Pitchingpalooza, part X: the cat doesn’t have to get your tongue, you know

Some interesting rumors have been flying around for the last couple of days, campers. While book lovers in general have been fretting over the demise of Borders, a lot of us have been worrying about the perhaps less sympathetic but still important to the book-moving trade Barnes & Noble’s future. There’s been quite a bit of speculation that Apple might step in and buy up the latter for its immense book catalog; there has also been talk of taking on a chunk of Borders, possibly just for the retail space, possibly not.

I have no idea whether any of these rumors are true, mind you, or even probable. Such is the nature of tittle-tattle. Since folks have been flinging their hands in the air and prophesying the imminent demise of the brick-and-mortar bookstore as an institution so much over the last few weeks, though, I thought you might find it refreshing to hear a bit of countervailing gossip.

Back to business. So far in this series, we have been mostly talking about taking the preliminary steps to constructing a conference pitch, rather than writing the pitch itself. We’ve covered selecting a book category, the desirability of narrowing down your target audience to something more specific than the ever-popular every woman under 50 in America, finding out how big that audience might be, figuring out your book’s selling points, and coming up with a one-line book concept or keynote, as well as deciding whether pitching is right for you in the first place and what to do if you find yourself in a pitch meeting with an agent who does not now and probably will not ever represent books like yours.

To put all that in terms of gaining fluency in a foreign language, you’ve already learned enough to order a meal in a fancy restaurant in Publishingland. By the end of the next couple of posts, you’re going to be able to chat with the waiter.

Do those loud harrumphing noises bouncing around the ether indicate a certain level of skepticism? “I get that I will need to define my work in the language and according to the logic of the publishing industry, Anne,” some of you admit, rattling your feet on the floor and glancing frequently at the door, fearful of being overheard by an agent. “I also have faith that you’re going to walk me through constructing a strong formal pitch because, well, that’s the kind of thing you do in your multi-part -Paloozas. What’s keeping me up nights, though, is the creeping fear that no matter how prepared I am, I might suddenly clam up. Heck, I’m so nervous that I might not even lose my nerve in front of an agent or editor; I live in terror that I might lose the ability to answer coherently if the writer sitting next to me in a conference seminar asks me, ‘So what kind of book are you here to pitch?’”

Oh, I am very familiar with that particular dead-of-night fearful fantasy, campers; I help aspiring writers prepare pitches all the time. It’s a very, very common concern amongst first-time pitchers.

Which is why I can tell you with relative assurance that while you currently feel as if someone asking you to talk about your writing at a conference will be as threatening as this:

If you walk into the conference prepared, it can feel a lot more like this:

Still frightening, of course — there’s no way around that, I’m afraid — but not nearly so confrontational.

How might that semi-miraculous transformation be achieved? Well, learning not to hear the question as a clarion call to justify writing at all, for one thing. Doing precisely the kind of pre-conference homework we’ve been discussing throughout this series, for another. And most effective of all, pulling the pin in the panic grenade before you walk into your first pitch meeting.

How? By approaching fellow writers at conferences and talking about your work.

Yes, on purpose — and before you start telling me that you are nowhere near ready to take such a bold step, allow me to point out that you already have the skills. How do I know? Because we’ve been adding them to your writer’s toolkit for a couple of weeks now.

Today, I’m going to show you how to pull all of the elements you’ve already constructed together into the first hundred words you will want to say to anyone you meet at a writer’s conference — and that’s including “Hello.” With these first hundred words in hand (and mouth), even the shyest, most reclusive writer can launch into a professional-sounding discussion with anyone in the publishing industry.

And I do mean anyone, be it an agent or editor to whom you are pitching, the aforementioned chatty guy sitting next to you in a class, or the person standing next to you while you are dunking your teabag in hot water, trying to wake up before the 8 a.m. agent and editor forum.

Nifty trick, eh? And a darned useful one, in my humble opinion: no matter what you’ve heard, it’s darned hard to land an agent via a pitch unless you can talk fluently about your book.

As in during an actual conversation, not in the few lines most first-time conference-goers regard as a pitch..

Once again, I must add a disclaimer about my own tendency toward iconoclastism: this strategy is an invention of my own, because I flatly hate the fact that the rise of pitching now often makes it necessary for people whose best talent is expressing themselves at length and in writing to sell their work in short, verbal bursts. I feel that pitching unfairly penalizes the shy and the complex-minded, in addition to tending to sidestep the question that agents and editors most need to know about a brand-new writer: not can she speak, but can she write?

However, as long as aspiring writers in North America are stuck with pitching and querying as the only polite means of landing agents, we need to make the best of it. But — as some of you MAY have figured out by now — I don’t believe that just telling writers to compress their lives’ work into three sentences is sufficient preparation for doing it successfully.

Why? Well, among other reasons, it tends to make first-time pitchers feel a little like that lion tamer in the top picture: putting so much effort into not showing perfectly rational fear in the face of what your body is quite likely to interpret as a life-threatening situation (because your psyche knows it to be a potentially ego-eviscerating one) that you can barely move. Clutching a chair and a whip, even mentally, is not the best way to begin what can be a very cordial conversation.

For that reason — and I warn you, conference organizers tend to dislike my expressing it this way — I believe that encouraging writers to think that those three sentences are all that is needed to sell a book is short-sighted, inaccurate, and is an almost sure-fire recipe for ending up feeling tongue-tied and helpless in a pitching situation. I’m not convinced that all pitching disasters are, as conference organizers often imply, the result of writers who simply don’t prepare adequately; flubbed pitches are often the result of mismatched appointments, lack of confidence, or even over-preparation.

I’m quite serious about that last one. Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of stammering writers struggle to express themselves at conferences all over the country. They flounder not merely because pitching is genuinely hard, but also because they had blindly followed the pervasive pitching advice and prepared only three sentences — no more, no less — about their books.

Why is that structure problematic? Ask those stammering pitchers: focusing solely upon brevity left them with precisely nothing else to say about it, or at least nothing else that they had polished enough to roll smoothly off their tongues.

This species of brain freeze happens all the time to good writers, squelching their big chance to make a connection with the right person to help their book to publication. You’d be astonished at how frequently these poor souls forget even to introduce themselves prior to giving their official 3-line pitch; most of the time, they walk out of the pitch without having told the agent what kind of book it is.

That leaves the agent or editor understandably confused and frustrated, as you may well imagine. The results, I’m afraid, are relatively predictable: a meeting that neither party can feel good about, and one that ends without a request to submit pages.

Frankly, I think it’s rather cruel to place talented-but-inexperienced writers in this position. There is certainly a place in the publishing industry for the three-sentence pitch — quite a significant place, as we will be discussing later in this ‘Palooka — but there is information about you and your book that should logically be mentioned before those three sentences, so the agent or editor to whom you are pitching knows who you are and what the heck you are talking about.

In answer to that gigantic unspoken cry of, “What do you mean, I have to say something to an agent or editor BEFORE I pitch! I was told I had to prepare only three sentences, total, and I would be home free!” we all just heard bouncing off the moon and back into the atmosphere, I can only reply: yes, yes, I know. I’ve never seen a conference brochure that gave advice on what to say before a pitch. But such is my faith in your mother that I believe she did not raise you to be rude to people you want to do you professional favors.

Let’s face it: simple etiquette forbids charging up to a total stranger, even if you have an appointment with her, and blurting, “There’s this good actor who can’t get a job, so he puts on women’s clothing and auditions. Once he’s a popular actress, he falls in love with a woman who doesn’t know he’s a man.”

That’s a screenplay-type pitch for TOOTSIE, by the way, a great story. But even if you run up to an agent and shout out the best pitch for the best story that ever dropped from human lips, the agent is going to wonder who the heck you are and why you have no manners.

“That writer’s mother can’t possibly know that he acts this way,” the agent will mutter, turning away.

Don’t tell me that you don’t have time for manners: presenting yourself politely, as a reasonable person should, requires only about a hundred words. Even in the swiftest pitching situation, you will have the ten seconds to utter a hundred words.

Even writers who limit their pitches to three lines have time for that, right?

The goal of my Magic First Hundred Words formula is to give you a lead-in to any conversation that you will have at a writer’s conference, or indeed, anywhere within the profession. Equipped with this talisman, you can feel confident introducing yourself to anyone, no matter how important or intimidating, because you will know that you are talking about your work in a professional manner.

Now doesn’t that sound more civilized than walking into a pitch meeting with a whip and a chair, terrified and desiring only to keep criticism at bay?

While mastering the MFHW will not necessarily transform you from the Jerry Lewis of pitchers into the Cary Grant of same — although we can all hope — it will go a long way toward helping you calm down enough to give an effective pitch. Ideally, both pitcher and pitchee should feel at ease. Observing the niceties is conducive to that.

And not just for reasons of style; I’m being practical here. Trust me, in the many, many different social situations in which a professional writer is expected to be able to speak coherently about her work, very few are conducive to coughing up three sentences completely out of context. There are social graces to be observed.

Ready to learn how to introduce yourself gracefully? Relax — it’s going to be easy. Here’s the formula:

”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).”

Voilà! You are now equipped to start a conversation with anybody at any writing event in the English-speaking world. These magic words — which, you will note, are NOT generic, but personalized for YOUR book — will introduce you and your work in the language used by the industry, establishing you right off the bat as someone to take seriously.

You’re welcome.

The beauty of the MFHW formula (if I do say so myself) is its versatility. If you learn these few sentences by heart, you can walk into any pitching situation — be it a formal, 15-minute meeting with the agent of your dreams or a chance encounter at the dessert bar when you and an editor are reaching for the same miniature éclair — confident that you can comport yourself with ease and grace.

Why is so important to introduce yourself urbanely — and get to your point quickly? Well, agents and editors are MAGNIFICENTLY busy people. They honestly do prefer to work with writers to whom they will not have to explain each and every nuance of the road to publication.

That’s my job, right?

Look, it’s natural to be hesitant when approaching someone who could conceivably change your life. But think about what even a brief flare-up of shyness, modesty, or just plain insecurity at the moment of approach can look like from their perspective. By the time the average pitcher has gotten around to mentioning the actual content of her book after several minutes of shilly-shallying, the agent in front of him has usually already mentally stamped his foreheads with “TIME-CONSUMING” in bright red letters.

Which means, in practical terms, that in any subsequent pitch, his book is going to have to sound amazing, rather than merely good, for the agent to want to see it. And in a hallway encounter, he might not get to pitch at all.

By introducing yourself and your work in the lingua franca of the industry, however, you will immediately establish yourself as someone who has taken the time to learn the ropes. Believe me, the pros will appreciate it.

I’ve pushed a few insecurity buttons out there, haven’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of the more modest amongst you protest, “I don’t know much about how publishing works. They’ll see through my false mask of confidence right away. And look — that agent has a knife! AHHHHHH!” (Sound of talented body thudding onto the ground.)

Would this be a good time to point out that the vast majority of aspiring writers radically overestimate how scary interacting with an agent or editor will be, building it up in their minds until it makes a facing a firing squad seem like a carefree social encounter?

Which is, of course, ridiculous: in my experience, very few agents come to conferences armed. In their natural habitat, they will only attack writers if provoked, wounded, or very, very hungry.

No, but seriously, folks, writers tend to freak themselves out unnecessarily with fantasies about agents and editors being mean to them, but that’s hardly the universal pitching experience. Most conference-attending agents and editors genuinely like good writing and good writers; apart from a few sadists who get their jollies bullying the innocent, they’re not there to pick fights.

Or, to put it a bit more poetically: when an agent or editor agrees to hear a writer’s pitch, either in a formal or an informal context, he’s virtually never trying to trick an aspiring writer into making a career-destroying mistake. They come to these conferences to find talent.

They want to like you, honest. But they will like you better if you meet them halfway — and observe the niceties.

Worried? I can’t say as I blame you; would it set your mind at ease to gain a sense of how most aspiring writers begin pitch meetings? Assuming that we all already know why the ever-popular sit-there-in-terrified-silence approach might not charm and agent or editor, let’s take a look at a couple of other common entrance speeches. First, the super-vague:

”There’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together, so it’s a problem. After a while, something happens to lock them in an elevator together, where they discover that they’ve actually been yearning after each other for years.”

Non-specific, isn’t it? Most rambling pitches are. The hearer is left to guess: what kind of a book is it? Who are these characters, and why should I care about them? And, lest we forget, who is saying this, beyond the person who happened to be assigned to the 10:45 pitching slot?

See the problem, from the agent or editor’s point of view? Good. Now let’s look at another popular entrance strategy, the self-rejecting:

”Well, my book isn’t really finished, and you’re probably not going to be interested in it, but I’ve been working on it for eight years and I keep getting rejected, so maybe…well, in any case, here goes: there’s this woman who is in love with a man, but they work together…”

Doesn’t exactly ooze confidence, does it? Let’s try the book report method on for size:

“My fiction novel is a first-person narrative from the points of view of three different narrators, all unreliable. The writing is very literary, but I’m hoping to market it to a mainstream audience. The imagery is extremely filmic, so it would be a natural to make into a movie.”

Okay, but what is this book about? At the first-introduction stage, why should an agent care about the narrative voice or the number of narrators? It’s not as though she’s going to stop the writer before he even mentions the plot and say, “Oh, fantastic — I was talking to an editor just the other day who begged me to bring her more first-person narratives from multiple perspectives. You, sir, are my new client!”

And by the way, all novels are fiction, just as all memoirs are based on true stories. So saying that your novel is fiction is just about as redundant as telling an agent that you have taken the original approach of printing words on pages; trust me, she will have assumed that.

The book report pitch is not the most common, believe it or not. That honor would go to the ever-popular book review technique:

“This is the most exciting debut novel since THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, although it’s neither written in the first person plural nor a closely-examined depiction of a dysfunctional family. Searing in its intensity, the plot builds to a climax of Cinemascope proportions. The ending will leave you breathless and eager for a sequel.

At the risk of repeating myself, what is this book about? Why is the comparison relevant? And why would an agent believe a writer’s critical assessment of his own work, rather than waiting to make that call herself after reading the manuscript?

With those querying faux pas firmly embedded in your brainpans, let’s take another gander at those magic first hundred words, to see precisely how far your approach is likely to try their patience. You’ve just walked into your pitch appointment and said:

”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).”

Believe me, to an agent or editor who has been listening to writers stammer helplessly all day, this simple speech will be downright refreshing. Quite apart from the content conveying what they actually want to know — again, something of a rarity in a three-line pitch — the magic first hundred words also convey:

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME) a polite and professional writer who has taken the time to learn how you and your ilk describe books. I understand that in order to make a living, you need to be able to pitch good books to others, so I have been considerate enough to figure out both the BOOK CATEGORY and TARGET MARKET. Rather than presuming that you are an automaton, an industry stooge with no individual tastes, I am now going to run the premise by you to see how you like it: (KEYNOTE).”

That’s perfectly honest, right? Over the past couple of weeks, you have done all these things, haven’t you?

Practice your magic first hundred words until they flow out of your sweet lips smoothly, without an initial pause — you know, like a conversation. Only repetition will make them feel like natural speech.

And don’t just say them in your mind: practice OUT LOUD, so you get used to hearing yourself talk about your work like a professional. It’s going to sound a bit strange and more than a little pushy the first seventy or eighty times that convenient little speech pops out of your mouth.

That’s a perfectly lovely reason not to save the MFHW for the important folks at a conference, but to use them to introduce yourself to the writer standing ahead of you in the registration line. And the one behind you, as well as the people sitting around you at the first seminar on the first day. In fact, it would be perfectly accurate to say that any writers’ conference anywhere in the world will be stuffed to capacity with people upon whom to practice this speech.

Knock yourself out. You might make a few friends.

One caveat about using these words to meet other writers: they’re a great introduction, but do remember to give the other party a chance to speak as well. It is accepted conference etiquette to ask the other party what she writes before you start going on at too great length about your own work.

Courtesy counts, remember?

So if you find that you have been speaking for more than a couple of minutes to a fellow writer without hearing anyone’s voice but your own, make sure to stop yourself and ask what your listener writes. In this context, the very brevity of the MFHW will ensure that you are being polite; if your new acquaintance is interested, she will ask for more details about your book.

I mention this because it’s been my experience that writers, especially those attending their first conferences, tend to underestimate pretty radically how much they will enjoy talking to another sympathetic soul about their work. After plugging away in one’s literary garret for so long, it can be a huge relief. It’s not at all unusual for a writer to realize with a shock that he’s been talking non-stop for twenty minutes.

Completely understandable, of course. We writers are, by definition, rather isolated creatures: we spend much of our time by ourselves, tapping away at a keyboard. Ours is one of the few professions where a touch of agoraphobia is actually a professional advantage, after all.

It can be very lonely — which is precisely why you’re going to want to use the MFHW to introduce yourself to as many kindred souls as you possibly can at a conference. What better place to meet buddies to e-mail when you feel yourself starting to lose momentum? Where else are you more likely to find talented people eager to form a critique group? And who will be more thrilled to hear that you’ve landed an agent, sold your first book, or will be in town for a book signing? (Oh, you thought writers who hit the big time didn’t have support networks?)

If that’s not enough to get you chatting, consider this: there’s a distinct possibility that one of those people sitting next to you in seminars is going to be a household name someday. Every writer has to start out somewhere. Just think how cool you’ll feel saying casually, “Oh, her? Great writer. I met her at a conference years ago. Look, there’s my name in the acknowledgements of her book.”

This is, in fact, an excellent place for a writer to find new friends who get what it’s like to be a writer. And at that, let no one sneeze, at least not in my general vicinity.

Let’s face it, most of our non-writing friends’ curiosity about what we’re doing for all that time we’re shut up in our studios is limited to the occasional, “So have you finished the novel yet?” and the extortion of a vague promise to sign a copy for them when it eventually comes out. If they know a little — just a little — about the publishing industry, they may even joke about the day when you will hand them free copies.

Word to the wise: get out of the habit NOW of promising these people copies of your future books. Nowadays, authors get comparatively few free copies; you don’t want to end up paying for dozens of extra books to fulfill all those past promises, do you?

Back to my original point: at a writers’ conference, or even in a pitch meeting, the euphoria of meeting another human being who actually wants to hear about what you are writing, who is THRILLED to discuss the significant difficulties involved in finding time to write when you have a couple of small children scurrying around the house, who says fabulously encouraging things like, “Gee, that’s a great title!” can be pretty overwhelming.

It’s easy to get carried away. For the sake of the long-term friendships you can make at a conference, make sure you listen as much as you talk.

For that, too, you are already more prepared than you think. For your conversational convenience, the MFHW transform readily into conversation-sparking questions:

”Hi, what’s your name? What do you write? What is your target audience? What’s your premise?

Sensing a theme here?

By all means, though, use your fellow conference attendees to get used to speaking your MFHW aloud — and your pitch, while you’re at it. It’s great practice, and it’s a good way to meet other writers working in your genre. Most writers are genuinely nice people — and wouldn’t it be great if, on the day your agent calls you to say she’s received a stellar offer for your first book, if you already had the e-mail addresses of a dozen writers that you could call immediately, people who would UNDERSTAND what an achievement it was?

Trust me on this one: you won’t want to have to wonder whom to call when that happy day comes.

Practice, practice, practice those MFHW, my friends, until they roll off your tongue with the ease of saying good morning to your co-workers. They are going to be your security blanket when you’re nervous, and your calling card when you are not.

Next time, we’ll be moving to the elevator speech, those pesky three sentences we’ve all heard so much about. After that, we’ll be ready for the home stretch: pulling it all together for the pitch proper. Can the query letter be far behind?

Congratulations on all of the progress you’ve made over the last couple of weeks: you honestly are building up your professional acumen. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part IX: Anne Frank and Godzilla meet cute at the Tour Eiffel, and love blossoms! Or, how to get conceptual without sounding reductionist

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Did some of you find yourself getting just a trifle antsy when I didn’t post yesterday, campers? I couldn’t really blame you, especially if you happen to be in a great big hurry to polish a pitch — if, say, you happen to be attending a Conference That Shall Remain Nameless in the greater Seattle area the weekend after this. It’s eight days away — can you hear Washington State’s collective blood pressure rising at the very thought of it? — and frankly, I have about twice that many posts’ worth of observations to make about pitching.

There goes that blood pressure again. Take some nice, deep breaths, local pitchers-to-be, and let’s think about our options.

First, if you are planning to pitch next week, please feel free to take the express route. The posts gathered under the HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list at right will take you through the basics at record speed. (I know — how do I come up with those esoteric category names?)

Second, I could ramp up the pace, in the manner of ‘Paloozas past. I’m reluctant to start posting twice per day (and thrice on Sunday!) in mid-summer, because I assume that most of you who are not planning to pitch as early as next week might conceivably want to engage in some leisure activities, get some work done, and/or spend enough time with your families that your kith and kin could pick you out of a police lineup (“That’s she, officer — or that’s what Mom looked like before she took up writing.”) In the midst of one of my hectic ‘Palooza marathons, any of those things could in theory take a back seat to furious reading.

So here is what I propose: let’s take a poll. If you’d like me to pick up the pace, gearing the rest of the series to the assumption that many of you will in fact be pitching the weekend after next, drop me a note in the comments. If, on the other hand, you would feel that boosting my already voluminous blog output would stretch your reading capacities, you need say nothing. I’ll get the hint.

And for those of you who do not plan on pitching anytime soon — or, indeed, ever, if you can possibly avoid it — please hang tight, either way. As I may PERHAPS have intimated before, the essential skills a writer uses for creating a pitch and crafting a query are, if not the same, at least closely related.

Note that I called them skills, and not talents. Contrary to popular belief, success in marketing one’s work is not entirely reliant upon the quality of the writing; it’s also about professional presentation. Pitching and querying well require skills that have little to do with writing talent. No baby, however inherently gifted in finding la mot juste, has ever crawled out of the womb already informed by the celestial talent-handlers how to make her work appealing to the publishing industry, I assure you.
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As in any other business, there are ropes to learn if you want to get published. No shame in that.

I wish this were a more widely-accepted truth on the conference circuit. Writers so often plunge into pitching or querying with sky-high hopes, only to have them dashed by what is in fact a perfectly acceptable response to a pitch: a cautious, “Well, that sounds interesting, but naturally, it all depends upon the writing. Send me the first three chapters.”

That’s if everything happened to go well in the pitch, of course. If it didn’t, a polite but firm, “I’m sorry, but that’s just not for my agency/publishing house,” is the usual dream-crusher.

In the stress of pitching or querying, it can be hard to remember that quite apart from any interest (or lack thereof) an agent might have in the story being told, an unprofessionally-presented pitch or query letter will often get rejected on that basis alone, not necessarily upon the book concept or the quality of the writing. So until a book has been marketed properly, it’s virtually impossible to glean writing-related feedback from rejections at all.

Allow me to repeat that, as it’s hugely important for you to remember as you are walking nervously into a pitch meeting: giving a poor pitch will not hurt your book’s long-term publication process; like inadvertently sending a query addressed to Agenta McMarketpro to Pickyarbiter O’Taste, Jr., the worst that will happen is that you will engender some minor irritation in the person on the receiving end. There are other agents and editors, after all.

Learn what you can from the experience, then pick yourself up, dust the leaves and bracken from your ego, and move on. Doesn’t your book deserve the compliment of persistence?

Yes, yes, I know: when you’re prepping a pitch, it feels as though not only the fate of your book, but the prospects of Western civilization hang on whether you can give a coherent and appealing account of your plot or argument. “It’s not just the idea of sitting face-to-face with a real, live agent that’s so intimidating, Anne,” nail-gnawers all over the Pacific Northwest point out. “It’s the shortness of the darned pitch meeting. I’m a complex person who writes in a complex matter about complex things — how on earth am I supposed to cram several years’ worth of concentrated creative thought into just three sentences?”

Ah, you’re suffering from Pith Petrification. This dire syndrome’s tell-tale symptoms are clearly visible in the hallways of half the literary conferences in North America. Aspiring writers walk into walls, muttering to themselves, the sure sign that they’ve embraced the antiquated pitching method so favored by conference organizers, and so hated by everyone else: trying to cram the entire plot of a book into three sentences, memorizing them (thus the muttering and wall-battery), and spitting them out in one long breath at the pitch meeting.

As some of you MAY have figured out by this point in the series, I am not a big fan this approach, however often conference brochures and websites tout it as the proper — or only — way to pitch a book. In my experience, it’s far, far better pitching strategy for a writer to learn to talk about her book effectively and in professional terms than to swallow a pre-fab speech whole, hoping to God that the agent or editor at whom she plans to spit it won’t do anything disorienting like ask follow-up questions or sneeze while she’s in the midst of delivering it.

News flash to those who adhere to the three-line approach: people sneeze, and asking follow-up question is what agents and editors do when they hear a pitch they like. It’s the happy outcome — so why not prepare for it?

With that laudable goal in mind, I sent you off last time with some homework. How is coming up with a list of why your book will appeal to your target audience going?

If you find you’re getting stuck, here’s a great way to jump-start your brainstorming process: hie ye hence to the nearest well-stocked bookstore (preferably an air-conditioned one, if you happen to reside in the northern hemisphere right now), stand in front of the shelves holding your chosen book category, and start taking a gander at how those books are being marketed to readers.

Yes, I know: the major chain bookstore to which you might have hied yourself a year ago may well be closed today. Try not to think about that; find another brick-and-mortar purveyor of books. Given the recent events at Borders and B&N, I’m sure the staff will be delighted to see you.

As fond as I am of public libraries, checking out the new release shelf there is no substitute for browsing at a bookstore. Neither is surfing through the offerings on your favorite online book emporium’s website — and not just because all of us who write might feel just a little bit better about our futures if more people got up from their desks, locked the doors of their respective domiciles behind them, and strolled into the nearest bookstore.

The idea here is to discover at whom new releases in your field are being aimed, and how. The front and back covers are a fabulous place to start, since every syllable that appears on either will have been specifically crafted by the publisher’s marketing department to reach the book’s target demographic.

