“Publishing is show business for shy people.”
A literary agent announced at Writer’s Workshop’s (now Jericho Writers) 2013 Getting Published Day in London. I thought, “Is this true? If so, how do we talk to people about the books we’ve spent years slaving over?” I was bombarded, in that one day conference, by a slew of information: how to craft an elevator pitch, ways to approach query letters, and making certain you reveal your story’s ending in your synopsis. The most compelling part was watching as my query letter was critiqued in front of a crowd of over a hundred unknown authors and a panel of four literary agents.
I quickly learned, after receiving wonderfully conflicting advice from all four agents and an author running the panel, that I need only listen to the agent’s advice who represents my genre. Going even further, I probably should only concentrate on advice from folks who actually champion writers, help them get better, and aren’t having a grumpy day in which they’re making flippant remarks. (Which, we’ve all seen to varying degrees online and at in-person publishing events.)
My hope today is to help you feel braver, more able to conceptualize your story’s marketability and understand that this is important work whether you’re heading into the turbulent waters of indie publishing or querying literary agents.
Whichever publishing route you take, you will:
- Have to talk to people about your work, particularly if you’re keen on having your work sell.
- Pitch yourself to events to be on panels, workshops, give book talks or readings. (If this terrifies you, ask yourself why and keep reading, as I have some tips!)
- Have to submit a type of query to bookshops, festivals and conferences, especially if it’s your debut year.
- Query literary agents if you’re seeking traditional publishing, or some select publishers that allow non-agented queries (which is becoming very rare).
- Query editors you’d like to collaborate with on your work, particularly if you’re ready for several stages of pro-edit before indie publishing.
Now, there are loads of other iterations of submissions for authors, but the above cover the main five that I see authors encountering at various stages of their careers, and numbers 1, 2 and 3 above are the most frequently repeating ones for folks already published. Before we get into the general querying advice for all walks of authors, let’s have a short conversation about fear. (Skip down below if you’re an intrepid author ready to sally forth.)
OVERCOMING THE FEAR OF PUTTING YOURSELF OUT THERE
A few questions to ponder and write answers to:
- What fears do I have about this process?
- Why am I afraid to put myself out there?
- What past experiences have made this process stressful or have made me avoidant of this stage of the process?
- What is another, more positive, healthy and holistic way of seeing my work?
It is natural to have doubts about your work, whether it is ready, whether you’re actually worthy of people lauding your work with praise when it comes out. It’s important to see not only the obstacles, but the possibilities and to write down what those possibilities might be. Go ahead and write them down now, or ponder this question over the course of the next several days: what is possible if I forge through or let go of my fear?
AN APPROACH TO QUERYING (in general)
Talk with a friend, colleague or editor who has read your book and critiqued it from a professional lens. If you’re having trouble creating a short pitch (one sentence or approximately 25 words) or longer pitch (3-6 sentences or paragraph length), you need to collaborate with someone who has read your work and is invested in you as an artist. (Both of these things are really important!) Collaboration is one of the best ways of seeing your work in new light, of distilling down the saleable features of your book while also focusing on where the main character (s) journey (s) are starting. If you have two POVs, you’ll likely also need two paragraphs, but there are exceptions, of course, if an agent asks for just one pitch paragraph.
QUERYING GENERAL GUIDELINES FOR FICTION (& MEMOIR)
There’s loads of advice floating around about writing query letters. It’s enough to make your head spin. However, there are basics that are good to grasp. I’ll go over them in my workshop next week on February 14. If you’re eager to have your work featured (name & identifying information remove) and live edited at the workshop, here are some basics that are great rules of thumb (culled from conversations with dozens of literary agents):
Query letter components:
- Connect paragraph, which includes:
- Why you’re writing-met at conference, requested, referral, read about-keep very brief and professional. (I’ll share some funny stories at the workshop!)
- Your work’s genre
- Word count
- Elevator pitch
- At least two recent (in the last 5-10 years) comparison titles
- Pitch paragraph (s)-if you have two POV characters you might need two paragraphs, memoirists usually need two paragraphs here as well:
- Hook-a compelling sentence or question centered in your character’s reality
- Stakes of at least two major characters + world-building or primary situation
- A final large stake to round-off (sometimes posed as a question) and energize the agent to want to read on and find out what happens (like you’ll often see with the final sentence of well-written book blurbs)
- Your bio/background
- 3 sentences max, unless you’re writing memoir
- Any awards won, degrees or experience related to the genre you’re writing in, if relevant-keep professional and brief
- Polite closure, which includes your contact details (phone and e-mail)
- Double-check your phone and e-mail are accurate, you’d be surprised how many agents try to contact an author only for neither to be correct.
You might ask: this feels so vague! And, you’re right, without having an incisive edit of your particular query letter there are so many variances and nuances that this blog alone cannot answer, which is why I’m teaching a donation-based live-edit workshop where folks can get affordable feedback on their work and better understand how their genre is treated in a query letter and/or author submission materials, if you’re published.
