Friday, November 2, 2012

Countdown to a Book 2: Pitching

This just in from Sourcebooks: I have a title and pub date! My novel, The Art of Falling, will be released in January, 2014.

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’ll never forget my first novel pitch in 2001, for Novel #1. I didn’t yet understand the market I was writing for so had trouble choosing the right agent. So I pitched instead to a Penguin editor. A very patient editor. Eight minutes into my nonstop plot recap I sensed the air in the room had taken on an arctic chill. Truth was, I had no clue about how to deliver a concise pitch.

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.


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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.


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24 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Wow, Kathryn, what a trip! I see some valuable lessons here for all who want to go the traditional publishing route.

    1. LISTENING. You paid attention to agents' reactions and took appropriate action to improve your novel and your presentation.

    Several years ago, I worked with a writer who asked for a sample edit. Her manuscript smacked of amateur writing, so I provided her with an edited (aka much more professional) version of a few pages. Her response? "I like my story just the way it is. I'm not going to change a thing." Last I heard, she still hadn't found a traditional publisher.

    2. PERSISTENCE. You didn't give up. Going the traditional publishing route can be — and most often is — a time-consuming process. You accepted that challenge and trudged forward with your goal firmly in mind.

    3. PATIENCE. We humans are an impatient lot. Instant gratification is the name of our game, and we rush helter-skelter toward that elusive (non-existent) goal of success NOW.

    You, on the other hand, moved ahead one step at a time, modifying, adjusting, testing the agent waters, and waiting for the responses.

    4. EGO. From a professional perspective, our books are not our babies. We don't have to defend them against a world that finds them less than perfect.

    Humility (the willingness to accept criticism and make changes that address shortcomings) plays a huge role in reaching our desired goal. Sometimes that begins with an honest look in the mirror. Are we first and foremost looking for kudos? "Wow, this is the best book I've ever read!" "You're going to end up on the NYT bestseller list for sure." "I know at least three publishers who will be bidding against each other for the rights to this book." "You're going to be a very wealthy writer." Get real. J.K. Rowling's experience is NOT the norm. Chances are hair-thin to none that this is going to happen to you.

    Your professional attitude obviously matched your desire to write a book that readers will buy and enjoy. Your response to verbal and written feedback shows that you are a trooper with a true author's heart — you want your book to be the best it can be. Kudos for Kathryn didn't play into the process.

    Now, about those questions. I have no desire to go the traditional route, so I have none. However, I applaud your willingness to share your experience with others and perhaps save them a lot of time and disillusionment in traveling the maze that leads to traditional publication. Kudos to you — even though you're not looking for them! :-)

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  3. I must admit, I don't remember my first pitch. Not really. I think I've conveniently forgotten it. I believe rambling may have been involved.

    I do remember my most recent humiliating pitch experience but more so because it was completely misconstrued by the agent.

    I attend so many conferences and noticed that I saw many new agents sitting alone and looking bored while established agents were getting tons of folks signing up for pitches.

    To try and welcome them, if I notice there are a lot of open slots, I'll sign up to talk to the agent and introduce myself, say hi, and offer to be of assistance.

    Well, the last time I did this, the agent thought this was a,as he put it, "Pity party".

    Shocked, I stammered, "No. I just wanted to be sure you were welcomed."

    He insisted on knowing what I had recently written so I told him and then I made the huge mistake of telling him the pieces were already out with several agents and editors. That really seemed to infuriate him.
    Ugh.
    I wish I could take those moments back.

    I can completely see why my effort would be perceived as a "Pity Party", especially by someone new to agenting so now I'm a bit reluctant to sign up with new agents again.

    This said, if you are pitching to agents, don't discount the newbies. They are often amazing resources and they became agents because they love books. Hopefully they will love yours as well.

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  4. My first pitch was a stammering mess. My story was about a single father who never intended to be a father. I'd worked up a great hooky tagline about condom failure rates. Except I was so nervous, the agent stopped me and asked, "Wait, cotton balls have an efficiency percentage?"

    Luckily, she was great about it. We laughed. I started over. She informed me my novel wasn't actually finished, gave me some great tips, and didn't just kick me out after the pitch died. She took the rest of the appointment time to tell me things about what agents see as warning flags and gave some great suggestions to tighten up the manuscript.

    Eventually I took the novel to small-press, and it was published. And I'm grateful to people like her for helping me get there.

    Sometimes, a terrible pitch experience sets you down a good path!

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  5. The long, personal rejections are sometimes the best gifts! I do have to challenge this idea of appealing to more than "just" the women's market. 51% of the population in a country of over 300M - that's a pretty large audience. In self-publishing, the best money is to be made in very narrow markets. I think Berkley Prime Crime had raging success with their crafts-based cozy mysteries which clearly appeal to a very small segment of female readers.

