Monday, March 29, 2010

Pitch Session Feedback: How NOT to impress a publisher

Let's talk about how to hurt yourself in a pitch.

Natalie Hanemann made this comment that every author should write out, stick on their computer, and refer to before sending out any piece of correspondence to an editor:

Publishers are looking for authors they can partner with.

A pitch session, even more than a query letter or proposal, is going to give that publisher the sense of how easy you are to work with. I already talked about the importance of reading the instructions and following the guidelines, practicing and polishing your pitch. These are the basics for any writer-editor relationship. Today, let's get into some nitty-gritty about professional attitude.

1. You are offering a product to a publisher; they are not providing a service to you. It is up to you to make sure your product is the highest quality you can make it and that it fits their needs. If you don't want to compromise and revise, then there are "independent publishers" and presses out there who are glad to publish your book for a fee.

2. Don't assume the publisher will be so impressed by you they will make an exception to their practices. They are not going to accept books outside their established genres or topics; they are not going to bend their guidelines to suit their needs. No matter how impressive you are, there are hundreds or thousands of authors out there with equally quality stuff that does meet their needs and specifications. Unless you are a major celebrity, don't expect special treatment.

3. Be patient with the process. We had one person who was in a hurry; however, he kept jumping the gun and moving back and forth between the two rooms, which only delayed the process more and added to the frustration of the group at large.

4. Don't expect the publisher to follow a link.
In one pitch, the person gave a link and then asked the publisher to refer to it while they posted their pitch. Fortunately, this publisher was savvy enough to be able to open two windows. However, many don't know how to do this. Further--the point is to sell them with what you offer there.

Incidentally, I saw an interview with an agent who said a pet peeve of his was e-queries that thought a website link was a good substitute for a well-done bio. "I don't have time to follow a bunch of links." You may offer it as "For more information..." but you must sell with what they see in the letter.

5. Don't get presumptuous. Just because you have the chance to pitch, does not mean you've gotten a contract.

One author asked in pitch if he could point out key insights in case the publisher "had to read the manuscript too fast." It doesn't matter how politely you try to word this, it still comes off insulting. First of all, the publisher had not accepted the manuscript or given any indication that they were interested. Second, how rude is it to assume that a publisher needs to be hand-held through the reading? Third, if you need to point out insights for the reader, then you have failed to make them clear in the text.

6. Don't get insulted by suggestions. Many of our publishers used some of the pitch time to give advice to those people whose manuscripts they didn't want or which they could tell needed some work. Most people took these with good grace. One person became irate at the thought that the publisher could suggest revision when they hadn't even read the book.

First, almost all manuscripts need revision. Second, this was a previously-published book written decades ago--the market and audience expectations have changed. Third, it's the editor's job to recognize problems in plot, approach, and audience. We had one author last year who told us her five minutes talking with a publisher gave her more insights into her story than hours with a paid (non-publisher) editor. These people know their business. And the publisher in question is one of the top in the field.

We had some issues with this in the critique groups, too. One person feeling she was torn apart; another arguing with the critique giver. None of our editors are there for a glory trip. They are genuinely trying to help. (Incidentally, the person who felt ripped apart is a new writer. She shared her concerns with us privately--the right way to handle the problem. Then, after she calmed down, she considered the critique and saw the editor's POV. Crits can hurt, but that's how a pro handles it.)

7. Keep your cool!
You can harbor all these attitudes in your heart, but if you let them take control of you in the pitch and lose your temper, you have burned a bridge. Don't scold or insult your editor--or the conference organizers who got you this opportunity. This more than any other mistake is going to hurt you the most.

Two things I want to add about conferences:

1. If you are pitching for a conference, don't pressure the coordinators to "use their contacts" to get you something or to make exceptions for you. Even if we are friends with the editors and agents in question--and usually we are not--we want to maintain a professional relationship.

2. If you don't plan to attend the conference outside of the pitch session, then don't bother. There are other people who are serious about learning about the craft who deserve the opportunity.

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