Sorry to have missed posting yesterday, campers, and during conference season, too: I had a lulu of a migraine, so my activities yesterday were limited to (a) moaning, (b) telling the cats to keep it DOWN, already, and (c) contemplating rolling over, then not doing it. Miserable stuff; I don’t recommend its cultivation.
As my SO (and cats) can attest, a fairly high percentage of my moans were about the fact that I really wanted to post yesterday, because I had planned to talk about a rather important topic for conference season: working up nerve to approach agents to pitch.
And — brace yourselves — to start to think of the pitching process as your interviewing agents as much as their interviewing you.
Okay, perhaps not quite as much, given just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days, but certainly, it’s not a face-to-face meeting to approach uncritically. As, alas, the vast majority of pitchers — and queriers, for that matter — seem to do.
Oh, I’m not saying that it isn’t understandable — undoubtedly, it is. 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.
Before you shout, “Well, duh!” at me, allow me to add that this means it is very much in your interests be considering if the person in front of you is a good bet for helping you meet your ultimate goal of publication, rather than whether you happen to like this person.
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.
Stop cringing — if you’re going to be a successful author, this is CRUCIAL information.
Why? Well, 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 does behoove everyone concerned, 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 writers’ 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.
That prospect should make you start rubbing your hands in glee like the villain in a melodrama: here’s a risk-free 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.
Let me repeat that, as it may sound a bit strange coming from the fingertips of the queen of the hallway pitch: the agents’ and editors’ forums should NOT be construed as pitch sessions. 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 above ignores this dictum — as, I assure you, someone invariably does? 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. It will get you talked about negatively in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America. Trust me on this one.
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, which may or may not be any good, and I expect this advice to be applicable at any time I may try to market this book concept.”
Again: not the best idea.
So how does one use question time correctly, you ask? 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.
Oh, it happens. It’s pretty to see how quickly agents — who, after all, are in competition with one another just as much as writers are — will rush to defend one of their own.
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…”
If you take nothing else I say into the Q&A session, remember this: 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. So any name you cite — up to and including Miss S’s, who enjoys at best a mixed reputation amongst agents — is unlikely to seem like an unimpeachable source.
Although should you happen to bump into MY fabulous agent at a conference, you may certainly feel free to preface your remarks to him 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; darned useful information.)
“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 that was hard to place, but eventually succeeded.)
“If I were looking to understand what a great first novel from an agent’s point of view read like, what books recently out would you suggest I read?” (Another question that tends to be popular — because, trust me, no agent on earth is going to name a book that s/he DIDN’T represent.)
“How is selling a first-time author’s book different from selling the work of someone more established?” (They’ll 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.)
“I’ve been hearing that many of the big agencies employ submission screeners. How many other people need to read a submission before it will reach your desk — and what kinds of comments to you like to see from them?” (It can be difficult to get an answer to this question — some agents who normally employ screeners pride themselves on reading requested materials from pitchers themselves — but it can reveal quite a lot about the unwritten rules of screening.)
“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, but only intend to query the attending agents after the conference. 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.
These questions will also help you decide to whom to pitch (in the hallways, probably) on a more professional basis than whether the agent or editor struck you as a nice person whilst speaking on the dais. This is not the best criterion to use, and certainly not the best ONLY criterion to use, because:
(a) Most people are rather different when speaking to large groups than one-on-one, which is how a signed writer would be dealing with them; your first impression might not be an accurate one.
(b) Agent and editor fora tend to be rather early in the morning, and folks in the arts are often not morning people (see conclusion on previous point).
(c) The pro who comes across as nastiest may in fact just be trying to save writers some chagrin. Telling the hard truth from a podium is not usually conducive to popularity, but the truth about the publishing industry is what you paid to come to the conference to hear, right?
(d) The pro who just oozes affection for writers and good writing may not have the best track record for picking up clients. (Of which, more in a couple of days.)
Finding out more about these people’s personal tastes and professional interests is also just good manners — and this is an industry where manners do count to a surprisingly great extent. From a more self-interested perspective, wouldn’t you rather learn in an impersonal forum that Agent A isn’t remotely interested in your kind of book than during a face-to-face, one-on-one meeting?
Of course you would. See why I was so adamant about your picking a book category?
Once you have figured out which agents and editors from small houses (again, all of the major US publishers currently have policies against picking up unagented authors) represent books in your category and like your type of voice (not always the same thing, in practice), try to get appointments with ALL of them.
Standing by the appointment desk and listening for cancellations is a good way to do this — although fair warning: this does tend to annoy the volunteers manning the appointment desk. If you can’t get appointments, try to pitch to them in the hallways.
I felt your chest seize up, but please, 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.
But if you DO find yourself too intimidated to walk up to someone in the industry and gasp out your magic first hundred words, do not despair: that information you gathered at the agents and editors’ forum will still serve you well. After the conference, you can query ALL of them — or at least the ones on your narrowed-down list.
And do you know what I would do in your quivered-in shoes? I would go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope or put it in the subject line an e-mailed query.
Why? Because in most agencies, conference-goers are regarded as a bit savvier than the average querier; their queries, therefore, tend to be taken a bit more seriously AND read with greater attention. So it’s well worth your while.
Oh, and for those of you who will be pitching this weekend and are already determined to ignore my advice about waiting until after my submission packet series next week to send off requested materials: make sure to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters on the outside of the envelope or place it in the subject line of your e-mail, for the reasons above.
Assuming, of course, that an agent or editor DID request those materials. Don’t scrawl it otherwise.
Tomorrow, a few hints on maintaining your energy throughout what can be a pretty exhausting event — that is, if my head remains clear. Keep up the good work!