I have to confess, I’m a trifle perplexed today, campers. Should I feel hopeful about the present, near future, and life to come for aspiring writers, or shouldn’t I? Is despair appropriate, or rejoicing?
Take, for instance, the mixed news coming out of this year’s BookExpo America. the major publishers seem wary of how the combination of a slow economy and interest in the presidential election will affect what readers will be willing to buy this fall, judging by their offerings; opinions vary about what the Kindle and similar devices will mean for the future of the paper-and-ink book market; this was the first year in a long time when more independent bookstores opened in the US than closed.
Should the average writer be psyched or bummed in the face of such tidings? Try as I might, I can’t quite decide.
A little closer to home, while I was perusing the finalist list for the Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, I was delighted to see frequent commenter Auburn McCanta in the poetry category (congratulations, Auburn!), as well as a few other names not entirely unknown on this website (who should e-mail me to give me permission to gloat about them, by the way).
But then I was startled to notice that the top-named finalist in the screenwriting category has had books on the New York Times bestseller list. Recently.
Hey, I’m just quoting from his website. If it and the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s conference promotional materials are to be believed, he’s also going to be Thursday night’s featured speaker at that very conference.
Merest coincidence? Eyebrow-raising conflict of interest for the organization? Or clever self-promotional move by a well-established author? Again, I’m not sure I can make up my mind.
To be fair, there’s no longer anything in the contest’s rules that precludes established writers from entering (as I seem to recall that there was in 2004, when I won the NF book category); it’s just traditionally been considered, well, not entirely cricket for someone making a living at it to enter an amateur contest. In theory, at least, it’s not really starting with a level playing field, is it?
At least, if the author in question is well-respected in his genre. Heck, if he had a truly unique narrative voice, it might even be impossible to maintain the anonymity that’s so vital to the credibility of a respectable literary contest.
I can only assume that the organization in question considered that possibility, though, long before it announced its finalists for this year. Given the rumors that published writers turned up in surprisingly heavy numbers on the finalist lists in other categories as well (please see the comments on Monday’s post), I’m inclined to believe that there’s been a carefully-considered rule change of which I was not aware prior to this year’s entry deadline. (Was anybody else?)
But, naturally, not having been privy to the decision-making process, I can’t really say. How can one differentiate firmly between, say, publicizing a policy change and merely letting one’s friends know about it?
In recent years, the advantages to aspiring writers of books engaging in the kind of verbal pitching that has long been the norm in the screenwriting industry have been much touted by writers’ conference organizers, and for some good reasons: by pitching to an agent or editor at a conference, a writer may be invited to submit material directly, effectively skipping the annoying and often protracted querying process.
Which is, of course, a mighty fine thing for those who can pull it off.
It has some under-advertised drawbacks, however, chief among which is the assumption that a verbal pitch is necessarily reflective of the quality of the book it describes, which is certainly not always the case. The in-person pitch also most assuredly places the shy at a serious competitive disadvantage — and every year, countless conference-goers are petrified into a state of horrified inertia by the prospect of producing a three-line pitch that effectively conveys all of the complexity of a 400-page book.
I ask you: does this expectation represent an improvement in the lives of aspiring writers, or an unreasonable additional stress?
Don’t look at me to solve that knotty dilemma — I asked you first, after all. But I will say that in my experience, the three-line pitch conference organizers are so apt to tell prospective pitchers is the ONLY possibility often isn’t what agents and editors expect to hear.
At least, not the ones who represent books for a living.
Script agents, well, that’s another story; screenplays are not my area of expertise, so please do not look to me for advice on the subject. Perhaps someone could ask the NYT bestselling author his opinion; it seems to be well-informed.
Fair warning: what you’re going to be seeing me spell out over the next couple of weeks is MY opinion about what does and doesn’t work in various types of conference pitch. Please don’t bother to inform me that others are equally vehement that the pros will stop listening after three sentences; that simply hasn’t been my experience as a successful conference pitcher, nor the experience of any other successful conference pitcher I know, or anyone who has ever taken one of my pitching classes and reported back to me…
You get the picture.
But that’s not an immense surprise, right? As those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have no doubt already figured out, my take on the publishing industry does not always conform to the prevailing wisdom. (I know: GASP! Alert the media!)
