself and others; watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, and make sure to drink enough water throughout the day. Eat occasionally.

And you’re not wearing THAT, are you?

Oops, slipped too far into Mom mode. Actually, on the only occasion when my mother actually made that comment upon something I was wearing, she had made the frock in question; she hastened to alter it. For my senior prom: a backless little number in midnight-blue Chinese silk that she liked to call my “Carole Lombard dress,” for an occasion where practically every other girl was going to be wearing something demure and flouncy by Laura Ashley; not what anyone expected the valedictorian to wear. Even with the alterations, most of the male teachers followed me around all night long.

Oh, what a great dress that was. Oh, how inappropriate it would have been for a writers’ conference — or really, for any occasion that did not involve going out for a big night on the town in 1939. But then, so would those prissy Laura Ashley frocks.

Which brings me back to my point (thank goodness).

I wrote on what you should and shouldn’t wear to a conference at some length in my post of July 7, but if you find yourself in perplexity when you are standing in front of your closet, remember this solid rule that will help you wherever you go within the publishing industry: unless you will be attending a black-tie affair, you are almost always safe with what would be appropriate to wear to your first big public reading of your work.

And don’t those of you who have been hanging around the industry for a while wish someone had shared THAT little tidbit with you sooner?

To repeat a bit more motherly advice: do remember to eat something within an hour or two of your pitch meeting. I know that you may feel too nervous to eat. but believe me, if you were going to pick an hour of your life for feeling light-headed, this is not a wise choice. If you are giving a hallway pitch, or standing waiting to go into a meeting, make sure not to lock your knees, so you do not faint. (I’ve seen it happen, believe it or not.)

And practice, practice, practice before you go into your meetings; this is the single best thing you can do in advance to preserve yourself from being overwhelmed. As I pointed out yesterday, you will also be surrounded by hundreds of other writers. Introduce yourself, and practice pitching to them.

Better still, find people who share your interests and get to know them. Share a cookie; talk about your work with someone who will understand. Because, really, is your life, is any writer’s life, already filled with too many people who get what we do? You will be an infinitely happier camper in the long run if you have friends who can understand your successes and sympathize with your setbacks as only another writer can.

I know this from experience, naturally. The first thing I said to many of my dearest friends in the world was, “So, what do you write?”

To which the savvy conference-goer replies — chant it with me now, everyone — the magic first hundred words.

In fact, the first people I told about my recent book deal — after my s.o. and my mother, of course — were people I had met in precisely this manner. Why call them first? Because ordinary people, the kind who don’t spend all of their spare time creating new realities out of whole cloth, honestly, truly, sincerely, often have difficulty understanding the pressures and timelines that rule writers’ lives.

Case in point: the FIRST words by mother-in-law uttered after hearing that my book had sold: “What do you mean, it’s not coming out until the autumn of 2009? Why the delay?”

This kind of response is, unfortunately, common. I don’t think any writer ever gets used to seeing her non-writer friends’ faces fall upon being told that the book won’t be coming out for a year, at least, after the sale that’s just happened, or that signing with an agent does not automatically equal a publication contract, or that not every book is headed for the bestseller list.

Thought I got off track from the question of how to keep from getting stressed out, didn’t you? Actually, I didn’t: finding buddies to go through the conference process with you can help you feel grounded throughout.

Not only are these new buddies great potential first readers for your manuscripts, future writing group members, and people to invite to book readings, they’re also folks to pass notes to during talks. (Minor disobedience, I find, is a terrific way to blow off steam.) You can hear about the high points of classes you don’t attend from them afterward.

And who wouldn’t rather walk into a room with 300 strangers and one keynote speaker with a new-found chum than alone?

Making friends within the hectic conference environment will help you retain a sense of being a valuable, interesting individual far better than keeping to yourself, and the long-term benefits are endless. To paraphrase Goethe, it is not the formal structures that make the world feel warm and friendly; friends make the earth feel like an inhabited garden.

So please, for your own sake: make some friends at the conference, so you will have someone to pick up the phone and call when the agent of your dreams falls in love with your first chapter and asks to see the entire book! And get to enjoy the vicarious thrill when your writing friends leap their hurdles, too.

This can be a very lonely business; I can tell you from experience, nothing brightens your day like opening your e-mail when you’re really discouraged to find a message from a friend who’s just sold a book or landed an agent.

Well, okay, I’ll admit it: getting a call from your agent telling you that YOU’ve just sold a book is rather more of a day-brightener. As is the call saying, “I love your work, and I want to represent you.” But the other is still awfully darned good.

One more little thing that will help keep you from stressing out too much: while it’s always nice if you can be so comfortable with your pitch that you can give it from memory, it’s probably fair to assume that you’re going to be a LITTLE bit nervous during your meetings.

So do yourself a favor — write it all down; give yourself permission to read it when the time comes, if you feel that will help you. Really, it’s considered perfectly acceptable, and it will keep you from forgetting key points.

I would advise writing on the top of the paper, in great big letters: BREATHE!

Do remember to pat yourself on the back occasionally, too, for being brave enough to put yourself on the line for your work. As with querying and submitting, it requires genuine guts to submit your ideas to the pros; I don’t think writers get enough credit for that.

In that spirit, I’m going to confess: I have one other conference-going ritual, something I do just before I walk into any convention center, anywhere, anytime, either to teach or to pitch. It’s not as nice or as public-spirited as the other techniques I have described, but I find it is terrific for the mental health. I go away by myself somewhere and play at top volume Joe Jackson’s song Hit Single and Jill Sobule’s (I Don’t Want to Get) Bitter.

The former, a charming story about dumbing down a song so it will hit big on the pop charts, includes the PERFECT lyric to hum walking into a pitch meeting:

And when I think of all the years of finding out
What I already knew
Now I spread myself around
And you can have 3 minutes, too…

If that doesn’t summarize the difference between pitching your work verbally and being judged on the quality of the writing itself, I should like to know what does. (Sorry, Joe: I would have preferred to link above to your site, but your site mysteriously doesn’t include lyrics.)

The latter, a song about complaining, concludes with a pretty good mantra for any conference-goer:

So I’ll smile with the rest, wishing everyone the best
And know the one who made it made it because she was actually pretty good.
‘Cause I don’t want to get bitter
I don’t want to turn cruel

I hum that one a LOT during conferences, I’ll admit. Helpful, I find, when a bestselling author whose agent is her college roommate’s cousin tells a roomful of people who have been querying for the past five years that good writing always finds a home. Perhaps, but certainly not easily.

What you’re trying to do certainly is not easy, or fun, but you can do it. You’re your book’s best advocate.

And remember, all you’re trying to do is to get these nice people to take a look at your writing. No more, no less. It’s a perfectly reasonable request, and you’re going to be terrific at making it, because you’ve been sensible and brave enough to face your fears and prepare like a professional.

That’s been a good month’s effort, my friends. Keep up the good work

Book marketing 101: strategizing your conference time

Many thanks to all of you who sent in good wishes about my book sale. It’s very nice to feel rooted-for!

A technologically-savvy reader wrote in to ask if it was considered appropriate to take notes on a laptop or Blackberry during conference seminars. It’s still not very common — surprising, given how computer-bound most of us are these days — but yes, it is acceptable, under two conditions.

First, if you do not sit in a very prominent space in the audience — and not solely because of the tap-tap-tap sound you’ll be making. Believe it or not, it’s actually rather demoralizing for a lecturer to look out at a sea of heads that are all staring at their laps: are these people bored, the worried speaker wonders, or just taking notes very intensely?

Don’t believe me? The next time you attend a class of any sort, keep your eyes on the teacher’s face, rather than on your notes. I guarantee that within two minutes, the teacher will be addressing half of her comments directly to you; consistent, animated-faced attention is THAT unusual. The bigger the class, the more quickly s/he will focus upon you.

Back to the Blackberry issue. It’s also considered, well, considerate to ask the speaker before the class if it is all right to use any electronic device during the seminar, be it computer or recording device.

Why? Think about it: if your head happens to be apparently focused upon your screen, how is the speaker to know that you’re not just checking your e-mail?

Enough about the presenters’ problems; let’s move on to yours. Do be aware that attending a conference, particularly your first, can be a bit overwhelming. You’re going to want to pace yourself.

“But Anne!” I hear conference brochure-clutching writers out there crying, “The schedule is jam-packed with offerings! I don’t want to miss a thing!”

Yes, it’s tempting to take every single class and listen to every speaker, but frankly, you’re going to be a better pitcher if you allow yourself to take occasional breaks. Cut yourself some slack; don’t book yourself for the entire time.

And make a point of doing something other than lingering in the conference center. Go walk around the block. Sit in the sun. Grab a cup of coffee with that fabulous SF writer you just met. Hang out in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference; that tends to be where the already-agented and already-published hang out, anyway.

This is NOT being lax about pursuing professional opportunities: it is smart strategy, to make sure you’re fresh for your pitches. If you can’t tear yourself away, take a few moments to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, to reset your internal pace from PANIC! to I’m-Doing-Fine.

I know that I sound like an over-eager Lamaze coach on this point, but 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 at the risk of sounding like a broken record, 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. Your goal here is NOT to be discovered on the spot, but to get the industry pro in front of you to ask to read your writing. Period.

Yes, I know: I’ve said this before. And I’m going to keep saying it as long as there are aspiring writers out there who walk into pitch meetings expecting to hear the agent cry, “My God, that’s the best premise since OLIVER TWIST. Here’s a representation contract — and look, here’s my favorite editor now. Let’s see if he’s interested.”

Then, of course, the editor falls equally in love with it, offers an advance large enough to cover New Hampshire in $20 bills, and the book is out by Christmas. As an Oprah’s Book Club selection, of course.

Long-time readers, sing along with me now: this is not how the publishing industry works. The point of pitching is to skip the querying stage and pass directly to the submission stage. So being asked to send pages is a terrific outcome for this situation, not a distant second place to an imaginary reality.

Admittedly, though, it is SO easy to forget in the throes of a pitch meeting. Almost as easy as forgetting that a request to submit is not a promise to represent or publish.

To reiterate: 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 eons. But it IS vital to keep in the back of your mind that eliciting this statement is not the end of your job as a marketer, 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.

I’m serious about this. No matter who says yes to you first, 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.

And there is a fringe benefit to hallway pitching: it tends to be a trifle easier to get to yes than in a formal pitch.

Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Yet in many ways, casual pitches are easier, for one simple reason: time. In a hallway pitch, agents will often automatically tell you to submit the first chapter, in order to be able to keep on walking down the hall, finish loading salad onto their plates, or be able to move on to the next person in line after the agents’ forum.

If the agent handles your type of work, the premise is interesting, and you are polite, they will usually hand you their business cards and say, “Send me the first 50 pages.”

Okay, pop quiz to see who has been paying attention to this series so far: after the agent says this, do you:

(a) regard this as an invitation to talk about your work at greater length?

(b) say, “Gee, you’re a lot nicer than Agent X. He turned me down flat,” and go on to give details?

(c) launch into a ten-minute diatribe about the two years you’ve spent querying this particular project?

(d) thank her profusely and vanish in a puff of smoke?

If you said anything but (d), go back and reread the whole series again — and the entirety of the INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category at right as well. You need to learn what’s considered polite in the industry, pronto.

