Yes! Look, you can’t call up HarperCollins and say, “Hello! I’ve written a great book, could I please speak to Mr. Harper or Mr. Collins?” If you’re an unknown quantity, and you aren’t sleeping with someone at a literary agency–or even if you are, in some cases–it’s virtually impossible to get face time with a publishing professional, be it an agent, editor, or publisher. Your blind query is usually dropped with a plop into the slop of the dreaded and aptly named slush pile, where it is then skimmed over by an eighteen-year-old unpaid intern. The fate of your book, the object of your passion and hard work, is frightfully beyond your control. Luckily, at the best writers conferences and workshops, and even some of the top-drawer bookfairs and festivals, you can personally meet, speak with, and sometimes even pitch to real publishing professionals. We know. We’ve met amazing writers at all of these places and helped them get book deals.
“I’d already begun the pitch process by mail and email, and it felt like yelling into the void most of the time,” recalls Roxanna Elden, whose experiences looking for an agent to represent her first book are all too typical. “There were agents who took six months to respond to emails, and one who asked me to send a hard copy of the manuscript overnight, then rejected me weeks later with a one-line, all-lowercase email that said something like, ‘love the title but not for me sorry.'”
Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu thought they had won the lottery when they almost immediately landed an agent. Their agent shopped their proposal to a dozen big New York City publishers and one by one they were rejected. “Soon after,” Nura explained, “our agent dumped us because she no longer had faith in the project.”
Roxanna, Nura, and Ayesha knew they needed to get in front of professionals. Roxanna signed up for Miami Writers Institute, an annual conference at Miami Dade College. There, she attended a talk by agent Rita Rosenkranz. “By this time, I had perfected my pitch and built my platform and had some idea of what I hoped to find in an agent. Then, in her talk, Rita mentioned that many agents wrongly ignore books for niche markets, which my first book was. She also said she was looking for authors who showed the willingness to hustle to promote their work. Everything she said made her seem like an incredibly good fit for my work. I walked up to her after the talk, handed her my card, and emailed her as fast as I could. She answered my email within 24 hours… and still does!” Rita went on to sell not only Roxanna’s first book, See Me After Class, but also her children’s picture book, Rudy’s New Human.
Nura and Ayesha took themselves to Litquake, San Francisco’s biggest literary festival. They signed up for an event we do around the country called Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books), and they won an introduction to an agent or editor who was appropriate for their book, Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. One call later, they had a book deal. “A year later, our book was published and we were on the front page of the New York Times Arts section. And, two years later, we had a follow up book, Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex & Intimacy!”
But just attending a writers conference, workshop, or book festival is no guarantee of a book deal. How you present yourself (and to whom) matters as much as your idea and your book. You have to pick the right agent or editor. Present yourself as a complete package. Seize every opportunity at just the right moment.
Lana Krumwiede, whose attendance at the James River Writers Conference helped land her first book deal for Just Itzy, advises, “Be as prepared as possible by researching the agents, editors, and authors who will be speaking. You’ll get more out of the conference that way and you’ll feel more confident talking to people. Get out there and talk to people! Ask (appropriate) questions and take in as much as you can. And if you have an appointment with an editor or an agent, don’t fall into the trap of thinking of it as your ‘one big chance.’ There is no such thing as ‘one big chance.’ You will have as many chances as you create for yourself.”
Victoria Skurnick, a literary agent at Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency, has this advice for first-time attendees, “There are ways to an agent’s heart at conferences for writers. The first is–be normal. This is harder for some people than you might have thought. The second, be helpful. The people who provided me with a club soda when they noticed my voice cracking, who offered to pick me up and drive me to a dinner far away–I will be grateful to them for the rest of my life.”
We agree. Here are our top ten tips for scoring at a writers conference, workshop, or bookfair.
The Book Doctors Top 10 Tips for Scoring at a Writers Conference, Workshop or Bookfair
- Look good, smell good, and don’t be late. Pretend you’re a guest on The Today Show–act and dress accordingly.
- Be respectful of publishing professionals. Don’t just blast over and bombard them. Be patient, wait for your opening. Never pitch your book unless they ask you to, and if they do, don’t go longer than a minute. And please, we beg you, don’t follow them into the bathroom! This has happened to us more times than we care to remember.
- Listen more than you talk. Your goal should not be to pitch at all costs. Better to have a good conversation where you get to know an editor or agent.