The problem with the prevailing wisdom, as I see it, is that it is so often out of date: what was necessary to land an agent 20 years ago is most emphatically not the same as what is necessary today, or what will be necessary 5 years from now. And it is now every bit as hard to land an agent as it used to be to land a book contract.
Heck, it’s significantly more difficult than it was when I signed with my current agency — and honeys, I’m not that old.
My point is, the industry changes all the time, and very quickly — and it’s not always clear immediately whether each individual change is helpful or hurtful to the aspiring writer’s chances.
If you doubt this, chew on this: when I signed the contract for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, in March of 2005, it naturally contained the standard contractual provisions about truthfulness; the contract specified that my publisher believed that I believed that I was telling the truth in my book. (Which I am, in case you were wondering.)
Yet if I signed a standard NF contract for the same book today, it would almost certainly contain some provision requiring me as the author to obtain signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book.
What happened in that intervening 3+ years to alter the standard memoir contract’s provisions, you ask? A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, that’s what.
The very tangible result: industry rumor has it that a couple of years back, a major publishing house required a writer who spent a significant amount of time living with cloistered nuns to obtained signed releases from each and every one of the wimpled ones, swearing that they would not sue the publisher over the book.
Yes, you read that right. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t nuns generally take vows of poverty? And doesn’t cloistered mean, you know, not wandering up and down the aisles at Barnes & Noble, checking out your own publicity?
Yet such is the prevailing level of concern that the publishing house was legitimately concerned that suddenly the little sisters of St. Francis of Assisi would metamorphose into a gaggle of money-hungry, lawyer-blandishing harpies. I ask you: good for writers, or not?
Perhaps this will help you decide: since the MILLION LITTLE PIECES incident, writers have been hearing at conferences, “Oh, it’s impossible to sell memoir right now.” Which is odd, because the trade papers seem to show that plenty of houses are in fact still buying memoirs aplenty.
So you’ll pardon me, I hope, for saying that it always pays to look over the standard truisms very carefully, both to see if they still apply and to see if they’re, you know, TRUE. Many, I am sad to report, are neither.
You can tell I am gearing up to saying something subversive, can’t you?
Yes, I am: I would specifically advise AGAINST walking into a meeting with an agent or editor and giving the kind of 3-sentence pitch that you will usually see recommended in writers’ publications — and practically mandated in the average conference brochure.
Or, to put it another way: I think it is a common mistake to assume that the structure that works for pitching a screenplay can be adapted without modification to books. Because, you see, the screenplay pitch is intended merely to establish the premise — and there’s quite a bit more that any agent or editor is going to need to know about a book before saying yea or nay.
“Wait just a second, Anne!” I hear some of you shouting. “I have a conference brochure right here, and it tells me I MUST limit myself to a 3-sentence pitch!”
Well pointed out, imaginary shouters — this is quite standard boilerplate advice. But think about it: the average conference appointment with an agent is 10-15 minutes long, and if you are like most writers, you will probably be very nervous.
So I have one question to ask you: do you really want to have only a minute’s worth of material prepared, so you have to wing it if the agent of your dreams wants to hear more?
Because, trust me, he IS likely to ask. I’ve heard many, many agents and editors complain that writers pitching at conferences either talk non-stop for ten minutes (not effective) or stop talking after one (ditto).
“Why aren’t they using the time I’m giving them?” they wonder in the bar. (It’s an inviolable rule of writers’ conferences that there is always a bar within staggering distance. That’s where the pros congregate to bemoan their respective fates.) “Half the time, they just dry up. Aren’t they interested in their own books?”
Oh, the 3-sentence pitch definitely has its utility: it is helpful to have one ready for when you buttonhole an agent in an elevator, when you might genuinely have only a minute and a half to make your point.
That’s why it’s called an elevator speech, in case you were wondering; it’s short enough to deliver between floors without pushing the alarm button to stop the trip.
It’s also very useful in preparing your query letter, where you can use it as the paragraph that describes the book. Once you have a really effective marketing paragraph written, you can use it many contexts. So I will definitely be walking you through how to construct one.
However, an elevator speech should not be confused with a full-blown book pitch.
To do so, I think, implies a literalism that cannot conceive that a similar process called by the same name but conducted in two completely unrelated industries might not be identical. It’s akin to assuming that because both Microsoft and Random House are concerned with word count, they must be estimating it precisely the same way — because it’s just not possible for a single term to mean more than one thing to different groups of people, right?