That last term, for those of you tuning in late, refers to the people who have already demonstrated interest in buying similar books. How is that delightful propensity manifested, you ask? Generally, by that most straightforward means of fan self-identification: by actually plunking down the cash for a book in that category.

Once you have found the general section in the bookstore where your book will sit one happy day, try to find stories that share characteristics with yours. Is the voice similar? Is the subject matter roughly equivalent? Do your book and the one in front of you both contain long sections of historical flashback?

I don’t mean to tout my psychic powers, but here’s a modest prediction: once you’ve made a small pile of books that resemble yours, you will notice that they all seem to be aimed at a specific group of readers. They will all have something else in common, too.

In all probability, several somethings: back jacket blurbs aimed at a particular readership often repeat key words. Think those words might be ones it might behoove you to consider including in your pitch?

Seriously, marketing efforts are not known for their vast vocabulary. In the late 1980s, I got a job writing back labels for wine bottles. (Oh, you thought those colorless little quips just wrote themselves?) When I was handed my first set of bottles, I was laboring under the impression that my job was to describe to the potential buyer what the wine within might taste like. As I was new to the game — and, to be completely honest, under 21 at the time, and thus not legally empowered to sample any of the wine I was supposed to be describing — I wrote lengthy, adjective-heavy descriptions for each and every wine.

Okay, so I wasn’t actually guessing. Having grown up literally in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard, I had a certain amount of prior experience nailing down precisely what nuances the palette might find pleasing.

After a week or two of being on the receiving end of some frankly much too long descriptions (some of them would have had to be continued on the next bottle), the marketing manager called me into his office. “You’re making this harder on yourself than it needs to be, honey,” he told me, “and you’re going to make it harder for the buyer.”

I was flabbergasted. Hadn’t I been tying myself in knots to produce accurate descriptions?

He waved away my objections. “Sweetie, the people who would understand your descriptions don’t buy wine based on the label copy; they buy it based upon knowledge of the winery, the year, the soil conditions, and every other piece of information you’re cramming onto the back label. But the back label is for people who don’t know much about wine, who want to know what the varietal is like. Every varietal has five or six adjectives already associated with it: oaky, for instance, or vanilla undertones. If you’re writing a description of a Chardonnay, haul out the Chardonnay adjectives and make sure you use most of them somewhere on the back label. Got it?”

As a writer, I was crushed, but I must admit, it was great marketing advice: I had mistaken the target market for my wine descriptions. To those readers, an overly-technical description was off-putting.

The same logic may be productively applied to the language of a pitch or a query letter: an overly -detailed description, not matter how accurately it represents the book, is not what agents and editors are hoping to hear. Since they think of manuscripts in terms of target demographics, book categories, and what has already proven successful in selling to a particular market, not speaking of your work in those terms isn’t the most effective way to present your book concept.

In other words, you’ve probably been working too hard, trying to shoehorn too many extraneous details into your pitch.

Shout hallelujah, citizens, for we are finally ready to tackle reducing your book to a single quip of bon mot-iness that would make Oscar Wilde blush furiously, if discreetly, with envy. For the rest of this post, I am going to talk about coming up with your book’s KEYNOTE, also known colloquially as a BOOK CONCEPT.

(Did you know that when Wilde gave public readings, he NEVER read the published versions of his own work? Ditto with Mark Twain, another writer known to wow ‘em with great readings, and I’m quite sure I’ve never heard David Sedaris read the same story the same way twice. Sedaris seems — wisely — to use audience feedback to judge what jokes do and do not work, but Wilde and Twain apparently deliberately added extra laugh lines, so that even audience members very familiar with their published writing would be surprised and delighted.)

Brevity is the soul of the keynote. It is the initial, wow-me-now concept statement that introduces your book to someone with the attention span of an unusually preoccupied three-year-old.

Why assume you’ve got that little time? Because if you can impress someone that distrait, you can certainly catch the ear of a perpetually rushed agent — or the eye of Millicent, the exhausted agency screener.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea of wanting to discuss your marvelously intricate book with someone whose attention span precludes sitting through even an average-length TV commercial, let me remind you: even if the agent of your dreams is given to twenty-minute conversations with aspiring writers, sometimes, you will have only a minute or so to make a pitch. After a very popular class, for instance, or when the aforementioned agent happens to be trying to attract the bartender’s attention at the same time as you are.

I ask you: since any reasonably polite mutual introduction will take up at least half a minute, wouldn’t you like to be ready to take advantage of the remaining 30 seconds, if the opportunity presents itself?

I know, I know: it’s not very glamorous to approach the agent of your dreams in the parking lot below the conference center, but the market-savvy writer takes advantage of chance meetings to pitch — where politeness doesn’t preclude it, of course. (Just so you know: it’s considered extremely gauche to pitch in the bathroom line, but at most conferences, pretty much any other line is fair game.) You’re not going to want to shout your keynote at her the instant you spot an agent, of course, but a keynote is a great third sentence after, “I enjoyed your talk this morning. Do you have a moment for me to run my book concept by you?”

I feel the shy quailing, but here’s a thought that might make you feel a whole lot better about doing this: if you have a keynote prepared, you honestly are going to take up only a few seconds of her time. The keynote’s goal is to pique your listener’s interest as quickly as possible, so he will ask to hear more, not to pitch the book all by itself.

And you are going to do that charmingly, professionally, and most of all, courteously. (You didn’t think I was just going to urge you to buttonhole agents in conference hallways without showing you how to do it politely, did you?)

Like the pitch as a whole, the keynote’s purpose is not to sell the book unread, but to intrigue the hearer into wanting to read your manuscript — and to act upon that feeling by asking the writer to submit the manuscript. Often by way of asking those pesky follow-up questions I mentioned earlier.

How do you arouse this level of interest without drowning the hearer in details? By providing a MEMORABLY INTRIGUING PREMISE within a swift single sentence. The keynote is not a substitute for a full-blown pitch; it is a conversational appetizer to whet the appetite of the hearer so he will ask to hear the entire pitch.

Think of the keynote as the amuse-bouche of the publishing world: just a bite, designed to intrigue the hearer into longing to hear your formal pitch. In your keynote, your job is to fascinate, not to explain — and certainly not to summarize.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s crucial: the goal of the keynote is NOT to summarize the plot of the book; merely to make its PREMISE sound exciting enough to make a hearer want to know more.

It is not — and I cannot stress this enough — a pitch proper for a book. No matter how clever a single-sentence keynote is, you will still need to write a pitch (if you are successful in piquing an agent or editor’s interest, anyway). Naturally, I am not suggesting that you routinely utilize only a single sentence to promote your book in person or in print; the keynote is designed to help open doors so that you may create pitching opportunities.

Some of you are becoming a trifle impatient with my vehemence, aren’t you? “Jeez, Anne,” these finger-drummers observe, “don’t you think I’ve been paying attention? Why on earth would I limit myself to a single sentence when I have a ten-minute pitch appointment scheduled?”

Well, it could be because at every conference I attend, I see aspiring writers knocking themselves out, trying to come up with a single sentence that summarizes everything good about a book, but that’s really not the point at the moment. The point is that in an impromptu first contact with a publishing professional, you’re there to tease, not to satisfy.

And did I mention that it should be both memorable and brief?

There are two schools of thought on how best to construct a keynote statement. The better-known is the Hollywood hook, a single sentence utilizing pop culture symbolism to introduce the basic premise of the book. (Note: the Hollywood hook should not be — but often is — confused with a hook, the opening paragraph or line of a book or short story that grabs the reader and sucks her into the story. Unfortunately, conference-going writers get these two terms mixed up all the time, leading to sometimes-tragic communication lapses.)

Hollywood hooks tend to run a little like this:

“It’s SPIDERMAN meets DRIVING MISS DAISY — on Mars!”

“It’s JAWS, but on dry land and with turtledoves!”

“Queen Elizabeth II finds herself suddenly deposed, penniless, and forced to work in a particle physics lab on the day aliens invade!”

It’s no accident that each of the examples above ends in an exclamation point: you want your HH to be just a bit jarring; a spark of the unexpected will make your book concept sound fresh. Logical contradiction provides the shock of a Hollywood hook, the combination of two icons that one would not generally expect to be found together.

For instance, a Hollywood hook for:

…a book that teaches children the essentials of the Electoral College system might be, “Bill Clinton teaches Kermit the Frog how to vote!”

…a book on alternative medicine for seniors might be expressed as, “Deepak Chopra takes on the Golden Girls as patients!”

…a novel about sexual harassment in a tap-dancing school could conceivably be pitched as “Anita Hill meets Fred Astaire!”

See all those exclamation points? There’s a certain breathlessness about the Hollywood hook, a blithe disregard for propriety of example. There’s a reason for this: in order to be effective as an enticement to hear more, the icons cited should not go together automatically in the mind.

Otherwise, where’s the surprise? Remember, the whole point of the exercise is to intrigue the listener, to make him ask to hear more.

Think about it: if someone pitched a book to you as “A private investigator chases a murderer!” wouldn’t you yawn? If, on the other hand, if someone told you her book was “Mickey Mouse goes on a killing spree!” wouldn’t you ask at least one follow-up question?

Starting to get the picture? The point here is not to produce a super-accurate description, but a memorable sound bite.

All that being said, I should mention that I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood hook method of keynoting. Yes, it can be attention-grabbing, but personally, I would rather use those few seconds talking about my book, not demonstrating my encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture.

And that’s not just about ego, honest. Not every storyline is compressible into iconic shorthand, whatever those screenwriting teachers who go around telling everyone who will listen that the only good plotline is a heroic journey would like us to believe. (Use the Force, Luke!)

The other school of thought on constructing a keynote statement — and my preferred method — is the rhetorical teaser. The rhetorical teaser presents a thought-provoking question (ideally, posed in the second person, to engage the listener in the premise) that the book will presumably answer.

For example, a friend of mine was prepping to pitch a narrative cookbook aimed at celiacs, people who cannot digest gluten. Now, there are a whole lot of celiacs out there, but (as we should all know after our recent discussion on the helpfulness of statistics) she could not legitimately assume that any agent or editor to whom she pitched the book would either be unable to eat wheat or know someone who couldn’t. (Remember that great rule of thumb from earlier in the series: you can’t presume that an agent or editor has ANY knowledge about your particular subject matter.)

So she employed a rhetorical tease to grab interest: “What would you do if you suddenly found out you could never eat pizza again?”

Thought-provoking, isn’t it? It may not have been a strictly honest way to present a book proposal that, if memory serves, included a recipe for gluten-free pizza dough, but it does present the problem the book sets out to solve vividly to the hearer.

Rhetorical teasers are more versatile than Hollywood hooks, as they can convey a broader array of moods. They can range from the ultra-serious (“What if you were two weeks away from finishing your master’s degree — and your university said it would throw you out if you wouldn’t testify against your innocent best friend?”) to the super-frivolous (“Have you ever looked into your closet before a big date and wanted to shred everything in there because nothing matched your great new shoes?”).

Remember, you don’t want to give an overview of the plot here — you want to intrigue. Again, the keynote is NOT a summary of your book; it’s a teaser intended to attract an agent or editor into ASKING to hear your pitch.

So you will want to make it — say it with me now — both BRIEF and MEMORABLE.

By now, I imagine the mere sight of those two words within the same line is making you squirm a bit, isn’t it? “I understand why pith that might be a good idea,” I hear some of you grumble, “but I’m a writer of BOOKS, not one-liners. How does a novelist accustomed to luxurious, page-long descriptions of individual dust motes floating in beams of light pull off being simultaneously brief and memorable?”

That’s a great question, mote-lovers, and it deserves a direct answer: don’t be afraid to use strong imagery, particularly strong sensual imagery that will stick in the hearer’s mind for hours to come.

To put it bluntly, if you’re ever going to use adjectives, this is the time. “What would you do if you suddenly found yourself knee-deep in moss everywhere you went?” is not as strong a keynote as “The earth will be covered thirty feet deep in musty grey lichen in three days — and no one believes the only scientist who can stop it.”

Notice how effective it was to bring in the element of conflict? Your keynote should make your book sound dramatically exciting — even if it isn’t. You shouldn’t lie, obviously, but this is the time to emphasize lack of harmony, not how likable your protagonist is.

I’m quite serious about this. If I were pitching a book set in a convent where nuns spent their days in silent contemplation of the perfections of the universe, I would make the keynote sound positively conflict-ridden. How? Well, off the top of my head: “What would you do if you’d taken a vow of silence — but the person you worked with every day had a habit that drove you mad?”

Okay, perhaps habit was a bit much. But you get my drift: in a keynote, as in a pitch, being boring is the original sin.

Thou shalt not bore on my watch, sunshine.

I would advise emphasizing conflict, incidentally, even if the intent of the book overall is to be soothing. A how-to book on relaxation techniques could accurately be keynoted as, “Wrap your troubles in lavender; this book will teach you how to sleep better,” but that’s hardly a grabber, is it? Isn’t “What would you do if you hadn’t slept in four nights? Reach for this book!” is actually a better keynote.

Why? Experienced book-promoters, chant it with me now: because the latter encourages the hearer to want to hear more. And that, by definition, is a more successful come-on.

Did some eyebrows hit some hairlines just then? Weren’t you aware that both pitching and querying are species of seduction?

Or, if you prefer, species of storytelling. As Madame de Staël so memorably wrote a couple of centuries ago, “One of the miracles of talent is the ability to tear your listeners or readers out of their own egoism.”

That’s about as poetic a definition of marketing art as you’re going to find.

Use the keynote to alert ‘em to the possibility that you’re going to tell them a story they’ve never heard before. Another effective method for constructing a keynote is to cite a problem — and immediately suggest that your book may offer a plausible solution to it.

This works especially well for nonfiction books on depressing subjects. A keynote that just emphasizes the negative, as in, “Human activity is poisoning the oceans,” is, unfortunately, more likely to elicit a shudder from an agent or editor than, “Jacques Cousteau said the oceans will die in our lifetimes — and this book will tell you what you can do about it.”

Fact of living in these post-Enlightenment days, I’m afraid: we like all of our problems to have solutions. Preferably ones that don’t require more than thirty seconds to explain.

I can tell you from recent personal experience that the problem/solution keynote can be very effective with dark subject matter: there were two — count ‘em, TWO — dead babies in the sample chapter of the book proposal I sold a few years ago, and scores of preventably dying adults; a crucial scene in the memoir I was hawking took place at the height of the Ethiopian famine. It was a fascinating story, but let me tell you, I really had to sell that to my agents, even though they already had a high opinion of my writing.

If I’d just told them, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household,” we all would have collapsed into a festival of sobs, but by casting it as, “There are scores of people dying because of a plant that produces something that’s in every American household — and this is the story of a woman who has been fighting to change that,” the book sounded like a beacon of hope.

Or it would have been, if I hadn’t caught mono and pneumonia simultaneously, forcing me to cancel the book contract. Oh, and the book’s subject apparently gave up the fight. These things happen.

My point, should you care to know it: if I had stubbornly insisted upon trying to pique everyone’s interest with only the sad part of the story, I doubt the proposal would have gotten out of the starting gate. My agents, you see, harbored an absurd prejudice for my writing books that they believed they could sell.

They were right to be concerned, you know. Heads up for those of you who deal with weighty realities in your work: even if a book is politically or socially important, interesting hearers in heavy subject matter tends to be harder than attracting them with comedy, regardless of whether you are pitching it verbally or querying it.

Particularly if the downer subject matter hasn’t gotten much press attention. This is true whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, interestingly enough.

Why? Well, think about it: an agent or editor who picks up a book is committing to live with it on a fairly intensive basis for at least a year or two, often more. Even with the best intentions and working with the best writing, that can get pretty depressing.

So it’s a very good idea to accentuate the positive, even in the first few words you say to the pros about your book. And avoid clichés like the proverbial plague, unless you put a clever and absolutely original spin on them.

Actually, steering clear of the hackneyed is a good rule of thumb for every stage of book marketing: you’re trying to convince an agent or editor that your book is unique, after all. Reproducing clichés without adding to them artistically just shows that you’re a good listener, not a good creator.

If you can provoke a laugh or a gasp with your keynote, so much the better. Remember, though, even if you pull off the best one-liner since Socrates was wowing ‘em at the Athenian agora, if your quip doesn’t make your book memorable, rather than you being remembered as a funny or thought-provoking person, the keynote has not succeeded.

Let me repeat that, because it’s a subtle distinction: the goal of the keynote is not to make you sound like a great person, or even a great writer — it’s to get them interested in your BOOK.

I’m continually meeting would-be pitchers who don’t seem to realize that. Instead, they act as though an agent or editor who did not ask to see pages following a pitch must have based his decision on either (a) whether he liked the pitcher personally or (b) some magically intuition that the manuscript in question is poorly written. realistically, neither could be true.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration: if a pitcher is extremely rude to the pitchee, the latter won’t ask to see pages. But logically, no assessment of a VERBAL pitch could possibly be construed as a MANUSCRIPT critique.

They can’t possibly learn that you’re a fabulous writer until they read some of your prose. While I’m morally certain that to know, know, know my readers is to love, love, love them, that too is something the industry is going to have to learn over time.

And remember, good verbal delivery is not the same thing as book concept memorability. I once went to a poetry reading that still haunts my nightmares.

A fairly well-known poet, who may or may not come from a former Soviet bloc country closely associated in the public mind with vampire activity, stalked into a well-attended reading and declaimed, to everyone’s surprise, a prose piece. I don’t remember what it was about, except that part of the premise was that he and his girlfriend exchanged genitals for the weekend.

And then, as I recall, didn’t do anything interesting with them. (Speaking of the downsides of not adding artistically to a well-worn concept.)

Now, this guy is a wonderful public reader, a long-time NPR favorite and inveterate showman. Yet to make his (rather tame) sexual tale appear more salacious, every time he used an Anglo-Saxon word relating to a body part or physical act, he would lift his eyes from the page and stare hard at the nearest woman under 40. I’ll spare you the list of words aimed at me — I was a sweet young thing at the time — lest my webmaster wash my keyboard out with soap; suffice it to say, some of them would have made a pirate blush.

By the end of his piece, everyone in the room was distinctly uncomfortable — and to this day, years later, everyone there seems to remember his, ahem, performance. But when I get together with writer friends who were there to laugh about it now, can any of us recall the basic storyline of his piece? No.

Not even those of us who happened to be under 40 at the time. But then, we were all busy getting out of the guy’s line of sight.

What went wrong, you ask? He made his performance memorable by good delivery, rather than his writing.

Sure, I remember who he is — I’m hardly likely to forget a man who wrote an ode to his own genitalia, am I? (I suspect all of us would have been substantially more impressed if somebody ELSE had written an ode to his genitalia, but that’s neither here nor there.) But did his flashy showmanship make me rush out and buy his books of poetry? No. Did it make me avoid him at future conferences like the aforementioned proverbial plague? You bet.

And, like an agent or editor who has been the object of an inappropriate pitch in a conference bathroom, do I share the horror story on a regular basis? Need I answer that?

Exaggerated showmanship is a problem shared by a lot of pitches, and even more Hollywood hooks: too many one-line pitchers concentrate merely on delivery or sounding clever, rather than promoting the book in question. Please don’t make this mistake; unlike other sales situations, it’s pretty difficult to sell a book concept on charm alone.

Even if you are the next Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, or strange Eastern European sex fiend/poet.

Drama, conflict, vivid imagery, shock, cause for hope — these are the elements that will render your keynote memorable. And that’s extremely important, when you will be talking to someone who will have had 150 pitches thrown at her already that day.

Next time, I shall show you how to transform what you’ve already learned into a great opening gambit for striking up a conversation with anyone — and I do mean ANYONE — you might meet at a writers’ conference.

Think of it as my midsummer present to the shy. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part VIII: you’ve gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart — oh, and a professional pitch won’t hurt, either

damn-yankees

“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

I was thinking about you the other day, campers, as well as our ongoing series on how to prepare to pitch your book to an agent. While searching fruitlessly for interesting flooring for our mother-in-law apartment (every square foot of previous floor was lost to a tenant’s particularly aggressive cat; believe me, you’ll sleep better tonight if you don’t know the specifics), I stumbled upon one of the worst salespeople it has ever been my hard fate to meet. As a long-time student of human labor both stellar and awful and the people who perform it across a variety of fields, I was, naturally, fascinated.

He wasn’t bad at his job in any of the usual senses: he was not ignorant of the theory or practice of floor covering, nor did he appear to be unconversant with the ways a consumer might conceivably purchase some in an ideal world. His particular gift lay in the direction of implying that he did not care whether I opted to buy Marmoleum from his shop or from another emporium. He managed to convey, not once but perpetually, that while he was an affable guy, he was reaching the end of his rope with all of us darned people bugging him by coming into his store and expecting him to evince some interest in getting our floors covered. If only he were left alone, his every tone and gesture screamed loud and clear, he might just get some work done.

No, you’re not confused. His work did indeed involve selling floor coverings. Or so I surmised, perhaps rashly, from the fact that the shop sold nothing else.

Had he been merely incompetent, I probably would have found him merely annoying or dismissed him as yet another example of the Peter Principle in action. (If you have never read Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull’s classic analysis of how hierarchies operate and have ever remotely considered setting a comedy in a workplace, run, don’t walk, to pick up a copy.) There was a touch of genius in just how creative his ineptness was. Clearly, this man worked at being bad at his work.

He didn’t just try to talk me out of considering, say, Tarkett; he generously invested five full minutes in explaining precisely how difficult it would be to order, how unsure he was that the samples he had were representative of what the company had to offer these days, and how only a color-blind idiot would find what he had in stock neither ugly nor uninteresting. (He had a point there.) Then, for the coup de grace, he told a highly unsavory anecdote about how his former Tarkett representative had been summarily fired so, he claimed, her employers would not have to pay her back commissions.

A lesser man might not have shared the actual disputed dollar amount or the gripping details of the subsequent court case, but our fellow was made of sterner stuff — unlike, apparently, any floor covering he could recommend. By the end of his account, he not only had impressed upon me that he didn’t particularly wish to sell any Tarkett on moral grounds; he made me feel that I was a sorry excuse for a human being for ever having considered buying it.

I’m ashamed to say that I would have, too. If only they still made the pattern I liked.

It did not occur to me to question the veracity of this tale of woe and uproar until he was well into a searing indictment of bamboo hardwoods and the madmen who purvey them. His passion for that topic so absorbed him that he barely put any energy at all into brushing off the poor soul on a fool’s errand seeking some carpeting for his daughter’s bedroom.

Midway through his blistering exposé of vinyl laminate and all of its disreputable relatives, I waved a few samples of Marmoleum in front of his face. “Would you think too badly of me,” I inquired meekly, “if I took these home to see how they might look next to the kitchen cabinets?”

He snorted. “If you don’t mind giving business to foreigners.” Then, evidently suspecting that he might have gone a trifle too far, he added, “I do have one of the best installers in the Pacific Northwest for that, though. I think he’s still on work release…”

I thought about his sales technique long after I had written up my own sales slip, forced a deposit upon him, and made my way past the stacks and rolls of flooring that for reasons best known to the Almighty had not yet been snapped up by an eager consumer. “Wow,” I found myself murmuring, “have I ever heard a lot of book pitches like that.”

As I mentioned last time, it’s genuinely striking how many aspiring writers pitch as though their goal were to talk an agent or editor out of seriously considering their books. “It’s okay if you don’t want to see pages,” they will assure astonished agents. “It’s already been rejected quite a few times.”

You think I’m making that up, don’t you? Oh, how I wish I were. I also would prefer that this little gem were solely the product of my fevered brain: “My book really isn’t like anything else on the market. I know that agents are only interested in finding the next bestseller.”

Or that I had dreamed hearing this: “What’s my book about? Well, it’s sort of…it’s based on something that really happened. To me. I mean, it’s kind of autobiographical. It’s fiction, though, but I really lived it.”

That last one made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” those of you who write thinly-veiled autobiography point out, “that’s not a dissuasive statement. That’s just a statement of fact, isn’t it?”

Not to someone who has heard a lot of pitches, no. Many, if not most, first-time novelists troll their own lives for material; it’s practically a truism that a first novel is as much about the author as about its ostensible subject matter. Yes, even if it is set on the Planet Targ; you thought it wouldn’t be obvious that the three-eyed hydra prone to spitting venom on our blameless heroine was based on the lady who works two cubicles down from you?

As my old friend Philip Dick liked to say: never piss off a living writer. We have ways of making you look bad in perpetuity.

So in wasting even a few seconds in informing an agent that your book is at least semi-autobiographical, you’re probably not telling her something she doesn’t already suspect. (Also, it’s about me and autobiographical mean the same thing; trust me, it’s irritating if you mention both.) Contrary to astoundingly popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that something actually happened does not mean that it will be interesting in print.

As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing. That means — out comes the broken record again — that your goal in the pitch should be not to convey how much you care about your subject matter or how close you are to it, but to make it sound intriguing enough that the agent or editor in front of you will ask to read some pages.

Leading off with “Well, it’s semi-autobiographical,” is seldom the best way to achieve that. Why? Well, think about it from the point of view of someone who pitches books for a living: because pitches are prone to being cut off in the middle, an agent will generally bring up the book’s prime selling point first.

Is the fact that your novel is based on something that really happened to you honestly the most important thing about it? Is it why you believe a browser in a bookstore would pick it up?

Unless you happen to be a celebrity with national name recognition, probably not. So I ask you: if you had only a single breath to tell that potential reader why to grab your book and peruse the first few pages, as opposed to the one next to it on the shelf, what would you say?

Essentially, you’re in the same position in an informal pitch: what does the agent absolutely need to know about your book?

You should be leading with that information, not assuming that the hearer will glean it from a description of the plot. That’s especially true in an elevator speech: since the average hallway pitcher has only about 30 seconds to make her case, she needs to get to the crux right away.