In a face-to-face pitch in a formal meeting, agents tend to be more selective than in a hallway pitch. (I know; counterintuitive, isn’t it?) Again, the reason is time. In a ten-minute meeting, there is actual leisure to consider what you are saying, to weigh the book’s merits — in short, enough time to save themselves time down the line by rejecting your book now.

Why might this seem desirable to them? Well, think about it: if you send it to them at their request, someone in their office is ethically required to spend time reading it, right? By rejecting it on the pitch alone, they’ve just saved Millicent the screener 5 or 10 minutes.

Also, sitting down in front of an agent or editor, looking her in the eye, and beginning to talk about your book can be quite a bit more intimidating than giving a hallway pitch — it helps to be aware of that in advance, I find. In a perverse way, a formal pitch can be significantly harder to give successfully than a hallway one.

So get out there and pitch, pitch, pitch! Think of it this way: every time you buttonhole an agent and say those magic first hundred words is one less query letter you’re going to need to send out.

Take a deep breath on me, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: asking the right questions, some good news, and a goal!

It’s going to be a long one today, campers, but I can’t resist opening with a bit of good news: I sold a book yesterday!

To be precise, my agent, the fabulous Jim McCarthy of DGLM (who will be attending a certain upcoming Conference That Shall Remain Nameless), successfully marketed my next nonfiction book, a political memoir I am writing with the godmother of the first civil rights act of the 21rst century, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. It’s being acquired by a wonderful editor — and believe me, as an editor myself, my standard for wonderful is very high indeed — at a terrific independent press.

So I am THRILLED. Now I just have to write it.

Because, you see, like most NF and even most memoirs, it was sold on the basis of a proposal and the first chapter. And if that’s news to all of you memoir-writers out there, please see the WRITING MEMOIR category at right.

(Because I have a lot of material to cover today, I am going to refer to past posts, rather than explaining each point in full, as is my usual wont. If you don’t have time to check, don’t worry: I shall doubtless be revisiting many of these issues in the months to come.)

In case you’re curious about what happens after an offer is made and excepted, the agent then issues what’s called a deal memo, a 1- or 2-page document stating just the facts, ma’am: who is buying it, who the acquiring editor is, how much the advance is and how it will be paid (usually in either two or three installments; for further explanation, please see the ADVANCES category at right), the royalty rates, who owns what subsidiary rights (film, audio, book club, etc.), the area to be covered by the sale (first North American rights, first English-language rights, world rights), the length (always an issue in a book-to-be-written), the delivery date (that’s when I have to get them the finished manuscript), and the tentative publication date (when it will hit the shelves).

And all of that’s before the contract’s even written. Agents honestly do work very hard on their clients’ behalves, you know.

All very exciting, of course, and a trifle disorienting. I shall keep you posted, naturally, as the deal becomes codified.

A second bit of good news: FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Jonathan Selwood’s first novel, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, comes out today, and with what fanfare! I was in Portland a couple of weeks ago, and just look at what greeted me when I arrived at my favorite bookstore:


If having one’s name emblazoned on a terrific bookstore’s marquee isn’t a goal worth having for any writer, I should like to know what is. Congratulations, Jonathan!

For those of you who live in the Portland area, Jonathan will be reading tomorrow night (thus the marquee) at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside. He will be reading in the Seattle area in a couple of weeks, and I, for one, am looking forward to hearing him.

So there you have it: concrete visions of goals-along-the-way for YOUR writing career. Go ahead, spend a few minutes envisioning your name on that marquee and your agent calling you about an offer on your book. That’s where you’re headed, and that’s why you’re investing all this hard work in making your work professional.

It may seem a trifle silly to say that outright, but it’s tempting to focus upon only the end products of writing: the book in the reader’s hand, the royalty check in the bank account, you reading your work to a hushed crowd of avid devotees. But days like this are well worth acknowledging. If you’re in it for the long haul, believe me, celebrating the victories along the way — your own AND others’ — helps sustain you through the long, dark days of seemingly endless work.

I mention this because it fits so beautifully into today’s topic: working up nerve to approach agents to pitch. Because, you see, in the flurry of pitching and querying, signing with an agent can start to feel like the end goal, the point at which all of the hard work is going to end, rather than a victory to be celebrated along the way. Yes, you do want an agent to fall in love with your writing — but never forget that the point of having an agent is to market your book.

Which means — and this is going to seem rather funny, in a pitching situation, when you are concerned with catching an agent’s wandering eye — you should be considering if the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication.

Because believe me, the author’s work does not end when the ink dries on the agency contract: its nature merely changes.

So you’re going to want to ask some questions about who these people are, what they typically represent, and how they like to work with writers. Agenting styles are very different: some are very hands-on, line-editing the work they represent, and some prefer to, as the saying goes, “leave the writing to the writers.” Some enjoy explaining the publishing process to their clients, and some are infuriated by it.

It really is in everyone’s best interests, therefore, that such preferences be aired up front.

I know: it’s intimidating, and you don’t want to offend anybody. But remember, these people come to a conference to discover people like YOU. Don’t talk yourself out of approaching them. Yes, the deck is stacked, but that does not mean that it’s impossible to make it: writers find agents at conferences all the time.

Including, incidentally, yours truly. After asking simply mountains of very pointed questions.

Fortunately, you need not wait until your pitching appointment or you have buttonholed an agent in the hallway to ask such questions: most conferences, including this coming weekend’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named, feature panels where agents and editors talk about their work. Almost universally, the moderator will ask for questions from the audience.

Here’s your chance to ask many agents at once about what they like in a book — and in a client.

It’s a golden opportunity — yet much of the time, it’s is squandered with the too-specific question of the conference newbie who thinks this is an invitation to pitch: “Would you be interested,” such a fellow will stand up and ask, “in a book about a starship captain who finds himself marooned on a deserted planet where only mistletoe grows, and his only chance of escape is to court the ancient Druidic gods?”

Now, personally, I would probably want to take a gander at that particular book, if only for giggles, but question time at an agents’ forum is NOT an appropriate venue for pitching. You should feel free to walk up to the panelists afterward to try out your hallway pitch, but you will make a much, much better impression if you use the question time for, um, questions.

What is likely to happen when our misguided friend ignores this dictum? One of two things, depending upon the mood and generosity level of the agents so approached. If they’re feeling kind, one of them will try to turn this too-specific question into an issue of more general concern, as in, “It’s interesting that you ask that, because the SF market right now is very much geared toward…”

The other, less charitable and more common response is for the agents all to say no and the moderator to ask for the next question from the audience.

Just don’t do it.

A popular variation on this faux pas is a questioner’s standing up, describing his book, and asking how much he could expect to receive as an advance. From the writer’s point of view, this certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Yet to industry-trained ears, it says very clearly that the asker has not gone to the trouble of learning much about how publishing actually works.

Why is that so evident? Well, in the first place, advances vary wildly. Think about the deal memo: pretty much everything that has to do with the author’s cut is a matter of negotiation. Which leads to the second point: a book that attracts competitive bidding today may not interest any editor at all six months from now.

So really, when an aspiring writer asks such a question, what an agent tends to hear is, “I want you to predict the market value of a book you know absolutely nothing about.”

Again: not the best idea. You’re going to want to keep your question general and, if at all possible, have everyone on the panel answer it, so you don’t appear to be targeting one of them for something he said. (It happens.)

Another common faux pas is to challenge what an agent on the panel has already said. Often, the writers who go this route will cite another source, for added credibility, “You said X ten minutes ago, but Miss Snark says…”

This question format will not help you win friends and influence people.

Why? Well, no one particularly likes to be contradicted in front of a roomful of people, right? Being told that someone out there is laying down rules of her conduct is far more likely to raise hackles than provide clarification.

And it’s not as though the average agent reads the many writing blogs out there, even if she happens to write one herself. (As does, I believe, Rachel Vater, also scheduled to attend the CTSRN) So any name you cite — up to and including Miss S’s, who enjoys a mixed reputation amongst agents — is unlikely to seem like an unimpeachable source.

Although you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to my agent with, “I really like Anne Mini’s blog,” should you be so moved.

As long, that is, as you did not add immediately thereafter, “and she says that what you told us before is wrong.” Trust me: as an opening gambit, it just doesn’t work.

So what should you ask that intimidating row of agents? A few suggestions that designed to elicit information you would probably have a hard time gleaning anywhere else — and will generally provoke interesting comments, rather than the usual bleak diagnoses of how tough the market is right now:

“What was the last book each of you picked up at a conference? What made that book stand out from the others you heard pitched?” (I love this question, as it gives pitchers hints about how the agents like to hear a book described.)

“Who is your favorite client, and why?” (This is a question they tend to love, as it enables them to promote a client’s work. Make a great show of writing down names.)

“How long do you stick with a book you really love that’s not selling before you give up on it?” (In many ways, this is the single most important thing to know about an agent with whom you’re considering signing — and it’s an agent-friendly question, because they almost invariably answer it by talking about a pet project.)

“How is selling a first-time author’s book different from selling the work of someone more established?” (They’l like this question less, but it will give you a pretty good idea of who has sold a debut novel lately and who hasn’t.)

“Are you looking for a career-long relationship with a writer when you consider a submission, or are you only thinking about the book in front of you? If you thinking in the long term, how often do you expect your clients to produce new books?” (This last varies a LOT.)

“How much feedback to you give your clients before you submit their books? Do you usually ask for a revision before you send a book out? How much do you like to get involved in the revision process?” (Yes, this is an enormous question, but the agents who never edit at all will usually say so immediately.)

“Is there any kind of book you specifically do NOT want to hear pitched this weekend?” (Hey, someone’s got to pull the pin on that grenade. Sometimes they will answer this question unsolicited, however, so do keep an ear out during the forum.)

What’s the worst query letter you ever got, and why?” (This is a great question to ask if you’re not planning to do any hallway pitching. The responses are usually pretty colorful. It’s also worth asking if they have any automatic red flags for submissions.)

These are pretty fundamental questions, but you are well within your rights to ask them. Every agent has a different representation style, and you will want to know about any pet peeves or preferences before you stick your pages under their respective noses, right?

You’ll be pleased to hear, after all that, that there is really only one question that someone absolutely needs to ask at the editors’ forum — although most of the questions above will work in this context, too. Since most publishing houses now have policies forbidding their editors from picking up unagented work, everyone in the room will be happier in the long run if you just pull the pin on the grenade:

“If you found a fabulous book here at the conference, which of you could sign the author directly, and which of you would have to refer her to an agent?”

Yes, it’s a bit in-your-face, but the fact is, the editors from houses that have this policy tend to assume that pitchers are already aware of it. Asking to know whether you’ll be pitching to someone who could act directly or not can help you streamline your pitching attempts.

Don’t be afraid: you’re there to learn how to market your work better, and they are there to pick up new writers. You are not a second-class citizen begging the nobility for a favor, as so many first-time pitchers seem to think: you are trying to find the best collaborators for your writing career.

As Francis I of France put it: “The sun shines for me as for others. I should very much like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share of the world.”

You deserve to be heard, in short. Don’t let ’em intimidate you.

Tomorrow, a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the contents of your book bag, part II

Yesterday, I left off talking about what you should SAY at a conference, and moved on to what you should CARRY. While my last post’s advice was concerned with your comfort and welfare, today’s tips are all about networking.