News flash to the super-literal: the noun bat refers to both a critter that flies and a piece of wood used to hit a ball. Learn to live with it. (And if you don’t know how literary types estimate word count — which is not usually how the fine folks at Microsoft do — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)
In purely strategic terms, there’s another reason not to use the same pitch format as everybody else at a conference: now that the three-line pitch is so pervasive, pitch fatigue sets in even more quickly. Not forcing an agent or editor to pull your plot out of you via a series of questions may well be received as a pleasant change.
Pitch fatigue, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the industry term for when a person’s heard so many pitches in a row that they all start to blend together in the mind. It’s surprisingly tiring to listen to pitches; there’s so much emotion floating in the air, and it’s so vital to pay attention to every last detail. Even with the best intentions, after the third pitch in any given genre in any given day, the stories start to sound alike.
Even stories that are nothing alike can begin to sound alike.
I can tell you from experience that pitch fatigue can set in pretty quickly. Two years ago, at the Conference That Dares Not Speak Its Name, a group of intrepid writers, including yours truly, set up the Pitch Practicing Palace, collectively hearing over 325 individual pitches over the course of three very long days. (Good for aspiring writers or not? Opinions differ.)
Now, all of us on the PPP staff are both writers and chronic readers, so our sympathies, it is safe to say, were pretty much always on the writer’s side of the pitching desk. And we heard quite a number of truly exceptional pitches. But by the end of the first day, all of us were starting to murmur variations on, “You know, if I had to do this every day, I might start to think the rejection pile was my friend.”
Part of the problem is environmental, of course. Agents and editors at conferences are generally expected to listen patiently while sitting under flickering fluorescent lights in uncomfortable chairs, being rapidly dehydrated by punishing convention center air conditioning. You can hardly blame them for zoning out from time to time, under the circumstances.
I know: poor, poor babies, forced to endure precisely the same ambient conditions as every writer at the conference, without the added stress of trying to make their life-long dreams come true. But I’m not mentioning this so you will pity their lot in life; I’m bringing it up so you may have a clearer picture of what you will be facing.
Gather up all of those environmental factors I described above into a neat mental picture, please. Pretend you are an agent who has been listening to pitches for the past four hours.
Got it? Good.
Now ask yourself: which is more likely to snap you out of your stupor, a three-sentence pitch, which forces you to make the effort of drawing more details about the book out of a pitcher who has been told to shut up after conveying a single breath’s worth of information? Or a slightly longer pitch that explains to you not only what the book is about, but who is going to buy it and why?
Or, to consider the other common advice about structuring pitches, would you be more likely to pay attention to a pitch that is rife with generalities, glossing lightly over themes that are common to many books? Or to a pitch stuffed full of briefly-described scenes, embellished attractively with a few well-chosen significant details?
Exactly. You don’t want to hand them the same vanilla ice cream cone that everyone else has been offering them all day; you want to hand them the deluxe waffle cone stuffed with lemon-thyme sorbet and chocolate mousse.
And that, dear friends, is why I’m spending the days to come talking about how to market your work in ways that make sense to the industry, rather than just telling you to cram years of your hopes and dreams into three overstuffed sentences as…well, as others do.
By the time we reach the end of this series, my hope is that you will not only be able to give a successful pitch AND elevator speech — I would like for you to be prepared to speak fluently about your work anytime, anywhere, to anybody, no matter how influential.
Even to a New York Times bestselling writer, should you happen to bump into one.
In short, my goal here is to help you sound like a professional, market-savvy writer, rather than the nervous wreck most of us are walking into pitch meetings. To achieve that, a writer needs to learn to describe a book in language the industry understands.
The first building block of fluency follows tomorrow. I know you’re up for it.
Truth compels me to say, though, that not everyone out there agrees that my take on this process is unequivocally good for aspiring writers — including, let’s face it, some of the folks to whom I have referred above. But then, we also have a long-standing, fundamental disagreement about whether the primary purpose of a writers’ organization — or literary contest, for that matter — is to help the struggling writers out there or those already established promote their work more effectively.
Try as I might to keep my opinion to myself, hints do seem to pop out from time to time. I encourage you to make up your own minds, my friends — and to keep up the good work!