You have a bit more leeway in a formal pitch meeting, but still, is it in your best interest to talk about the Tarkett saleslady? Wouldn’t you be better served by investing the time in making the Marmoleum sound wonderful?

In order to be able to present your book’s good points successfully, you are going to need to figure out what those good points are. To that end, last time, I suggested that a dandy way to prepare for a conversation with a real, live agent or editor was to sit down and come up with a list of selling points for your book. Or, if you’re pitching nonfiction, how to figure out the highlights of your platform.

Not just vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find it an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you pitch or query, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if you know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with agents and editors.

Remember, pretty much everyone who approaches them has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book. Contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s wanting to get published more than the next person at a writers’ conference is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

That means, in practice, that to an agent or editor, the intensity of a writer’s desire to get published is simply irrelevant to a pitch. So are the reasons the writer chose to sit down and write a book in the first place. And, at the risk of engendering howls of protest from those of you accustomed to judging literature by the effort required to produce it, so is how difficult it was to write.

Sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of pitchers (and quite a few queriers as well) make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to tell the pitchee about how miserable it was to write this particular book, how discouraging the process was, how hard it was to wrest time for writing from friends, family, job, or volunteering at the local pet rescue. Or, still worse, yielding to the temptation to list how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, how close a competitor of the person sitting in front of them was to picking it up six months ago, etc.

The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously these pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see an earlier post on the subject.) But why would this be important to the hearer? After all, isn’t it only reasonable to assume that pretty much every writer willing to invest substantial time and resources in pitching at a writers’ conference wants to succeed that much?

Sometimes, a pitcher will get so carried away with the passion of describing his suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Yes, really.) And then he’s astonished when his outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what he intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet with his intense love for this manuscript and all he has put himself through to bring it to the attention of an admiring world, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn about why agents and editors pick up books.

Surprised? Don’t be. A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyperemotionalism.

Unfortunately, pitchers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame pitchers for embracing it. They believe, apparently, that pitching (or querying) is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of tears shed during the pitch meeting), this approach typically does not work. In fact, what it generally produces is profound embarrassment in both listener and pitcher.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why is partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into seventeen million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

I’m quite serious about this: I’m trying to get you to think about your work in market terms not merely to help you pitch better, but to pull the pin gently on a grenade that can be pretty devastating to the self-esteem. A lot of writers mistake professional questions about marketability for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, some writers shrink away from agents and editors who ask this perfectly reasonable question — a reluctance to hear professional feedback which, in turn, can very easily lead to an unwillingness to pitch or query ever again.

“They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response saddens me, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that is never submitted at all.

There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all. Your job in generating selling points is to show (not tell) that there is indeed a market for your book.

Ooh, that hit some nerves, didn’t it? I can hear some of you, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently. “Um, Anne?” some of you seem to be saying, with a nervous glance at your calendars, “I can understand why this might be a useful document for querying by letter, or for sending along with my submission, but have you forgotten that I will be giving pitches at a conference just a week or so away? Is this really the best time to be spending hours coming up with my book’s selling points?”

My readers are so smart; you always ask the right questions at precisely the right time. So here is a short, short answer: yes.

Before you pitch is exactly when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points; after, it will be too late. Because, you see, if your book has market appeal over and above its writing style (and the vast majority of books do), you should — and I hope by now you’ve anticipated what I’m about to say — make darned sure that your pitch either mentions or demonstrates it.

Not in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based reasons that they will clamor to read it. Preferably backed by the kind of verifiable statistics we discussed last time.

Why? Because it will make you look professional in the eyes of the agent or editor sitting in front of you — and, I must say it, better than the twenty-five pitchers before you who did not talk about their work in professional terms. Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who wept for the entire ten-minute pitch meeting about how frustrating it was to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days.

Thank God she didn’t also make the mistake of buying Tarkett. Then she really would have a reason to weep.

The more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your pitch will be. Think about it: no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the agency screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the publishing industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

So let’s get back to constructing that list of selling points for your manuscript, shall we? To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, but try not to get too bogged down in listing the standard prestige items. Naturally, you should include any previous publications and/or writing degrees, but if you have few or no previous publications, awards, and writing degrees to your credit, do not despair. We shall be going through a long list of potential categories in order that everyone will be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities to add to her personal list.

Let’s get cracking, shall we?

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helped fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.

And if you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, you need to be explicit about it. It may seem self-evident to you, but remember, the agents and editors to whom you will be pitching will probably not be able to guess whether you have a platform from just looking at you.

There’s a reason that they habitually ask NF writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute, Anne,” those of you who have been paying attention cry. “How precisely is Point #5 different from stammering out in a pitch meeting (or saying in a query letter) that my novel is sort of autobiographical? Wouldn’t an agent or editor translate that as, ‘This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications.’”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation.

However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material. But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. And, as I mentioned above, contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.

So how should you handle it? Make the case for the book’s being fascinating first, then demonstrate your credibility by mentioning your credentials afterward.

Either way, that life experience belongs on your list, right?

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, list it. Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, mention it. Some examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120, 000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest.

Buddy Holly is a well-known graduate of Yale University, which virtually guarantees a mention of her book on tulip cultivation in the alumni newsletter. Currently, the Yale News reaches over 28 million readers bimonthly.

Perhaps it goes without mentioning again, but I pulled all of the examples I am using in this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore.

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.)

Even if these trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see my earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Some examples:

Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

(8) Statistics.
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the country are affected by it. As we discussed last time, including the real statistics in your pitch minimizes the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low.

Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them. Some examples:

400,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market for this book.

(9) Recent press coverage.

I say this lovingly, of course, but people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered in 600 B.C. That remains true, even in the midst of the current and ongoing banshee howls over the purportedly imminent demise of same.

Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, you can credibly them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible examples:

So far in 2011 the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening then.

Current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples:

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2013, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2021, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is; if it’s not, and the agent knows it isn’t, few things can get your book rejected faster.

Try to think about how your book could actually improve people’s lives — or speak to their experience. Don’t just assume interest; specify why. (Speaking as someone who has spent the last year having various medical professionals try to wrest her kneecap back into place, I can tell you now that the process’ dramatic appeal isn’t immediately apparent to just anyone.)

So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: avoid cutting down other books on the market; try to point out how your book is good and/or useful, not how another book is bad and/or a plague upon humanity.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the person to whom you are pitching didn’t go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or dated the author. Or represented the book himself.

I would strongly urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Why might a professor choose to teach it in an English literature class?

Again, remember to stick to the FACTS here, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is. That’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

Seriously, this is a notorious pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually says that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter that this is the best book in the Western literary canon is a bad writer. Next!

Be careful not to sound as if you are boasting. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features the most sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old ever seen in a novel, be prepared to back that up with direct comparisons to other books, so it will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example:

While Elizabeth Taylor’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a nonfiction book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform.

Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Tiger Woods interviewed over 600 married women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — will impress agents and editors. You’d be surprised, though how far more modest promotional efforts can go toward suggesting that you are a writer who is savvy about how book marketing actually works.

Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements, for instance, is helpful in establishing your professional credibility. Frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

For this reason, almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
This is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original. If you don’t know what makes your book different and better than what’s already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

Actually, I like to see every list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point, because it’s awfully important. Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)

Finished brainstorming your way through all of these points? Terrific. Let’s do something productive with it.

(1) Go through your list and cull the less impressive points. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

(2) Reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, shorter is better.

(3) When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or when you are practicing answering the question, “So what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to have it handy when you’re giving interviews about your book. Once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams. Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work.

There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

Exhausted? I hope not, because for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be continuing this series at a pretty blistering pace. Next time, I shall move on to constructing those magic few words that will summarize your book in half a breath’s worth of speech. So prepare yourselves to get pithy, everybody.

I’m off to wrestle with flooring decisions. Who knew that they would be so fraught with ethical peril? Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part VII: identifying why precisely the world needs YOUR book, as opposed to any other, or, how to make it plain to even Mr. Magoo what you’re holding out to him

mr-magoo-in-danger

Yesterday, I ran into a local author who drops by Author! Author! on a fairly regular basis. Appropriately enough, I bumped into him in a bookstore. “I loved your latest blog,” Jack told me, chuckling. “You really made the poor souls who hear pitches sound out-of-touch with reality.” Since it has been his considered professional opinion for years that the version of reality as understood by the business side of writing and the version in which the rest of us live have little in common but a shared respect for the force of gravity, he was, he said, pretty psyched to forward the link to that post to half of the writers he knew. “You get ‘em, tiger!”

Tiger wasn’t entirely pleased to hear this reaction. It was flattering, of course. Except that view of pitch-hearers had not been precisely what I’d been trying to convey in my last post.

For those of you who missed it, I devoted part of it to the concept of a niche market, the publishing industry’s term for a target readership that really isn’t big enough to buy significant numbers of books. Agents tend to be leery of manuscripts that they think will appeal to only a niche market, since the book sales are unlikely to yield much in the way of commission.

Lest we forget, few agencies are non-profit organizations, at least intentionally. Contrary to what far too many aspiring writers believe, the business of selling art is in fact a business, not a charitable enterprise devoted to seeking out and publishing the best writing currently occupying the world’s computers. An agent or editor at a writers’ conference is looking for projects that he believes she can sell.

So when an agent dismisses a pitch with an airy, “Oh, that will only appeal to a niche market,” she’s not saying that it’s a bad idea for a book; she’s saying that it would be difficult for her to convince an editor at a major publishing house that there are very many readers out there who will spot it on a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it to the cash register.

See the difference? I hope so, because understanding that subtle distinction can often mean ending a pitch meeting on a cordial note, rather than with the writer weeping into the hallway, feeling as though he’s just been told his book concept is terrible and no one in his right mind would want to read his book.

To be clear, being dismissed as having only niche appeal is most emphatically not a comment on the book concept’s quality. It’s not even the same as saying the book won’t sell well. A book that appeals to a niche market does actually have a recognizable audience; it’s merely a smaller audience than the agent is hoping her clients will serve.

That in turn will usually make it harder for the agent to sell it to an editor, unless that editor and publishing house already have a track record selling to that particular niche market. Even if they do, the initial print run is probably going to be small — and since the advance is typically calculated as a function of the size of the initial print run, that generally adds up to a relatively small sale. And since reputable agents make their livings solely by taking a percentage of their clients’ sales…

So if you chose to hear, “Oh, that will only appeal to a niche market,” as “Oh, I don’t think I can make any money on that,” no one could blame you. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you should take either to mean that your book doesn’t have significant market appeal — or that it’s not worth your while to keep pitching and querying it.

Why not? Well, as I mentioned last time, though, sometimes agents and editors are wrong about a book concept’s having only niche market appeal. Sometimes, that belief springs from a pro’s having handled a similar project recently that flopped; sometimes, it’s a function of having taken on a book like yours and broken his heart by not being able to sell it; sometimes, it’s a matter of not being psychic enough to know what will be the hot seller next year. But sometimes, he just isn’t aware of how many potential readers there are for a certain subject.

And sometimes, it must be said, their conceptions of particular demographics are years or even decades out of date. “Soccer?” they scoff, wrinkling their collective noses. “Nobody in the United States is interested in that.

Except, of course, for the 18.2 million Americans who played soccer at least once in 1998. (Speaking of outdated statistics; it just happened to be the one I had at my fingertips, but it’s really too old to be of much use in a pitch or query letter. Do as I say, not as I do: try to stick to statistics generated within the last five years. )

Because the person to whom you will be pitching will not necessarily be an expert on your subject matter, it’s a really, really good idea to do a bit of homework on your target demographic before walking into a pitch appointment, so you may point out — politely and preemptively — just how immense it actually is. However, please do not fall into the same trap that Jack did: don’t automatically assume that any agent or editor unfamiliar with your subject matter is out-of-touch or –as all too many conference-goers are apt to conclude — just not very bright.

Actually, the opposite is usually true — both agencies and publishing houses tend to attract genuinely smart people. Very smart English majors, typically.

See why they might not as a group know much about soccer? Or model train-building? Or lion-taming? Or how many Americans are currently supporting a loved one battling cancer?

That’s likely to be true, incidentally, even if there are quite lot of books on the market on any of these subjects right now. Remember, no agent or editor works with every kind of book; no agency professes to cover the entire literary marketplace, for the exceedingly simple reason that it would be impossible. They are specialists, and once a writer lands a contract with them, that’s good for everybody. However, one side effect of that praiseworthy concentration on a particular type of book can be myopia.

And I’m not just talking about needing to wear glasses because they read too much, if you catch my drift.

Before anyone out there starts feeling superior about her own far-ranging reading habits, let’s put that particular stripe of myopia in perspective: hands up, everyone who is an expert in a whole lot of subjects that don’t interest him.

Oh, you may laugh, but most pitchers’ expectations about their hearers’ interests are both unrealistic and unfair. In the world outside the publishing industry, we don’t generally expect a pipelayer to be conversant with the ins and outs of oral surgery, or an oral surgeon to know much about floral arrangement, or a florist to be an expert in particle physics. Yet at conference after conference, year after year, aspiring writers are shocked to discover that agents and editors aren’t all that up on the subject matters of their particular books.

Go figure. If it makes you feel better about having to go to the trouble to prove just how many potential readers are demonstrably interested in the subject matter of your book, pretend that you are going to be pitching to an optometrist, not an agent. (Unless your book happens to be intimately concerned with the workings of the eye, that is.)

One more reason that it would behoove you to compile a few statistics before you write your pitch or query: any number in the hundreds of thousands or millions will jump out at the hearer, a serious advantage when addressing an agent or editor suffering from pitch fatigue, that mind-numbing species of tiredness that stems from hearing pitch after pitch several days in a row.

Heck, even your fellow conference attendees may start to succumb by the last day of the conference. After the tenth response to, “So what do you write?” even rather dissimilar books can start to sound sort of the same.

Let’s face it, tired people in any profession tend to be rather poor listeners. Actually, if my recent odyssey through the medical establishment is any indication, many perfectly alert people are lousy listeners.

“Which knee was it again?” I have been asked countless times.

In a medical office as well as a pitch meeting, sarcasm is the least effective way to deal with inattentiveness. No matter how tempting it may be to say, “Gee, Sherlock, do you think it could it be the one in the meter-long brace?” the way to win friends and influence people is generally to pretend with all of one’s might that one has never heard that particular question before.

Oh, you may laugh now. You will thank me, however, when you step into an agent’s seventh pitch meeting of the day and find yourself asked by a weary listener, “So this is a mystery, right?” after you have just spent five minutes describing a plot containing fifteen grisly murders, a vivid description of a detective’s frantic search for the killer, and a blow-by-blow of a suspense-filled trial of the wrong man. Instead of blurting out, “Weren’t you listening? I spent six years writing this thing!” you will know to say politely, “Why, yes, it is a mystery.”

Leave it at that. Your mother will be proud of your nice manners, and so will I.

Because it is so very easy for even the most intelligent, market-savvy, and demographically-minded of pitch-hearers to succumb to pitch fatigue, it is in your best interest to make it as easy as possible for the exhausted (or, in the case of a query, for a bleary-eyed agency screener) to see the huge market appeal of your book concept. The best way by far: quantify it.

Yes, I am talking actual digits here. Because anything above half a percent of the US population will translate into some pretty significant numbers, you should use the concrete sums, wherever possible. Statistics are easier to dismiss. Besides, citing the numbers rather than the percentages allows for the possibility that your listener might not be up on the latest headcounts of the citizenry.

Oh, you don’t think that might be a problem? Quick, what’s the population of the US?

According to the US census’ population clock a moment ago, the answer was 311,836,375. How can you make that number work for you? Well, if you happened to be writing a ghost story, you might be thinking of bringing up in your pitch that oft-cited statistic that 1 in 3 Americans believes in ghosts, and thus might arguably be predisposed to be interested in your book.

You could state it that way, of course, and sound like every other pitcher aware of that particular survey. It is indeed an impressive percentage — if you happen to know how many people there are currently residing within the nation’s borders. Do you really want to predicate your pitch on the assumption that your hearer will be (a) aware of the size of the population, (b) able to do long division in his head, and (c) not too groggy to perform (b) correctly?

“That’s a lot of people,” the pitch-fatigued pro murmurs, rubbing his aching forehead; those fluorescent lights in conference centers have been known to trigger migraines. “Keep on talking — I’m just going to chug this entire carafe of coffee.”

In the blink of a bloodshot eye, what should have been a show-stopping statistic falls by the wayside. Let’s try another means of incorporating it into the pitch, to see if we can render it a trifle more memorable.

One-third of 311,836,375 is 103,945,458. Let’s assume for the moment that the ghost survey is correct (and it may no longer be; it was conducted quite some time ago). Let’s also set aside the undeniable fact that no survey actually covers the entire population (just try to elicit a baby’s opinions on the debt ceiling) and ignore what any sociologist would happily tell you, that how a question is asked can have a profound effect on the answer. (“Do you believe in ghosts?” would undoubtedly provoke a different response than simply screaming, “AAAAGH! Behind you! Is that a ghost?” and counting everyone who turned around as a believer.) Let’s proceed, in short, as if this statistic were 100% reliable.

You are going to be stressed out when you pitch, though, right? I’m guessing that you will not want to rely upon your recall of a nine-digit number. So what easy-to-remember alternative might you try? How about this: “Over a hundred million Americans believe in ghosts, and there are surprisingly few realistic ghost stories currently on the market.”

You could also say, “33% of the population might arguably be predisposed to be interested in my subject matter,” but that’s not nearly as impressive. Trust me on this one: to a former English major, 103.9 million people is going to sound a heck of a lot larger than a third of the population.

Now that I have you all excited about figuring out just how big your target market could possibly be, I suppose I should throw a bucket of cold water on the proceedings by pointing out that nobody in the publishing industry will seriously believe that 103.9 million Americans will actually rush out and buy every ghost book on the market. The last time I checked, the entire Harry Potter series collectively had accounted for only 450 million sales worldwide, and that’s counting the translations into 67 languages.

Hold it right there — you were fantasizing about a hundred million people buying three copies of your book each, were you not? I hope for your sake that turns out to be the case, but to an agent or editor, that kind of expectation is just going to sound like wishful thinking.

You don’t need to argue that all of those 103.9 million will buy your book — just that as a group, they will be predisposed to be interested in a ghost story. Trust the intelligence of the pitch hearer to be able to conclude that if even a tiny fraction of the believers in ghosts act upon that initial interest, you could have a runaway bestseller on your hands.

Was that blinding flash an indication that light bulbs are appearing over my readers’ heads? “But Anne,” some of you newly-eager book marketers exclaim, “how do I get those millions of people to act upon that wholly admirable impulse to buy my book even once? Or, if that’s jumping the gun at this juncture, how do I convince the agent or editor to whom I happen to be pitching at the moment that my book has a genuine shot at attracting a hefty percentage of those potential readers?

Glad you asked, gun-jumpers. Let’s talk about something pitching classes very seldom address, identifying a book’s selling points.

Oh, stop groaning; this is going to make you feel better about your book’s chances. Over the next couple of days, I’m going to be asking you to work on developing a list of selling points for the book you are planning to pitch or query. Specifically, I’m going to ask you to prepare a page’s worth of single-sentence summaries of attributes (the book’s or yours personally) that would render the book the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread to the right reader.

Why bullet-pointed, rather than paragraphs, you ask? So you can retrieve precisely the piece of information you need at any given moment of a pitch, without fumbling for it. Even if sweat is pouring down your face into your eyes and your heart is palpitating, you will be able to sound professional.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, so you won’t forget any of the reasons that your book will appeal to readers, even if you should happen — heaven forbid!– to have a panic attack during your pitch appointment.

I can sense that some of you who have attended pitching classes are feeling a trifle skeptical about this suggestion. “Yeah, right, Anne,” these already-instructed few are scoffing, “I should put in still more effort into preparing to prepare to write my pitch. If having selling points at the ready is so darned useful, why doesn’t every pitching teacher out there advise it? Or why isn’t doesn’t that list pop up in every how-to for writing a good query letter? Isn’t this in fact just another manifestation of your overwhelming ongoing desire to have all of us over-prepare for approaching agents and editors so that the Author! Author! community takes the literary world by storm and we can all sit around celebrating together? Wait — what was my objection again?”

Frankly, I don’t have any idea why other pitching teachers don’t recommend this, because in my experience, taking the time to prepare such a list works very well as a tool for improving pretty much any pitch, query, or book proposal. In fact, I generally recommend to my nonfiction-writing clients that they include a bulleted list of selling points in their proposals. True, it’s unusual to include, but both times I’ve sold nonfiction books, the editors have raved about how much they wished every proposer would include a similar page. Both times, the agent in question found her/himself reaching for that page while talking about the books on the phone.

Think of it this way: a well-prepared list of selling points is like a really, really tiny press agent that can travel everywhere your manuscript goes. And whose manuscript couldn’t benefit from a little good P.R.?

But to be clear: a list of selling points is not something you absolutely need to prepare before you pitch or query; it’s merely a spectacularly good idea. It’s unlikely to the point of hilarity, though, that an agent is going to look at you expectantly as soon as you walk into a pitch meeting and say, “Well? Where’s your list of selling points?”

Unless, of course, you happen to be pitching to an agent who habitually reads this blog — or did when she was a Millicent. I hear from readers in all walks of life.

But I digress. Even if you are not planning to pitch, query, or propose anytime soon, it is still worth your time to constructing a list of selling points for your book. Heck, it’s even worth doing if you are still in the throes of writing the book: the exercise forces you to picture your ideal reader and her reading preferences.

Another fringe benefit: pulling together such a document forces you to come up with specific reasons that an agent or editor should be interested in your book. Other than, of course, the fact that you wrote it.

I’m only partially kidding about that last point. Nonfiction writers accept it as a matter of course that they are going to need to explain explicitly why the book is marketable and why precisely they are the best people in the known universe to write it — that mysterious entity called platform. These are specific elements in a standard nonfiction book proposal, even.

Yet ask your garden-variety fiction writer why his book will interest readers, let alone the publishing industry, and 9 times out of 10, he will act insulted. Why the discrepancy? As I mentioned earlier in this series, a lot of writers, perhaps even the majority, do not seem to give a great deal of thought to why the publishing industry might be excited about their particular book, as opposed to any other.

Interestingly, though, many do seem to have thought long and hard about why the industry might NOT want to pick it up. As a battle-scarred pitching coach and veteran of more writers’ conferences than readily come to mind, I cannot even begin to tote up how many pitches I’ve heard that began with a three-minute description of every rejection the book has ever received.

Sometimes, tears accompany these accounts. “…and after getting rejected 17 lines, I had more or less given up on the book, but then I thought I would try one last query. When the agent asked for pages, I got so excited that I sent out the requested pages by overnight mail, so they would get there before the agent changed her mind, and then I waited eight months! Eight! All that time, I didn’t want to send out any more queries, just in case this agent wanted my book. So by the time she wrote and said that she just didn’t think she could sell it in the current market, I barely had the energy to completely rewrite the thing before sending out another flotilla of queries. But since 18 agents have said that the book is no good…”

Stop. Take a deep breath. In the first place, submissions get rejected for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with whether the writing is any good. So do queries, and so do pitches. (In fact, rejections based upon last two cannot possibly be reflection of the book’s writing, unless the agency’s submission requirements asked you to send a few pages or the agent asked on the spot to see a writing sample.) In the second place, no one who handles manuscripts for a living seriously believes anymore that the number of times a book has been rejected is a particularly good predictor of what will happen with its next pitch or query.

And third, complaining about your rejection history is what your fellow writers are for; cultivate them, for only they will understand the pain of a rejection completely. When discussing your work with the pros, the last thing on earth you should mention is how difficult the submission process has been for you emotionally. This is not a therapy session. It may seem harmless enough, venting to a seemingly sympathetic stranger, but remember, you are in a pitch meeting in order to try to convince the agent or editor in front of you that you are a serious writer, one whose professional future she should take seriously. A tearful or resentful writer who would apparently rather waste time complaining than discussing his book is, while hardly uncommon, is more likely to be remembered for histrionics than for even the most brilliantly-conceived storyline.

Yet conference after conference, pitchers get so worked up over having to talk about their books that they flat-out forget why they are there. Especially if the agent in question happens to be nice to them; it’s very, very common to mistake a sympathetic listener for a potential friend. Let the jabbering begin!

On second thought, let’s not. Not only will constructing a list help you avoid the pitfall of getting off track– it will also aid you in steering clear of the sweeping generalizations writers tend to pull out of their back pockets when agents and editors ask follow-up questions.

Did that gigantic gulping sound I just heard ripping across the cosmos indicate a certain level of surprise? “Follow-up questions?” the timorous quaver. “You mean that in addition to gasping out a pitch, I have to have enough brain power handy to answer FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS? I always thought that the agent or editor just listened to the pitch, said yes or no, and that was that.”

Actually, it’s rarely that simile — at least, not if the agent or editor likes what s/he heard you say. As in ordinary conversation, follow-up questions after a pitch are an indicator of the hearer’s interest in what’s being discussed. It’s a good sign. So you might want to be prepared for the agent of your dreams to ask something like, “Okay, why do you think this story will appeal to readers?”

Stop hyperventilating. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and by the time we finish this series, you will be prepared — nay, happy — to answer it.

But you will have to make active preparations, I’m afraid. What most pitchers do when caught off-guard by such a question is either to start making wild assertions like, “This book will appeal to everyone who’s ever had a mother!” or “Every reader of horror will find this a page-turner!” OR to hear the question as a critique of the book they’re pitching.

“Oh, I guess you’re right — no one will be interested,” these poor souls mutter, backing away from the bewildered agent. “Please forgive me for taking up your time.”

Neither course will serve you. As I mentioned the other day, agents and editors tend to zone out on inflated claims about a novel’s utility to humanity in general — although if your book actually can achieve world peace, by all means mention it — or boasts that it will appeal to every literate person in America (a more common book proposal claim than one might imagine). A writer’s having thought in advance about what realistic claims s/he can legitimately make about why readers might like the book thus enjoys a significant advantage on the pitching floor.