- Research! Make sure the event caters to the kind of book you’re selling. Make note of who is presenting, and plan your approach for whom you want to meet. Sign up early. The most valuable conferences, classes, and one-on-one sessions fill up fast.
- How do you get to perform at Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. The same is true with pitching books. Workshop your pitch whenever possible. Tell everybody who will listen, honing your delivery so the pitch lasts less than a minute. Try rehearsing with other conference attendees. All this extra effort will have a make-or-break effect on an agent or editor.
- Have an excellent business card and don’t be afraid to use it. Collect as many cards as you can.
- After the event, follow up all leads as quickly as possible. Early birds strike while the iron is hot.
- Network! Meet as many fellow writers as possible. These encounters can blossom into all sorts of relationships. You never know who will be published one day.
- Buy books written by people you want to approach. Ask them to sign the book for you if they are willing. Use this as an informal opportunity to make a connection.
- Connect! Do something nice for booksellers, agents, editors, writers, and publishing professionals using social media. If done actively and appropriately, tweeting, facebooking, instagramming, and blogging are great ways of staying in touch and making yourself a known quantity.
The Book Doctors travel across America to feature in writers workshops, conferences, bookfairs, and festivals. On February 13th, we’re holding a conference and Pitchapalooza at one of the greatest bookstores in the country, Changing Hands. If you are in the Phoenix area, come hang out, polish your skills, and maybe take a selfie with us. But please, don’t follow us into the bathroom.
To read this article on the Huffington Post, click here.
Roxanna Elden has been a teacher for eleven years and is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. Her inspiration for Rudy’s New Human came from watching her dog, Rudy Elden, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. She lives in Miami, Florida, with Rudy and his (now two!) little humans.
Lana Krumwiede began her writing career by creating stories and poems for publications such as Highlights, High Five, Spider, Babybug, The Friend, and Chicken Soup for the Child’s Soul. Her first novel, Freakling (Candlewick, 2012) was named a finalist for SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Member’s Choice Award and an honor book for the International Reading Association’s Intermediate Fiction Award. Freakling was followed by two more novels, Archon (2013) and True Son (2015). Lana is also the author of the picture book Just Itzy (2015). She lives with her husband and daughter in Richmond, where she sits on the board of directors for James River Writers and runs a local writers’ group.
Ayesha Mattu is a writer, editor and international development consultant who has worked in the field of women’s human rights since 1998. She was selected a ‘Muslim Leader of Tomorrow’ by the UN Alliance of Civilizations & the ASMA Society and has served on the boards of IDEX, the Women’s Funding Network, and World Pulse. Ayesha is an alumna of Voices of Our Nations writers’ workshop and a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
Nura Maznavi is an attorney, writer, and Fulbright Scholar. She has worked with migrant workers in Sri Lanka, on behalf of prisoners in California, and with a national legal advocacy organization leading a program to end racial and religious profiling. She lives in Chicago.
Victoria Skurnick came to Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency after being at The Book-of-the Month Club for almost twenty years. As Editor-in-Chief, she relished the opportunity to devour every kind of book, from the finest literary fiction to Yiddish for Dogs. She also is the co-author (with Cynthia Katz) of seven novels written by “Cynthia Victor.”
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
Nura & Ayesha Get Published, or From ‘He’s just not that into you’ to ‘As good as it gets’ in under one minute
From ‘He’s just not that into you’ to ‘As good as it gets’ in under one minute
by Ayesha Mattu & Nura Maznavi
We came to the Book Doctors with our book on life support.
Three years earlier, we had an idea for a book: a collection of stories written by American Muslim women about love, dating and courtship. We scoured every book publishing website and blog we could find and worked diligently on our book proposal every weekend. Our efforts paid off – within just a year, we acquired an agent and started shopping our proposal to large publishers.
That’s when everything fell apart.
We received the same line from each publisher who rejected us: wonderful, novel and interesting idea…but we’re going to pass. It was like a break up scene from a bad romantic comedy on repeat – “it’s not you, you’re great.” If our book was so great, why didn’t publishers want to be with it?
After six months of “we’re just not that into you” from publishers, our agent dumped us. Our enthusiasm was zapped. We both had family and work obligations that had overtaken our lives in the period our proposal was being shopped, and we no longer had the time, energy or direction to find a new agent and start the process all over again.