Conferences are about CONFERRING, people: network!

Because you will be meeting some God-awfully interesting people, you will want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it: a business card, for instance, or comparably sized sheets from your home printer.

I mention this now, so you may prepare in advance. Having to scrabble around in your tote bag for a stray scrap of paper upon which to inscribe your vitals every time you meet someone nice gets old FAST.

Besides, if you file a Schedule C to claim your writing as a business, the cost of having the cards made is usually tax-deductible — and no, you don’t have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. Talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with artists.

Seriously, it is VERY worth your while to have some inexpensive business cards made, or to print some up at home, for two excellent reasons. First, it’s always a good idea to be able to hand your contact info to an agent or editor who expresses interest in your work. They don’t often ask for it, but if they do — in a situation, say, where an editor from a major press who is not allowed to pick up an unagented book REALLY wants to hook you up with an agent — it’s best to be prepared.

Second, unless you make a point of sitting by yourself in a corner for the entire conference, you are probably going to meet other writers that you like — maybe even some with whom you would like to exchange chapters, start a writers’ group, or just keep in contact to remind yourself that we’re all in this together.

The easier you make it for them to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact. It’s just that simple.

I would urge you to avoid the extremely common mistake of walking into ANY writers’ gathering thinking that the only people it is important for you to meet are the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the keynote speakers. It requires less energy, true, but it is a tad elitist, not to say short-sighted: in the long run, casting a wider acquaintance net will pay off better for you.

For one very, very simple reason: the more writer friends you have, the easier it is to learn from experience. Why make your own mistakes, when you can learn from your friends’, and they from yours? What better source for finding out which agents are really nice to writers, and which are not? And who do you think is going to come to your book signings five years from now?

Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it — I once spent several hours stranded in a small airport with Ann Rule, and she is an absolutely delightful conversationalist. Especially if you happen to have an abnormally great interest in blood spatter patterns. But I digress.

But try not to let star-watching distract you from interacting with the less well-known writers teaching the classes — who are there to help YOU, after all — or the writer sitting next to you in class. I have met some of the best writers I know by the simple dint of turning to the person rummaging through the packaged teas on the coffee table and saying, “So, what do you write?”

Remember those magic first hundred words? This is the time to use ’em.

Believe me, it’s worth doing. Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves — realistically, can you rule out the possibility that the person sitting next to you in the session on writer’s block ISN’T the next Stephen King? — and don’t you want to be able to say that you knew them when?

And even if this were not true (but it is), writing is an isolating business — for every hour that even the most commercially successful writer spends interacting with others in the business, she spends hundreds alone, typing away. The more friends you can make who will understand your emotional ups and downs as you work through scenes in a novel, or query agents, or gnaw your fingernails down to the knuckle, waiting for an editor to decide whether to buy your book, the better, I say.

Even the most charmed writer, the one with both the best writing AND the best pure, dumb luck, has days of depression. Not all of us are lucky enough to live and work with people who appreciate the necessity of revising a sentence for the sixth time. Writers’ conferences are the ideal places to find friends to support you, the ones you call when your nearest and dearest think you are insane for sinking your heart and soul into a book that may not see print for a decade.

So stuff some business cards into your conference bag along with a folder containing several copies of your synopsis AND five copies of the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents do this, but many, when they are seriously taken with a pitch, will ask to see a few pages on the spot, to see if the writing is good enough to justify the serious time commitment of reading the whole book.

They don’t like, you see, to buy a pig in a poke.

Having these pages ready to whip out at a moment’s notice will make you look substantially more professional than if you blush and murmur something about printing it out, or simply hand the agent your entire manuscript.

Don’t, however, bother to bring your entire book with you to the conference, UNLESS you are a finalist in one of the major categories. You will never, ever, EVER miss an opportunity by offering to mail it instead.

In fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is true, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.

Why the exception for the contest finalists? Well, agents tend to be pretty competitive people. The primary reason that an agent would ask for the whole thing right away, in my experience, is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it — and the writers who tend to be the objects of such heart-rending scenes of jealousy are almost invariably those sporting finalist ribbons.

So while I have known agents to read a chapter or two of the winners’ work in their hotel rooms, the chances of its happening in the normal run of a pitch day are roughly the same as finding the complete skeleton of a dinosaur in your back yard.

It could happen — but it doesn’t  really make sense to plan your life around the possibility.

Otherwise, don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. If you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that, but if you can at all manage it, choose the first five pages of the book as your sample — it just exudes more confidence in your writing, as these are the first pages a screener would see in a submission.

From the writer’s POV, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so although I hammer on this point about twice a month here, I’m going to say it again: as with everything else you submit to any industry pro, make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format.

If the fact that there is a standard format for manuscripts — and that it does NOT resemble the formatting of published books — is news to you, rush into the archives at right immediately, and take a gander at the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS. Seriously, this is not a moment when you want your pages to cry out, “The author’s unfamiliar with the standards of the industry!”

Oh, and clever and forward-thinking Dave wrote in yesterday to add another item to your book bag’s must-have list: a printed-out confirmation of your hotel reservation, if you’re not attending a conference that permits you to sleep in your own bed at night. For a fuller explanation of why, please see the comments on yesterday’s post, but for now, suffice it to say: it is not at all unheard-of for a hotel hosting a conference to over-book. Paper confirmation is still a good idea, even in this electronic age.

Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit about how to organize your time in order to get the most out of a conference. In the meantime, keep practicing those pitches, and keep up the good work!

Guest blogger Jonathan Selwood: Offbeat or Offensive?

Hello, campers —
Anne here, bringing you your promised treat for hanging on through Book Marketing 101: a guest post from the subversively hilarious author Jonathan Selwood. Since Jonathan’s first novel, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, is coming out from Harper Perennial next week, I’ve asked him to share his insights on how to market offbeat fiction.

He generously agreed — and the results surpassed even my high expectations. This is one seriously creative marketer.

If anyone is qualified to enlighten us on the subject of selling controversial writing, it’s Jonathan. Check out the blurb for his book:

For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner.

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

Now that, my friends, is a PITCH. Take it away, Jonathan!


I don’t think I’m going to shock anyone if I say that it’s difficult to market an “offbeat” novel. The truth is it’s difficult to market any novel, and the less an author’s work fits into one of the currently hot genres, the more complicated the task becomes. So how does one best go about it? I have no #%$#&@% clue. What I do know is how I’ve tried to go about it.

As a first-time novelist with a dark comedy that at least one blogger described as “stumbling drunk through a fun house,” I began my marketing endeavors by looking online to see what some of the other less mainstream authors (read: mentally ill) like myself were doing.

I soon found that the answer was not much. Since the first thing I do when I hear about a new writer is start Googling, I was baffled to find that many of my favorite writers didn’t have websites or even MySpace pages. This seemed… insane.

I knew that if my little dark comedy was going to stand out in a tabloid world glutted with photos of pantyless starlets snorting cocaine, I’d have to do more than just send out a few reviewer copies and hope for the best. I also knew that the only way to get myself to put actual effort into marketing was to break out a fifth of Old Crow and try to have fun with it.

My first step was to design a webpage. Since I wanted the same kind of control over it that I have over my writing (I’m one of those sub-clinical OCD rewriters), I decided to learn HTML and design it myself.

Was this an efficient use of my time? No. In fact, it was a ridiculously stupid use of my time. I highly don’t recommend designing your own website unless you already know how to do it. In any case, at least I ended up with something that does not remotely resemble anybody else’s website.

When it came to writing my bio, I decided to forgo the usual banal listing of my MFA degree and utterly obscure publications, and instead compete directly with all those pantyless tabloid starlets by highlighting the nude cocaine parties of my own Hollywood youth. (Note: I’ve since discovered that if you Google “nude cocaine parties,” my bio comes up number one!)

I also had yet to garner any reviews (the novel was still in the editing phase), so I posted a bunch of embarrassing photos of my friends and just made up some reviews for a Readers Like You section. Why my friends allowed me to do this is beyond me…

Once I’d wasted so much time learning HTML, I decided I might as well design some more sites. Since the title of my novel is The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, I quickly snapped up the domain and put up a bogus site purporting to scientifically explain said “Pinball Theory of Apocalypse.”

I think my favorite part is the description of what will happen when Pluto loses its stable orbit and collides with Uranus: “Once impacted, Uranus will quickly stretch out and expand into a superheated cloud of molten rock and toxic gas large enough to engulf the entire inner solar system.”

Since the protagonist of my novel becomes LA’s “It Girl Artist” by painting replicas of classic artwork with the faces changed to celebrities, I thought I’d also use the magic of Photoshop to put up some of her artwork in a gallery site. Macaulay Culkin as Blue Boy is my favorite, but I also like Tom and Katie as American Gothic.

It was at this point that too much coffee and perhaps too little lithium salt combined to send my marketing approach off into… well, a rather bizarre direction. In the novel, my protagonist is at one point pressured by her sociopathic art dealer to do an ad campaign for the hottest new craze in plastic surgery—vaginal rejuvenation. A deranged friend of mine here in Portland suggested that I actually create a joke brochure for vaginal rejuvenation.

The idea sounded so completely wrong, that I sat down and wrote the copy for it immediately. Another friend of mine in New York was kind enough to do the design work, and within a week, I had a lovely tri-fold brochure advertising everything from “Labial Microdermabrasion” to complete “Hymenoplasties.”

I then emailed a PDF of the brochure to my editor and asked if there was any way we could send out some of the brochures with the reviewer copies.

“Wait…You want me to send out a brochure for vaginal rejuvenation along with the reviewer copies of your novel?” she asked.


There was a short pause.

“I love it.” She laughed.

(Did I mention that my editor rocks?)

In any case, Harper Perennial printed up the brochures and (still trying to justify all the time I spent learning HTML) I put up the Selwood Institute website.

Now you may be wondering whether sending out a vaginal rejuvenation brochure might perhaps backfire with some of the more humor-impaired reviewers. Well, the answer is, yes, it did—in fact, I’m still getting hate email.

However, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse is a dark comedy, and anybody without a dark sense of humor is obviously going to hate it anyway. When you write something offbeat, you shouldn’t hope to please everyone—that’s what the mild-mannered mainstream is for.

Take a writer like Charles Bukowski (not that I’m making any direct comparison between my own work and his). The fact that so many people truly hate him only makes his fans that much more fanatical. When people came to protest his readings, he would blow them kisses.

The final move in my unconventional campaign was to set up a MySpace page —which is actually pretty damn conventional these days. Not only does it give me another place to try to hook readers with my bio, but it’s given me invaluable insight into just how disturbed my potential readership is.

In other words, I’m thinking about investing in some new deadbolts and a stun gun.

I should conclude by saying that my book has yet to be released, and I have no idea whether any of these techniques will work to boost sales. What I do know is that the next time I try to get a “straight” job, I’m totally #$#%$@. Seriously, who the hell is gonna hire the “nude cocaine party” guy?

Anne again: thank you, Jonathan! If that doesn’t get all of our marketing synapses firing, nothing will. In the midst of marketing season, it’s a timely reminder that knowing who your target audience is — and isn’t — is crucial to promoting a novel at every stage.

