During the decade I pitched my novels at conferences and queried over the transom, the publishing world changed in significant ways. A growing number of fellow writers who started down the path to traditional publication beside me decided instead to pursue self-publishing alternatives. That can work for nonfiction authors who sell their books at talks they give, or for novelists who benefit from a ready-made genre audience.
My writing, however, seemed to sit pretty squarely in a genre that would come to be known as “upmarket women’s fiction,” also known as “literary fiction with commercial appeal” or “book club fiction.” Problem is, the majority of novel purchasers are women. In time, and with considerable thought, I was only able to narrow my target audience down to “most people who read and buy books.” The feedback I received from the 113 agents I contacted, who all stated an interest in women's fiction, affirmed my notion that only personal taste would define my true readership.
It was clear: I would need a wide distribution to find my audience. To obtain that, I would need a traditional book deal.
I finally summed up: “It’s a mythical journey.”
“Oh,” she said, knitting her blonde eyebrows. “There are dragons?”
“No!” I broke into a cold sweat. The last precious seconds ticked away. “I mean it’s a mythic journey.”
“Sounds like it might be YA?”
“Did I leave out the part about the brutal rape?”
She slid her card across the table and said most kindly—as if to someone with brain damage—“Just send me the first 50 pages. Some projects can be hard to encapsulate.”
I did not revel in this first invitation to send pages. In fact I never sent them. Humiliation had delivered a potent lesson: after completing only one draft, I still had no real sense of this novel. It would be a year until I pitched again.
Over the course of the following years, and as I began pitching Novel #2, I noticed something interesting happening: as I improved the structure of my novel, making sure I raised the right questions in the reader’s mind, I got better at synopsizing and pitching. My query letter got better. Saying less evoked more.
I had a 100% success rate at obtaining invitations to send manuscripts at in-person pitch sessions, and at least one out of ten written queries resulted in an invitation to send more. My rejection notes got longer and more personal. A couple of agents even spoke with me by phone, encouraged me to revise, urged me on. I felt I was getting closer and couldn't bear to quit.
Then came the turning point. At the 2010 Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, I pitched novel #2—interestingly enough to an editor at Berkley, an imprint at Penguin.
This time I was ready, and doors started to open.
Any questions about how to pitch to agents and editors, how to write query letters, or how to write synopses? I have hard-won experience from the school of hard knocks to share, so ask away. In my next installment I’ll reveal how I found my agent.
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her article, "The 7 Deadly Sins of Self-Editing," co-written with Janice Gable Bashman, is in the current Nov/Dec issue of Writer's Digest. Her monthly series, "Countdown to a Book," details the traditional publication of her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks in January 2014. Her essay Memoir of a Book Deal tells the larger story while also serving as a primer on story structures. To follow her writing please "Like" her Facebook Author Page. She follows back most writers on Twitter.