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  6. Linda: Great tag-teaming here! I share my personal hell, and you point out the lessons, lol!

    A couple things helped my Persistence and Patience.

    1) I reframed "rejection" to mean "I don't know how to sell this project." If the agent doesn't know how to sell it, they aren't the right agent for you! As you said, it's not about kudos. The agent is a business associate meant to bring results.

    2) I controlled what I could control and surrendered the rest. If I kept improving my book and stayed in the game, I'd get published eventually—it was the "when" I couldn't control.

    3) I loved my characters so that I wouldn't stop short of breathing them fully into existence. This kept my eye on the goal and loving the journey.

    Thanks for your great comment!

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  7. Lisa: No doubt about that rambling! That's a shame about your most recent experience. I agree though that young agents—especially those at an established agency, as I'll cover in a future post—are a great place to focus your submission efforts! I guess the take-away from your experience is that we shouldn't worry about trying to make them feel welcome.

    That said, you remind me of a great tip I picked up along the way: how to salvage an unwelcome pitch. If you pitch and find out the agent no longer handles your genre, or likes mommy lit but no miscarriages such as those at the crux of your plot, ask if they'll give you feedback on your pitch and recommend someone else who might be better suited. A lot of these agents know one another and are often happy to help.

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  8. JM that's a great story, thanks for sharing it! I'll bet you made that agent's day just by allowing the laughter. Sometimes we forget that they're people, too! And good for you for listening to the advice given.

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  9. Dani: Leave it to a fellow editor to call me on the one place where I feared I hadn't been clear! But I'm glad for the opportunity to try again.

    While it might seem counterintuitive, my point is that it's easier to sell your own work if you have a niche market of some sort. When your potential audience is as large as half the world, and limited only by those readers who relate to your sensibilities, it's harder to target your audience. That's when wide distribution comes in handy. Make more sense?

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  10. Maybe, Kathryn. But it's uncharted territory with changes in publishing. Source Books might give you a big upfront surge, but for a short period of time. You have to ride the wave, and then afterwards is up to you, which is when you might start imagineering those niche markets to promote to on a more personal level. (Bunch of bad conversational grammar there, but tough;) BTW, I love the title. Did I already say that? Can't wait to read more about your journey - love this new monthly feature!

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  11. I agree with what you say here Dani, absolutely. But that broad initial reach will allow some word-of-mouth to start the ball rolling. Of course I already have a marketing plan that identifies some of those niches.

    Why? One agent I pitched to requested this. Most people I tell this to grumble about the notion—a few even said they'd never tell an agent their marketing plan because "they're just trolling for ideas to steal, and that's their job." Ha! I'm thankful, and believe all people who are starting to think about selling a novel should do the same!

    Writing is for creative artists, but publishing requires us to be business people as well, as you often point out here.

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  12. I often hear the question, 'who is your audience?' ... the only answer I can come up with is 'me' ... I write stuff I would read, so I guess it's folks like me ... usually, the next thing I hear is, 'next'.

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  13. Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Kathryn. I'm sure we all have similar experiences. And I agree with you Linda, about listening and persistence, patience and ego! Good discussion!

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  14. Christopher: I guess you have to figure out how to market to a guy just like you!

    Thanks Heidi!

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  15. Kathryn, oh laughing with tears and cringing for you from that first pitch! But what a stalwart force you are to truck on, eat humble pie and LEARN - really learn what you needed to do to mold your talent and understand what your novel was truly about.
    And it's been worth all the effort, as the world can see.

    No dragons? How about a YA about dancing dragons with dainty feet obsessed with mastering the plie but end up being more suited for the tango? :)

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  16. Donna: And you say you can't write a synopsis, lol! About my pitching, let's just say there was nowhere to go but up! But then again, that IS the preferred direction, right?

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  17. So funny! I had to tweet the link.

    I think there is nothing more dangerous than a full page synopsis. That's just a starting point to get it shorter --and should never be spoken out loud -- like Valdemort!

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  18. Kelly: So true! Author Molly Cochran always used to ask what a story was about then hold up her hand and say, "But don't tell me the plot." It took me a few years of studying story structure until I understood what she was talking about! In recent years my pitches took about 2 minutes to deliver, and after I received the request to send the manuscript, we had a breezy eight minutes remaining to chat.

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  19. Great post. And very inspirational, as well as informative. Loved it.

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  20. I don't suppose I can get away with saying I purposely wanted a humiliating end to a humiliating post, can I?

    Thank you Dani! I have a writing friend named Ginger. I hope this is the first and last time I'll do that! My humble apologies, Helen!

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  21. Thank-you for your very helpful blogs!!! I am taking note - my first pitch coming up soon!!

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  22. Yes Deborah I recognize your name from the Women's Memoir group on LinkedIn. Good luck with your pitch and let me know how it goes!

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