If Jonathan’s book piqued your interest, but you live in a part of the world that might frown upon your marching into the nearest bookstore and announcing, “Give me the book by that nude cocaine party guy!” here’s a good independent bookstore that just loves to ship things discreetly in plain wrappers.

Book marketing 101: the pitch proper, part VII: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the… wait, why is that agent’s knee jerking like that?

Yesterday, I tackled a reader’s question about pitching a novel that features multiple protagonists. Since I had a lot to say on the subject, I didn’t quite finish — but conveniently enough, the part I left for today dovetails nicely with a few other readers’ concerns about what should and shouldn’t make its way into the formal 2-minute pitch.

Last time, I went over a few reasons that it’s a better idea to pitch the overall story of a multiple perspective book, rather than try to replicate the various protagonists’ personal story arcs. Yes, it tends to be less confusing for the hearer this way, but there’s another very good reason not to overload the pitch with too much in-depth discussion of HOW the story is told, rather than what the story IS.

A writer has chosen the multiple POV narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the writer is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book. If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your pitch may raise some red flags.

So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view. If you really get stuck about how to tell the overarching story, you could conceivably pick one or two of the protagonists and present it as their story for pitching purposes.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “isn’t that misleading?”

Not really. Remember, the point of the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book: it is to get the agent or editor to ask to READ it. No one on the other side of the pitching table seriously expects to learn everything about a book in a 2-minute speech.

If they could, how much of a storyline could there possibly be? Why, in fact, would it take a whole book to tell it?

Believe me, this strategy is not going to come back and bite you later, at least not enough to fret over. After an agent or editor has heard a hundred pitches at a conference this weekend, and two hundred the weekend after that, he’s not going to say when he receives your submission, “Hey! This has 4 more characters than the author told me it did!”

I’ll get back to the desirability of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth a little later in this post, but for now, let’s move on to the next reader question.

Insightful long-term reader Janet asks: “What do you do when you realize that you might have to change the structure of the novel? Pitch the old way?”

I hear this question all the time during conference season, Janet, and the answer really goes back to the pervasive writerly belief I touched upon briefly above, the notion that an agent or editor is going to remember any given pitch in enough detail a month or two down the road to catch discrepancies between the pitch and the book.

Remember the concept of pitch fatigue? At a conference, the average agent or editor might be hearing as many as hundred pitches a day. Multiply that by the number of days of the conference — and multiply THAT by the number of conferences a particular agent or editor attends in a season. Not to mention the queries and submissions she sees on a daily basis.

I hate to bruise anyone’s ego, but now that you’ve done the math, how likely is it that she’s going to retain the specifics of, say, pitch #472?

The upside: you don’t really need to worry if your story changes between the time you pitch or query it and when you submit the manuscript pages. Writers rewrite and restructure their books all the time; it’s not considered particularly sinister.

That being said, your best bet in the case of a book in the throes of change is to tell the story that you feel is the most compelling. If you haven’t yet begun restructuring, it will probably be the old one, as it’s the one with which you are presumably most familiar, but if you can make a good yarn out of the changes you envision, it’s perfectly legitimate to pitch that instead. It really is up to you.

As long as the story is a grabber.

The final questions du jour, which the various askers have requested be presented anonymously, concern the ethics of not mentioning those aspects of the book one is afraid might negatively influence a pitch-hearer’s view of the book.

I refer, of course, to the book’s length and whether it is actually finished.

Let me take the second one first. There is a tacit expectation, occasionally seen in print in conference guides, that a writer will not market a novel until it is completed. This is most often heard as prevailing wisdom that you should have a full draft before you pitch, in case an agent or editor asks for the entire thing on the spot.

But as I have mentioned earlier in this series, that doesn’t happen all that often anymore. 99.9% of the time, even an agent who is extremely excited about a project will prefer that you mail it — and as those of you who have submitted before already know, it can often be months before an agent reads a requested manuscript.

Which means, in practical terms, that you need not send it right away — and that, potentially, means some time that could conceivably be used for writing. After all, if you’re going to mail it anyway…

And everyone in the industry is gone on vacation between the second week of August and after Labor Day…

And if you could really get away with sending requested materials anytime between now and Christmas…

And if they’ve asked for the first three chapters only…

Or, to put it in terms of querying: if the agencies are going to take a month to respond to my letter… and then ask for the first 50 pages…

Starting to get the picture? Naturally, I would never advise anyone to pitch a book that isn’t essentially done, but the fact is, it may well be months before the person sitting across the table from you in a pitch meeting asks to see the entire manuscript.

And you know what? You’re under no obligation to send it out instantly, even then.

Although I would not encourage any of you to join the 40% of writers who are asked to submit requested materials but never do, anyone who has ever written a novel can tell you that where writing is concerned, there is finished — as in when you’ve made it all the way through the story and typed the words THE END on the last page — and then there is done — as in when you stop tinkering with it.

Then there’s REALLY done, the point at which you have revised it so often that you have calculated the exact trajectory of the pen you will need to lob toward Manhattan to knock your agent in the head hard enough to get him to stop asking for additional changes.

And then there’s REALLY, REALLY done, when your editor has changed your title for the last time and has stopped lobbying for you to transform the liberal lesbian sister into a neo-conservative professional squash player who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan in his spare time.

But frankly, from the point of view of the industry, no manuscript is truly finished until it is sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble. Until the cover is attached to the book, it is an inherently malleable thing.

The fact that everyone concerned is aware of this, I think, renders a bit of sophistry on the writer’s part over the question of whether a manuscript is completed somewhat pardonable.

This does NOT mean, however, that it is in your best interests to waltz into a pitch meeting and ANNOUNCE that the book isn’t finished yet — and because agents and editors are, as a group, perfectly aware that writers are prone to levels of tinkering that would make Dante’s inferno appear uncomplex, it’s actually not a question that gets asked much.

If you are asked? Sophistry, my dears, sophistry: “I’m not quite happy with it yet, but I’m very close.”

You are close to finishing it, aren’t you?

The question of length is a bit more tortured, as it tends to generate a stronger knee-jerk response in pitches and query letters than the question of time. At every writers’ conference I have ever attended, some stalwart soul stands up and asks how long a book is too long.

And then half the room gasps at the response.

I hesitate to give limits, for fear of triggering precisely the type of literalist angst I deplored a few days ago, but here are a few ballpark estimates. First novels tend to run in the 65,000 – 100,000 word range — or, to put it another way, roughly 250 – 400 pages. (That’s estimated word count, by the way, 250 x # of pages in Times New Roman, standard format.)

Standards do vary a bit by genre, though — check the recent offerings in yours to get a general sense.

And remember, these are general guidelines, not absolute prohibitions. Few agency screeners will toss out a book if it contains a page 401,

Do be aware, though, that after a book inches over the 125,000 word mark (500 pages, more or less), it does become substantially more expensive to bind and print. So if at all possible, you will want to stay under that benchmark.

And not just for marketing reasons, or at any rate not just to preclude the possibility of a knee-jerk response to a book’s length. If a manuscript is too long (or too short, but that is rarer since the advent of the computer), folks in the industry often have the same response as they do to a manuscript that’s not in standard format: they assume that the writer isn’t familiar with the prevailing norms.

And that, unfortunately, usually translates into the submission’s being taken less seriously.

Before any of you go running off madly to chop or extend your opus, do be aware that neither a pitcher nor a querier is under any actual obligation to state the length of the manuscript up front. I’m not recommending that you actually lie, of course — but if the question is not asked, it will not behoove you to offer the information.

Remember, part of the art of the pitch involves knowing when to shut your trap. You will not, after all, be hooked up to a lie detector throughout the course of your pitch.

(Although that would be an interesting intimidation strategy, one I have not yet seen tried on the conference circuit.)

Yes, I know, many experts will tell you that you MUST include word count in your query, but if your book is longer than expected, this is not advice that will help you, is it? Although many agents say they like to see it — for the simple reason that it makes it easier to weed out the longest and the shortest manuscripts — I’ve never yet seen a good query rejected simply because it didn’t include length information.

Whew! We covered a lot of ground today, didn’t we? Since you’ve all been so virtuous throughout this long and demanding master class on marketing, I have a great big treat for you tomorrow, my friends. Call it a reward for all of that effort over the past few weeks.

Speaking of which, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the pitch proper, part VI, or, what about those multiple protagonists?

Yesterday’s post about hyper-literalism lifted a weight off my weary shoulders, campers: I feel like the kid who pointed out that the emperor was slightly under-dressed. It does become rather a strain, conference after conference, year after year, not to stand in the back of the room and bellow, “But don’t knock yourself out following that advice to the letter!”

I guess it’s a corollary of what I find myself saying here every few months: it’s honestly not a good idea to take anyone’s word as Gospel, even if the speaker purports to be an expert.

Perhaps especially if.

Logically, this sterling advice must apply to yours truly, right, and what I say here? In that spirit, I’m going to tackle a couple of excellent questions about the pitch proper sent in by readers. (Keep ’em coming, folks!)

Sharp-eyed reader Colleen wrote in to ask how one adapts the 2-minute pitch format to stories with multiple protagonists. That’s such a good question — and such an appropriate one, after last month’s lengthy discussions of the particular problems faced by novelists juggling a mob of lead characters — that I wanted to address it here, rather than just in the comments section.

Here’s the short answer: tell the story of the book, not the characters.

Does that sound like an oxymoron? Allow me to explain.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — it has to be, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be pitched as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always a point of commonality.

That commonality should be the focus of your pitch, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and pitch that.

Why? Well, there’s a practical reason — and a different kind of practical reason.

Let’s take the most straightforward one first: from a pitch-viewer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together.

So if you started to pitch a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Melissa is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Artic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in two minutes doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my June 14 post on pitch fatigue.

But it’s easy to forget that, isn’t it, when you’re trying to explain a book that has several protagonists? From the writer’s POV, the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told.

And rightly so, really: the reader’s experience of the story is inextricably tied up with how it is written.

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as, “Well, a missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.”

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves. And that, really, is the charm of the book.

So does that mean it would be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?

In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.

So even though the elevator speech above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use the speech above, then add, “The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.”

Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.

Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the story of each of the major characters: POV choices are a WRITING issue, not a storyline issue per se. And while you will want to talk about some non-story issues in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself.

In other words, the agent or editor will learn HOW you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.

Which is why, in case you are curious, so many agents seem to zone out when a writer begins a pitch (and believe me, many do) with, “Well, I have these three protagonists…”

It’s an understandable thing to say, of course, because from the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are monumentally important. But from the marketing POV, they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? When’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just yearn for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.

I have a bit more to say on this subject, but if I don’t post this soon, it will be tomorrow’s blog, not today’s. (Speaking of being over-literal… and over-tired) Get a good night’s rest, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: capturing the spirit of the pitch, not the letter

I’m back from my writing retreat! Thanks, everybody, for being so nice about my working hiatus. I actually had a near-nightmare during it that 1400 people had written into the blog, pointing out some truly fundamental yet somehow life-threatening aspect of the pitch I had forgotten to mention…so it was a great relief to log on today and see that the vast majority of comments were just the usual spam promising a better sex life, low-cost car loans, and nude pictures of celebrities.

One of the dangers of being embroiled for too long in the editorial process, either on one’s own work or others’, I find, is becoming a bit too literal in one’s thinking. Which, I suppose, is just a formal way of saying that my week of heavy-duty revision has left me a touch myopic, both literally and figuratively.

How myopic, you ask? Well, a friend and her 6-year-old daughter were kind enough to give me, my computer, and my many bottles of mineral water (revision is thirsty work, after all) a ride back from my far-flung retreat site. Early in the drive, my friend missed a turn, and made a slight reference to her Maker.

Nothing soul-blistering, mind you, just a little light taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Fresh from vacation Bible school, the little girl pointed out that her mother had just broken a commandment. (Apparently, they hadn’t yet gotten to the one about honoring thy father and thy mother.)

“Not if God wasn’t capitalized,” I said without thinking. “If it’s a lower-case g, she could have been referring to any god. Apollo, for instance, or Zeus. For all we know, they may kind of like being called upon in moments of crisis.”

Now, that was a pretty literal response, and one that I now recognize is probably going to generate a certain amount of chagrin when the little girl repeats all or part of it in her next Sunday school class. Not that I wasn’t right, of course — but I should have let the situation determine what is an appropriate response.

Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

Hyper-literalism can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress during conference prep as well. (You were wondering how I was going to work this back to pitching, weren’t you?) In part, that’s the nature of the beast: since aspiring writers are not told nearly enough about what to expect from a pitching appointment (or a potential response to a query), they tend to follow what few guidelines they are given to the letter.

And to a certain extent, that makes perfect sense: when going into an unfamiliar, stressful situation, it’s natural to want to cling to rules.

The trouble is, as I have pointed out before in this series, not everything writers are told about pitching, querying, or even — dare I say it? — what does and doesn’t sell in writing is applicable, or even up-to-date. Adhering too closely to rules that many not be appropriate to the moment can be a liability.

Anyone who has ever attended a writers’ conference has seen the result. The causalities of literalism abound.

There’s the writer who lost precious hours of sleep last night over the realization that her prepared pitch is four lines long, instead of three; there’s the one who despairs because he’s been told that he should not read his pitch, but memorize it. The guy over here is working so many dashes, commas, and semicolons into his three-sentence pitch that it goes on for six minutes with only three periods. In another corner mopes the romance writer who has just heard an agent say that she’s not looking for Highland romances anymore — which, naturally, the writer hears as NO ONE’s looking to acquire them.

You get the picture. By the end of the conference, after the truisms all of these individuals have been shared, bounced around, and mutated like the messages in the children’s game of Telephone, and after days on end of every word each attending agent, editor, and/or teacher says being treated with the reverence of Gospel, there is generally a whole lot of rule-mongering going on. As writers listen to litanies of what they are doing wrong, and swap secrets they have learned elsewhere, the atmosphere becomes palpably heavy with depression.

Take a deep breath. The industry is not trying to trick you into giving the wrong answer.

What it is trying to do is get you to adhere to under-advertised publishing norms. And while some of those norms are indeed inflexible — the rigors of standard manuscript format, for instance — most of the time, you are fine if you adhere to the spirit of the norm, rather than its letter.

In other words: try not to take every piece of advice you hear literally.

For instance, those of you who are freaking out about a few extra words in your elevator speech: don’t. It needs to be short, but it is far better to take an extra ten seconds to tell your story well than to cut it so short that you tell it badly.

Yes, you read that correctly: no agent or editor in the world is going to be standing over you while you pitch, abacus in hand, ready to shout at you to stop once you reach 101 words in a hallway pitch, any more than they will be counting its periods.

Admittedly, they may begin to get restive if you go on too long — but in conversation, length is not measured in number of words or frequency of punctuation. It is measured in the passage of time.

Let me repeat that, because I think some reader’s concerns on the subject are based in a misunderstanding born of the ubiquity of the three-sentence pitch: the purpose of keeping the elevator speech to 3-4 sentences is NOT because there is some special virtue in that number of sentences, but to make sure that the elevator speech is SHORT, brief enough that you could conceivably blurt it out in 30-45 seconds.

To recast that in graphic terms, the elevator speech should be short enough to leave your lips comprehensibly between the time the elevator shuts on you and the agent of your dreams on the ground floor and when it opens again on the second floor.

Remember, though, that no matter what you may have heard, AN ELEVATOR SPEECH IS NOT A FORMAL PITCH, but a shortened version of it. The elevator speech, hallway pitch, and pitch proper are primarily differentiated by the length of time required to say them.

So if you feel the urge to be nit-picky, it actually makes far more sense to TIME your pitch than it does to count the words.

Try to keep your elevator speech under 45 seconds, your hallway pitch to roughly 60 – 75 seconds max, and your pitch proper to 2 minutes or so. While these may not seem like big differences, you can say a lot in 30 seconds.

But don’t, I beg you, rend your hair in the midnight hours between now and your next pitching opportunity trying to figure out how to cut your pitch from 2 minutes, 15 seconds down to 2, or plump it up from a minute seventeen to 2, just because I advise that as a target length.

Remember: adhere to the spirit, not the letter.

How? Well, here’s that elevator speech I wrote a couple of weeks ago for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

Because I love you people, I went back and timed how long it would take me to say: one minute two seconds, counting gestures and vocal inflections that I would consider necessary for an effective performance.

That’s perfectly fine, for either a hallway speech or pitch proper. Actually, for a pitch proper (and really, as soon as I finish addressing these issues, I am going to get around to defining it), I might add another sentence or two of glowing detail.

To be fair, though, it is a bit long for an elevator speech, if I intended to include any of the first hundred words as well. If I were planning to walk around the halls of PNWA, for instance, buttonholing agents for informal hallway pitches, I might try to shear off ten seconds or so, so I could add at the beginning that the book is women’s fiction and the title.

Oh, and to have the time to indicate that my parents loved me enough to give me a name, and manners enough to share it with people when I first meet them. But seriously, I would not lose any sleep over those extra ten seconds. Nor should you.

To do so would be a literal reaction to the dicta of the proponents of the three-sentence pitch, those scary souls who have made many writers frightened of adding interesting or even necessary details to their pitches. They don’t do this to be malicious, really: they are espousing the virtue of brevity, which is indeed desirable.

It is not, however, the only virtue a pitch should have, any more than every single-page letter in the world is automatically a stellar query.

If you’re marketing a novel, you need to demonstrate two things: that this is a good story, and that you are a good storyteller. Similarly, if you are pitching a NF book, you need to show in your pitch that this is a compelling topic, and that you are the person to write about it.

As any good storyteller can tell you, compelling storytelling lies largely in the scintillating details. I have been listening to writers’ pitches for significantly longer than I have been giving them myself (in addition to my adult professional experience, I also spent part of my wayward youth trailing a rather well-known writer around to SF conventions), so I can tell you with authority: far more of them fail due to being full of generalities than because they have an extra fifteen seconds’ worth of fascinating details.

Embrace the spirit of brevity, not the letter. If you must add an extra second or two in order to bring in a particularly striking visual image, or to mention a plot point that in your opinion makes your book totally unlike anything else out there, go ahead and do it.

Revel in this being the one and only time that any professional editor will EVER tell you this: try not to be too anal-retentive about adhering to pre-set guidelines. It will only make you tense.

It’s nice to be back, my friends. Keep up the good work.

Book marketing 101: the pitch proper, part IV: what you are — and are not — trying to achieve

I dropped by a writers’ conference the other day — not to pitch, thank goodness, but to visit writer friends who don’t make it to my time zone very often. (One of the great advantages of spending years bopping around the conference circuit, taking some classes and teaching others, is that I have made friends with so many terrific writers all over the country.) And, lo and behold, before I had been conference-dedicated soil for an hour, I was coaching someone on how to pitch.

I know: out of character for me, eh?

I can’t seem to help myself these days — and not, I must confess, because I think that most of the pitch preparation information out there for writers, like the querying info was in the pre-Miss Snark era, is fairly cursory and often outdated. Hard as it may be to believe if you’re new to the pitch-constructing process, once you get the hang of it, it’s actually kind of amusing to come up with pitches for other people’s books. Like any other skill, it gets easier with practice.

Admittedly, it’s also much more fun when one is doing it recreationally, rather than professionally. (In case you need any additional incentive to get out there and pitch or query your book vigorously and often, I can safely say that one of the best things about having an agent is never having to pitch or query one’s own work again. It honestly is quite a relief.)

The timing of this impromptu coaching session was very apt, because it reminded me that I should address a couple of the more common conceptual stumbling-blocks writers tend to encounter while prepping their elevator speeches and formal pitches.

The first, and one I have dealt with a bit before, is coming to terms with the necessity of marketing one’s writing at all. From an artistic perspective, the primary issue should be the quality of the writing, of course, followed distantly by the inherent interest of the story.

Naturally, it comes as something of a shock to learn that one must make the case that this is not only a great yarn, but one that will fit into the current book market neatly, BEFORE anyone in the industry is willing to take a gander at the actual writing.

I know, I know: it seems backwards. As I believe I have mentioned before, I did not set up the prevailing conditions for writers. If I ran the universe — which, annoyingly, I evidently still don’t — writers would be able to skip the pitch-and-query stage entirely, simply submitting the manuscripts directly with no marketing materials, to allow the writing to speak for itself. Every submitter would get thoughtful, helpful, generous-minded feedback, too, and enchanted cows would wander the streets freely, giving chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk to anyone who wanted it.

Being omniscient, I would naturally be able to tell you why the industry is set up this way. Heck, I’d be so in the know that I could explain why Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is so hostile to the conventions of punctuation that he wrote an entire novel, SEEING, without a single correctly punctuated piece of dialogue. I would be THAT good.

But I do not, alas, run the universe, however, so Señor Saramago and certain aspects of the publishing industry remain mysteries eternal. (Would it kill him to use a period at the end of a sentence occasionally? Or a question mark at the end of a question?)

But I digress. The fact is, if a writer hopes to get published, the marketing step is a necessity, NO MATTER HOW TALENTED YOU ARE. Even if you were Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and Madame de Staël rolled into one, in the current writers’ market, you would need to approach many agents and/or editors to find the right match for your work.

So please, I implore you, do not make the very common mistake of believing that not being picked up by the first agent whom you pitch or query means that your work is not marketable. Or adhering to the even more common but less often spoken belief that if a book were REALLY well written, it would somehow be magically exempted from the marketing process.

Part of learning to pitch — or query — successfully entails accepting the fact that from the industry’s point of view, you are presenting a PRODUCT to be SOLD. So it is a TEENY bit counter-productive to respond — as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time pitchers do — to the expectation that you should be able to talk about your book in market-oriented terms as evidence that you are dealing with Philistines who hate literature.

You’re not, and they don’t. Selling books is how agents and editors make their livings, after all: they HAVE to be concerned about whether there’s a market for a book they are considering. They’re not being shallow; they’re being practical.

Okay, MOST of them are not just being shallow. My point is, a pitching appointment is not the proper venue for trying to change the status quo. Querying or pitching is hard enough to do well without simultaneously decrying the current realities of book publishing.

Selling is a word that many writers seem to find distasteful when applied to trying to land an agent, as if there were no real distinction between selling one’s work (most of the time, the necessary first step to the world’s reading it) and selling out (which entails a compromise of principle.)

When we speak of marketing amongst ourselves, it’s with a slight curl of the lip, an incipient sneer, as if the mere fact of signing with an agent or getting a book published would be the final nail in the coffin of artistic integrity. While practically everyone who writes admires at least one or two published authors — all of whom, presumably, have to deal with this issue at one time or another — the prospect of compromising one’s artistic vision haunts many a writer’s nightmares.

That’s a valid fear, I suppose, but allow me to suggest another, less black-and-white possibility: fitting the square peg of one’s book into the round holes of marketing can be an uncomfortable process. But that doesn’t mean it is deadly to artistic integrity — and it doesn’t mean that any writer, no matter how talented, can legitimately expect to be commercially successful without going through that process.

That is not to say there are not plenty of good reasons for writers to resent how the business side of the industry works — there are, and it’s healthy to gripe about them. Resent it all you want privately, or in the company of other writers.

But do not, I beg you, allow that resentment to color the pitch you ultimately give. It will not make you come across as serious about your work — as it tends to do amongst other writers, admittedly — and actually, it’s likely to insult the very people who could help you get beyond the pitching and querying stage. To an agent’s ears, such complaints tend to sound more like a lack of understanding of how books actually get published than well-founded critique of a genuinely difficult-to-navigate system.

Besides, neither a pitch meeting nor a query letter is primarily about writing, really: they’re both about convincing agents and editors that here is a story or topic that can sell to a particular target audience.

Yes, you read that correctly. Contrary to what the vast majority of aspiring writers believe, the goal of the pitch (and the query letter) is NOT to make the business side of the industry fall in love with your WRITING, per se — it’s to get the agent or editor to whom it is addressed to ASK to see the written pages.

Then, and only then, is it logically possible for them to fall in love with your prose stylings or vigorous argument. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: No one in the world can judge your writing without reading it.

This may seem obvious, outside the context of a pitching or querying experience, but it’s worth a reminder during conference season. Too many writers walk out of pitching meetings or recycle rejections from queries believing, wrongly, that they’ve just been told that they cannot write.

It’s just not true — but by the same token, a successful verbal pitch or enthusiastically-received query letter is not necessarily a ringing endorsement of writing talent, either. Both are merely the marketing materials intended to prompt a request to see the writing itself.

Which means, of course, that if you flub your pitch, you should not construe that as a reflection of your writing talent, either; logically, it cannot be, unless the agent or editor takes exception to how you construct your verbal sentences.

I know, I know, it doesn’t feel that way at the time, and frankly, the language that agents and editors tend to use at moments like these (“No one is buying X anymore,” or “I could have sold that story ten years ago, but not now.”) often DOES make it sound like a review of your writing.

But it isn’t; it can’t be.

All it can be, really, is a statement of belief about current and future conditions on the book market, not the final word about how your book will fare there. Just as with querying, if an agent or editor does not respond to your pitch, just move on to the next on your list.

Does all of that that make you feel any better about the prospect of walking into a pitch meeting? Did it, at any rate, permit you to get good and annoyed at the necessity of pitching and querying, to allow all of that frustration to escape your system?

Good. Now you’re ready to prep your pitch.

More tips on pitching follow next week, of course, but I’m going to be taking the next few days off. I wanted to make it through the bulk of the discussion of pitching before I took a break, but that fact is, I’ve been posting every day of a writing retreat. Which, I must admit, has somewhat mitigated this week’s effectiveness qua writing time.

I’ll be back on Tuesday, though, never fear, to post, answer questions, and generally hang out in our little community here. In the meantime, have a good Bastille day, everybody — ponder those pitches, and keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: prepping to make the most of a pitch session

Yesterday, I raised the specter of the mismatched pitch meeting, the kind where a writer finds are pitching a romantic comedy to an agent who concentrates exclusively upon horror. This happens more often than one might think, especially when writers rely upon conference schedulers to hook them up with the perfect agent for their work. As I suggested yesterday, this level of trust may not pay off for the writer.

And let’s face it: if you’ve paid hundreds of dollars to attend a literary conference (and possibly travel expenses on top of that), it doesn’t make sense to limit your pitching to a single, pre-scheduled pitching appointment. It’s in your best interest to find out in advance who ALL of the agents and editors who deal with your type of book are, so you may buttonhole them in the hallways and pitch.

Don’t worry; I shall be giving you some tips on how to do that without offending anyone or coming across like a stalker. For now, though, let’s just focus on how advance preparation can help you in the event of a mismatch.

I’m bringing this up now, rather than after I go over the nuts and bolts of pitching, not just because I didn’t want you to be waking up in the dead of night, hyperventilating over the prospect of a mismatched meeting, but so you may be prepared if it does happen.

Some mismatches are unavoidable, after all. Agents and editors’ preferences sometimes 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, no matter how great the book concept or writing may be.

And most writers, not having anticipated this particular possibility, will either freeze, unsure what to do, or assume that the agent or editor is lying — because if it were a really great book, he would cast ten years of marketing experience aside and grab it on the spot, right?

Wrong. Agents represent what they represent; a rejection based on book category has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book, or even of the pitch. It’s no reflection upon you or your writing. It can’t be, logically.

So what should you do if you end up in an inappropriate meeting?

You could, of course, just thank the agent and walk away immediately. This is, in fact, what most agents in this situation are hoping you will do (more on that below), but better than that, it preserves your dignity far better than the usual writer’s reaction, to argue about whether the book would be a good fit for the agency. (Which never, ever works.)

However, you’ve got time booked with a seasoned industry professional — why not use it productively? Why not ask some questions?

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. 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, feeling miserable and helpless.

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 per se, but who do you think are the top five agents who DO 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 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 he comes 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.

If you can move on to topics that you’re both comfortable discussing, trust me, the agent will appreciate it. Not enough to pick up your book, but still, enough to think of you kindly in future. And that may be helpful down the line: both agents and editors move around a LOT; just because the guy in front of you isn’t interested in your current project doesn’t mean that he won’t be interested in your next, right?

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.

So it’s worth your while prepping a few questions in advance, as insurance. 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 when you ask for advice, you are requesting 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, stalking is illegal. And as reader Linda points out, no one, but no one, appreciates being pitched to in the bathroom.

Regardless of their level of interest, try to make it a nice conversation, rather than a confrontation or a referendum on your prospects as a writer. If your book is conceivably a fit for an agent who isn’t really looking for that genre, being pleasant may well make the difference between being asked to send pages and not.

Here again, background research helps: knowing something about the agent or editor will 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 than hardback.

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 season, you view him as an individual, an interesting person, rather than a career-making machine with legs. This can be a serious advantage.

Why? Well, 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?

Being conversant with the books they have handled is flattering: we all like to be recognized for our achievements, after all. 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.

Boning up on the facts 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.”

Trust me, she will be pleased to meet 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 make the common mistake of praising a book you haven’t read. And don’t lie about liking a book that you hated, of course.

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

Book marketing 101: the pitch proper, part III, or, “Interesting. I’ve never heard that before.”

Last time, I went over the basic format of a 2-minute pitch, the kind a writer is expected to give within the context of a scheduled pitch meeting. Unlike the shorter elevator speech or hallway pitch (and if you’re unclear on those, please see the appropriate categories at right), the formal pitch is intended not just to pique the hearer’s interest in the book, but to convey that the writer is one heck of a storyteller, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.

And your storytelling skills, lest we forget, are part of what you are selling here.

For that reason, it is absolutely vital that you prepare for those two minutes in advance, either timing yourself at home or by buttonholing like-minded writers at the conference for mutual practice. (Just so those of you attending PNWA know, the Pitch Practicing Palace will not be there this year, so as far as I know, there will not be pros on hand to help you refine your pitch. I know: sad.)

Otherwise, it is very, very easy to start rambling once you are actually in your pitch meeting, and frankly, 10 minutes — a fairly standard length for such an appointment — doesn’t allow any time for rambling or free-association.

This can dangerous, and not just because you may run out of time before you finish your story. Rambling, unfortunately, tends to lead the pitcher away from issues of marketing and into the kind of artistic (“What do you think of multiple protagonists?”), literary-philosophical (“I wanted to experiment with a double identity in my romance novel, because I feel that Descartian dualism forms the underpinnings of the modern Western love relationship.”), and autobiographical points (“I spent 17 years writing this novel.”) that he might bring up talking with another writer.

Remember, you are marketing a product here: talk of art can come later, after you’ve signed a contract with these people.

Even if you feel an instant personal rapport with the person across the pitching table, don’t forget that that the formal pitch is, in fact, is an extended, spoken query letter, and it should contain, at minimum, the same information.

And, like any good promotional speech, it needs to present the book as both unique and memorable.

One great way to increase the probability of its seeming both is to include beautifully-phrased telling details from the book, something that the agent or editor is unlikely to hear from anybody else. To put it another way, what specifics can you use to describe your protagonist’s personality, the challenges he faces, the environment in which he functions, that render each different from any other book currently on the market?

Think back to the elevator speech I developed last week for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: how likely is it that anybody else at the conference will be pitching a story that includes a sister who lectures while pounding on the piano, or a mother who insists her daughter marry a cousin she has just met?

Not very — which means that including these details in the pitch is going to surprise the hearer a little. And that, in turn, will render the pitch more memorable.

In a hallway pitch, of course, you don’t have the luxury of including more than a couple of rich details, but the 2-minute pitch is another matter. You can afford the time to flesh out the skeleton of your premise and story arc. You can, in fact, include a small scene.

So here’s a suggestion: take fifteen or twenty seconds of those two minutes to tell the story of one scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail.

I’m quite serious about this. It’s an unorthodox thing to do in a pitch, but it works all the better for that reason, if you can keep it brief.

Do be specific, and don’t be afraid to introduce a cliffhanger — scenarios that leave the hearer wondering “how the heck is this author going to get her protagonist out of THAT situation?” work very, very well here.

Another technique that helps elevate memorability is to include as many sensual words as you can. Not sexual ones, necessarily, but referring to the senses.

The best way to find these is to comb the text itself. Is there an indelible visual image in your book? Work it in. Are birds twittering throughout your tropical romance? Let the agent hear them. Is your axe murderer murdering pastry chefs? We’d better taste some fois gras.

And so forth. The goal here is to include a single original scene in sufficient detail that the agent or editor will think, “Wow, I’ve never heard that before,” and ask to read the book.

There is a terrific example of a pitch with this kind of detail in the Robert Altman film THE PLAYER, should you have time to check it out before the next time you enter a pitching situation. The protagonist is an executive at a motion picture studio, and throughout the film, he hears many pitches. One unusually persistent director, played by Richard E. Grant, chases the executive all over the greater LA metro area, trying to get him to listen to his pitch. (You’re in exactly the right mental state to appreciate that now, right?) Eventually, the executive gives in, and tells the director to sell him the film in 25 words or less.

Rather than launching into the plot of the film, however, the director does something interesting. He spends a good 30 seconds setting up the initial visual image of the film: a group of protestors holding a vigil outside a prison during a rainstorm, their candles causing the umbrellas under which they huddle to glow like Chinese lanterns.

“That’s nice,” the executive says, surprised. “I’ve never seen that before.”

If a strong, memorable detail of yours can elicit this kind of reaction from an agent or editor, you’re home free! Give some thought to where your book might offer up the scene, sensual detail, or magnificently evocative sentence that will make ’em do a double-take.