The important thing to keep in mind is that if you really spend the time on crafting a pitch that captures your book’s marketable elements, and also read-up (Publisher’s Weekly and Jane Friedman’s Hot Sheet are great resources) on what is being sold and how it’s being marketed, including taking a look at jacket copy, you’ll get a sense and rhythm regarding how story is distilled.
Is this not something you enjoy doing? That’s okay! Pay a professional or do a trade with an author you trust to whip your letter into shape.
Why does this matter? It is sometimes the first thing an agent reads before deciding if they’ll dive into your pages. But, every agent is different. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach here!
That leads us into…drumroll…talking about pitching yourself as a published, or soon to be published author.
PUBLISHED AUTHORS: SUBMITTING YOURSELF FOR EVENTS
I remember attending an SCBWI event for published and listed authors. It was massively helpful, but also felt like I was receiving information via a firehose. There was no way I could implement all of their suggestions and also hold down my full-time job as an editor. You might feel the same way and that’s okay.
When deciding what events, workshops, panels, conferences, signings or community events to pitch yourself for, it’s important to be aware of your bandwidth. If you’ve already published one book, you know what it’s like to burn out on the “I have to do this, otherwise my book won’t sell” bandwagon. Go ahead and give yourself permission to do what you have the emotional and physical capacity for. There are authors who do very few in-person events, and that’s okay, but they have to have to think of other ways of getting the word out about their book, because bookselling still remains very much a word-of-mouth marketplace, even if social media would like to make us think otherwise.
GUIDELINES FOR PITCHING YOURSELF
- Connect-establish how you’re familiar with this organization, if you met anyone from it, if they requested you contact them. It’s okay if it’s a “cold call,” but any connection does help.
- Be specific on what you have to offer + your recent history of book credentials.
- Include a review quote or two
- An award, if applicable
- Recent press on you as an author or presenter
- Link to your website + a video where you’re being interviewed or have had video press in some form (it’s okay if you don’t have this yet, but look for opportunities). The reason this is important-it allows them to see you almost in 3D without having to meet you in person.
- Attachment-author sheet or book release. (I’ll show a few samples in my workshop & have a few also in this existing workshop.)
Create a few templates, based on the types of events you enjoy attending, so you’re not reinventing each document for each submission. Your first few submissions will take awhile, but after that you’ll have a working template to extrapolate from.
- If they ask for specific things, make yourself a list (I’ll show in my upcoming workshop how to do this) that you can tick off. Too many authors make the mistake of not following what’s asked for and it can burn bridges faster than you might realize.
Keep in mind that folks reviewing pitches for events, media, etc..are often as time strapped as you are, possibly more. They have full inboxes and want to be able to quickly assess if you’re a good fit. Keep communication simple, polite and informative.
DEALING WITH REJECTION
At all stages of your author career you are going to receive rejection. I wish I could tell you otherwise. You might be one of the lucky few who has not had a lot of rejection. I hope you stay on the winning streak for as long as possible. For the rest of us, it’s a daily part of our lives. What do we do?
- Talk to a friend. Do not wait until you’re the death grips of crippling anxiety, writer’s block, or something unmentionable that feels like it’s keeping you from being able to create. Just eight minutes talking to a friend can really lift you out of the depths of despair that can come with rejection.
- Make sure you have at least one writer friend who is also querying/submitting themselves for events. Talk about the challenges, your mindset, and be analytical. Agree to support each other and to never be competitive. When one of you wins, you both win. (You can share things you’re experiencing so the other is more prepared when their win comes around!)
- Do something that brings you joy. For me, that’s getting a hug from a loved one, dancing, singing, and cleaning/organizing something that’s long overdue. If I’m really in the doldrums, I need to buy myself something that won’t produce guilt later. A smoothie, notebook, or book I’ve been craving always make me feel like I’m giving back to myself when it feels like something has been taken away from me without my control.
- Focus on what’s in your control. Don’t fiddle with your submission materials until you’ve got around 20 rejections (for unagented authors). For published authors, give it around 10 rejections and talk to an author friend, making sure they can see your materials and give you pointers on where you might need to tweak things. If you have the funds, hire a pro to help you with not only what you’re submitting, but also analyzing your strategy in your submissions.
- Acknowledge what is not in your control!
- Avoid social media advice from folks who haven’t been in the trenches for awhile, or who are being disparaging or fickle with authors.
# 6 is especially important, because weekly I hear from authors who are being driven mad by very conflicting advice from industry professionals or on social media, or even folks who ought to know better. Gut check anything that feels fishy, but also reach out to trusted pros who care deeply about authors. Don’t get sucked into a scam or situation unwittingly.
If you’re just getting started in this process, I highly recommend the following trusted industry folks who will definitely not lead you astray: