I recently attended two conferences in which aspiring authors were invited to pitch to professional faculty. I've seen the results before - the dreams that were dashed too early in a writer's career. So at the Missouri Writer’s Guild conference we invited only faculty that were serious about acquiring, but who were also kind. That meant if the work was not ready, the editors and agents were easy to let the person down. We held two tracks - an adult literature track and a children’s literature track. The children’s literature track ran over by 90 minutes because the faculty were teaching, mentoring and explaining to the authors how to better polish or approach their work. (I told you I know nice people.) But the truth of the matter as I sat listening through weekend sessions is that people pitch with high hopes of being discovered, but with low chances of being acquired because they’re not ready. A pitch is not the same as a polished manuscript.
Here's what I’ve learned from these thirteen years of writing - with much of my own drafts tucked away unsubmitted because they had not yet found their true "voice".
1. An “idea” is not a finished product. There are a lot of people with great titles, great beginnings, or great ideas. But that’s not the same as a commercially viable project. If you are planning to submit, rather than self-publish, then look at what’s on the market and get a feel for where you fit - both in terms of product, and in terms of execution.
Publishers exist to make a profit. They acquire what is marketable and well written. Don’t pitch before you learn the business and refine what you have. Don’t submit until you’ve read 100 books in your genre to learn the formatting, pacing, plotting and the art of dialogue and character development (even in something as short as a picture book). It is very exciting to have pitch opportunities. Even more exciting to get a submissions request. But use them for practice if allowed. 99% of the people who pitch aren’t ready. Be in the 1% who are. Trust me, that will catch the editor or agent off guard in a good way.
2. Understand what you wrote: A picture book concept is completely different from a chapter book or novel concept. The word counts, word choices and target audience are different. I hear a lot of people tell me they imagine a “parent” will read this to a child, while writing a picture that is 5,000+ words. No. That’s not going to happen. And a publisher isn’t going to buy that. Also, know the genre. Did you write a fantasy? Narrative nonfiction? Is your work better suited for the school and library market? Mass market? Trade market? Make sure you do the research first.
At the state conference a gentleman was dejected to know he’s pitched a picture book as a “Young Adult” project. He was an adult literature writer and didn’t know the terminology. So he thought “Young Adult” meant pre-K to elementary because in his area of the country children are often affectionately referred to as young adults. So he left, energized, to know he received some information from nice people who didn’t hold the error against him. And it saved him from sending out work to publishers under the wrong assumption.
3. Finish first: An editor or agent might LOVE the concept for your book, but in the end, the only thing that matters is the execution of that idea. Great works of art were produced over time. If you can honestly say you have not put months of full-time work into your submission and it has gone through multiple drafts, don’t pitch yet. It’s probably not fully baked and needs a few more weeks/months in the oven. Like a soufflé, the piece will “fail” if served too soon.
4. Target your submission. Everyone loves pitching but never think - is this the right publisher or editor for my work? A children’s publisher once told me he got “adult content” submitted to his house. People open up the Writer’s Market and submit to every publisher in the book. It was simultaneously a sad and hilarious story. I once submitted a funny picture book to an editor that only edited nonfiction. I asked the head of the publishing house how I would know. She said it was part of the process. To publicize the information about what editors look for and who edits what would cause their slush piles to grow exponentially. But to submit to editors who aren’t the right fit could cost you months and months of delay trying to find the right one.
If you don’t know who to target: check out a lot of books from the library (that helps books stay in circulation). Follow editors and agents on Twitter, look at acknowledgements in books you love, attend conferences where specific editors are speaking. DO NOT talk about your book. Talk about the business. Ask insightful questions having nothing to do with your book (because most can smell a thinly veiled pitch from miles away). Be seen as a professional so publishers know you’re serious and in it for the long haul. Your first book might not sell, but sometimes publishers will show interest in the author behind the work and ask to see something else. At Missouri Writers Guild I watched someone pitch a not-quite-ready project but the panel so loved the energy and the spirit of the author they all asked to see more of her work, even though they passed on the current project.
6. Have the proper attitude. At the conference we had an individual tell us he didn't have time for the full conference. He just wanted the pitch opportunity. I watched carefully as he strode in with his manuscript. And saw the look on his face - angry - when he left. What I figured out is that he thought he'd written the next blockbuster. He didn't think he needed to attend the workshops taught by those same faculty where he could learn the common mistakes and polish his manuscript and submit AFTER the event. Experience is often the best teacher - but it won't always deliver the answer you anticipate.
On the other hand, a young man flew in from another state who was almost ready to give up. My husband gave him a lift back to the airport. We got a nice note afterward saying he learned so much from the workshops over the course of the weekend, as well as how rejection is part of the process, and went home with renewed energy. That's the attitude editors and agents look for. Be humble, and learn what you don't know before you pitch and you'll make an editor's day.
5. Do not ask an experienced author for mentoring, clues, short cuts or personal recommendations to their editors/agents. It is perfectly fine to talk about the industry. Explain what roadblocks you’re facing. But inevitably asking authors to mentor you (rather than wait to be asked) is tantamount to asking your Doctor to mentor you because you want to skip the time and expense of medical school and just get to the “good part.” Most of us have been helped by those farther up the chain and we’re happy to pass it forward. But with the birth of word processing and the increased access to self-publishing the number of people trying to break into the market has exploded, as have the emails from strangers asking for help. Published authors are not a substitute for primary research. Your best mentors are on the shelves of a library or bookstore. Know the industry before you dive in. It will save your life once you’re in the deep side of the pool. Better - it will help you get there faster. Ask questions only when you’ve gotten stuck after hundreds of hours of research, conference attendance, and even more hours of writing and reading.
Writing is joyful. But not for the faint of heart. Before you attend Pitchpalooza’s and writing conferences with opportunities to pitch, or even online opportunities through Twitter and other forums - be smart and be ready. Polish before you pitch. Then go forward and godspeed!
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