Or a spit-take, if your book is a comedy. A good pitch for a funny book makes it seem entertaining; a great pitch contains at least one line that provokes a spontaneous burst of laughter from the hearer.

Which leads me to ask those of you whose works are still in the writing phase: are there places in your manuscript where you could beef up the comic elements, sensual details, elegant environmental descriptions, etc., to strengthen the narrative and to render the book easier to pitch when its day comes?

Just something to ponder. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the pitch proper, part II, or, all together now!

Yesterday, I introduced those of you new to pitching appointments to its unique joys and stresses. It’s important that first-time pitchers are aware what the environment into which they will be stepping is like.

Why? Because we writers — c’mon, admit it — have an unparalleled gift for freaking ourselves out by imagining all kinds of strange things waiting for us on the other side of our first pitching experience. Like a pitch meeting’s rocketing us to instant fame, or an agent who says, “I hate your plot AND your tie!”

Also the common fantasies about what can happen in such meetings both raise expectations and increase fright. Knowledge really is power, at least in this instance. By learning what to expect, you can prepare more effectively — and psych yourself out less in the process.

If the prospect of pitch preparation appalls you, take heart, my friends: if you have been following this series step by step and doing your homework, you already have almost all of the constituent parts of a persuasive formal pitch constructed.

How is that possible, you cry? Here’s a hint: first, you’re going to impress ‘em by your professionalism, then you’re gonna wow ‘em with your storytelling ability.

You’re going to play to your strengths, in other words. And yes, your writing has them, to professional eyes. It’s just a matter of presentation the book so that people focused upon marketing notice them.

To that end, I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret that almost always seems to get lost in discussions of how to pitch: contrary to popular opinion, a formal pitch is NOT just a few sentences about the premise of a book: IT IS A MARKETING SPEECH, designed not only to show what your book is about, but also why it is MARKETABLE.

Once you understand that — and once you accept that, in within a publishing context, your book is not merely your baby or a work of art, but a PRODUCT that you are asking people who SELL THINGS FOR A LIVING to MARKET for you — an agent or editor’s response to your pitch can be seen not as an all-or-nothing referendum on your worth as a writer or as a human being, but as a PROFESSIONAL SELLER OF WRITING’s response to a proposed premise.

Regardless of whether the agent liked your tie or not.

What a formal pitch can and should be is your taking the extraordinary opportunity of having an agent or editor’s undivided attention for ten minutes in order to discuss how best to market your work. For this discussion to be fruitful, it is very helpful if you can describe your work in the same terms the industry would.

Why, what a coincidence: you have already defined your work in those terms: your book’s category (posts of June 15-19), identifying your target market (June 20-21), coming up with selling points and/or a platform for you and your book (June 22, 23, and 25), inventing a snappy keynote statement (June 26-28), pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (June 29-30), and giving an overview of the central conflict of the book (the elevator speech, July 2-5).

Really, you’re almost there. If it came right down to it, you could construct a quite professional short pitch from these elements alone.

Oh, wait, here is another remarkable coincidence: you already have. It’s called your hallway pitch (July 6, 9, and 10), which I sincerely hope that those of you who are imminently conference-bound are practicing on everyone you meet.

I’m serious about this. It takes lots of repetition to get used to hearing yourself talking about your work like a pro, rather than like a writer talking to other writers. When we’re in creative mode, we speak amongst ourselves about our hopes, fears, and difficulties — entirely appropriate, because who else is going to understand your travails better than another writer?

But when we’re in marketing mode, as in a formal pitch meeting, it’s time to put aside those complicated and fascinating aspects of the creative process, and talk about the book in terms the non-creative business side of the industry can understand.

How might one go about doing that in a formal pitch meeting? I’m so glad you asked. We’ve had the wind-up; now comes the pitch.

Part I: First, you would begin with the magic first hundred words:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

If you can work in a flattering reference to a specific past project upon which the agent or editor has labored, even if it’s not in your genre, just after your name is a great place to do it. As in,

“Hi, my name is J.K. Rowling, and I got so excited when you said on the agents’ panel earlier that you are looking for YA books where children solve their problems without adult information! That sounds like a jacket blurb for my novel. My latest project, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE is middle-grade fiction aimed at kids who feel like outsiders. See how it grabs you…”

If you are pitching nonfiction, this is the step where you will want to mention your platform. For example,

“Hi, my name is Bill Clinton, and I used to be President of the United States. I write political books, buidling upon that expertise. My latest project…”

Part II: After you finish Part I, with nary a pause for breath, you would launch into an extended version of your elevator speech, one that introduces the protagonist, shows the essential conflict, and gives a sense of the dramatic arc.

“(Protagonist) is in (interesting situation).” + about a 1-minute overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery.

Do NOT tell the entire plot: your goal here, remember, is to get your hearer to ask to read the book you’re pitching, not to convey the plot in such detail that your hearer feels he’s already read it.

Make sure to identify your protagonist — by name, never as “my protagonist” — in the first line. It’s substantially easier for a hearer to identify with a named character than an amorphous one. Introduce her as an active struggler in the conflict, rather than a passive victim of it.

(And if you don’t know why a story about a passive protagonist is usually harder to sell than one about her more active cousin, please see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category at right.)

Part III: Then, to tie it all together, you would give the agent or editor a brief explanation of why this book will sell. If you have demographic information about that target market, or a comparison to a similar book released within the last five years that has sold very well, this is the time to mention it.

“I’m excited about this project, because of its SELLING POINTS. Currently, there are # (TARGET MARKET members) in the United States, and this book will appeal to them because (more SELLING POINTS).”

Now, you could manage all that in two minutes, right?

Of course you could: with aplomb, with dignity. Because, really, are you are doing here is talking about the work you love, telling your favorite story, in the language that agents and editors speak.

One last thing, then I shall let you run off to ponder what details you would like to append to your elevator speech: once you have gone through all of the steps above, SHUT UP and let your hearer get a word in edgewise.

Most pitchers forget this important rule, rambling on and on, even after they have reached the end of their prepared material. Don’t; it won’t help your case. It’s only polite to allow the agent to respond, to be enthusiastic.

It’s in your self-interest, you know. If even you’re going to hand your listener a cliffhanger worthy of the old Flash Gordon radio serials, it is likely to fall flat if you don’t leave time for your listener to cry, “But what happened NEXT!”

A good storyteller always leaves her audience wanting more.

And that, my friends, is how I like to give a pitch. Again, my method is a trifle unusual, a little offbeat structurally, but in my experience, it works. It sounds professional, while at the same time conveying both your enthusiasm for the project and a sense of how precisely the worldview of your book is unique.

Tomorrow, I shall tackle how to track down those vivid little details that will make your pitch spring to life. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce the star of our show, the pitch proper

Drum roll, please: here comes the main event. Today, I shall begin to talk about the pitch itself, the full 2-minute marketing statement you will give in a formal pitch meeting with an agent or editor.

As with the keynote and the elevator speech, the vast majority of pitchers make the mistake of trying to turn the pitch proper into a summary of the book’s plot — a tough job, for a book whose plot’s complexity is much beyond the Dr. Seuss level, as any experienced pitcher can tell you.

Rightly understood, though, the 2-minute pitch is something more exciting than a mere summary: an opportunity to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflicts in language and imagery that convinces the hearer that not only is this a compelling and unusual story, but that you are a gifted storyteller.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun than trying to cram 400 pages of plot into seven or eight breaths’ worth of babbling?

While your elevator speech is the verbal equivalent of the introduce-the-premise paragraph in your query letter (which is a good secondary use for an elevator speech, by the way), the pitch itself is — or can be — a snapshot of the feel, the language, and the texture of the book. Rather than talking about the book, the 2-minute pitch is your opportunity to give the agent or editor a sense of what it would be like to READ it.

To borrow from that most useful piece of nearly universal writing advice, this is the time to show, not tell. Yes, your time is short, but you’re going to want to include a few memorable details to make your pitch stand out from the crowd.

Do I hear some incredulous snorts out there? “Details in a 2-minute speech?” the scoffers say. “Yeah, right.”

I’m giving this advice for a reason, you know: the straightforward “This happens, then that happens, then that occurs…” method tends not to be very memorable, within the context of a day or two’s worth of pitches. Strong imagery, sensual details, unusual plot twists — these jump out at the pitch-hearer, screaming, “Hey, you — pay attention to me!”

To understand why vivid, story-like pitches tend to be effective, let me set the scene in a garden-variety conference pitch appointment room, for the benefit of those of you who have never experienced one first-hand. If you were expecting a quiet, intimate, church-like atmosphere, you’re bound to be surprised.

In the first place, pitch appointments are notorious for being both tightly booked and running long, more and more so as the day goes on. Obviously, a pitcher cannot afford to show up late, lest their agent be the one who zips through appointments like Speedy Gonzales. The result: the writer usually ends up waiting, gnawing her nails like a rabbit on speed, in a crowded hallway filled with similarly stressed people.

It is not typically an environment particularly conducive to either relaxation or concentration, both of which are desirable to attain just before entering a pitching situation.

Eventually, you will be led to a tiny cubicle, or perhaps a table in the middle of a room, where you will be expected to sit across a perhaps foot-and-a-half table’s width away from a real, live agent who has drunk FAR more coffee that day than the human system should be able to stand. You will introduce yourself, and then spend approximately two minutes talking about your book.

Then — brace yourself for this — the agent will respond to what you have said. Possibly even while you are saying it. Often, this entails asking you a few follow-up questions; you may feel free to ask questions about the agency or the market for your type of book as well.

At the end of the meeting, the agent will tell you whether your book sounds like it would interest her as a business proposition. NOT whether she liked it, mind you — whether she thinks she can SELL it.

You will be a much, much happier pitcher if you cling to that particular distinction like an unusually thirsty leech. When an agent or editor says, “Well, that’s not for me,” it is NOT always because the story is a bad one, or the pitch was incoherent (although pitch-hearers routinely hear both): it is very frequently because they don’t handle that type of book, or a similar book just bombed, or someone who can’t stand family sagas has just been promoted to publisher, or…

Getting the picture? Rejection is very seldom personal — at least from the point of view of the rejection-bestower.

Two things that will NOT happen under any circumstances, no matter how good your pitch is (or even your platform): the agent’s signing you on the spot, without reading your work, or an editor’s saying, “I will buy this book,” just on the strength of the pitch. If you walk into your pitch meeting expecting either of these outcomes — and scores of writers do — even a positive response is going to feel like a disappointment.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital to your happiness: contrary to common writerly fantasy, no reputable agent will offer representation on a pitch alone. Nothing can be settled until she’s had a chance to see your writing. And no viable promise exists between a pitcher and an agent or editor until a contract is actually signed documenting it.

Don’t feel bad, even for a nanosecond, if you thought otherwise: the implied promise of instant success is the underlying logical fallacy of the verbal pitch. There are plenty of good writers who don’t describe their work well aloud, and even more who can speak well but do not write well.

The practice of verbal pitching is undermined by these twin facts — and yet conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are lead to believe that they will be discovered, signed by an agent, and lead off to publication fame and fortune after a simple spoken description of their books.

It just doesn’t work that way. The purpose of the pitch is NOT to induce a decision on the spot on the strength of the premise alone, but to get the agent to ask you to send pages so she can see what a good writer you are.

Period. Anything more, from an interesting conversation to praise for your premise, is icing on the cake: nice to be offered, of course, but not essential to provide a satisfying dessert to the pitching meal.

So I beg you, don’t set yourself up to be shattered: keep your expectations realistic. Professionally, what you really want to get out of this meeting is the cake, not the frosting.

Here is a realistic best-case scenario: if the agent is interested by your pitch, she will hand you her card and ask you to send some portion of the manuscript — usually, the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or for NF, the book proposal. If she’s very, very enthused, she may ask you to mail the whole thing.

MAIL is the operative term here. A request to see pages should not be construed as an invitation to HAND her the whole thing on the spot, even if you happen to have a complete copy in the backpack at your feet.

Why? Well, manuscripts are heavy; agents almost universally prefer to have them mailed rather than to carry them onto a plane. (If you think that your tome will not make a significant difference to the weight of a carry-on bag, try carrying a ream of paper in your shoulder bag for a few hours.)

Yes, I know: you have probably heard other pitching teachers — ones who got their agents a long time ago — urge you to lug around a couple of complete copies of your book. This is outdated advice. At most, the agent may ask on the spot if you have a writing sample with you, but trust me, she will have a few pages in mind, not 300.

In the extremely unlikely event that the agent asks for more right away, murmur a few well-chosen words about how flattered you are by her interest, and offer to pop anything she wants into the mail on Monday.

Regardless of the outcome, remember to thank the agent or editor for his or her time. Politeness always counts in this industry, so do be nice, even if it turns out that the agent simply doesn’t represent your kind of book. (Trust me — if this is the case, the agent will tell you so right away.) If this happens, express regret BRIEFLY — and ask for recommendations for other agents to approach with your work.

Those two minutes at the beginning of this process, the part when you are describing your book, of course, is the pitch proper. See why it’s so important to make your pitch a good yarn?

Apart from the fact that if you’re a novelist, your storytelling abilities are a big part of what you are trying to market here, there’s a logistical reason that agents tend to perk up when a story draws them in: at a conference that features many agents and editors, the pitching appointments are typically all in the same room. Sometimes, they are even at adjacent tables.

Thus, it is not beyond belief that you — and the agent sitting across the table from you — will be able to hear the other pitches and conversations. It’s easy for a hearer to get distracted, especially after pitch fatigue — the inevitable numbing effect on the mind of hearing many pitches over a short period of time — has started to set in.

So your goal is not merely to make the case that your book is a good one — it is to tell a story so original, in such interesting language, and with such great imagery that it will seem fresh in THAT environment.

Over the next couple of days, I am going to give you a template for doing just that. I know that this prospect is daunting, but believe me, you’re gaining the skills to pull this off beautifully.

Trust me on this one. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: tell me again why I need two pitches?

After my last set of posts on hallway pitching, I thought I heard some frustrated sighing out there. Oh, you may have been too polite to post a question about it, disgruntled gusters, but I have marvelous powers of perception. Not to mention projection. I sensed your unspoken irk.

Don’t believe me? See if this question hasn’t been poking at the back of your mind lately: “But Anne, if the elevator speech is so effective at piquing interest, why SHOULDN’T I just use it as my pitch in my meetings with agents and editors? Why do I need to prepare more than one speech?”

The short answer: so you can be flexible.

As ever-perceptive reader Dave has been pointing out in his comments, a full-scale pitch is an interactive process, not a speech declaimed to an audience who can only clap or boo at the end. If an agent or editor likes your hallway or full pitch, she’s probably going to ask some questions.

Perhaps — and this comes as a substantial shock to most first-time pitchers — even DURING your pitch.

This is why I’ve spent the last month trying to nudge all of you away from the all-too-common notion of the three-line pitch, practiced over and over as if they were lines in a play. If you concentrate too much on the words themselves, and the short amount of time you have to say them, it’s too easy to freeze up when an unexpected question knocks you off script.

And yes, I know: precious few self-styled experts seem to teach pitching that way, but in my experience, helping people learn to talk about their work professionally and comfortably in a broad variety of contexts works far better in practice than ordering people to write, memorize, and blurt a specific number of lines of text.

Hey, I warned you up front that my views are a trifle iconoclastic. Call me wacky, but I’m not going to pass along a dogma to my readers unless I have good reason to believe it’s going to help ’em get published.

Admittedly, a lot of people do use the 3-sentence elevator speech as a pitch; to be fair, it can work, just as hallway pitches work. However, a 30-second pitch leaves quite a bit of a 10-minute appointment unused, doesn’t it? And why would you trade an opportunity to say MORE about your book for a format that forces you to say LESS?

Also, to revisit some issues from earlier in this series, by emphasizing the 3-sentence pitch to the exclusion of all others, I think the standard sources of writerly advice have left first-time pitchers ill-prepared to address those other vital issues involved in a good pitch, such as where the book will sit in Barnes & Noble, who the author thinks will read it, why the target market will find it compelling…

In short, all of the information contained in the magic first 100 words. And while it may seem a tad silly to have to practice saying your own name, or to remind yourself to mention that your book is a novel (or a memoir, or a nonfiction book) most people are NERVOUS when they pitch. Practice will help you remember to hit the important points.

You’d be amazed (at least I hope you would) at how many first-time pitchers come dashing into their scheduled pitch appointments, so fixated on blurting those pre-ordained three sentences that they forget to:

(a) introduce themselves to the agent or editor, like civilized beings,

(b) mention whether the book is fiction or nonfiction,

(c) indicate whether the book has a title, or

(d) all of the above.

I find this sad: these are intelligent people, for the most part, but their advance preparation has left them as tongue-tied and awkward as wallflowers at a junior high school dance.

We’ve all been there, right?

And don’t even get me started on the sweat-soaked silence that can ensue AFTER the 3-sentence pitcher has gasped it all out, incontinently, and has no more to say. In that dreadful lull, the agent sits there, blinking so slowly that the pitcher is tempted to take a surreptitious peek at his watch, to make sure that time actually is moving forward at a normal clip, or stick a pin in the agent, to double-check that she isn’t some sort of emotionless android with its battery pack on the fritz.

“And?” the automaton says impatiently. “Are you done?”

“What do you mean?” I hear some of you gasp, aghast. “Aren’t they going to do all the talking after I finish my pitch? Doesn’t the agent or editor make a snap decision about representation on the spot, and immediately either send me packing or leap into chatting with me about her plans for marketing my book?”

Well, not usually, no, and in fact, in recent years, as the elevator speech has come to be taught as the standard pitch, I have been noticing corresponding trend for agents and editors sitting around in that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference, complaining, “Why does everyone stop talking after a minute or so? I’m getting really tired of having to drag information out of these writers on a question-and-answer basis. What do they think this is, an interview? A quiz show?”

Call me unorthodox, but I don’t think this is a desirable outcome for you.

But that doesn’t mean that you should just prepare a hallway pitch and trust your luck to be able to handle questions about it for the rest of your pitch appointment. You will be happier in that meeting if you have prepared at least the outline of a 2-minute pitch.

And, by the way, you should time it as you say it out loud, to make sure it can be said in under two minutes without leaving you so breathless that oxygen will have to be administered immediately afterward.

Why? Well, even more common than pitchers who dry up after 45 seconds are writers who talk on and on about their books in their pitch meetings so long that the agent or editor hasn’t time to ask follow-up questions. You really do want to keep your pitch to roughly two minutes (as opposed to your hallway pitch, which should be approximately 30 seconds), so that you can discuss your work with the well-connected, well-informed industry insider in front of you.

A pitch meeting is a conversation, after all, not a stump speech: you WANT it to start a conversation, not to engender stony silence, right? Come prepared to talk about your work — and in terms that will make sense to everyone in the industry.

And just how to do that persuasively, my friends, is my topic for the rest of the week, in case you were wondering when I would stop telling you about the pitch and start showing you how to do it.

Trust me, you can do this. Keep up the good work!

The minibar of TRUTH

Ah, the bohemian life of the writer: we never really get vacations, do we? Or, to be precise, our definition of a really fabulous vacation tends to be a few days off in the middle of nowhere, where we can shut ourselves off from outside stimuli and write.

Preferably with room service.

What brought on this little soliloquy, you ask? The answer will give you a snapshot into what it’s like to work with an agent and/or an editor: I’ve been asked to make some revisions on a novel of mine, and oh, could they have them by this time next week?

I haven’t been kidding about trying to help you learn to be flexible. The ability to drop everything cheerfully on a dime and revise like the wind is cherished in this business. Heck, it’s more or less expected.

So I have squirreled myself away from the telephone and laundry for the duration. Just me, my computer, and a couple of clients’ manuscripts to edit, by way of recreation. And obviously, with the PNWA conference so close, and me in the midst of giving you pitching tips, I’m going to keep posting here. Call it a working vacation.

The very fact that the term “working vacation” has made its way into our collective vocabulary makes me wonder about how much the computer has actually improved our lives. It used to be that when you traveled for business, you got to read a book on the plane — now, you work on your laptop instead. One of the charms of being on vacation used to be that you were NOT reachable by phone, but we now regularly hear cell phones ringing on beaches.

It makes one think.

Speaking of thinking — and, I must confess, the real reason for this in-between-posts post — I simply must share the fact that my retreat hotel has been kind enough to provide me with the Minibar of Truth. Take a gander:

Yes, you are seeing correctly: the furniture intended to house airplane-sized bottles of cognac, leftover Chinese food, and Funyuns is indeed emblazoned with the images of the giants of Western philosophy. Or at any rate, the DWEMS — Dead White European Males — typically taught in Philosophy 101.


Is the heavy emphasis upon 19th and early 20th century Germany intended as a political statement, one wonders? The designer did make Heidegger — top row, second from the left, just above a crazed-looking Schopenhauer — pretty darned glamorous, I notice, and while every other philosopher is repeated many times over, Hegel appears only twice. Accidental oversight, or social commentary?

(It’s amazing what a writer will do to procrastinate mid-revision, isn’t it? But to paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined cabinet is not worth using — or, at any rate, storing your mineral water and apples within.)

Oh, the pageantry of it all! Descartes is depicted as a cross between a Flemish painting and Cardinal Richelieu, Kierkegaard as Andrew Jackson played by a male model, all sucked-in cheeks and sultry eyes. And Wittgenstein (first column next to the ice bucket, second from the top, under an over-exposed and apparently remorseful Socrates) was apparently Rupert Everett’s identical twin, manifesting a smoothness of shave rare amongst your more serious philosophers of yore. But Nietzsche’s moustache would make anyone think twice about pursuing the life of the mind:

Did the interior decorator place this sterling object here as an inducement to deep thought? Or as an invitation to regard alcohol as an addendum to philosophy?


Perhaps it is an incentive to be fashionable. We should all aspire to be as debonair as Sartre appears here:


But frankly, I don’t believe that Kant was ever this suave. The man didn’t notice the French Revolution, for heaven’s sake; you expect me to believe his linen was this kempt?


Okay, enough with the frivolity: back to deep thoughts; my furniture has high standards for me, evidently. Expect a post on pitching later this evening, the next time I take a break. In the meantime, keep up the good work!