The pros also tend, like most people, to equate a writer’s apparent lack of faith in her own work with the manuscript’s not being ready for the slings and arrows of the marketplace. That’s not always a fair assessment, of course, but since the very premise of verbal pitching is the certainly debatable contention that someone who can write well will necessarily be able to talk about it well — and in publishing-friendly terms, too — you can’t really blame an agent for advising a writer barely able to stammer out a sentence to try again at next year’s conference.

The selling point sheet helps keep you from panicking in the moment; think of it as pitch insurance. Even if you draw a blank three sentences into your pitch, all you will have to do is look down, and presto! A list of concrete facts about you and your book. Who was the clever soul forward-thinking enough to provide you with that?

”Yeah, right,” I hear the more cynical out there muttering. “What is this list, a Ginzu knife? Can it rip apart a cardboard box, too, and still remain sharp enough to slice a mushy tomato?”

Doubt if you like, scoffers, but his handy little document has more uses than duct tape — which, I’m told, is not particularly good at mending ducts. How handy, you ask? Well, for starters:

1. You can have it by your side during a pitch, to remind yourself why your book will appeal to its target market. (Hey, even the best of us are prone to last-minute qualms about our own excellence.)

2. You can use it as a guideline for the “Why I am uniquely qualified to write this book?” section of your query letter. (If you don’t know why you might want to include this section, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right before you write your next.)

3. You can add it to a book proposal, to recap its most important elements at a glance. (My memoir’s agent liked the one I included in my proposal so much that she now has her other clients add them to their packets, too.)

4. You can tuck it into a submission packet, as a door prize for the agency screener charged with the merry task of reading your entire book and figuring it out whether it is marketable.

5. Your agent can have it in her hot little hand when pitching your book on the phone to editors.

6. An editor who wants to acquire your book can use the information on it both to fill out the publishing house’s Title Information Sheet and to present your book’s strengths in editorial meetings.

Okay, let’s assume that I’ve convinced you that pulling together this list is a good idea. (Just ignore the muffled screams in the background. People who can’t wait until the end of a post to register objections deserve to be gagged, don’t you find?) What might you include on it?

Well, for starters, the names of similar books that have sold well (along with some indication of why your book is different, better, and will appeal to the same demographic), your past publications, credentials, trends, statistics, high points in your background — anything that will make it easier for your agent to market your book.

Why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story? Or to put it as the nonfiction agents do: what’s your platform? Why will people want to read this book, as opposed to what is already on the market? What does the book or you as a human being offer to readers that no other document or author does?

Those of you wise to the ways of the industry are probably already thinking: oh, she means I should list the items on my writing résumé. (And for those of you who do not know, a writing résumé is the list of professional credentials — publications, speaking experience, relevant degrees, etc. — that career-minded writers carefully accrue over the years in order to make their work more marketable. For tips on how to build one from scratch, please see the aptly-named BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category at right.)

Include these points, by all means, but I would like to see your list be broader still. Include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

So it’s time for a good, old-fashioned brainstorming session. Think back to your target market (see the posts of the last two days). Why will your book appeal to that market better than other books? Why does the world NEED this book?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. Because absolutely the only way to demonstrate that to the agent or editor is by getting her to read your manuscript, right?

I hear all of you literary fiction writers out there groaning. It would be in your best interest to give some thought to this point, too. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing. So why will your novel’s subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic? What qualities or life experiences might those readers share, other than a laudable propensity to curl up with a good book?

Try thinking of the book as though someone else wrote it; what might you tell someone else about a book you really loved? If you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince her to schedule the author for an interview?

No need to write pages and pages of justification on each point — a single sentence on each will serve you best here. Remember, the function of this list is ease of use, both for you and for those who will deal with your book in future. Keep it brief, but do make sure that you make it clear why each point is important.

Possible bullet points include (and please note, none of my examples are true; I feel a little silly pointing that out, but I don’t want to find these little tidbits being reported as scandalous factoids in the years to come):

(1) Experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.
This is the crux of a nonfiction platform, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples:

Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book.

Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years. He is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara fourth wedding bouquets.

Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.

(2) Educational credentials.
Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a fiction writer: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is, from an agent or editor’s point of view, a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts. Some possible examples:

Audrey Hepburn has a doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on things that go boom.

Charlton Heston holds an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage.

Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, providing the basis for her protagonist’s skill in murderously wielding a scalpel.

(3) Honors.
If you have been recognized for your work or volunteer efforts, this is the time to mention it. Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?

The honor need not be related to your book’s subject matter, though; the point is that there are already people out there who consider you wonderful enough to be recognized for it. At least some of them will buy your book. Some possible examples:

Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas.

Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX.

Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience.
Another good one from the standard platform list. If you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, even if it is off-topic. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, definitely bring that up.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. (If you don’t know why, I assign you the interesting homework of attending any five randomly-selected author readings. You’d be astonished at how many people have a hard time reading out loud.) If you have done a public readings of your work, include that, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all. (Which quite possibly explains the phenomenon I described in my last parenthetical aside.)

Some possible examples:

Paris Hilton writes a regular column on hog-wrangling for FARM JOURNAL.

Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines.

Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, Speak Up! I Can’t Hear You! has drawn crowds for years on six continents.

I feel some of you tensing up out there, but never fear: if you have few or no previous publications, awards, writing degrees, etc. to your credit, do not panic, even for an instance. There are plenty of other possible selling points for your book — but of that array, more follows next time.

In the meantime, keep brainstorming about your book’s selling points — and keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, Part VI: the book market’s a banquet of possibilities, and most poor pitchers are starving to death

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Still hanging in there, campers? How delightfully brave and intrepid of you. Here I am, expecting you to swallow a whole lot of rather unpleasant truths about marketing in great big gulps, and you just plow ahead with me. Shall I slow down a bit today, to give your mental digestive processes time to catch up?

Hark — do I hear a chorus of small voices out there in the ether? “Heck, no, Anne!” my plucky readers chirp. “I want to learn to pitch! Bring it on, and keep it coming!”

How gratifying. Let us press on, then.

For those of you who did not shout hosannas in response, or who think that my spending so many posts on pitching is sort of a waste of time, since the vast majority of aspiring writers will never give a face-to-face pitch — specifically, the vast majority who never attend writers’ conferences, literary parties, or have opportunities to talk about their books in public — please, for your own sakes, do not simply zone out during this series because you aren’t planning on pitching anytime soon.

Why not? Learning how to give a verbal pitch well will not only help you present your work more professionally in any context; it will also render you a much desirable cocktail party invitee.

Oh, sure, that seems like a shallow incentive. “I resent it enough that I have to learn how to present my book well to agents and editors,” those of you clinging to the high ground mutter. “I want to be judged on my writing, and here I am, squandering my time on figuring out how to pitch and query. And on top of that, you want me to waste still more energy worrying about how I sound to anyone else?”

Yes, yes, the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers feel that having to market their book at all is a monumental imposition. That’s a view that makes little sense to folks in the industry — unless a writer seriously believes that Publishing Fairy shows up the instant the first draft of a brilliant book is completed, leading an agent on a leash like a St. Bernard, how else would the agent of his dreams learn of the manuscript’s existence other than by writer’s self-promotional efforts? — but it’s certainly understandable. Writing a book was — and is — a lot of work.

But it’s just a fact that the average writer causes herself a lot of unnecessary stress by avoiding coming up with a simple, direct means of describing her book in under two minutes — because, let’s face it, writers are expected to give brief, entertaining overviews of their work all the time. If we could harness all of the chagrin felt nationally by aspiring writers struggling to define their work in social situations alone, we could build a perfect 1:48 scale replica of the Taj Mahal outside every bookstore in the United States in under a month.

Don’t believe me? Okay, hands up, anyone who has ever been asked by a stranger, “Oh, you write? What’s your book about?” and ended up giving a 45-minute blow-by-blow account of the plot to some poor soul who was only trying to be polite? Your heart shriveled up like a prune, didn’t it, while you watched that nice person’s eyes glaze over? You didn’t think of pretending to choke on an olive until you had already made it past the chase scene in Chapter 28, and by then, you figured you might as well just finish.

Two hands up if you have ever stumbled into the opposite faux pas, answering the question by turning bright pink and muttering, “Um, it’s sort of…autobiographical, based on a true story,” changing the subject so suddenly that your questioner assumed that your memoir must have been about a prison break, and you must still be on the lam. This is particularly embarrassing if one happens to blurt out this sentence to someone remotely affiliated with the publishing industry, who is all too likely to inform you huffily that all memoirs are autobiographical and thus based upon true stories — the credible ones, at least — and that what he was asking you is what had happened in your life that makes you believe that a reader will want to follow you through 400 pages.

Oh, and you might want to avoid telling that guy you’re writing a fiction novel, unless you’re just dying to hear a 20-minute lecture on how much this phrase bugs professional readers. (All novels are fiction, you see.)

I’ll stop now, as presumably, you’d have to run to the neighbors to borrow another hand to raise. For now, let’s just agree that a savvy writer and reasonable human being would prefer not to be caught in either of these scenarios unprepared.

“Ah,” the shy amongst you cry, “I can see why a writer foolish enough to venture out into public AND to admit to having produced a book to someone who might conceivably be able to help bring it to publication might find having a pre-written speech helpful for moments like this. I, however, am of the ilk of aspiring writer who intends not to breathe a word about my book in public space (whether it be construed in the Rousseauian or Habermasian senses) until I already have a publication contract in hand. Then I shall astonish kith, kin, and bystander by abruptly revealing my status as an author, and everyone who ever thought mean thoughts about me will stand up and applaud.”

Ah, that old scheme; scratch any three aspiring writers, and you’ll find one bent upon keeping her writing a secret until it’s successful. Furthermore, she’s been determined to follow this strategy ever since the fourth grade, when she read about Jo March doing it in LITTLE WOMEN.

Oh, you don’t think many writers regard Jo as a role model for marketing? Think about it: she scribbles — Alcott’s word — in secret in a literal attic, producing her fantastic tales of woe and uproar and quietly submits them for publication (to a single entity, no less; no strategic mass marketing for her). Heck, she only admits to her best friend that she’s doing it at all, and forces him to drag the truth out of her at that.

Forgive the indulgence of an extended excerpt. I’m guessing that even those of you who did not grow up with the March girls will find both her hopes and her logic familiar:

“You won’t say anything about it at home, will you?”

“Not a word.”

“And you won’t tease me in private?”

“I never tease.”

“Yes, you do; you get everything you want out of people. I don’t know how you do it, but you are a born wheedler.”

“Thank you; fire away.”

“We’ll, I’ve left two stories with a newspaperman, and he’s to give his answer next week,” whispered Jo in her confidant’s ear.

“Hurrah for Miss March, the celebrated American authoress!” cried Laurie, throwing up his hat and catching it again, to the great delight of two ducks, four cats, five hens, and half a dozen Irish children, for they were out of the city now.

“Hush! It won’t come to anything, I dare say; but I couldn’t rest until I had tried, and I said nothing about it, because I didn’t want anyone else to be disappointed.”

“It won’t fail, Why, Jo, your stories are works of Shakespeare, compared to half the rubbish that is published every day. Won’t it be fun to see them in print, and shan’t we feel proud of our authoress?”

Jo’s eyes sparkled, for it is always pleasant to be believed in, and a friend’s praise is always sweeter than a dozen newspaper pulls.

Come on: absent the audience of poultry, you’ve probably had virtually this conversation with a significant other of some stripe. Feel free to take a moment to sigh nostalgically for the days when it took only a week, not six months or a year, to hear back on a submission.

Then, once you have recovered from the inevitable fit of pique, as Aunt Louisa would have called it, over how much more difficult it is to get published now than 150 years ago, join me for the immensely gratifying second part of this common writerly fantasy. In true fairy tale fashion, it occurs just a few pages after that last scene.

In a few minutes, Jo bounced in, laid herself on the sofa, and affected to read.

“Have you anything interesting there?” asked Meg with condescension.

“Nothing but a story! Won’t amount to much, I guess,” returned Jo, carefully keeping the name of the paper out of sight.

I’ll spare you the succeeding section, where she blandishes her sisters into begging her to read the story aloud — writers may be notoriously insecure as a group, but we are tricky, are we not? — as well as the praise the latter give after her dramatic reading. Suffice it to say that Meg cries. Then comes the cream:

“Who wrote it?” asked Beth, who had caught a glimpse of Jo’s face.

The reader suddenly sat up, cast away the paper, displaying a flushed countenance, and, with a funny mixture of solemnity and excitement, replied in a loud voice, “Your sister.”

“You?” cried Meg, dropping her work.

“It’s very good,” said Amy critically.

“I knew it! I knew it! Oh, my Jo, I am so proud!” and Beth ran to hug her sister, and exult over this splendid news.

Dear me, how delighted they all were! How Meg wouldn’t believe it till she saw the words “Miss Josephine March” actually printed in the paper; how graciously Amy criticized the artistic parts of the story, and offered hints for a sequel, which unfortunately couldn’t be carried out, as the hero and heroine were dead; how Beth got excited, and skipped and sang with joy; how Hannah came in to exclaim “Sakes alive, well, I never!” in great astonishment at “that Jo’s doin’s”; how proud Mrs. March was when she knew it; how Jo laughed with tears in her eyes, as she declared that she might as well be a peacock and be done with it; and how the Spread Eagle might be said to flap his wings triumphantly over the House of March, as the paper passed from hand to hand.

That’s such a pretty fantasy that I don’t have the heart to puncture it right away; I can barely muster the wherewithal to deplore that incorrectly-used terminal semicolon or shake my head over the unfortunately-named publication in which Jo’s first short story appeared. (And in a book for young girls, too!) Nor shall I linger upon how astoundingly judgmental Jo’s future husband will be about precisely this kind of tale, a tsk-tsking disapproval of thrillers that dominates all of the movie versions of LITTLE WOMEN, despite the fact that Louisa May Alcott supported her entire family with such stories for several years.

Here’s how judgmental her diary was on the subject: Sold two of my blood-and-thunder stories. Paid winter’s coal bill.

Writing for a market, you see, is not a new phenomenon; Alcott was reportedly appalled when her publisher told her that if she wanted to make some serious money, she should write a book for girls. She didn’t even like girls. She did like to eat, however, and so did her family, so she, in her own words, elected to “make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

Thus was born the classic description of the sweet first tastes of writerly success. The writer labors in invisible silence until the point of being discovered — and then everybody, but everybody, is God-awfully impressed.

As charming as this fantasy is, and as reluctant as I am to burst anyone’s bubble (but that doesn’t seem to be stopping me from doing it), in my rather extensive experience with first-time authors, this is not how the revelation generally goes. Oh, our modern Jo may well write a novel in private and even not complain out loud about the agent-seeking process. (It would require a Herculean effort, of course, but technically, it’s possible.) She might well manage to keep mum until the happy day that she lands an agent.

And when she makes that astonishing announcement, seven-eighths of her acquaintance will say, “Wow! So when is the book coming out?”

Rather than basking in well-deserved triumph, our poor Jo finds herself explaining endlessly to people who don’t understand how publishing works that the major U.S. houses do not consider unagented fiction or book proposals (check their websites), so she absolutely must have an agent. Then, as her previously jubilant kith and kin try with varying levels of success to hide their disappointment over the rather large differential between what they thought had just happened and what actually did, Jo will attempt to explain why landing an agent is both incredibly difficult and a very, very good thing.

Not exactly Hail, the Conquering Hero Comes, is it?

While I’m in the bubble-bursting business, I might also add that she’s likely to find herself similarly deflated when a publishing house acquires the book: “What do you mean, I won’t be able to buy it for two years?” “What do you mean, your advance is not large enough to permit your taking any time off work?” is another popular exclamation. And if she persists in not preparing her vast and no doubt affectionate acquaintance for the radically changing realities of the literary marketplace, she should steel herself at publication time for a multi-part chorus of “Wait — why do you have to promote the book? Doesn’t your publisher have a marketing department?”, “You have to set up your own book readings?”, “What do you mean, publishers seldom pay for book tours these days?”, and, of course, the ever-popular, “You have a book out? You should go on television.”

I can go on like this for days, you know. Starting to reconsider whether it’s really worth it to spare your nearest and dearest the sight of how hard it is to complete a novel, let alone land an agent?

No? Okay, consider this: hiding one’s manuscript under the proverbial bushel also presents certain promotional disadvantages. Being reluctant to talk about one’s work renders it quite a bit more difficult to meet other writers and learn from their querying and submission mistakes, for instance. Isolated writers tend to feel rejection more; there’s no one with whom to compare notes and notice that pretty much all rejections use the same phrasing.

Oh, you thought sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this story was a personalized response?

Learning to talk comfortably about your book in market terms will also improve your ability to write query letters and synopses. All three are built, after all, out of the same essential components, based upon a firm understanding of how the industry does and doesn’t work.

To that end, I urged you last time to embrace the industry’s practice of describing your manuscript partially in terms of its target readership. It’s a heck of a lot easier to pitch or query a book if you have already devoted some serious thought to why that reader really wants to read your book, rather than any other currently on the market.

In fact, I recommended that you go even further. I asked all of you out there — and not, as the issue is usually framed, merely the nonfiction writers — to figure out why the world NEEDS your book. Specifically. And in more complex terms than a muttered, “Well, I think it’s pretty well-written…”

I felt some of you cringing at the grandiloquence of that question, but don’t be afraid to think of your little book in those terms. Doesn’t the advent of any good book leave the world a better place? Doesn’t it add to human knowledge, to human insight, to how much human beings enjoy the weary journey from cradle to grave, at least the part that occurs after they learn to read?

Feeling just a little bit better about yourself, aren’t you? Well, you should: writers are indispensable to humanity’s health, happiness, and welfare. We help the species understand itself.

But if you will forgive an abrupt, bumpy descent from the golden glow of Parnassus to the squalid fluorescent lighting and crammed-together tables characteristic of conference pitch sessions, that’s not the primary reason you should walk into any pitching situation having already identified your target readership. Yes, who is likely to want to read your book is useful information to include in your pitch (and yes, yes, we’re getting to how to do it) and query letter, but it also invariably pays to walk into any writers’ conference prepared in as many ways as possible for questions you may be asked about your book’s market potential.

Remember, your goal in preparing to pitch is not to compress the plot into a single breath’s worth of sentences, to be gasped out as quickly as possible before you fall in a dead faint at the agent’s feet; this is not a lung endurance test. Rather, the aim is to be able to present your work intelligently and professionally in a variety of promotional contexts.

Besides, if you’re going to be talking about your book to people you want to sell it for you, “Who is your target audience?” is not, after all, an unreasonable question for them to ask. Telling them up front shows that you understand what they do for a living — and that they actually have to make a living selling their clients’ books, rather than simply being able to take on any writer they happen to like as an exercise in non-remunerative literature propagation..

Being the writer who appears to get even one of those last two points would render you something of a novelty at most literary conferences, incidentally.

Last time, I suggested in passing that one good way to identify your book’s target market is to seek out how many people are already demonstrably interested in the book’s subject matter. Not the good folks who are already out there buying novels like yours, bless their literate hearts, but potential readers with a concrete reason to evince a future interest in some aspect of the story you are telling.

Are those far-off sounds of explosion indicative of a few blown minds out there in the ether? “But Anne,” gasp those of you unaccustomed to thinking of your writing as having any value to humanity except as, well, writing, clutching at your bleeding ears, “I write fiction. What possible target reader could I have other than readers already fond of books like mine?”

Well, even the most personal literary fiction, just like the most intimate memoir, is about something other than all of those pretty sentences, right? A sensitive novel about a professional mah-jongg player who falls in love with a bricklayer she meets in her Morris dancing class is arguably not only going to be of interest to inveterate readers of women’s fiction; potentially, those who already participate in mah-jongg, bricklaying, and Morris dancing might well find your book absolutely fascinating.

Oh, those potential readers might not already be combing the literature section at a liquidating Borders (sniff!) to find the one novel among thousands that gives a truly vivid depiction of the fine art of bricklaying. But like the rest of us, those mah-jongg players, bricklayers, and Morris dancers have friends, family, and Secret Santas who read — and who like to give books as presents.

If you doubt that such translate into book sales, take a gander sometime at how many books only marginally related to golf there are: quite a few, probably disproportionate to the percentage of the reading population that actually plays the game. Then contemplate Christmas and Father’s Day: someone has to write the book that provides the answer to the perennial question, “What do you give the golfer who has everything but a thriller about a 5 iron-wielding maniac?”

All of which is to say: people who are interested in your novel’s or memoir’s underlying subject matter are as legitimately your book’s target market as readers who regularly buy books in your chosen category. Declare them as such.

It’s not enough just to tell agents and editors that these additional demographics exist, however. For this information to help your pitch or query, you’re going to have to get specific. To build upon yesterday’s example, let’s say you’ve written a scintillating novel about Tina, a Gen X woman who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12.

As the better-prepared incarnations of Suzette informed us yesterday (you had to be there), there are 47 Gen Xers currently living in the U.S., roughly half of whom have divorced parents. And half of them are, like Tina, female. So without reaching at all, you could safely say that almost 12 million Americans already have life experience that would predispose them to identify with Tina.

That’s a heck of a lot more persuasive, from an agent’s point of view, than Suzette’s merely pointing out that daughters of divorced parents might conceivably resonate with the protagonist’s struggles.

Nor need you limit yourself, you clever marketer, to the demographic closest to your protagonist’s; you could consider the vocations and avocations of minor characters as well. If Tina’s father is a collector of classic cars, do you think he’s the only one in the country? If her best friend has a child with Down syndrome, wouldn’t your book be interesting to parents dealing with similar issues? If her sexually-generous sister Midge constantly appears with hilarious tales of the masses she has been warming, why wouldn’t the sisters, friends, and coworkers of ladies with Midge’s proclivities want to giggle over the parallels between the novel and certain water-cooler gossip?

Heck, I know inveterate book-buyers who would fall all over themselves to purchase such a book for the Midge in their lives. She has to be alone to read sometime.

Okay, so that last demographic may be a trifle hard to document, but one of the greatest gifts the internet has bestowed upon us all is the ability to create interest-based communities amongst far-flung people. What’s the probability, then, that a simple web search will turn up a support group or an article containing statistics about just how many of these fine people are currently navigating their busy way along the earth’s crust?

”Whoa!” I hear some of you cry indignantly. “Who do I look like, George Gallup? Wouldn’t any agent or editor who specializes in a book like mine have a substantially better idea of the existing market than I ever could — and what’s more, infinitely greater practical means of finding out the relevant statistics? Do I have to do all of the agent’s job for him? When will this nightmare end, oh, Lord, when will it end?”

Oh, Jo. Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful when you get angry?

Especially, as in this case, when annoyance stems from a very real change in the publishing industry: even fifteen years ago, no one, but no one, would have expected a fiction writer to be able to produce relevant potential target market statistics for her book. (It’s always been standard for nonfiction book proposals, so everyone from economists to memoirists tend to be steeled to the necessity.) Heck, most agents would not have routinely spouted this information.

Even today, you could certainly get away with not quoting actual statistics in your pitch, as long as you are very specific about whom your ideal reader will be. However, if you do, you run the very serious risk of the agent or editor to whom you are pitching underestimating how big your potential market is.

And when I say underestimating, I’m not talking about a merely imprecise ballpark estimate. I’m talking about the exceedingly high probability that a busy publishing professional will hear a pitch or read a query and think, “This book would be really appealing to readers who’ve recently experienced deaths in their immediate families, but realistically, how many of them could there be in the United States in any given year? Maybe a hundred thousand? That’s a niche market.”

Niche market, incidentally, is the industry’s polite term for any group of people too small to deserve its own floor-to-ceiling shelf at Barnes & Noble. If the agent or editor to whom you’re pitching says, “Well, your book would appeal to only a niche market,” that’s his way of telling you there just isn’t a market for you type of book right now.

There are a couple of problems with this response, logically speaking. First, the literary market changes all the time; what is widely considered niche market fodder today may well be the hot trend of next year. (I don’t advise pointing this out to an agent or editor who has just rejected your pitch; I just thought you might like to know.)

Second, and more pertinent to the construction of a successful pitch, the agent/editor is radically underestimating the size of the potential market: the book described above has millions of readers with direct personal experience of dealing with a loved one’s death.

How do I know this? The old-fashioned way; I did some research. In 2004, when I first came up with this example, 8 million people in the US suffered deaths in the immediate family; of those, 400,000 of the survivors were under the age of 25. Before they are old enough to vote, more than 2% of Americans have lost at least one parent. Furthermore, widows and widowers make up 7% of the U.S. population; 45% of women over the age of 65 have been widowed at least once.

Today, the numbers are even more startling. In a recent survey, one out of 7 Americans reported having lost a parent or sibling before the respondent turned 20. 73% of adult children of deceased parents feel that their lives would have been significantly better if they had not been bereaved so young, and most say that they would trade a year of their own lives for the opportunity to spend a single day with that parent again.

Terribly sad, isn’t it? But if that’s a niche in the book-buying market, I’d hate to see a cave.

How much harm could it possibly do if your dream agent or editor misunderstands the size of your book’s potential audience? Let me let you in on a little industry secret: the pros tend to have a very clear idea of what HAS sold in the past, but are not always very accurate predictors about what WILL sell in the future. THE FIRST WIVES’ CLUB floated around forever before it found a home, for instance, as, I’m told, did COLD MOUNTAIN. And let’s not even begin to talk about BRIDGET JONES.

My point is, it might be worth taking some of the prevailing wisdom floating around writers’ conferences with a grain of salt. Unless an editor happens to be the Amazing Kreskin, acquiring a book always involves speculation.

Would it make you feel better to know that historically, a book’s getting rejected quite a bit hasn’t necessarily proven a very good predictor of its eventual success? In fact, as long-time readers of this blog are already well aware, five of the ten best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially refused by more than a dozen publishers who simply did not understand their market appeal — and refused to take a chance on a first-time author.

