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!