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.
We first met Melissa Cistaro when she pitched her book to us at a Pitchapalooza we did for Book Passage (one of America’s great bookstores) in Corte Madera, California. We’ve been doing this so long we can usually tell when someone has a book in them and is capable of getting it out successfully. And we knew Melissa had the right stuff as soon as she opened her mouth. Arielle then made a suggestion to Melissa that she calls perhaps her greatest move as a Book Doctor: she told Melissa that she should get a job working at Book Passage. This is what separates the doers from the talkers. Melissa actually did it; she got a job at Book Passage. Eventually she became the person who introduces authors when they do events at Book Passage. Some of the greatest authors in the world come through that bookstore. Now Melissa gets to move from being the person who presents authors to the author being presented. So we thought we would pick her brain to see how she did it.
To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: How did you get started as a writer?
Melissa Cistaro: This may sound odd, but I think that becoming a mother is what turned me into a writer. Even in college, I still considered writing one of my greatest weaknesses. But when I saw my own child for the first time, I knew I had to figure out how to tell the stories that had been hiding inside of me for so long. I started taking classes at UCLA Extension, and it was there that I caught a glimpse of my writing voice–and after that, I couldn’t stop writing. I’ve always believed that motherhood opened a portal inside of me that gave me permission to write. If I hadn’t become a mother, I don’t know that I would have become a writer.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
MC: In the house I grew up in, we rarely had access to books. I was not a child who discovered books early–they came late for me, and when they did, I had a lot of catching up to do. One of the first books to completely mesmerize me was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The language was magical and the story deep, evocative and riveting. I am often pulled into stories through language. Fugitive Pieces is another book that I drew me in with its incredible poetic narrative. Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje and a short story collection by John Murray called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Oh this is hard! I could go on and on with favorite books.
TBD: What made you decide to write a memoir?
MC: I started this story as a work of fiction. It was easier for me to dive into it as someone else’s narrative rather than my own. For years, I wrote calling myself Paisley Chapin in the story, but eventually I realized that I wasn’t very good at drifting away from the truth, as I knew it. Early on, I showed my oldest brother some chapters, and he said to me, “Sorry Sis, but this ain’t fiction you are writing.”
TBD: How has your family reacted to seeing themselves in print?
MC: The book was very difficult to hand to my father. There were many facets of our childhood that he wasn’t aware of–and it was definitely emotional for him to take in our story on paper. He has been exceptionally supportive of the book and, ultimately, a proud father. My brothers also have been generous and supportive. Naturally, there were some details that we recalled in different ways, and we have since had some great conversations about our childhood.
TBD: You attended a number of writing programs, do you recommend this? What are some of the benefits and liabilities?
MC: Classes and workshops were crucial along the way, as was being in a writing group. But I eventually got to a place in the process where outside input began to stifle me as a writer. The feedback was always helpful, but I also had to take responsibility for what I ultimately wanted to write. If there are too many voices and opinions, it can get overwhelming. I’ve become less fond of workshopping and more of a fan of having a few select and trusted readers.
TBD: Which helped you more as a writer, being an equestrian or a mom?
MC: Whoa–this is an interesting question. I don’t know if I’ve ever considered how riding has informed my writing. Communicating with an animal requires a great deal of paying attention and observing, and I think that certainly translates into the writing process. I once had to throw myself off of a horse that was running at full speed back towards the barn. I could see the low awning of the barn ahead, and I knew I had lost control of the horse. I didn’t want to end up trapped under the awning or thrown dangerously sideways–so I made a decision to pull my feet out of the stirrups and make a flying dismount. I skidded and tumbled across the hard summer dirt, landing safely (and sorely) between two spindly birch trees. I think, whether we are parenting or writing or on a runaway horse, we have to make big decisions and sometimes we don’t know precisely what the outcome will be.
TBD: Did working at a bookstore help you as a writer?
MC: Absolutely. If you love books as much as I do and you want to surround yourself with likeminded people, go work in an independent bookstore. Bookstores are magical places. You get to meet authors and discover new books all the time. I also learned how sometimes great books thrive and other equally beautiful books can sometimes wither on the shelf. I quickly gleaned how subjective the world of books can be. This armored me with very humble and realistic expectations as I entered the publishing arena with my own book. I had a completed draft of my memoir when I started working at Book Passage, and I decided to put it in the proverbial drawer for a year so that I could focus on other books and writers. This turned out to be a great plan. Two years later, I met my agent during an event I was hosting.
TBD: You’ve now seen hundreds of authors do events as event coordinator at one of the great bookstores in America, Book Passage. What mistakes do you see writers make? What do you see successful writers do to help themselves?
MC: I have a wonderful job at Book Passage. I introduce authors, host their events and read their books. I find that, for the most part, authors are truly grateful and gracious when they come to Book Passage. I learn something new at every event I host. I take a lot of notes. We always appreciate when an author stands up and thanks independent bookstores for the hard work they do, because we certainly don’t do this work for the money (which is essentially minimum wage). We do this work because we love working in the landscape of books, ideas and creative minds.
TBD: What did you learn about finding an agent and publisher that you think unpublished writers would like to know?
MC: Finding that one agent who falls in love with your work takes a lot of time, patience and perseverance. Expect a lot of rejection. Grow extremely thick skin. And keep writing what you are passionate about. When you find that agent, he or she will help get your manuscript to the right publisher.
TBD: What was the most frustrating part of the publishing process from idea through publication for you?
MC: The publishing process is full of surprises, and I had to carry my publishing “Bible” with me everywhere. (That would be your book!). There are so many things you can learn in advance about how publishing works and all the ins-and-outs of contracts, deals, agents, etc. It was a tremendous and challenging education going through the publishing process. The landscape is changing so fast that it’s important to keep informed.
TBD: How can writers best use their local bookstore to help them in their career?
MC: Support your local bookstore. This means buying books from them. Attend their events. Introduce yourself to the booksellers and tell them you are a writer. Ask them for advice and book recommendations. Let them know you are not going to get a recommendation and then go purchase it for a few dollars less online. Today there are many ways a writer can professionally self-publish their books, and this is a perfectly respectable way to publish. Just make sure that if you self-publish, it’s on a platform that is compatible with independent bookstores. (This is kind of homework that authors need to do when looking into their publishing options!)
I love meeting writers at Book Passage, and I appreciate when they tell me they are a writer because I know how challenging this path is. I also know that one day they may come in and tell me that their book is being published–and guess who is going to make sure that they get a reading at Book Passage?
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
MC: If there is a story you need to tell, you must do it. You must keep writing and writing until you are both empty and full. No story is too small for this world.
Melissa Cistaro‘s stories have been published in numerous literary journals, including the New Ohio Review, Anderbo.com, and Brevity as well as the anthologies Cherished and Love and Profanity. She works as a bookseller and event coordinator at Book Passage, the esteemed independent bookstore in Northern California. Between the years of raising her children, writing, bookselling, teaching horseback riding, and curating a business in equestrian antiques – Melissa completed her first memoir, Pieces of My Mother.
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 also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, June 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.