Get a load of what got turned down as appealing to no more than a niche market:

mash-coverRichard Hooker’s M*A*S*H — rejected by 21 publishing houses. {“How many Army doctors could there possibly be?” they must have scoffed. “And who else would care?”)

kon-tiki-coverThor Heyerdahl’s KON-TIKI — rejected by 20 publishing houses. (Yes, THAT Kon-Tiki. “This might appeal to people who sail for pleasure, but can we afford a novel for the yacht-owning niche?”)

mulberry-street-coverDr. Seuss’ first book, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET — rejected by 23 publishing houses. (“Do we really want to confuse children?”)

jonathan-livingston-seagull-coverRichard Bach’s JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL — rejected by 18 publishing houses. (“The only person I have ever known who cared about seagulls was my mad great-aunt Kate, who spent her last years wandering down to the beach to offer them caviar on crackers. Next!”)

auntie-mame-coverPatrick Dennis’ AUNTIE MAME — rejected by 17 publishing houses. (I have no idea what they were thinking here; perhaps that it was really the memoir it purported to be?)

To render these rejections all the more impressive, these books, all first novels, had a hard time back when it was significantly easier to get published than it is now. The major publishing houses were still willing to read unagented work; it was before the computer explosion multiplied submissions exponentially, and before the array of major publishing houses consolidated into just a few.

With this much editorial rejection, can you imagine how difficult it would have been for any of these books to find a home with an agent today, let alone a publisher? And yet can you even picture the literary world without any of them?

Aren’t you glad these five authors didn’t listen to the prevailing wisdom and give up on their manuscripts?

If you were Richard Hooker today, you would be wise to take a few moments to verify the number of Korean War veterans (or veterans of any foreign war, or doctors who have served in war zones, or…) before you composed your first query letter? If for no other reason than to make it easier for your agent to pitch the book to editors, for your editor to pitch it in-house, and the marketing department to pitch it to distributors.

The Internet is a tremendous resource for finding such statistics. Do double-check the sources of statistics you find there — not all of the information floating around the web is credible.

How can you verify the numbers? Call the main branch of public library in the big city closest to you, and ask to speak to the reference librarian — and do it quickly, before budget tightening causes these invaluable people to be laid off. They may not always be able to find the particular fact you are seeking, but they can pretty much invariably steer you in the right direction. (In Seattle, the Quick Information Line number is 206-386-4636, and the staff is amazing. Send them flowers.)

One caveat about information line etiquette: every time I have ever given this advice in a class, at least one writer has come stomping back to me afterward. “I called and asked,” this earnest soul will cry with ire, “but they said they couldn’t help me.”

When prodded, every stomper turns out to have made the same mistake: they called up an information line and said something on the order of, “I am marketing a YA novel about a serial killer. What statistics can you give me?” Naturally, the info line folks demurred; it’s not their job, after all, to come up with marketing insights for aspiring writers’ books.

What their job does render them eminently qualified to do, on the other hand, is to answer questions like, “Can you tell me, please, how many US high schools offer gun safety classes? And how many students take these classes each year?”

The moral: make your questions as specific as possible, and don’t ask more than three in any given call. (You can always call back tomorrow, right?)

And please, don’t waste their time by telling them why you want to know, or you’re likely to end up with statistics about how many first novels on coal-mining beauty queens were sold within the last five years. (And I can already tell you that number will be round. Very round.) Keep it short and to the point.

I think I’ll pause here for the day, to give all of you a chance to give some deep, serious thought to what your book has to offer readers — and how you might quantify the mobs of readers you envision. Think creatively about your target readership, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part IV: finding the right conceptual container for your work

a-pile-of-boxes

Hello, campers –
Anne has taken a bit of a tumble — literally — on her road toward complete recovery from her car crash injuries, I am sorry to report. Thus the silence for the last few days. She should be back among us soon, but in the meantime, she was most concerned about making it through Pitchingpalooza in time for those of you attending her local writers’ conference to gain the full benefit of it. To that end, I’m going to be rerunning old posts on the subject every day until she has bounced back enough to write new ones herself.

She says to tell you not to worry — she’ll be upright and back blogging before you know it. Enjoy!

Yes, it’s true: in the fourth installment in this series, I’m moving beyond telling you how to prepare for a conference where you might be able to pitch your book to an agent or editor, either formally or informally, and proceeding toward how to decide what to say when you get there. While some might shake their heads, muttering, “Why on earth is she going over every nuance, when we’re already deep in literary conference season?”, well, I have two answers.

First, for the many, many aspiring writers who (unwisely, I think) put off constructing (or often even thinking about) their pitches until the eve of the conference, I’ve established a super-quick crash course in how to do it: you’ll find it under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Second, years of experience teaching good writers to pitch lead me to believe that just telling you what to do without helping you understand why each part of the pitch is necessary in order to market your work persuasively to agents and editors — including parts that are usually left out of the three-line pitch entirely — usually results not only in less effective pitches, but writers not particularly comfortable with giving them. Call me zany — and believe me, there are plenty of local conference organizers who do — but I just don’t believe that pitching advice that tells writers to blurt out a summary of their books as fast as humanly possible and leaves it at that is actually all that helpful come pitching time.

Hey, I warned you that my approach to pitching was a bit unorthodox.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that the definition of pitching successfully is not merely being able to cram an entire 400-page book into three sentences and spit it out coherently. Instead, I define pitching success as the ability to speak fluently and persuasively about a book in terms that make an agent or editor likely to say, “Gee, I’d like to read that. Please send me the first 50 pages right away.”

I define a pitch’s success by its results, not its conformity to a pre-set model to be used in all instances. I know: radical.

Thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process: instead of grumblingly adhering to an evidently arbitrary and difficult standard of presentation, you’re gearing up to have all of the marvelously fulfilling conversations that will define the rest of your life as a professional writer.

Much nicer to wrap your brain around than croaking out the bare bones of your premise in 10 seconds, isn’t it?

Now that you are prepared for my advice to be a bit offbeat, I am not afraid to shock you with my first unorthodox suggestion:

DON’T start the pitch-prepping process by sitting down and trying to summarize your book’s plot or argument in just a few lines. Instead, let your first step be figuring out where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, or a similar chain bookstore.

Why? Because this is the single most important piece of information you can tell an agent or editor about what you write. And because everyone in the US publishing industry talks about the demarcations in the same terms, you’re going to communicate a whole lot better with them if you use the book categories they already know. Which are:

For fiction: Fiction (a.k.a. Mainstream Fiction), Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Futuristic Fiction (that is not SF. The usual example is THE HANDMAID’S TALE.), Adventure Fiction, Sports Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Adult Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit, Lady Lit, Lad Lit; Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance (designate period), Paranormal Romance, Romantica, Erotica, Inspirational Romance, Multicultural Romance, Time Travel Romance; Science Fiction, SF Action/Adventure, Speculative SF, Futuristic SF, Alternate History, Cyberpunk; Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Epic Fantasy; Horror, Paranormal, Vampire Fiction; Thriller, Spy Thriller, Suspense, Romantic Suspense; Mystery, Police Procedural Mystery, Legal Mystery, Professional Mystery, P.I. Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Forensic Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hardboiled Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Cops & Killers Mystery, Serial Killer Mystery, British Mystery, Noir, Caper; Western; Action/Adventure; Comics; Graphic Novel; Short Stories; Poetry; Young Adult, Picture Book, Children’s, Middle Readers.

For nonfiction: Entertaining, Holidays, House & Home, Parenting & Families, How-To, Self-Help, Pop Psychology, Pop Culture, Cookbook, Narrative Cookbook, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Medical, Alternative Medicine, Health, Fitness, Sports, Psychology, Professional, Engineering, Technical, Computers, Internet, Automotive, Finance, Investing, Business, Careers, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, True Crime, Law, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Memoir, Outdoors & Nature, Essays, Writing, Criticism, Arts, Photography, Coffee Table, Gift, Education, Academic, Textbook, Reference, Current Events, Politics/Government, Women’s Studies, Gay & Lesbian (a.k.a. GLBT).

Actually, there are a few more, but these are the main ones. For more detailed analysis, again, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right. Also, the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites. But these are enough to get you started.

Pick one.

Before anybody out there starts to freak out about the prospect of having to select the perfect pre-fab label, let me hasten to add: aspiring writers are not singled out for punishment in having to do this; literally every professional author does as well. It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary of the book’s contents.

And contrary to popular belief, choosing does not define a writer for life: the book category is merely the conceptual box into which all books aimed at a particular already-established market are placed. Literally every book published by a North American publisher has been assigned to such a category.

So calm down and ask yourself: in a marketing display, what kind of books would be grouped around it? How would it be placed so as to suggest that if the potential buyer liked book X, he would probably be interested in your book as well?

Lest any of you fiction writers are tempted to say, “Oh, my book would just be in the literature section, filed under my last name,” that’s not a good enough answer. Nor is, “Oh, I’m a genre-buster — I don’t want to limit myself with a label.”

That kind of answer just isn’t useful to an agent — on order to sell your book to an editor, your agent is going to need to be able to tell him right off the bat what kind of a book it is, not merely that she thinks it’s well written. Similarly, in order to argue that your book belongs in next year’s catalog, an editor is going to have to tell the rest of the folks at the publishing house the book category, just as the marketing department is going to have to tell the distributor, and the distributor the bookstore buyer.

Thus, the book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level. So it follows as night the day that aspiring writers who equivocate between categories because they believe (not entirely without reason) that their books are too complicated to be shoved into a single conceptual box, or even refuse define their work automatically render it harder for all of these people to do their jobs.

And that’s not the world’s best idea, because if you want them to assist you in getting your writing into print, it’s really much more in your interests than theirs to make it as easy as possible to help you.

Let me repeat that, because it’s vital and I’ve never heard any other pitching advisor mention it: aspiring writers who go out of their way to make it easy for folks in the publishing industry to help them succeed tend to garner a heck of a lot more help than those who make it difficult.

Partially, that’s just human nature: a person for whom it’s a pain to do favors tends not to have others leaping forward to do him any. But partially, it’s also because most writers inadvertently make it difficult by not learning how to talk about or present their work professionally.

Which leads me to the other, utterly selfish reason that you should figure out the proper category for your book, and pronto: once you know where the pros would envision your book selling best, you will have both an infinitely easier time pitching AND finding agents to query. Suddenly, those cryptic lists of book types in agents’ guides and opaque conference bio blurbs will spring to life for you.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of aspiring writers do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows in their pitches. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and, as I’ve been pointing out over the last few days, no agent represents every kind of book. Since they define their work by book category, writers’ reluctance to commit just seems like ignorance of how books are sold.

Does that conclusion seem harsh? Actually, it isn’t, particularly: the sad fact is, the vast majority of aspiring writers out there have only a vague idea of how their books would be marketed to booksellers. So I’m here to tell you: the FIRST question any editor would ask an agent about a book, or a committee would ask an editor, or a book buyer would ask a publishing house’s marketing department is, “What’s the book category?”

But even as I typed that last bit, I could sense that some of you out there were still feeling abused for having to adhere to the established categories, feeling (and not without some justification) that there’s more to art than marketing labels. If you feel that way, you’re certainly not alone: you can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference anywhere in North America without hitting a writer who believes that his artistic freedoms are endangered by the very request. Or a writer who has fretted for a year about picking the right category. And anyone who has ever listened to pitches for a living can tell you horror stories about writers who wasted half (or even all) of their pitch appointments complaining about it.

To save any of you from ending up as the subject of such a tale. let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this fundamental question, and why the standard oh, my God, don’t make me pick! responses tend not to impress agents and editors very much.

In the first place, writers often mishear the question as, “So, what is your book about?” rather than what it is, a straightforward request for marketing information. Thus, they all too often give exactly the same response they would give anybody who asked the more general latter question at a cocktail party:

“Well (gusty sigh), it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but it’s not really a romance novel. I guess it’s also suspense, with thriller elements. And the writing is definitely literary.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to an agent or editor, this kind of response sounds EXACTLY like that noise that Charlie Brown’s teachers used to make: Wah wah wah wah waagh…

Remember, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers.

I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process. And much, much, MUCH harder for a writer to pitch successfully.

So it’s an excellent idea to tell them up front — as in both your pitch and the first few lines of your query letter — what kind of book it is. But in order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language: pick one of their recognized categories. In other words, don’t just guess, don’t lump a couple of categories together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a hyphenate, and don’t just make up a category.

How do you know where to start? Glad you asked — you know how I love step-by-step instructions.

1. Learn where book categories lurk.
In this age of rampant standardization of book packaging, this isn’t all that hard to do. Take a gander at the back jacket of most recently-released hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word description. That is the book category.

Not sure how to find it? Okay, here’s the back cover of Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer). Follow the lead of my pen:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

You may notice that her publisher has listed the book in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (I’m not kidding: it honestly is very funny.)

The other common locale for a book category, especially on trade paperbacks and softcover books, is in the box with the barcode. Here’s the back of Jonathan Selwood’s hilarious THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since the novel partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

2. Find some recently-released books similar to yours and check how they’ve been categorized.
Think about your book. Can you come up with, say, 3-5 titles that are similar to it in subject matter, tone, approach, voice, etc., that have come out in North America within the last five years? Not similar in ALL respects, necessarily — just one or two may be enough to steer you in the right direction

If you can’t come up with any that are remotely similar, I suspect that you’re not overly familiar with the current book market — a serious liability for anyone hoping to pitch or query a book to someone who makes a living following such trends.

If all else fails, start feeding relevant search terms into Amazon and see what comes up.

3. See how the books on your list have been categorized by their publishers.
Once you have your list, go to a bookstore (either physically or online) and see where those books are housed. That is, most likely, where your book would be categorized, too.

4. From among those categories, select the one that intuitively seems to fit your book best.
Book categorization is not a perfect science — pick the one that comes NEAREST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. (Since I’ve written about this topic quite frequently and I’m trying to get us through the pitching basics fairly quickly, for more specific tips on how to do this, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right.)

Fair warning: many categories overlap — fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground. Choose the one that you like best; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

Whoa, I didn’t even have time to move my hand to the return key before I felt a mighty gust of cries of WAIT! coming from out there. “But Anne,” breathless voices cry, “I honestly don’t know how to categorize my novel. Is it literary, mainstream, or just plain fiction — and will agents hurt me if I guess wrong?”

This is an excellent question — one that I covered at some length in several posts; I would encourage you to go back over this post, this one, and this. You might also try asking yourself few questions about your book:

(a) Does your book assume a college-educated readership? Does it try experiments with structure and language? Is character development more important to the reading experience than plot? If you answered yes to at least two of these, literary fiction would probably be the safest choice.

(b) Is your book aimed at a general adult audience, or is more heavily weighted toward a female readership? (Okay, so this is kind of a trick question, since women buy over 80% of the fiction sold in the US and almost all of the literary fiction, but bear with me here.) If it is genuinely aimed at a general market, fiction would be a good choice.

If it does assume a female readership, or if the protagonist is female, consider women’s fiction. And just in case any of you are harboring the surprisingly pervasive prejudice that women’s fiction label is automatically pejorative: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category.

(c) Does your book have a filmic, easily-summarized plot? Are the style and storytelling technique similar to a bestselling author’s? If so, it might be mainstream fiction (also known as commercial fiction).

(d) Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? If so, it might be adult fiction or contemporary fiction.

(e) Are all of the criteria in #4 true, but the protagonist is female, under 40, have a sense of humor, doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem — and yet is not a memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category, especially if your protagonist’s interest in shoes and handbags borders on the pathological.

Before any chick lit writer gets all defensive on me, allow me to add that there is some chick lit out there does deal with serious subject matter (see the comments on this post); like many, many other book category distinctions, the difference between women’s fiction and chick lit is often a matter of tone. If you write in either category and are unsure what that means, it would be a grand idea to walk into a bookstore, ask a savvy clerk to point out the three best recent releases in women’s fiction and chick lit, and read the first few pages of each.

All that being said, it’s not completely unheard-of for women’s fiction with a young protagonist to be assigned to chick lit simply due to the sex and age of the writer, or for an agent to decide to submit a book to chick lit editors as chick lit and women’s fiction editors as women’s fiction. Ultimately, categorization is a call the agent to make; all you’re trying to do in a pitch or query is to find a label in the general ballpark.

Which leads me to…

(f) Are you planning on pitching or querying an agent who likes to make this call himself? In that case, you might be best off simply labeling it fiction — but you’re unlikely to know that unless you’ve spoken to the agent personally. If this is the case, you should pick the closest label, then nod smilingly when the agent to whom you are pitching says you are mistaken.

Hey, it’s how those of us already signed with agents do it. I even know a quite prominent author who claims that she doesn’t know for sure whether any particular piece is women’s fiction or memoir until her agent has sold it as one or the other.

All that being said, try not to get too discouraged if your book’s category does not immediately pop to mind. Often, it is genuinely a hard call. Just do your best.

5. Use the book category you’ve chosen to describe your manuscript whenever you are communicating with anyone in the publishing industry.

Feel free to use it ubiquitously. Its uses are myriad: in your pitch, in your query letter, on your title page (if you don’t know where this info should go, please see the TITLE PAGES category on the list at right), in checking an agent’s conference blurb or listing in an agency guide to see whether she represents your kind of book, whenever anyone at a literary event asks, “So, what do you write?”

But whatever you do, NEVER tell anyone in the industry that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always, just as a memoir is always nonfiction. (Technically, anyway. Don’t even get me started on how many memoirists have found their books under just-the-facts scrutiny over the last couple of years.)

Some of you are still squirming under the necessity of choosing, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some confused would-be pitchers and queriers cry, “I occasionally see categories other than the ones you’ve listed on book jackets and when authors speak about their work. Therefore, you must be wrong about agents and editors expecting to us to label our books, and I can refer to my manuscript any way I like — or not categorize it at all.”

Oh, that old saw. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind. And there’s no international police force compelling every published author out there to speak of their books in the same terms.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it behooves an aspiring writer to make up a book category. All one has to do is check out any of the standard agency guides to see why: when asked what kinds of books they represent, agents don’t use descriptions that are only meaningful to themselves and their closest friends; the vast majority of the time, they use the standard category designations.

That being said, generally speaking, it’s safer to pick one of the standards rather than to insist upon a category that has only been introduced recently: if it’s too new, the agent or editor to whom you are pitching may not yet be aware of it yet. (Hey, it happens.)

When in doubt, pick a more general category over a hyper-specific one. Or at any rate, select the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell.

But again, try not to stress about it too much. Believe me, if you are off just a little, an agent who is intrigued by your work will nudge you in the right direction, rather than writing you off because you picked the wrong sub-category. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for an agent to sign a writer and then say, “You know, Ghislaine, I think your book would sell better as women’s fiction than mainstream fiction. Let’s market it as that.”

And if Ghislaine is a savvy writer, she won’t immediately snap back, “Why is it women’s fiction rather than mainstream — because the author possesses ovaries?” (Not all that an uncommon an underlying reason for the choice, actually; some of my work has been categorized that way on apparently no other pretext.) Instead, market-ready writer that she is, she will respond, “If you think it’s a better idea, William. But do you mind explaining the logic to me, so I may consider how you’ve planning to market my work when I’m writing my next novel?”

THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.

Hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it. (For more on the ins and outs of defining women’s fiction (particularly when a book occupies the rather broad territory where women’s, literary, and mainstream overlap), please see the three posts beginning here.)

6. What to do if you just cannot bring yourself to apply step 5 to the category that makes the most sense
If you truly get stuck in mid-decision, here is a sneaky trick: go to a well-stocked bookstore and track down a friendly-looking clerk. Describe your book to her in very general terms, and ask her to direct you to the part of the store where you might find something similar.

Then start pulling books off the shelf and examining their back covers for categories.

Hint: don’t be too specific in your description to the clerk — and whatever you do, don’t mention that you wrote the book you are describing. “My favorite book is a suspenseful romantic comedy about murderous contraltos set in the Middle Ages — would you have anything close to that?” tends to yield better results than, “I’m looking for a book about an opera diva who lives in 9th-century Milan, has scores of amorous misadventures, and strangles her conductor/lover. Where would I find that in your store?” The latter is more likely to turn up a puzzled shrug than useful directions.

Repeat in as many bookstores as necessary to start seeing a pattern in where you’re being advised to look. That location is where your book is most likely to be shelved.

Yes, this process can be a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work.

Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories. Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

To put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Since that is precisely what you want her to be doing, what are you complaining about?

If you’re still a bit confused and want more help fine-tuning your selection, again, I would recommend taking a gander at the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. In the past, I have spent more time on this particular point; I could easily spend a week on this point alone. (And have, as it happens.)

And if you’ve narrowed it down to a single category, congratulations! You’re ready to move on to Step 2 of writing your pitch.

Which, not entirely coincidentally, will be the subject of my next post. (Hey, I told you I liked step-by-step directions.) Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part II: resisting the urge to run screaming

Happy Bastille Day, everyone! How are you all feeling after our first foray into pitching, the much-feared practice of approaching an agent face-to-face to try to interest her in your manuscript, rather than via the far less intimidating query letter or e-mail?

That good, eh? If I had to picture the array of your reactions, I imagine they would look something like this:

Within mere seconds of posting yesterday, I felt the ether fill with four discordant emotions rising in a cloud from my readers: extreme panic, terrible annoyance, blank disbelief at having to write yet another marketing piece for your book over and above the query and synopsis, and a clawing, pathological fear that the thoroughness of the ‘Palooza approach would mean I would still be blithely dispensing advice on the subject a month after you were scheduled to pitch — or that somehow, you would manage to stumble into the one species of pitching situation I wouldn’t have covered. (Actually, there was a fifth miasma, gratitude from those of you who aren’t scheduled to pitch anytime soon, but the other smogs were so virulent that it took me a while to notice #5.)

Let me address the last and most complicated set of concerns first, as those who harbor them are likely to be the most impatient. Because writers at conferences do occasionally find themselves pitching in some rather odd and unanticipated contexts — hey, there’s a reason that one hears about elevator pitches — Pitchingpalooza will cover a broad array of hypotheticals for your preparation and worrying pleasure: formal pitches (the kind writers make appointments at conferences to give), impromptu pitches (the kind writers give when they happen to find themselves seated next to an agent at a conference luncheon or, yes, sharing an elevator), answers to the dreaded question, “So, what do you write?”, what to do after a pitch is successful, the works. I’m even going to be talking about how to transform a great verbal pitch into a fabulous query letter, and vice-versa.

So you might want to get comfortable; we’re going to be at it a while. For those of you who are heading out to conferences right away — there’s one in my neck of the woods in a couple of weeks, for instance — and need to pull together a pitch, pronto, I’ve lassoed a set of posts that will walk you through the absolute basics in record time and made them instantly available to the rushed under the evocative title HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE. You’ll find the category on the archive list on the lower right-hand corner of this page.

Don’t say I never did anything for procrastinators. For those of you who have a little more time to kill, let’s take the scenic route.

For those of you stunned by the prospect of having to take still more time away from your writing in order to construct yet another document intended to impress agents into wanting to read your book, who could blame you? I’ve literally never met an aspiring writer who didn’t resent, at least a little, having to sell his work to the people he would like to sell his work. The good news about pitch-writing is that, unlike queries and synopses, writing one is completely optional for your first book. You are perfectly at liberty to pursue representation by means other than pitching.

Oh, you caught that emphasis on first book? As I mentioned last time, agented writers often pitch new projects to their agents and editors; like synopsis-writing, it’s a standard professional skill. Unlike learning to write a query — necessary at the beginning of a writing career, but not all that useful after one lands an agent — once you learn the basic technique for writing a pitch, you’re likely to be using it for the rest of your professional life.

But at the agent-finding stage, shy writers may breathe a sigh of relief: it is entirely possible, and indeed the norm, to approach agents in writing, not face to face. For you, this series will be more a tutorial in figuring out what your book’s selling points are and how to express them than a cheerleading session on how to work up nerve to walk up to an agent after she speaks at a conference and say, “Excuse me, Agent X, but I’m a great admirer of your work, and I could not get an appointment with you. Could you possibly spare me 30 seconds to hear my pitch?”

I know that last sentence made half of you break out in a cold sweat, but never fear: by the end of Pitchingpalooza, you might actually want to try that approach. Preparing both an elevator pitch (the 30-second variety) and a formal pitch (the 2-minute version one gives in a meeting) maximizes the probability of being ready no matter what pitching opportunity presents itself.

On to the most common reactions to constructing a pitch, panic and annoyance. Both are completely understandable, of course: the prospect of sitting down with an agent who may very well reject you on the spot, much less stopping her in a conference hallway, can be monumentally frightening. Rejection’s bad enough when it comes in the mail or in your inbox, right? And believe me, I can certainly identify with the annoyance of learning that connecting successfully with an agent or editor in a pitch appointment often requires substantial advance homework; conference brochures and websites tend to imply that all a writer has to do in order to impress the agent of her dreams is to show up ready to talk about her book. Preferably in three sentences or less.

Honestly, I’ve been blogging and teaching about pitching long enough to expect these reactions — and to know that there is only one thing I can say that will help the panicked and annoyed see why I’m so committed to making absolutely certain that all of my readers learn the basic skills of pitching, rather than just the ones who have appointments with agents at conferences in the weeks to come. It’s this:

A good 90% of pitch rejections have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book being pitched

Yes, really: the vast majority of the time, pitch recipients say, “I’m sorry,” because of other factors, such as bad fit, a book category that the agent does not represent, an insufficient platform (that’s for nonfiction; don’t worry, we’re getting to that), an incoherent pitch (a common side effect of panic), lack of freshness in the story, the agent’s having had no success selling a manuscript, the writer’s looking just like someone who was really, really mean to the agent in high school (hey, they’re human), and so on, ad infinitum. Some of these factors, like the coherence of the pitch, lie within the writer’s control; some, like the resemblance to the high school bully, do not.

Throughout this series, we’re going to talk about how to tell the difference — and to prepare to handle the parts of the process you can control beautifully.