We did nothing but mope about our bad luck for a year. Whereas before we couldn’t stop talking about our book – stopping strangers in the coffee shops we worked out of to tell them all about it – we now grew irritated when family and friends asked us about our progress, telling them, “Why the hell do you keep asking us about the damn book? Back off already!”
And then we heard about Pitchapalooza.
Ayesha is a long time San Francisco Litquake volunteer and forwarded Nura news of Pitchapalooza’s first appearance at Litquake in September of 2010 with a note:
We’re going for this, it’s our last chance.
ps. You’re pitching.
pps. No pressure.
After reviewing our proposal, we decided to write our pitch from scratch. We knew we were pitching a book on two subjects that, individually, have been written about in tired and clichéd ways: love and Muslim women. How best to combine the two into a pitch that would be compelling and fresh? We decided to use an unexpected twist: humor.
On the night of Pitchapalooza, we were so excited and nervous that we showed up almost an hour early. Our names were the first ones dropped into the pitching hat. But as the night progressed and our names weren’t called, we grew anxious. The other pitches were a blur – after each one that resulted in thunderous applause from the audience and accolades from the judges we’d turn to each other and whisper, “Oh man, that one is totally going to win,” and “I’m so sad that our book will never be in print.”
And then, David announced that they had time for only two more pitches. We held our breath and then – NURA MAZNAVI was called! Nura would be the second to last person pitching for the evening. She made her way down to the side of the stage to wait on deck for her turn. She didn’t realize she was holding her breath until Chris Cole (the fiction winner for the evening) leaned in to her and said, “You need to breathe.”
And then it was time. Nura had memorized the pitch but couldn’t remember a single line as she took her place behind the microphone and realized that the future of the book lay in the next minute. Clutching a wadded piece of paper she had brought with her just in case this happened, she began:
Muslim women – we just can’t seem to catch a break.
The audience erupted in laughter.
Emboldened by the audience’s reaction, she pushed on. And, amazingly, as she continued to pitch, the audience continued to laugh, clap, and then cheer. By the time David yelled, “TIME,” the crowd was going nuts!
The judges agreed with the audience, telling us that the book sounded fun, new and exciting. And then they clued us into why we maybe hadn’t been successful in shopping our proposal: “Large publishers can be cowards. Sometimes, if a book is about a subject that hasn’t been written about before, they are nervous about being the first ones to publish it.” They suggested that we do more research on marketing and on our target audience, and approach smaller and independent publishers who are less risk averse.
We had to sit through only one more pitch before the winners were announced. The fiction winner and the non-fiction winner – US!
Winning Pitchapalooza resuscitated our book, but listening to The Book Doctors as they advised us after the competition is what landed us a publisher.
We’d initially envisioned Love, InshAllah as a light and amusing look at the search for love—with a Muslim twist—to be placed on bookshelves somewhere in between Pride and Prejudice and Sex and the City.
But, we had edited our proposal – based on our former agent’s suggestions – into an academic work that was not at all funny or, frankly, that interesting. The book went from being placed squarely on a woman’s studies shelf to an amorphous space between religion and politics that no publisher wanted to touch.
The Book Doctors reviewed our proposal and gave us great advice, encouraging us to go back to our original hunch to go light. David wanted us to think big, think fun and carry that theme from the introduction right on through the marketing plan. Arielle’s insight helped us see that our book was the crest of a Muslim explosion – a literary one!
We retooled the proposal incorporating all their suggestions and within a month, The Book Doctors introduced us to Laura Mazer, Managing Editor at Soft Skull Press. The rest, as they say, is history. Laura loved the proposal and just six short months after winning Pitchapalooza we were offered a book deal! And in just two more weeks – on January 24 – our anthology Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women will be on bookstore shelves everywhere!
Ayesha Mattu & Nura Maznavi are the co-editors of the groundbreaking anthology, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women” (Soft Skull Press, 1/24/12).
Follow Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi:
Murder in Marin, Science in SF, Books In(c) Berkeley, Standing Room Only in Santa Cruz, Fun Down on the Farm
We started off our Bay Area Tour with a bang at the Mystery Writer’s Conference at Book Passage (one of our ATF bookstores). There were maniac murderers, femme fatales, and international men of mystery run amok. And that was just at the faculty dinner! As for the Mysterypalooza, the bar was raised very high—lots of writers flew in from all over the country to chase their mysterious dreams. In fact, Sheldon Siegel, the attorney turned NYT bestselling mystery author who chairs the conference, was once a student there. Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage, welcomed us with her usual grace and warmth. We also had a phenomenal panel, bestselling author Hallie Ephron was an font of wisdom about the ins and outs of the fine art of the mystery pitch. How much to reveal, how much to conceal. How to create a sense of suspense, character and place. Bridget Kinsella of Publisher’s Weekly and Shelf Awareness, as well as an author, brought her market savvy and understanding of the publishing biz to the table big-time. Everyone who pitched came away with a whole host of tools for how to improve their pitch, but perhaps more importantly, how to solve the mystery of the dastardly publishing game.
One of the great joys of going to conferences like these is the socializing. At the after party, at a gorgeous home overlooking the Bay of San Francisco, we met one of the true mastercraftswomen of her trade: Rhys Bowen, who is the author of over 100 books (that’s not a typo, we’re talking one hundred!). She told us that before she starts writing one of her mysteries, she visits the specific location. She walks the streets, studies the buildings, smells the smells and listens to the sounds. And when you read one of her books, you feel the authenticity shining through.
We had never held a Pitchapalooza in a bar until our next stop when we watched pitchees rock it at the Rock It Room in San Francisco. We were joined by two more fab panelists. Pitchapalooza veteran Elise Cannon, the grand pooba of the pitch, and Head of Field Sales at Publishers Group West. Elise tossed off comp titles and tweaked and toned pitches with a fun-loving ease. Christina Amini, Executive Editor at Chronicle Books as well as an author, brought her editorial and marketing savvy (a rare combination in an editor) to the party. Green Apple Books sponsored our event. This super cool bookstore has an eclectic mix of new and used books. And it happens to be located down the street from one of our new favorite restaurants in San Francisco, Burma Superstar.
Since David’s family has been living in Berkeley for 25 years, it was a homecoming of sorts when we brought our dog and pony show to Bezerkly. Although we’re a big fan of Books, Inc., we had never been to the new store in Berkeley. We’re happy to say that books are alive and thriving in Berkeley. Over a 100 brave souls showed up pitch their books on a Monday night. We had a wonderfully eclectic sampling of revolutionary agitation, waxing New Age gurus, and startups gone terribly wrong. Again, we were graced with an extraordinary panelist, the lovely and talented Laura Mazer, who runs Soft Skull, the phenomenal independent publisher. She just signed a deal to publish our first Pitchapalooza winners (held during last year’s Litquakepalooza), Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu, who have written the wonderful anthology, Love, InShallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. As usual, Laura was incredibly generous with her expertise, both as an editor, but as someone who runs an independent, and actually acquires books.
Santa Cruz is a magical place, rich with California history, radical hippies, party hearty students, and a spectacularly laid-back sunshine-drenched vibe. We’d never been to Bookshop Santa Cruz, but the second we stepped foot in this magical Emporium of literature, we fell madly in love. George, who’s been working there since the last millennium, catered to our every need, and made sure that the show ran like clockwork. She is a bookseller’s bookseller, and we salute her. The bookstore has been around since 1966, and has been run by the Coonerty family for over 30 years. Casey Coonerty Protti, who basically grew up in the bookstore, runs it now. Casey took the time to meet and greet us, and make us feel right at home. The bookstore also supplied us with two judges, Kat Bailey, and Susan McCloskey. They both had such an incredible passion for books, and deep insider’s knowledge which they dispensed with almost alarming alacrity. We had a feeling this was going to be a big event, you never quite know. So, we were excited and deeply gratified over 200 people showed up Thursday night to shower us with their pitches and love. We can’t wait to go back.
Stanford is a universe unto itself. Every time we go the sun is always shining, pretty people always seem happy, and even though the campus itself is an essentially unnavigable maze, there is a deep vein of contentment which pervades beautiful buildings. We love teaching at Stanford, in part because almost all of our students are better educated than we are. They are wicked smart, and have a deep thirst to learn. Since our classes are interactive, this makes for a scintillating exchange of ideas, and the five hours fly by in a flash. We will be absolutely shocked if several published books don’t come out of this class.
The bad news is that we have to leave the Bay Area. The good news is that we will be doing our second annual Litquake Pitchapalooza on October 9 at 5pm. Come on down. Who knows, maybe this year you will be the author who gets published out of Litquakepalooza!