There. That made you feel a whole lot better, didn’t it?

Throughout Pitchingpalooza, I’m going to talk you through how to avoid the pitfalls that scuttle the average pitch. Let’s begin with the single most common reason agents give for rejecting both pitches and queries: they just don’t represent that book category.

Sound familiar? It should. Yesterday, I was waxing poetic on an must-follow piece of advice — if you are looking for an agent (as the overwhelming majority of writers willing to shell out the dosh to attend major conferences are), it makes sense only to invest in attending conferences where agents with a proven track record of selling with your type of book will be available for your pitching pleasure.

Feel free to derive an important corollary from this excellent axiom: from this moment on, resolve that you will pitch or query your book to agents who represent that kind of book. Approaching those who do not is a waste of your valuable time and nerve.

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

Please don’t do that to yourself; as I pointed out last time, it can only end in tears.

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

Believe it or not, even the surliest agent who ever strode contemptuously into a literary conference and brushed off a pitcher wants this as well. Good agents don’t like hurting aspiring writers’ feelings, after all; they merely want to sign authors of books they know they can sell — and believe me, they walk into pitch meetings quite aware of what the editors to whom they have already successfully sold books are looking to buy at the moment.

Being intimately familiar with the publishing market is, after all, part of their job. Pretending otherwise just to spare the feelings of the pitcher trembling in front of them at the moment may seem like kindness, but in the long run, it merely raises unwarranted hopes.

Don’t believe me? Go to any writers’ conference that provides pitching opportunities and have a chat with a few writers who are glowing because they talked an agent who doesn’t represent their kind of work into agreeing to read the opening pages. (Which is occasionally possible; many agents feel bad about saying no.) Then talk to those same writers a month or two hence, after those nice agents said no because — wait for it — they simply don’t handle that type of book.

“But I thought he liked me!” these rejected writers will wail. “We hit it off so well! It felt like we made a real connection.”

Perhaps you did, but at the risk of sounding cynical, a pleasant conversation at a conference is just a pleasant conversation at a conference; it’s not a commitment. For the sake of your own happiness, it’s vital to understand before you set foot in a pitch meeting that whether the agent likes a pitcher or not typically has very little to do with acceptance or rejection.

It’s nice if you get along, but remember, this is a business meeting, not speed dating. Despite what astonishingly many conference brochures imply, you’re not going to get signed on the spot, no matter how good your pitch is. Unless you happen to be a celebrity (in which case, why are you reading a blog about constructing a pitch? That’s what minions are for, is it not?) , no agent in her right mind is going to sign a client without reading a manuscript or book proposal.

As a writer, you should be happy about that: you want an agent to fall in love with your voice, don’t you? And weren’t some of you grumbling only yesterday about the unfairness of judging a book on a verbal pitch, rather than on the manuscript itself?

Besides, the agent you want for your work will not take on your project unless she thinks she can sell it in the current market with the connections she already has. So if she does not have a track record of selling books like yours to the editors who habitually acquire in that category, telling you so up front is actually doing you a favor, believe it or not. And although it won’t feel like it in the moment, so is explaining to you any difficulties books like yours are facing in the current literary market.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement amongst those of you who have pitched before (an improvement on panic and annoyance, certainly, but still). “But Anne,” these veterans of the conference wars protest, “that’s just an excuse to say no, isn’t it? There are plenty of books like mine on bookstore shelves right now, but I’ve had agents tell me that there’s no market for a book like mine. What gives?”

I’m very glad you brought this up, disgruntled protestors: many, many aspiring writers aren’t aware of the distinction between the current publishing market (what editors are looking to buy right now) and the current literary market (what’s occupying the shelves at your local bookstore). Books for sale to consumers right now were on the literary market at least a year ago — in most cases, more like two years — and since agents are seldom able to sell new clients’ books within a few days of signing them to an agency contract, any of those books by first-time authors were probably making the rounds of conferences and/or being queried three or more years ago.

Thus, what’s on the shelves right now isn’t necessarily the best indicator of the needs of the current literary market. An agent who is good at his job has to aware of both.

Which is, in case you were wondering, why agents tend to be so quick to reject what doesn’t fall within their sphere of influence. Since they are inundated with queries and pitches, it is in their best interests to weed out the absolutely-nots as swiftly as humanly possible — and although it is bound to be painful at the time, in yours as well.

Don’t believe me? Ask any author who has found herself spending a few years in the purgatory of a representation contract with an agent who didn’t have the contacts to sell her book, but still snapped up the book because it was in an at-the-time-hot book category. (Yes, it happens. Far more often than either the agented or agents themselves like to admit.)

So if an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of work rejects you — and this is equally true if it happens in person or in writing — be open to the possibility that it may not have anything to do with the quality of your writing or the idea you are pitching. It might just be a bad fit with that agent, or the agent’s current connections may not be looking for your kind of book.

Yes, no matter how beautifully it’s written. This part of the process is as much about practicality as about art.

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

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s awfully important: a manuscript’s being rejected by an agent or editor who doesn’t represent that type of work is most emphatically not a viable test of its marketability amongst those who do.

Thus it follows with an elegant inevitability that if you want to know whether your book is marketable, you should pitch or query it only to those with whom such a test WOULD be a good indicator of how the publishing industry might view it. Or, to put it another way, the best way to avoid this kind of rejection is not to pitch or query your book to any agent that isn’t predisposed to be interested in it.

The same logic applies to pitch meetings with editors, by the way. No editor in the business acquires across every conceivable genre; in fact, most editors’ ability to acquire is sharply limited by their publishing houses to just two or three types of book. So it would be a waste of your pitching energies to, say, try to interest an editor who does exclusively mysteries in your fantasy novel, right?

Check before you pitch. Fortunately, at most conferences, gleaning this information is almost absurdly simple: virtually every conference that hosts pitching sessions will schedule an agents’ forum before the pitch meetings start, so attendees can hear from the agents’ very lips what they are there looking to acquire — and what kinds of pitches they most definitely do not want to hear. If you intend to pitch at the conference, do not, under any circumstances, skip this forum.

Yes, even if you were my rare prize student who went to the trouble of finding out prior to registering for the conference what the attending agents have been selling lately. Even for you, gold-star winner, attending the forum may have tangible benefits: since the publishing market mutates so often and so rapidly, the agent of your dreams may well be looking for a different kind of book today than last week. If so, she’s going to announce it at the forum.

Another solid reason to go hear the agents speak is — brace yourselves; this one is a trifle disillusioning — just because an agent is scheduled to attend a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that he will show up, particularly if the conference is a large one. Most of the time, it’s not the absentee agent’s fault. Crises come up at agencies all the time, so last-minute changes to the roster of pitchable agents attending a conference are common enough that veteran conference attendees regard it as the norm, rather than the exception.

Try not to think of this as rude; regard it as an opportunity. Chances are, someone on that panel is going to represent your kind of book; it may well be someone you had not previously considered. Keep an open mind, and listen well.

Speaking of pitching to editors, here’s another thing that any writer pitching at a North American conference absolutely must know: all of the major NYC publishing houses currently have policies forbidding their editors to acquire work by unagented writers.

Don’t believe me? Check their websites. For the adult book market, the policy is uniform. (Some YA imprints have different policies; again, it’s in your interests to check.)

This means, in essence, that the BEST that could happen if you pitched your book to an editor from one of these houses is that he might help you hook up with an agent. That’s rare, however. A far more frequent benefit: once you have independently landed an agent, it can give your book a slight advantage if your agent can say to an editor, “Oh, by the way, you met this writer at Conference X.”

Sort of changes how you view those much-vaunted conference appointments with bigwig editors, doesn’t it? Pitching to an editor at a major house might help your book in the long run, but it will not enable you to skip the finding-the-agent step, as so many aspiring writers believe. And although it’s somewhat counterintuitive, meeting with an editor at a smaller or regional house might be better for your publishing prospects than one from a major house: the former will generally have more leeway to pick up your book.

I’m bringing this up because in most of the flavors of common being-discovered-at-a-conference fantasy, an editor from Random House or someplace similar hears a pitch, falls over backwards in his chair, and offers a publication contract on the spot, neatly bypassing the often extended agent-seeking period entirely.

We all know the tune by now, right? Conference today, contract tomorrow, The Colbert Report on Thursday.

In reality, even if an editor was blown over (figuratively, at least) by a pitch, he might buttonhole one of the attending agents at a conference cocktail party on your behalf, and they might together plot a future for the book. That does occasionally happen (although it’s not nearly as common as it was ten years ago), but regardless, you’re still going to have to impress that agent before you can sign with the editor. And before you can impress either, the agent is going to have to request and read your manuscript. Although a surprisingly high percentage of conference brochures and websites tell attendees point-blank to bring copies of the manuscripts, just in case an agent or editor wants to read it on the spot, these days, that request is exceedingly rare.

Why? Have you seen what airlines are charging for checked luggage these days? Manuscripts are heavy; it’s almost invariably more convenient for the agent to have you mail or e-mail requested materials than for him to tote them home.

If it sounds as though some conference brochures have not been updated within the last decade, well, that’s not necessarily untrue. Frankly, I think it’s quite unfair to the editors from these houses that more conference promotional materials are not up front about the agented-work-only, considering that it’s hardly a secret. It’s common knowledge, at least amongst those already intimately familiar with the publishing market. Which means, incidentally, that most editors will assume that a writer attending the conference is already aware of it. It’s not as though the individual editor could change the status quo, after all, or as if he’s following the policy merely because he likes to taunt the hopeful.

Before any of you protest that at the last conference you attended, editors from the Big Five asked to see your opening pages regardless of your representation status, let me hasten to add that you are not alone: the we-accept-only-the-agented is most assuredly not the impression that most conference pitchers to editors receive. Unless they are asked point-blank during an editors’ forum how many of them have come to the conference empowered to pick up a new author on the spot — a question well worth asking at an editors’ forum, hint, hint — most editors who attend conferences will speak glowingly about their authors, glossing over the fact that they met these authors not in settings like this, but through well-connected agents.

See earlier comment about common knowledge. They honestly do think you know. It doesn’t mean that they can’t give you some valuable advice, or that pitching to them isn’t good practice. But trust me, no editor is going to jeopardize his job at Broadway by handing a contract to a writer his boss would throw a fit if he signed.

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

This is an important question, because editors from the major houses request manuscripts from pitchers all the time, but not because they are looking to sign the author instantly on the strength of the book. Sometimes, conference organizers will insist that attending editors must agree to read at least a few pitched books; that doesn’t mean that those editors can waive their houses’ policies. In other cases — and editors talk about this one more than you might expect — they just want to get in on the ground floor if the book is going to be the next major bestseller.

No editor wants to go down in publishing history as the guy who passed on the next DA VINCI CODE or TWILIGHT, after all. It’s a gamble, pure and simple.

So even though they would almost certainly not in fact pick up the next DA VINCI CODE if its author did pitch to them at a conference, having a personal connection with the author is a great means of queue-jumping. If one of them is nice enough to you, you might tell your agent (once you hook up with one) that you want your potential bestseller sent to that editor first. Heck, if she’s nice enough to you, you might be gullible enough to insist that she gets an exclusive peek at it, so there cannot possibly be competitive bidding over the book.

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

“But he liked me!” writers will tell their incredulous new agents. “We hit it off so well! It felt like we made a real connection.”

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

The overall moral: learning what individual agents and editors are looking for AND what their bosses will allow them to pick up (aside from the next DA VINCI CODE, of course) will help you target both your conference pitches and your queries more effectively. Everyone — not only you, but the agents and editors to whom you pitch — will be happier if you do.

Honest. Nobody concerned wants to break your heart gratuitously; it’s would be a waste of their scant bestseller-seeking time.

Getting a trifle depressed? Keep repeating to yourself: they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean. They’re doing it to fight their way to the book they can support wholeheartedly.

Again, as a writer, you really should be glad of that. Trust me: after you do hook up with the right agent for your book, you’re going to be happy that they’re so selective.

Yes, really. Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza has arrived!

That’s right, campers: it’s time to crank up the ‘Palooza machinery once more. This time, by popular request, I am going to spend the next few weeks to run through the tricks, tactics, and strategies for constructing and delivering a verbal pitch for a manuscript. And the masses rejoice!

Okay, so wild cheering is not the typical writer’s first response to the prospect of giving a face-to-face pitch to a real, live agent or editor. More often, the response wavers between guarded optimism and wild, insensate terror, seasoned with a healthy dash of Wait — why am I doing this to myself? Why don’t I just query instead, and thus avoid the hair-raising possibility of getting rejected in person?

It tends to be a pretty complicated reaction, in short. Even those wouldn’t be caught dead signing up for a pitch session feel their blood pressure rise at the very notion of it. Heck, sometimes even a simple “So what do you write?” at a cocktail party can induce stuttering, fainting — or, still worse, an apparent inability to describe a perfectly straightforward plot in under 45 minutes.

Given that writers are, let’s face it, communication-oriented people, the near-universality of reluctance to talk out loud about our work — at least briefly and in marketing terms — is a trifle puzzling. as thoughtful and intrepid reader Robin put it recently:

I won’t be pitching at conferences anytime soon, but I can still use help on this. Even though I’ve written a multitude of ever-shorter-pitches, whenever a hapless friend asks what I’m writing, they’re in for a long rambling ride. If I were to meet an agent in an elevator, I’d…well, it wouldn’t be pretty.

How do we make it sound conversational without being wordy? Surely they don’t want us to just memorize our back-cover copy? (Or do they…?)

Robin’s cut to the crux of the matter: most potential pitchers assume, wrongly, that what a verbal pitch entails is not a short, pithy, entertaining description of what the book’s about, who the target audience is, and what the book will offer to those readers that nothing else on the market currently does (for nonfiction) or a brief, fascinating introduction of the protagonist, the conflict or challenge s/he faces, and what’s at stake (for fiction). Instead, they believe that what they should do is spout promotional copy.

Which frequently comes as a surprise to agents and editors, frankly: why, they wonder, is this complete stranger boasting about this story, rather than telling me what it is?

What’s wrong with pitching a book the way a publisher’s marketing department would on a dust jacket? That’s promotion, not description; in essence, it’s a review. Listen:

Hello there, agent of my dreams, I’ve got this great book idea, something that half the women in America can relate to strongly. It’s the deeply moving yet humorous tale of a beautiful but insecure woman with family problems — her stepmother hates her, so she turns to a series of men for support while she waits for Prince Charming. Because it speaks to issues that plague many women, it’s a natural for Oprah…Hey, where are you going?

This is brief, you must admit, but it suffers from two rather serious drawbacks as a pitch. First, it tells the agent what to think of a book she hasn’t yet read: it’s a great idea, it’s moving and humorous, it’s a natural for Oprah. None of this is credible: professional writers don’t review their own books, for the exceedingly simple reason that they cannot be impartial about it.

So why would an agent pay the slightest attention to a pitcher’s unsubstantiated claims about her book’s wonderfulness?

What’s the second problem, you ask? Let me turn around and ask you a couple of questions: what kind of a book is it? To which already-existing group of readers might it appeal, and how is it different from anything else on the market? Who is the protagonist, and why is she inherently interesting enough for a reader to want to follow her for 400 pages?

Let’s face it, a pitch that does leaves all of these questions unanswered has not done its job very well. (Half the women in America is not a serious description of a target demographic: it’s a wild guess.)

Some of you still are not convinced that the back jacket approach isn’t working, are you? Okay, consider the most salient question of all: what is this book about?

“How am I supposed to know?” many a potential pitcher demands defensively. “I haven’t read the book.”

Exactly the objection the agent is likely to raise, as it happens, but not one that I’m prepared to accept at the moment. Why? Well, I’m pretty darn certain that at some point in your life, you actually have read the story I pitched above. Or at least had it read to you.

Give up? It’s Snow White. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t catch it, though; the agent probably wouldn’t have, either, based on the vague, self-promoting pitch.

“But Anne,” shy writers everywhere point out, “none of this has anything to do with the book in question, does it? I want my manuscript to be judged on its WRITING, not whether I can resist the urge to review my own book — and certainly not on whether I can describe it in thirty seconds. Since anyone who has ever sat through a public reading could tell you that there’s no necessary correlation between being able to produce a readable manuscript and being able to talk about it effectively in front of others, why on earth would I want to put myself through such a stressful experience?”

You make a pretty good point, shy ones. If you’re like most aspiring writers, the very idea of sitting down across a table from a real, live agent or editor and making a verbal argument in favor of your manuscript’s marketability probably ranks right up there with getting a root canal or leaping in front of a speeding car in order to rescue a wandering toddler: necessary, but not something a sane person free of masochistic tendencies would want to do just for fun.

I can, however, give you two very, very good reasons that every sane aspiring writer owes to himself to at least consider to either signing up for a pitch session or sitting down and coming up with a pitch as if he were. First, a successful pitch allows you to skip the querying stage of agent-seeking. .

How so? Well, if you pull it off, you move straight to the submission stage — and given how high a percentage of queries get rejected this days, are you certain you wish to sneeze at that? Try to think of a pitch as an in-person query letter, given in an environment that lets the agent or editor hearing it know without your having to say so that you’re a professional enough writer to come to a conference and learn something about your craft.

Second, learning to pitch well will help you write better query letters. Yes, really. You’re going to have to read the rest of this series to find out how and why, but you may take my word for now that it’s true.

Third (yes, I know that I said there were only two, but I’m tossing one in for free because I’m a generous person), if you’re going to make a living as a writer, you will undoubtedly end up having to pitch your work verbally at some point, anyway, if only to your agent before you start a new book project. It’s a professional skill that every career writer is expected to have mastered, so grumbling about it isn’t going to get you out of it.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

Will you learn to love it? Probably not. Learning to survive it with your dignity intact might be a more reasonable long-term goal. But hey, in a situation where plenty of writers feel as though they’re wearing a bright red clown nose and speaking in tongues, for all the impact their pitch seems to be having on its intended recipient, doing a basic good job and walking out feeling good about yourself and your book is nothing at which a first-time pitcher should be sneezing.

You seem to be doing that a lot today. Bless you.

To that laudable if not especially spectacular end, this series will be geared toward the nitty-gritty of that most dreaded of writerly self-promotional exercises, the verbal pitch, a light-hearted exercise wherein an aspiring writer sits face-to-face with someone who has the power to get his book published — typically, an agent or an editor who keeps glancing at her watch — and tries to convince that intimidating soul to take a gander at some actual pages before making up her mind whether she thinks the book is marketable or not.

What about that might make a normally courageous person blanch and want to run, screaming, toward the nearest large, dark cave, eh?

As is true of writers’ conferences in general, quite a bit of the stress inherent to pitching lies in unrealistic expectations of what might happen — on both the bad and good extremes. The average writer tends to waltz into a conference with high expectations and a nervous stomach, mentally toting a fairly hefty wish list: to meet the agent of his dreams, who will fall flat on the floor with astonishment at his pitch and sign him on the spot; for an editor at a major publishing house to be so wowed that she snaps up the book practically before the writer finishes speaking, and to be whisked off to New York immediately for literary cocktail parties and glowing adulation.

Could the New York Times’ bestseller list be far behind? The book would have been a natural for Oprah, if she were still on the air.

It’s a lovely dream, certainly, but this is not what actually happens. Yes, even if you give your pitch perfectly. So strolling into a pitching situation believing that instant contracts are even possible, let alone the norm and the only reasonable standard of conference success, is bound to end in tears.

Call me zany, but I don’t like to see a reader of mine sobbing in a hallway, convinced that he’s blown his one big chance just because an agent actually wants to read a manuscript before flinging her arms around a writer and shoving a contract into his hand. So let’s begin this series with a few cold, hard facts, to set the record straight:

*No credible US agent will sign a writer before having read the book in question, or a proposal for nonfiction. (In other parts of the world, this is not always the case.)

*All of the major U.S. publishing houses have strict policies against acquiring books from unrepresented writers (although a couple do run competitions for that purpose), so even if that editor from Simon & Schuster just adored your pitch, there would be significant structural impediments to his signing you to a three-book contract on the spot.

*Even agented works often circulate for months or more before they are picked up by publishers, so speed of sale alone is not generally considered the best measure of literary success.

*There is generally at least a year-long lapse between the signing of a book contract and when that book appears in bookstores. More often, it’s closer to two.

Translation: even for writers who actually are pitching the next DA VINCI CODE, the process takes a heck of a lot longer than the average conference-goer expects. Even authors of brilliant, super-marketable books do not typically experience the conference fantasy treatment.

At most, a great book well pitched will garner an array of, “Gee, that sounds terrific. Send me the first 50 pages,” requests. Yet even with a flurry of initial enthusiasm, months often pass between initial pitch and requests to represent.

It’s important to realize all of that going in. Otherwise, pitching at a conference will almost inevitably feel like a tremendous letdown.

Or, still worse, like a sight-unseen review of your writing talent. Which, as the shy grumblers above pointed out, is a trifle bizarre, when you think about it: how precisely could any agent or editor, no matter how gifted, determine whether someone can write without actually reading anything she’s written? Telepathy?

Worst of all, a belief that the truly talented will necessarily be signed and sold within a matter of nanoseconds leads every year to that oh-so-common writerly misstep, rushing home to send out requested materials within a day or so of receiving the request — and realizing only after the fact that since the mad rush to get the manuscript out the door before that agent or editor changed her mind about wanting to see it meant sending it out without reading the submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I can sense my long-time readers of this blog shuddering at the ghastly fate that tends to greet such hastily sent-off submissions: “Next!”

For those of you who are not yet cringing, let me ask you: how would you feel if you realized only after you’d popped a requested manuscript in the mail that there were four typos on page 1? Or that the margins were the wrong width? Or that you’d forgotten to change your memoir protagonist’s name back to your own after you’d changed it for a blind contest entry?

Oh, good — now everyone’s shuddering. Remember that creepy feeling running up your spine, and don’t even consider sending off requested materials without a thorough review. A request for pages is not going to vanish as soon as the agent forgets your name. You have time to proof the darned thing.

But that didn’t convince all of you, did it? “Yeah, right, Anne,” the complacent say. “I understand that you need to say this so the run-of-the-mill illiterate bothers to spell-check his manuscript before submitting, but I’m a smart person. My manuscript was in good shape before I signed up for the conference. So I can safely ignore what you’ve just said, right?”

Not so fast, smarty-pants: intelligence is no barrier to typos. Don’t believe me? Okay, let me share an anecdote that reality was kind enough to provide just the other day.

Not to boast like back jacket copy, but I graduated from what is widely considered one of the best universities in the world — fellow alumni would say that it is THE best, but what would you expect them to say? — so the ranks of its alumni are well populated with readers who, like me, don’t consider adherence to the rules of grammar and time-honored ways of spelling things optional. These are folks who know how to use a semicolon and aren’t afraid to use it. So when one of the undergraduate clubs sent out an e-mail the other day, asking alumni to sign up for an online newsletter, I was shocked — shocked! — to see that it was crammed to the gills with what I charitably assumed were typos. Nouns were capitalized that had no business being capitalized; the next-to-last sentence just stopped in the middle.

As I am rather fond of the club in question, I took the time to respond to the e-mail, not so much to point out the vast array of errors unbecoming a Harvard man as to alert undergraduates probably not much accustomed to trying to raise money from crusty old alumni like me to the very, very high probability that educated people would take umbrage at said errors. I said it gently, in the hope that they might actually pay attention, rather than brushing me off, suggesting that perhaps they might want to proofread their next missive before hitting the SEND button.

The undergraduate who took the time to respond (surprisingly politely) did in fact promise to mend the group’s spelling. However (he pointed out in his own defense), four members and two administrative offices had signed off on the wording before it was sent, so they had every reason to believe that it would pass muster.

I knew instantly what had happened — as would, incidentally, any professional reader who has been handling manuscripts within the last ten years. Any guesses? (Hint: the undergraduate was almost certainly telling the truth.)

Give yourself a gold star if you said that each of the proofreaders read the letter on a computer, rather than IN HARD COPY; it’s substantially harder to catch errors that way, since backlighting tempts the human eye to skim. (Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, e-mail recipients so often send back non-responsive answers; it’s just harder to absorb nuances on a screen.) And give yourself seven gold stars if you added that the sentence that ended in the middle was probably the result of someone’s having started to edit the sentence, but getting distracted in the middle of doing it.

Think you’re smarter than the people who collaborated on that message? Even if you are, it’s not enough to make revisions; a sensible submitter proofs requested pages IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and preferably OUT LOUD before mailing them, to catch precisely this type of mistake. Or hitting the SEND key.

But I seem to have digressed, haven’t I? Allow me to veer back to my original point: realistic expectations about what pitching success does and does not mean, as well as how it would serve you best to respond to the various contingencies, can save you a lot of grief.

So what would be a realistic set of goals for a conference? An excellent choice would be to embrace the suggestion I made above: use the conference to skip the very annoying and time-consuming querying stage and jump directly to a request to read your manuscript.

What would working toward this goal look like in practice, you ask? Pitching your work to at least one agent who has a successful track record representing books like yours, with an eye to convincing at least one agent ask you to mail a submission would be even better.

As would having an editor who is empowered to pick up new writers ask to see part or all of the book, or pitching to every publishing professional at the conference who deals in your kind of work. And let’s not forget the less marketing-oriented goals, such as learning a great deal from good seminars. (Although, let’s face it, not all conference seminars are equally scintillating; it’s not all that uncommon for speakers to be far, far more interested in pushing their own latest books than providing concrete assistance to those looking to get their own published.)

Or — and too many conference-goers forget to add this to their to-do lists — making connections with other writers, established AND aspiring, who write what you do. Amazing mutual support groups don’t just happen, you know; they are often built over years.

If you can pull any or all of that off, you will have achieved conference success, by my standards. It’s not as sexy as the fantasy version, I know, but eminently doable — and definitely worthwhile for your writing career. After all, skipping the querying stage can cut years from your agent search; think of every pitching opportunity as one less raft of a dozen query letters you are going to have to send out.

Feeling a bit better about pitching now? Excellent.

Truth compels me to mention that your chances of pitching successfully will be SUBSTANTIALLY higher if you do a bit of prep work before you go. But never fear: over the course of this series, I shall be guiding you though the steps you need to take in order to walk in confident and prepared.

Fringe benefit: these steps are very useful to marketing any book, anywhere, anytime. If you invest the hours in developing these skills and materials (oh, yes: I’m going to be giving you writing assignments), you will not only be able to pitch your work verbally; you will be able to talk about it like a pro AND transplant your pitch to your query letters.

Don’t tense up. You can do this. But it is going to take some work.

I could sign off for the day at this point, but let’s get started right away: the first step to a successful pitch is to understand your book’s market appeal.

Please stop gnawing your nails — this is a perfectly reasonable thing for an agent to want to know. Who is your target reader, and why will your book, out of the tens of thousands a good agent will see this year, satisfy that reader like nothing else currently on the market? In order to either pitch or query your work successfully, you’re going to want to come up with at least provisional answers to these questions.

The second step to a successful pitch, as for a successful query, is to be familiar with the work of the person to whom you will be pitching. Find out what that agent has sold lately; find out what that editor has bought. Find out, in short, who at the conference would be receptive to you and your book, so that you may know which to approach and pitch.

This will involve some research on your part — which is why I am mentioning this at the BEGINNING of this series, and not toward its end. If you’ve got a conference coming up, or are thinking about signing up for one, you’re going to want to get started as soon as possible figuring out which of the attending agents would be worth your time to track down for a hallway pitch, if you can’t obtain a pitching appointment.

In response to that indignant gasp: not being able to land a formal appointment with any given agent attending a conference is not all that uncommon an eventuality. Conference organizers usually do their best, but attendees don’t always get assigned to the agent who’s the best fit for the manuscripts they are pitching.

Passive writers allow that to prevent them from pitching to the right agent — but my readers are more proactive than that, aren’t they? To help you be politely proactive, I’m planning to give you tips not only on pitching within a formal meeting, but whenever you happen to be able to buttonhole the agent of your dreams.

“But Anne,” I hear those of you clutching registration forms protest, “I understand doing the prep work if I have a plethora of conferences from which to select, but I’m already registered for my local one. Since I’ve already been assigned a pitch appointment and I already know that I’m too shy to walk up to the dais after the agents’ forum, why should I bother checking up on all of the agents who might be attending?”

Well, for a couple of reasons. First, any book could be pitched in a number of different ways — and since the goal of pitching is not absolute uniformity between every pitch attempt, but rather to garner a request for pages, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to tailor your pitch to the agent who happens to be listening to it at any given moment, doesn’t it?

And no, I have absolutely no idea why conference literature so often tells potential attendees the exact opposite. I’ll be dealing with the one-size-fits-all pitch concept next week.

For now, suffice it to say that all three pictures above are from the same negative. You probably have a favorite among them; so do I. So would an agent. But they’re all the same angle on the same rose. The only difference is presentation.

Seem cryptic? Trust me, within a couple of weeks, it will seem downright obvious.

The other reason to do some background research on the agents to whom you may be pitching is, as I mentioned, that it’s far from uncommon for writers to be assigned to pitch to agents who do not represent their kinds of books at all. Which means, practically inevitably, that the pitch cannot end in a request for pages.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sit down and breathe deeply until that feeling of dizziness passes.

As anyone who has ever endured the agony of a mismatched pitch appointment can tell you, if your book falls outside the agent or editor’s area of preference, it doesn’t matter how good your pitch is: she will stop you as soon as she figures out that your book is categorically not for her. No amount of argument is going to help you at that point, so advance research is a very, very good idea, if only so you can try frantically to switch appointments with another writer.

I know, I know: it’s not the writer’s fault. But in fairness, conference organizers very frequently do not have enough information about prospective attendees to make a good match; most of the time, they simply rely upon the writers’ expressed preferences or — sacre bleu! — assign appointments randomly.

This means, unfortunately, that it is up to the conference attendee to check up on the agents and editors, over and above their blurbs in the conference program. Even those bear double-checking: as my long-time readers already know, the blurb agents and editors write about themselves is not always the most reliable indicator of the type of work they represent. It’s not that they’re trying to be misleading, of course; most just reuse their standard bio blurbs from their websites, which tend not to be updated all that often.

So it’s worth your while to check the agents’ websites, standard agents’ guides,Preditors and Editors, the Absolute Write water cooler, and anywhere else that you would normally go to check out an agent you were planning to query. You don’t need to be able to write a 500-page biography for each of these people, but you absolutely do need to be aware of what they’re representing these days.

And you definitely need to be aware of what they are not representing these days. Had I mentioned that it is a waste of both your time and the agent’s to pitch to someone who does not handle your kind of book?

These days being the operative term: while agents frequently list the better-known books they’ve represented in those little blurbs in the conference guide, they don’t necessarily update those blurbs every time they use them. (Also true of the preferences listed in agents’ guides, by the way.) And even if they did, the market changes far too fast for blurbs usually submitted months before the conference to reflect what an agent is looking to represent NOW.

I hear you groaning: yes, this is every bit as much work as finding an agent to query. But you don’t want to end up pitching to the wrong agent, do you?

When you’re doing your research, do be aware that since there is usually a significant time lag between when an agent signs an author and when the book hits the shelves (see above), it may be difficult to track down client lists for some agents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not active. The Publishers Marketplace database tracks sales as they happen AND provides client lists, so it’s a great place to check. This site does require a subscription ($20/month), so you might want to round up some of your writing friends and pool the expense.

If you can’t find evidence that the agent to whom you are assigned to pitch is actively representing your kind of book, don’t be afraid to ask to switch appointments. Most of the time, conference organizers will do their best honor such requests — but they’ll usually be happier about it if you can suggest an alternative agent for an appointment.

Yet another reason that — wait for it — it’s an excellent idea to check out ALL of the agents scheduled to attend a conference (there’s usually a list on the conference’s website), not just to one to whom you’ve been assigned. Ideally, you will want to try to pitch to anyone who might conceivably be a reasonable fit. And if none of the scheduled agents represent your kind of book, you should think very seriously about taking your conference dollars elsewhere.

Yes, having to do this level of background research is kind of a pain, but if it saves you even one wasted pitch, it’s worth it. The more information you have, the more likely you are to find your best fit. Doing your homework maximizes the probability that you will be pitching to someone who can help you get published — and not someone who will stop you three sentences in to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t represent that kind of book.”

Remember, not all agents are the same, any more than all editors are (of which more tomorrow); they have both professional specialties and personal preferences. It doesn’t make any more sense to pitch sensitive coming-of-age literary fiction to an agent who concentrates primarily on thrillers than it does to query a nonfiction-only agency with a novel, does it?

Do those of you who have never pitched before feel as though you’ve just fallen into very, very deep water? Not to worry: you’ll feel much less disoriented in the days to come.

Which is to say: PLEASE don’t be too hard on yourself if your learning curve is a bit sharp throughout this series. After all, no one is born knowing how to market a book — or how to pitch it without sounding like a talking dust jacket.

You can do this, honest. Keep up the good work!

Finding your voice, part III, or, this is no time to make a carbon copy

For the last couple of posts, we’ve been obsessing on the subject of narrative voice. Yesterday, I advanced a modest proposal: it was more to your advantage as an aspiring writer to revise your manuscript with an eye to making it sound like your writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire.

And jaws dropped to the floor all over North America. Apparently, this approach to literary success was something of a novelty to a lot of you.

Or perhaps you were merely surprised that anyone who reads manuscripts for a living would want to talk about individual literary voice. In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important. Indeed, in many writers’ fora and at many conferences, the prevailing advice seems to veer away from it: although most of us who write cherish our original voices, pick any four writers’ conference attendees at random, and three of them will swear that they’ve just heard at least one agent or editor say point-blank that the surest path to literary success is not to wow the world with a fresh new voice or innovative story, but to produce a narrative close enough to a currently established author’s that it could easily be marketed to the same audience.

From the publishing world’s perspective, this is just common sense: figuring out who your target reader is, what s/he is reading right now, and what s/he likes best about it is not only a great way to come up with tweaks to render your work-in-progress more marketable, but also a fabulous means of coming up with a list of agents to query. Think about it: an agent has already established a solid track record of representing books in your chosen category that sales records prove appeal to your ideal readership is far, far more likely to be interested in your work than an agent who habitually represents, well, anything else.

But that’s not what 99% of aspiring writers hear in this advice, is it? Ask any one of those three out of four conference attendees: they have derived the impression that their manuscripts are supposed to sound as if they had been written by someone else.

To be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list. According to this theory, all any agent wants to see is a slightly modified retelling of what’s already available on the market. Or so we must surmise from the tens of thousands of YA queries and submissions in recent years for stories that sound suspiciously like something in the TWILIGHT series.

This erroneous belief does not merely affect what’s submitted to agencies; it can have serious repercussions at the revision stage. Rather than approaching their submissions with the intent of sharpening individual voice, many aspiring writers assume that their narratives should sound less like them. Revision, then, becomes a matter of looking at one’s pages, comparing them to a similar bestseller, and attempting to minimize the difference.

See the problem? These writers are setting their sights far too low. They’re also setting them far too late.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And Sally sells seashells by the seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. Provided, of course, that the voice in question is a good fit for the project at hand.

And then there’s the logistical problem: it takes a while to write a novel; by the time a copycat manuscript is complete. Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a manuscript to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually at least a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. Often more like two.

Why is that problematic, in practical terms? Well, chances are, the market will have moved on by then. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice or story will be sought-after several years hence.

In fact, what was selling like the proverbial hotcakes a couple of years back often, if it landed on Millicent the agency screener’s desk today, just seem hackneyed, if not downright derivative. “That’s been done,” Millicent murmurs, moving on to the next submission. “What makes this writer think that there are still editors clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, HARRY POTTER, or even THE DA VINCI CODE? Copycats of these bestsellers have inundated agencies for years now. What I’m looking for is a fresh take on a story I know my boss can sell, written in a voice that will appeal to the already-established readership in that book category.”

That’s not an unreasonable request, Millie — but imagine how difficult it would be for an aspiring writer to be simultaneously trying to write like a surprise bestseller’s author and to get a completed manuscript ready to market before that bestseller has ended its love affair with the reading public. Even if an offbeat hit has an unusually long run — vampire vs. werewolf romance, anyone? — unless an aspiring writer had already been working on a similar book project when the sleeper hits the New York Times bestseller lists, it’s likely that by the time the copycat manuscript is complete, Millicent will already have been exposed to hundreds of submissions with the same aim.

Oh, they might not all be obvious about it; many will be genuinely interesting twists on the established premise. But you’d be amazed at how many trend-following aspiring writers will be perfectly up front about their stories being derivative. Any agent who has ever represented a genre-busting hit has received hundreds of thousands of queries like this:

Dear X. Tremely Pickison:

I am looking for an agent for my novel, DUSK, a YA paranormal designed to appeal to the millions of readers of the bestselling TWILIGHT series. But while TWILIGHT’s heroine was torn between a vampire and a werewolf, DUSK’s teen protagonist must choose between a sexy merman and a handsome Frankenstein’s monster.

You won’t want to miss out on this next great bestseller! I don’t know that I’m supposed to include a SASE, so you’ll just have to guess how to get in touch with me if you are interested in my work.

Sincerely,

Starchaser McFameseeker

Okay, so the part about the SASE was a bit of an exaggeration — most queries like this don’t include one and don’t mention it. But the toss-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window subtlety of the sales approach and the carefully-drawn obvious parallel to the copied book is often this blatant.

Unfortunately for queriers who embrace this strategy, neither this kind of hard sell nor the carbon copy approach to breaking into publishing tend to do much for Millicent. Oh, a book featuring some of the same elements and written in a comparable voice might well strike her as marketable in the wake of a blockbuster — as anyone who visited a bookstore with a well-stocked YA section a couple of years after the surprise success of TWILIGHT can attest, many similar storylines did in fact see publication as publishers raced to replicate the book’s appeal. But the mere fact that thousands of aspiring writers will inevitably look at that blockbuster and say, “Oh, I can write something like that,” means, necessarily, that a writer who embraces the copycat route will be facing a great deal of competition.

Not to mention running the risk of boring Millicent. Believe me, when you’re seeing the same essential storyline or plot elements in every fifth or six query — not at all out of the realm of possibility, about a year after a major blockbuster’s release — you’re going to get tired of it fast.

The same holds true for voice — and for manuscripts that don’t really have a distinct, individual authorial voice. As I mentioned in passing yesterday, part of the reason that many aspiring writers become confused about voice is that not all published writing exhibits an original narrative voice.

That “Wha—?” you just heard was from the chorus of readers who missed yesterday’s post, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls protest as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I don’t understand. I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers — take a nice, deep breath. In the first place, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state categorically that not all published writing is good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege. Evidently not; let’s move on.)

Books get published for all kinds of reasons, after all. The writer’s platform, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a prominent publisher’s college roommate. (One hears rumors.)

In the vast majority of cases, though, a published book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will at least be clearly written. Perhaps not stuffed to the gills with insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective.

But to have a literary voice is to take a side. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option.

In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the author chose for this appropriate and complimentary to the story?”

Not all voices prove a good fit for all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would YOU want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? Or a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

One of the great fringe benefits of gaining a broad array of writing experience and building up a solid knowledge of craft is developing the ability to switch voices at will. You have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. At the moment, I habitually write in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, the voice I have chosen for my novel-in-progress, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself not to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write.

For example, if I used my memoir voice here, to discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world; to achieve that end, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

To be blunt about it, what will work for one kind of writing aimed at one kind of audience will not work for another. I speak from experience here: I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles (when I was underage, as it happens), as well as everything from political platforms to fashion articles. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues.

(Some professional advice for anyone who should find herself writing wine descriptions: there are only a certain number of adjectives that may be safely and positively applied to any given varietal; nobody is ever going to object, for instance, to a chardonnay description that mention vanilla undertones. Go ask the enologist who blended the wine you’re supposed to be describing to give you a list of five, then start seeing how many of them you can use in a paragraph. Voilà! Wine description!

See? Every writing project is a potential learning opportunity.)

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting, and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner dates left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to the discipline of writing for that very specialized audience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naïve Harvard student a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area, fact-checking the previous year’s edition and writing fresh copy.

Often, in my case, by firelight at a dubious campground: my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire. A trifle ironic, given that most of what I was writing was restaurant and motel reviews for places I could neither afford to eat nor stay.

You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Let’s Go’s tone is very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on picnic tables.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket.

It was raining so hard that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed me angrily that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

”Excuse me?” I asked, thinking that he had somehow intuited that I was here to critique his obviously lacking customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge.

(If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to accept. After I checked into my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“Jay, I have $8.15 to my name,” I told him, while the rain noisily drenched the phone booth. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

”Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night. Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston –- ate it up.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (which, alas, it is; ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether a different type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

Pertinent questions for any projected revision, are they not? I asked them of myself: how would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

What might the latter look like on the page? Like a police report, potentially. Let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go story in a just-the-facts-ma’am voice:

A twenty-one-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby. The clerk asks her what she wants; she replies that she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity. The clerk gets the manager, who repeats the information. Noting the seven-by-ten wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lame huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman determines that she might not be in the right place. She telephones her editor, who agrees.

Not the pinnacle of colorful prose, is it? A contest judge would read this second account and think, “Gee, this story has potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story.” She would subtract points from the Voice category, and rightly so.

Millicent would probably just yawn and mutter, “Next!”

Another technical criterion often used in evaluating voice is — wait for it — consistency. Having made a narrative choice, does the author stick to it? Are some scenes told in tight third person, where we are hearing the characters’ thoughts and feelings, while some are told in a more impersonal voice, as though observed by a stranger with no prior knowledge of the characters?

Your more sophisticated professional reader (Millicent’s boss, perhaps, who has been at it a decade longer than she has) will often also take freshness of voice and point of view into account. How often has this kind of narrator told this kind of story before?

Which brings us back to the desirability of copying what you admire. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery — which I sincerely doubt — then the narrative choices of bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing. Or so I am forced to conclude by the many, many stories told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or the many, many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting agents’ and editors’ attention. (“My book is Sarah Vowell meets household maintenance!” “My book is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!” “The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or all the death!”) However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out, while copies may sell in the short term, for the long haul, what is memorable is originality.

Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a book’s narrative voice is: three days after a reader has finished it, will she remember how the story was told? Individual phrases, even? In a generic-voiced narrative, usually not.

Of course, after Millicent and her cronies take all of these factors into account, whether the professional reader happens to LIKE the narrative voice is still going to weigh heavily into her calculations. That’s inevitable, and there’s nothing a writer can do about it — except to make her narrative voice as strong and true and individually hers as she can possibly can.

Because then one reader, at least, will be satisfied: you. Give it some thought, please, and keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XI: the many advantages of straying off the beaten path, or, did I drift off again?

I’m a bit drowsy today, campers; blame the lowering skies of a gray Seattle spring day. All I want to do is curl up with a cat or two and a new release by a promising first-time author. I would even feel virtuous doing that, because, let’s face it, if we all want to live in a world that’s open to giving a fresh voice a break, it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep buying debut novels.

Oh, you hadn’t thought about it in those terms? Trust me, agents and editors do. They have to: those books are their bread and butter. And if you hope someday for a book to be your bread and butter, getting into the habit of supporting first- and second-time authors in your chosen book category is the single best way to encourage the agent and editor of your dreams to keep an open mind toward books like yours.

That’s more than enough moral reasoning for a sleepy day, I think. Since I don’t have Millicent’s ever-present too-hot latte in my hand, I’m going to devote today’s post to the kinds of faux pas that tempt her to keep downing them: opening pages that lull her into a deep, refreshing slumber. Or at least a jaw-cracking yawn.

I know, I know –-this one couldn’t possibly apply to any of my readers, all of whom are as scintillating as scintillating can be, both on and off paper. Yet strange to report, agents, editors, and their respective screeners routinely report finding many submissions snore-inducing. In fact, slow openings are common enough in submissions that no discussion of notorious pet peeves would be complete without some serious discussion of them.

Thus Millicent’s oft-burnt tongue: she’s just trying to stay awake. Not only due to the dreaded-yet-ubiquitous slow opening — you’d be astonished at how many manuscripts don’t really get going for 4, 5, or 23 pages — but also because once one has been reading submissions or contest entries for a while, the sheer repetition of certain premises begins to…be…

Oh, I’m sorry: did I nod off for a moment?

Frankly, I do not think we writers talk enough amongst ourselves about either of these widespread narrative problems. There’s a awfully good reason for that: since writers commit to spend months or years with a story, we’re usually pretty taken with the story. And nothing renders a section of prose more interesting than agonizing over every word choice, sentence structure, and comma.

So who can blame us if we don’t really notice that nothing much happens on page 1? Or Chapter 1? Or — and this is even harder for a self-editor to catch — if our openings employ similar narrative tricks to hook the reader’s attention and/or stray into plot territory that Millicent has already seen claimed by a few dozen aspiring writers within the last week?

Given how frequently similar tactics and premises crop up in submissions — and how very frequently those of us who read for a living complain about it to one another in private — it’s astonishing how infrequently agents, editors, or even writing coaches bring these problems to aspiring writers’ attention. Perk up your ears the next time you’re at a writers’ conference: when the pros give advice about how to guide manuscripts through the submission process relatively unscathed, the rather sensible admonition don’t bore me is very seldom heard.

Perhaps we can chalk this up to a natural reluctance to admit in a room stocked to the brim with the authors of tomorrow just how little they read of most manuscripts before rejecting them: as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while already know, the average submission gets rejected on page 1; one doesn’t hear that mentioned much at conferences, either. And I can easily imagine how an agent might feel a tad sheepish about implying in front of a group of total strangers that he has an attention span that would embarrass most kindergarteners. Or that on certain mornings, the length of time it takes to bore a screener is substantially shorter than others, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control.

Hey, they don’t call it the city that never sleeps for nothing, you know. But heaven forfend that an agent should march into an agents’ forum the morning after a long night of the kind of conferring that often happens in the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America and say, “Look, I’m going to level with you. If I’m dragging into the office on three hours of sleep, your first page is going to have to be awfully darned exciting for me even to contemplate turning to the second. Do yourself a favor, and send me an eye-opening page 1, will ya? Now where is that conference volunteer with my COFFEE?”

On an entirely unrelated note, had I mentioned to those of you planning to give pitches at upcoming conferences that you might not want the first appointment of the day? Or one of the first several? (You didn’t hear it from me, but at the writers’ conference thrown annually in my neck of the woods, enough conferring goes on that on one memorable occasion, only two of the scheduled dozen or so pitch-hearers showed up for the scheduled morning pitch sessions. If we are to believe the agent who is still complaining about no one having told him that he could have slept in that day.)

Obviously, there’s nothing a writer can do about it if his page 1 — or morning pitch, for that matter — is being judged by someone in desperate need of a gallon of coffee and a B-12 shot, but one can maximize the probability of being the manuscript that makes Millicent’s eyes fly open. One of the best ways of doing this is to avoid having your page 1 read like 4 out of the 16 first pages she has already screened that morning. Or like a third of what she has read in the last week. Even an innocuous writing or formatting problem may begin to annoy a professional reader after she has seen it 700 times.

In response to what half of you just thought very loudly: no, someone who has not had the experience of reading that many first pages probably would not know what those often-repeated problems are. (Although keeping up with new releases in one’s chosen book category would be an excellent means of learning what is and isn’t considered an outdated type of opening.) But yes, the pros honestly do believe that a serious writer would have taken the time to learn her craft well enough to avoid falling into these traps.

Oh, you thought I had devoted so many weeks of posts to common page 1 pet peeves because I liked chatting about them? I’m just trying to give you a peep into what it’s like to hold Millicent’s job.

They also expect, and with greater justification, that a talented writer with a strong premise won’t bore them before the bottom of page 1 — which is not by any means as easy as it sounds. These people see a LOT of plots, after all; if a Millicent is experienced enough to be able to tell from the first reference to a character’s hard childhood that he’s going to turn out to be the perpetrator of those seemingly random murders of everyone who was mean to him as a kid, it’s going to be difficult to keep her interested in the mystery.

And if that reference crops up on page 1 — as happens astonishingly often with plot flares — can you really blame her for muttering, “Well, I’ve seen this before; I want to see something fresh. Next!”

Okay, so maybe you can blame her, if it happens to be your submission over which she is muttering like one of the witches in Macbeth. But you can see why the sight of a genuinely fresh take on a well-worn premise might fill her with gleeful hope, can’t you?

Nor is predictability the only reason she might have the opposite reaction. Over the years, agents and their screeners have been able to come up with many, many reasons that manuscripts bore them, and almost as many euphemisms. Trying to differentiate the various sub-species reminds me of that often-repeated truism about Arctic peoples having many words for different types of snow: to someone not accustomed to observing the variations during the length of a long, long winter, it all kind of looks white and slushy.

But that’s not going to stop me from trying, I notice. Here, for your anxious perusal, are the most common reasons professional reasons give for nodding off over a submission.

Not enough happens on page 1.

Where’s the conflict?

The story is not exciting enough to hold my interest.

The story appears to be boring.

There’s too much repetition on pg. 1 (!)

The narrative takes too many words to tell the reader what happened.

The writing is dull.

Now, to those of us not lucky enough to be reading a hundred submissions a week, that all sounds like snow, doesn’t it? Millicent, however, is in a line of work where she actually does have to come up with concrete criteria to differentiate between not exciting and boring.

Which is to say: all seven of these actually do mean different things, so let me run through them in order, so you may see why each is specifically annoying, even if you weren’t out dancing until 4 a.m. All of them are subjective, of course, so their definitions will vary from reader to reader, but here goes.

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

That startled some of you out of your late-afternoon doze, didn’t it? “But Anne,” past recipients of open with conflict admonitions point out, rubbing your blurry eyes, “I’ve always heard that the point of a hook is to draw the reader into the story. I’ve literally never heard anyone say that it mattered whether the opening was integrally related to the central conflict of the book.”

Well, I’m saying it now, and for a very good strategic reason. Remember earlier in this series, when I urged you to sit in the chair of that burnt-tongued screener, racing through manuscripts, knowing that she will have to write a summary of any story she recommends?

Think about it for a moment: how affectionate is she likely to feel toward a story that doesn’t give her a solid sense of what the story is about on page 1? Or what kind of novel it is?

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would — by how many fiction submissions begin with frenetic action that has virtually nothing to do with the plot that follows, or that is wildly out of proportion with the action in the rest of the book. Because so many aspiring writers have heard that they should open their novels with conflict, Millicent’s very, very used to first pages that splatter the reader with blood or appall her with explicit violence. That alone won’t necessarily grab her.

Violence isn’t the only kind of conflict, after all. Nor is argument. Like so many other one-line pieces of writing advice, open with conflict is widely misinterpreted to mean a novel must open with a life-threatening (or life-ending) scene. While that may well work in a thriller, in most fiction book categories, it would be inappropriate.

So what kind of conflict do the pros have in mind when they spout this aphorism? Conflict between the protagonist and other characters, usually, or between the protagonist and a situation. A scene where the main characters disagree about how to solve the central problem of the plot. A disagreement between lovers. A winsome child abruptly noticing that her beloved cocker spaniel is missing.

Or, yes, a rural policeman stumbling upon some body parts, if that is genre-appropriate. Just make sure to pick a scene that is representative of both the story you’re telling and the prevailing tone of your book category.

If you aren’t sure about the latter, I have to ask: have you been reading enough recent releases of first- and second-time authors in your book category? (You didn’t think I’d tumbled off that high horse, did you?)

While you are conducting that little piece of self-examination, let’s move on to the next objection on our list, where’s the conflict? This cri de coeur gained considerable currency in the 1990s, when writing gurus began touting using the old screenwriter’s trick of utilizing a Jungian heroic journey to structure the story arc of a novel. Within that journey, the protagonist starts out in the real world, not to get a significant challenge until the end of Act I, many novels put the conflict on hold, so to speak, until the first call comes. (If you’re really interested in learning more about the hero’s journey structure, let me know, and I’ll do a post on it. But there are a LOT of writing advice books out there that will tell you this is the only way to structure a story. Basically, all you need to know for the sake of my argument here is that this ubiquitous advice has resulted in all of us seeing many, many movies where the character learns an important life lesson on page 72 of the script.)

While this can be an effective way to structure a book, there’s no denying that tends to reduce conflict in the opening chapter. I find this phenomenon fascinating, because most people’s everyday lives are simply loaded of conflict.

Oh, you’ve never had a coworker who got on your nerves?

Even if you want to start out in the normal, everyday world before your protagonist is sucked up into a spaceship to the planet Targ, make an effort to keep that hung-over screener awake: ramp up the interpersonal conflict on page 1. Even if that conflict needs to be purely internal: Arnold cringed at the sound of plastic slapping into metal. Would Bruce never learn to treat the coffeemaker with respect? is, after all, as fraught with tension as Arnold stirred his coffee absently, unaware that Bruce had snuck up behind him, a filter full of steaming used grounds in his hand. They’re merely introducing different kinds of narratives.

Perhaps the best way to figure out how much and what kind of conflict is most appropriate to open your novel is to think about why writing teachers came up with the open with conflict aphorism in the first place: the many, many manuscripts that begin in a mundane present, introducing the protagonist and her environment before the central conflict of the book arrives to trouble her life. Millicent can’t even begin to count the number of page 1s she’s seen within the last month that began with something like this:

Arianna gazed out upon the blue-purple twilight, clutching her ever-present cup of tea. Peaceful tonight on Skullcracker Island, the perfect invitation to curl up by the fire with a good book. Spot rubbed purringly against her legs.

She bent to rub the furry orange head of her most recent shelter find. For a cat the vet had said was suffering heavily from post-traumatic stress disorder, the one-eared beast had certainly become affectionate quickly. “Don’t worry, Spot,” she crooned. “There will be a nice, warm lap for you soon.”

Zzzz…oh, did I miss something?

There’s nothing wrong with this as writing (although rubbed purringly might strike Millicent as rather purplish prose). In fact, it might work very well in the middle of the novel (if for some reason it were necessary to impress the reader with a great deal of information about that cat within a startlingly short stretch of text, and by telling, rather than showing).

But come on, admit it — even if the next line were

The axe severed her hand before the cat had finished rubbing against it.

you might have stopped reading before you got to it, mightn’t you? So would Millicent, in all probability. As a general rule of thumb (severed or not), if the first paragraph of a manuscript does not contain either conflict appropriate to the book’s category or a strong, nicely-described image, it may strike a professional reader as opening too slowly.

That got some goats out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” openers-with-conflict protest in injured tones, “I’ve always heard that I had to work conflict onto the first page, not into the first paragraph. Consequently, I’ve been making sure that my submissions feature a startling last line on the bottom of the first page, to tempt Millicent to turn to page 2. Are you telling me that she might not have been reading that far, since my first three paragraphs depict my protagonist chatting with her mother on the phone about nothing in particular?”

In a word, yes. And in several words: what on earth made you think that chatting about nothing in particular — your words, not mine — constituted opening with action?

Or, to answer your question on a more practical level: do you really want to make Millicent wait until the bottom of the page before depicting any relevant conflict? When she might not yet have had her morning latte? Or have slept more than a couple of hours last night?

The next two rejection reasons on our list — the story is not exciting enough to hold my interest and the story appears to be boring, respectively — are fairly self-explanatory on their faces, but usually refer to different types of text. A not exciting story is one where the characters are well-drawn and the situation is interesting, but either the stakes are not high enough for the characters or — wait for it — the pace moves too slowly.

On the bright side, having your story called not exciting by an agent is reason to be hopeful: if you tightened it up and made the characters care more about what was going on, it could be compelling reading. A boring story, on the other hand, is devoid of any elements that might hold a droopy screener’s interest for more than a paragraph or two.

Again, I doubt any of my readers produce boring stories, but it’s always worthwhile to run your submission under an impartial first reader’s eyes, just to make sure. The same diagnostic tool can work wonders for a not-exciting opening, too: there’s no better tonic for a low-energy opening than being run by a particularly snappish critique group.

Perhaps one that hasn’t had its morning latte yet, either. You might want to try scheduling your next meeting at 5 a.m.

The final three — too much repetition on pg. 1, taking too many words to tell the reader what happened, and the writing is dull — also respond well to input from a good first reader, writing group, or freelance editor. As we have discussed earlier in this series, agents have good reason to avoid redundant manuscripts: editors are specifically trained to regard repetition as a species of minor plague, to be stamped out like vermin with all possible speed.

Ditto with excess verbiage and lackluster writing: publishing houses issue those people blue pencils for a reason, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

The best way to determine whether your submission has any of these problems is –- please chant it with me now — to read your opening page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. If the page’s vocabulary isn’t broad enough, or if it contains sentences of Dickensian length, believe me, it will be far more evident out loud than on the printed page. Or on your computer screen.

I’m afraid that you’ll have to trust me on this one. I would give you some concrete examples, but I feel a well-deserved nap coming on. Keep up the good work!

Just what am I getting myself into? Part V: they’re not going to be mean to me, are they?

Does that high-pitched twanging I hear out there in the ether mean that subtitle struck a chord with some of you? Yes, yes, I know: for those of you who are gearing up to query for the first time — or working up nerve to start querying again after having been rejected, steeling yourselves to submit requested materials, or girding your emotional loins to head on out and give a verbal pitch — the question of how a real, live agent might respond to your polite little request can assume nightmare proportions.

How did I know about those middle-of-the-night tremors, you ask? A lifelong association with that peculiar species, the domestic writer, that’s how; we excel ourselves in psyching ourselves out. Who is better than a writer for fleshing out the contours of a vague fear into a mind-numbing horror story, after all?

Especially if one tends, as so many aspiring writers do, to view any individual agent not as a human being, full of personal quirks and individual tastes, but as Everyagent, a powerful soul whose singular opinion might as well be taken for speaking for an entire industry’s opinion on any given query, submission, or pitch.

If your dreams have been haunted by Everyagent, I have some good news for you: s/he doesn’t actually exist. Agents are individuals — often charming ones — with unique tastes, each of whom specializes in certain limited areas of the publishing industry. Although not all of them are graced with equally polished manners (especially if approached rudely or unprofessionally), the overwhelming majority do not take umbrage when approached by an aspiring writer with a project that does not interest them. At worst, most of them will just say no, and that will be that.

Again, what makes me so sure? One very, very simple reason: being nasty about it would take up too much of their busy days. Due to the incredibly high volume of queries the average agent receives, investing the time in a personalized mean response to even 10% would suck up hours that could be spent selling their clients’ books. Or reading current and prospective clients’ submissions. Or even, you know, having a life.

Oh, you smile, but you’re feeling better already, are you not?

The same holds true for pitching, incidentally — and that cheering you hear is the masses pacing the floors of their studios until they wear paths in their carpets as they ponder the perfect pitch. Yes, it’s terrifying to walk into a meeting with a real, live agent, but honestly, most of them are quite nice to pitchers. They may not say yes — in fact, most will not — but it’s seldom worth their energy to be genuinely unpleasant. (Would any of you planning to attend conferences soon like for me to go over how to write a pitch, by the way? I used to address it every summer, but conference season is much longer than it used to be: this year’s is starting right about now, I believe.)

The one great exception, equally applicable to approaching agents by mail, e-mail, or face-to-face: the writer who is pushy to the point of rudeness. This brash soul either hasn’t bothered to learn the rules of polite approach or doesn’t think they apply to him. (Usually because but I want so much to get this book published, a sentiment which, naturally, differentiates this guy from EVERY OTHER ASPIRING WRITER OUT THERE.) What does he do that’s so terrible? He calls agents out a clear blue sky, instead of querying; his e-mails contain sweet expressions along the lines of you’ll be sorry forever if you let this one pass you by and other threats; he queries the same agent over and over, with a tenacity that the average pit bull would envy; he argues with agents who say, “No, thank you.”

But my readership wouldn’t dream of acting in that manner, I’m convinced. All of you are far too nice — and have done your homework far too well — ever to do any of those things, right?

You should worry about the rude aspiring writer, though, because he actually does affect you: many of the hoops through which respectful writers need to jump in order to convince an agent to read their work were erected in order to keep him at bay. Rules against calling agents unless they call you first, for instance, or stern admonitions from conference organizers not to bug agents in the hallways. These are not designed to keep polite people like you at a distance; they’re intended to ward off the few and the rude.

I can feel some of you trembling already. Not to worry; if you follow the norms of the industry, you’re not going to offend an agent accidentally. (Unless you inadvertently mention you didn’t like a book you hadn’t realized she represented; again, doing your homework pays off.) Those contact restrictions work both ways, you know.

Yes, you did read that correctly: the querying, pitching, and submission rules protect the conscientious writer, too. So kudos to you for taking your writing seriously enough to learn the ropes.

Earlier in this series, I went over the three accepted means of bringing your book politely to an agent’s attention: querying, either by sending a letter via regular mail (the classic method), approaching by sending an e-mail (the newfangled method) or through the agency’s website (the least controllable), and verbal pitching (far and away the most terrifying. Today, I’m going to talk about the various possibilities of response to your query or pitch — which, you may be happy to hear, are relatively limited and very seldom involve anyone being overtly mean.

I heard that chortling, experienced pitchers and queriers: we’re talking overtly mean, not merely dismissive. There’s a big difference. And call me zany, but I find it hard to believe that the possibility of an agent’s being genuinely rude in response hadn’t occurred at least once to all of us before the first time we queried. So let’s pitch in, so to speak, to help those new to the game overcome those butterflies that seem to enjoy inhabiting the writerly stomach.

To those of you who have never queried or pitched before, I reiterate: the probability that an agent will say something nasty to you about your book at the initial contact stage is quite low. S/he may not say what you want him or her to say — which is, of course, “Yes! I would absolutely love to read the book you’ve just queried/pitched!” — but s/he is not going to yell at you.

At least, not if you’re polite in your approach and s/he is professional. At worst, s/he is going to say “No, thank you.”

But just so you’re prepared, rookies: pretty much every writer who has landed an agent within the last decade heard “No, thank you,” many, many times before hearing, “Yes, of course.” Ditto with virtually every living author who has brought a first book out within the last ten years. (At least the ones who were not already celebrities in another field; celebrities have a much easier time attracting representation. Yes, life is not fair; this is news to you?)

That’s just the way the game works these days. Translation: you should not feel bad if your first query does not elicit a positive response. Honestly, it would be unusual if it did, in the current market.

“Okay, Anne,” those of you about to query or pitch for the first time quaver, clutching your butterfly-filled tummies, “I’ll bite. If an agent isn’t likely either to go into raptures or to fly into an insult-spewing rage after reading a query letter or hearing a pitch, what is likely to happen?”

Glad you asked, butterfly-catchers. Let’s run through the most common possibilities.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been successful?
Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the query letter and pitch share a common goal: not to make the agent stand up and shout, “I don’t need to read this manuscript, by gum! I already know that I want to represent it!” but rather to induce her to ask to see pages of the manuscript. As we saw in the last couple of posts, those pages, along with anything else the agent might ask the writer to send (an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis) are known in the trade as requested materials.

So figuring out whether a query or pitch did the trick is actually very simple: if the agent requested materials, it was. Congratulations!

Enjoying this particular brand of success does not mean that a writer has landed an agent, however, it merely means that he’s cleared the first hurdle on the road to representation. Be pleased, certainly, but remember, asking to see your manuscript does not constitute a promise, even if an agent was really, really nice to you during a pitch meeting; it merely means that she is intrigued by your project enough to think that there’s a possibility that she could sell it in the current publishing market.

Stop averting your eyes, please: I’m quite serious about this. Remember, pitchers, a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation is at a conference, but a representation contract is a deal. Keep pitching and/or querying until the agent right for your work offers you the latter.

So send what he asks to see, of course, but keep querying other agents, just to hedge your bets. No matter how much you want (or, in the case of face-to-face pitching, like) a particular agent, it’s not in your best interest to grant an effective exclusive to any agent who hasn’t actually asked for it; unless you are dealing with an agency with an exclusives-only policy (which should be stated openly on the agency’s website and in its agency guide listing), most agents will simply assume they’re not the only one looking at a manuscript.

It’s up to you, of course. However, since turn-around times can be six months or more, even on an eagerly-solicited manuscript, waiting by the phone instead of dating around might not be the best strategy in the long term, if you catch my drift.

All that applies if the answer is yes. But how does one know if the answer is no?

If the agent decides not to request materials (also known as passing on the book), the query or pitch has been rejected. If so, the querier is usually informed of the fact by a form letter — or, in the case of e-mailed queries, by a boilerplate expression of regret. Because these sentiments are pre-fabricated and used for every rejection, don’t waste your energy trying to read some deeper interpretation into it; it just means no, thanks. (For more on the subject, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

Because pitching is done in person, agents often do give a reason if the answer is no. Often, the stated reason isn’t all that different from the reasoning typically found on a boilerplate rejection letter — I just don’t think I can sell that book in the current tough market; it doesn’t sound like the kind of book I represent; I might have been able to sell that story 2/5/20 years ago, but now… — but since it is considered quite rude to argue with an agent who has just said no to you, does it really matter why? Just thank the agent for his time, and walk away with dignity.

Whether the response is positive or negative, it will definitely not be ambiguous: if your query has been successful, an agent will tell you so point-blank. It can be a trifle harder to tell with a verbal pitch, since many agents don’t like watching writers’ faces as they’re rejecting them — which is one reason that a writer is slightly more likely to receive a request for materials from a verbal pitch than a written query, by the way — and will try to let them down gently.

They’re trying to be nice, you see. But again, there’s only one true test of whether a pitch or query worked: the agent will ask to see manuscript pages or a book proposal..

If you do receive such a request, congratulations! Feel free to rejoice, but do not fall into either the trap I mentioned above, assuming that the agent has already decided to sign you (he hasn’t, at this stage) or the one of assuming that you must print off the requested pages right away and overnight them to New York. Both are extremely common, especially amongst pitchers meeting agents for the first time, and both tend to get those new to submission into trouble.

Before you do anything, take a nice, deep breath. You will be excited, but that’s precisely the reason that it’s a good idea to wait at least a week to before pulling your requested materials packet together — or at least before sending it.

Why, you demand? It will give you enough time to calm down enough to make sure that you include everything the agent asked to see. It will also give you the opportunity to avail yourself of the in-depth advice under the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right.

Until that happy day, let’s talk about some other possible agently reactions.

What if a writer receives a response other than yes or no?
If you receive a response that says (or implies) that the agency requires writers seeking to be clients to pay for editorial services or evaluation before signing them to contracts, DO NOT SAY YES; instead, check with the agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, or Preditors and Editors to see if the agency is legit. You may also post a question on Absolute Write. (The last has a lot of great resources for writers new to marketing themselves, by the way.)

Why should you worry about whether an agency is on the up-and-up? Well, every year, a lot of aspiring writers fall prey to scams. Again, call me zany, but I would prefer that my readers not be amongst the unlucky many.

The main thing to bear in mind in order to avoid getting taken: not everyone who says he’s an agent is one — and it can be awfully hard to tell the real from the fake based upon a website alone. Some of the most notorious frauds have some of the most polished and writer friendly websites.

Scams work because in any given year, there literally millions of English-speaking writers looking to land an agent and get published, many of whom don’t really understand how reputable agencies work. Scammers prey upon that ignorance — and they can often get away with it, because in the United States, there are no technical qualifications for becoming an agent. Nor is there any required license.

Yes, really: it’s possible just to hang up a shingle and start taking on clients. Or rather, start asking potential clients to pay them fees, either directly (as in the notorious We don’t work like other agencies, but we require a paid professional evaluation up front dodge) or by referring writers to a specific editing service (i.e., one that gives the agency kickbacks), implying that using this service is a prerequisite to representation.

Reputable agents decide whether to represent a manuscript based upon direct readings; they do not require or expect other businesses to do it for them. Nor do they charge their clients up front for services (although some do charge photocopying fees). A legitimate agency makes its money by taking an agreed-upon percentage of the sales of their clients’ work.

If any so-called agent tries to tell you otherwise, back away, quickly, and consult the Association of Authors’ Representatives or Preditors and Editors immediately. (For a step-by-step explanation of how others have successfully handled this situation, run, don’t walk to the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Heck, if you’re not sure if you should pay a requested fee, go ahead and post a question in the comments here. I would much, much rather you did that than got sucked into a scam.

Better yet, check out any agent or agency before you query. It’s not very hard at all: the standard agency guides (like the Writers Digest GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the Herman Guide, both excellent and updated yearly) and websites like Preditors and Editors make it their business to separate the reputable from the disreputable.

Fortunately, such scams are not very common. Still, it pays to be on your guard.

What if a writer does not receive a response at all?
More common these days is the agency that simply does not respond to queries at all. Agencies that prefer to receive queries online seem more prone to this rather rude practice, I’ve noticed, but over the last couple of years, I’ve been hearing more and more reports from writers whose queries (or even submissions, amazingly) were greeted with silence.

In many instances, it’s actually become a matter of policy: check the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides to see if they state it openly. (For tips on how to decipher these sources, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

A complete lack of response on a query letter does not necessarily equal rejection, incidentally, unless the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says so explicitly. Queries do occasionally get lost, for instance; so do submissions.

The single most common reason a writer doesn’t hear back, though, is that the agency hasn’t gotten around to reading it yet. Be patient — and keep querying other agents while you wait.

Sensing a pattern here? There’s a good reason that I always urge writers to continue querying and pitching after an agent has expressed interest: it can take weeks or even months to hear back about a query, and an increasing number of agencies now reject queriers through silence. A writer who waits to hear from Agent #1 before querying Agent #2 may waste a great deal of time. Because agents are aware of this, the vast majority simply assume that the writers who approach them are also querying other agents; if they believe otherwise, they will say so on their websites or in their listings in agency guides.

What should a writer do if her query was rejected?
Again, the answer is pretty straightforward: try another agent. Right away, if possible.

What it most emphatically does not mean is that you should give up. Contrary to what virtually every rejected writer believes, rejection does not necessarily mean that the book concept is a poor one; it may just means that the agent doesn’t represent that kind of book, or that she just spent a year attempting to sell a similar book and failed (yes, it happens; landing an agent is no guarantee of publication), or that this book category isn’t selling very well at the moment.

The important thing to bear in mind is that at the query or pitching stage, the book could not possibly have been rejected because the manuscript was poorly written . The query might have been rejected for that reason, naturally, but it’s logically impossible for an agent to pass judgment on a manuscript’s writing quality without reading it.

One thing you should not do: once a writer received a formal rejection letter or e-mail, it’s considered rude to query or pitch that book project to the same agent again. (See why it’s so important to proofread your query?) At some agencies, that prohibition extends to all of the member agents; however, this is not always the case. Regardless, unless a rejecting agent actually tells a writer never to approach him again, a writer may always query again with a new book project.

Contrary to an apparently immortal rumor that’s been haunting the conference circuit for years, however, being rejected by one agency has absolutely no effect upon the query’s probability of being rejected by another. There is no national database, for instance, that agents check to see who else has seen or rejected a particular manuscript (a rumor I have heard as recently as two months ago), nor do agencies maintain databases to check whether they have heard from a specific querier before. If you’re going to get caught for re-querying the same agency, it will be because someone at the agency remembers your book project.

You really don’t want to tempt them by sending the same query three months after your last was rejected, though; people who work at agencies tend to have good memories, and an agent who notices that he’s received the same query twice will almost always reject it the second time around, on general principle. In this economy, however, it’s certainly not beyond belief that an agent who feels that he cannot sell a particular book right now may feel quite differently a year or two hence. And the individual Millicent who opened a query may well have moved on to pastures new by next year.

I leave the matter of whether to re-query to your conscience, along with the issue of whether it’s kosher to wait a year and send a query letter to an agent who didn’t bother to respond the last time around.

And there’s one thing that you should not do under any circumstances: try to talk the agent into changing his mind. If your query (or manuscript, for that matter) has been rejected, resist the temptation to contact the agent to argue about it, either in writing or by picking up the phone. It will only end in tears.

Why? I can tell you now that that no matter how good your argument is, you will not convince the agent that his rejection was a mistake. It will merely annoy him, and the last thing your book deserves is for the agent who rejected it to have a great story about an unusually obnoxious writer to tell at cocktail parties.

In answer to what you just thought: yes, they do swap Wow, That Writer Was Rude stories. Seldom with names attached, but still, you don’t want to be the subject of one.

The no-argument rule is doubly applicable for face-to-face pitching. It’s just not a fight a writer can win. Move on — because, honestly, the only thing that will genuinely represent a win here is your being signed by another agent.

It’s completely natural to feel anger at being rejected, of course, but bickering with or yelling at (yes, I’ve seen it happen) is not the most constructive way to deal with it. What is, you ask? Sending out another query letter right away. Or four.

Before you do, however, double-check that the next agent on your list — and the next, and the next — actually do represent your type of book. Typically, agents give their Millicents a list of criteria that a query must meet in order to be eligible for acceptance, including the single most common reason queries get rejected: pitching a type of book that the agent does not represent. There’s absolutely nothing personal about that rejection; it’s just a matter of fit.

Why, you ask? Read on.

Book categories and why they are your friends
No single agent represents every kind of book there is: like editors at publishing houses, they specialize. While this may seem frustrating or confusing to an aspiring writer new to the agent-seeking process, in the long run, it’s actually in the writer’s interest. As we saw a few days ago, agents sell their clients’ work by taking it to editors they know already to be interested in the subject matter or genre — and because they make money only if they can sell their clients’ work, it isn’t to their benefit to show a book to anyone who isn’t likely to publish it.

Rather than relying upon vague impressions about who likes what kind of book or time-consuming descriptions of every single book on offer, everyone in the publishing industry uses specific terms when discussing them. Each type of book has a one- or two-word description known in the publishing industry as a book category.

The people an agent knows at publishing houses who she is positive will be interested in the types of books she sells AND respect her opinion about writing enough to take her calls are known as her connections. The better an agent’s track record of selling a particular type of book, the better and more extensive her connections will be. Similarly, if an agency has a long history of selling a certain type of book, even junior agents there may reasonably be expected to have pretty good connections for it.

Thus the frequent appeal of a large and/or well-established agency over a small or newer one: when the agents enjoy good connections, it’s easier for them to slip a first-time author’s manuscript under the right pair of eyes. Everyone benefits.

However, good connections require agent specialization. The publishing industry is immense and complex; it would be impossible for even the best-established agent to have connections for every conceivable type of book. By concentrating upon just a few kinds of manuscript, then, an agent can concentrate upon his established areas of strength.

What does this mean for the average aspiring writer? Glad you asked.

Writers, too, are specialists, even ones like me who write several different types of book. However broad one’s interests and capacities might be, no one is going to write in every conceivable book category, right? Therefore, it’s in each writer’s interest to have his work represented not by just any old agent, but by one who shares his interests — and, more importantly, who already has the connections to sell his books.

In other words, specialists of a feather should flock together.

Agents are well aware of the substantial benefits of such an arrangement, which is why they are seldom reticent about the kinds of books they want. They will state the book categories they represent right on their websites, in their listings in the standard agency guides, and often in their biographical blurbs in writers’ conference brochures as well. So there’s no mystery to finding out who represents what: it’s usually as easy as a straightforward Google search or opening a book.

Benefiting from knowledge so obtained, however, requires that an aspiring writer be aware of the book category into which his book most comfortably fits. Select one that already exists, if you please, rather than just making one up. You should also pick just one, rather than stringing a few together into an unholy hyphenate like Mystery-Science Fiction-Romantica-Western.

Generally speaking, though, aspiring writers agonize far too much over making the right choice: just pick one. Remember, the goal here is not to cover every topic in the book, but rather to give your future agent and editor some indication of who is likely to buy your book and on which shelf at Barnes & Noble a reader might eventually find it.

It’s a technical designation, after all, not a synopsis. Think of it as the conceptual box that the agent of your dreams will want to unwrap.

Do be aware, too, that many categories overlap — fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground — so you may not find a perfect fit. That’s fine; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it.

If you live in the U.S. or Canada, a good place to start is by tracking down a recently-released paperback or trade paper book similar to yours and examining the back cover. Many publishers will display the book category in one of two places, in the upper-left corner:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

Actually, now that I’ve posted it, I notice that Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer) is listed in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (Seriously, it’s funny.)

The other common locale for a book category is in the box with the barcode:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since Jonathan Selwood’s THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (six rows’ worth of passengers on an airplane thought I was having some sort of fit because I was laughing so hard at one point; once I had fended off medical assistance and read the passage in question out loud, the flight attendants came running to find out what was wrong with all of us) partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, that seems rather appropriate.

I’m not sure if the photo will reproduce clearly enough for you to see it, but Mssr. Selwood’s book is designated merely as fiction. Counter-intuitively, this general-sounding moniker refers to something quite specific: novels for adults that do not fit into a genre designation. For all of you whose first thought upon my telling you that you would need to narrow down your complex 400-page book into a one- or at most two-word category choice, this might be a good selection.

It can be rather a pain to decide, admittedly, but once you have determined your book’s category, the hunt for an agent to represent it becomes substantially simpler: you don’t even need to consider approaching an agent who doesn’t represent your category. And why is that, veterans of last autumn’s Querypalooza?

If you shouted, “Because that would be a waste of my valuable querying or pitching time!” give yourself a gold star for the day. Since agents habitually represent only certain types of book, offering them another variety is only courting rejection.

Acceptance is what we want to court around here, right? Keep up the good work!