Conferring with Others: The Writers Conference Pitch
Amy Holman | October 2004
Hundreds of writers conferences and festivals convene here and abroad each year for a day, a weekend, one or two weeks, offering a wide range of topics and structures of workshops, lectures, and readings to anywhere from 20–300 writers. The faculty at these events differ, but can include writers teaching writing workshops, writers giving readings of their work, and editors and literary agents meeting with the participants who have book manuscripts. Writers conferences are transient, highly focused communities with various aims and lasting effects. They have been held in nature preserves, at horse racing tracks, in canoes on the Sea of Cortez, in the markets of the Languedoc region of France, in the land of the midnight sun and the city that never sleeps. They can address religious fiction, poetic form, war, the book arts, women’s lives, and our imagination, to name just a gnat’s eyelash of possibilities. Conferences can be meeting grounds with publishing professionals, but they can also be niche markets for book promotion. If being a professional writer is aided by the connections and affiliations within the literary community, then every writer should take the business opportunities offered by writers conferences, namely, the preselected book buying audiences and the professional meetings with book editors and agents.
This essay is intended for writers who have book manuscripts for which they want to find agents or book editors at conferences, and for writers who have a forthcoming book, whether their first, second, or subsequent, who want to be hired as conference faculty. Here you will learn how to pitch your book manuscript in a ten minute meeting with an editor or agent, and how to target and pitch yourself to conference directors as a workshop teacher and/or guest reader. For both, you need to be familiar with your concerns as a writer, what your book is about, and where in the varied writing and publishing community it fits.
One Size Does Not Fit All
The best way to pitch a book is on the page, but book editors at large, corporate publishing houses rarely read unsolicited or unagented manuscripts, and literary agents claim the writers conference to be the number one place to find new clients. Thus a writer of fiction or literary nonfiction puts a foot in the proverbial door of an agent’s or book editor’s office with a ten minute one-on-one at a writer’s conference.
A query letter or pitch meeting is a communication between two people, not a monologue delivered to an audience in the dark. You pitch your book’s story and your professional standing to a particular agent or editor, who has particular interests. One agent might be interested in the social issue at the heart of your novel, while another agent would like that it’s a satire, and another would appreciate the underdog nature of the protagonist. If you take the time to find out who the agent or editor is before you meet, you can pitch your book differently to each, giving you the advantage over the writer who believes that one pitch will attract every listener.
Practice your pitch on different people, suggests Alane Salierno Mason, senior editor at W.W. Norton, and "pay attention to where their eyes light up and where they glaze over. It will not always be the same for every person and you should pay attention to what connects most with what kind of person." On Book TV, an interviewer asked the novelist and nonfiction writer, Les Standiford, at the 2002 Miami Book Fair why anyone outside of Miami would be interested in Last Train to Paradise, his book on the building of the railroad to Key West. He replied in perfect hook language, "Well, this is about the CEO that could."
Cleverly combining the persistence of a business executive and a storybook train, Standiford drew the listener into the universality of his subject. It was not so much about place, he was saying, though it would have to be with a title like Last Train to Paradise, but more about humanity, or fighting the odds against success. After that, he branched out in answering her questions to fill in more details about the story, and himself as its writer, combining his love of history with his love of story.
You don’t have to be good at the one-liner, just able to communicate what happens in your book, who it happens to, how it changes that person, and why. It’s also great to know why you are interested in the story you wrote, or what drew you to the subject, since your interest is part of what draws any listener to your book. Identify the main theme of the book or the core issue that defines the journey. Does place play an important role? Is the book structured in an unusual way or told in more than one viewpoint? Be prepared to give your writing and publishing credits if asked, and mention any kind, even your restaurant reviews in the local newspaper. Agents and editors often appreciate hearing that you have connections with the press, or a readership. You won’t be using all the information you get from asking yourself questions, nor the entire ten minutes of your meeting to describe your book’s story. The meeting is between the two of you, so ask questions and listen to the answers.
A collection of short stories or essays will have a connecting theme, subject, locale, set of characters, or issue, most likely. Read the descriptions of books as printed on their sleeves and covers. An assessment is made for what connects the stories and then, a few one-sentence examples of stories are given that demonstrate the variety of that connection. For instance, Breathe Something Nice, a collection of short stories by Emily Hammond is described, on the back cover:
These stunning stories explore, with poignancy and wit, the treacherous, alluring, and sometimes painful territories of memory, family, and friendship. In "Why Would a Man," a businessman finds himself embarking on an ambiguous relationship with a mysterious Korean acupuncturist, and in "Polaroid," a teenager on an all-American family vacation through California learns that love, embarrassment, and food, can assume bewildering and heartbreaking combinations. The child narrator of "The Grand Tour," a reluctant playmate of two wealthy schoolmates, gradually realizes that even "the right people" can harbor hideous secrets. And the college students in "Breathe Something Nice," volunteering at a detention facility for youthful offenders, become involved in a jailbreak but do not realize until later that there are many ways of being used by-or using-other people.
If you remove the complimentary language-"stunning" and "with poignancy and wit"-you’ve got "territories of memory, family, and friendship" staked out in the stories. In person, you would want to be easy-going with your language, as in "the stories in Breathe Something Nice explore memory, family and friendship in different ways. For instance..."
Consider your options and then do your research accordingly. After the five-minute agent introductions at the "Meet the Agents" conferences sponsored by the International Women’s Writing Guild, you get to rush the agents and hand over copies of your manuscripts to as many as make sense. But at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, you may meet with one agent or editor one-on-one and another in a group of other eager writers, and then send a query letter upon your return home. In either scenario, please listen to what the speakers have to say, so that you can decide whether it is worth their time and yours to read your manuscript or query. Even if you know only the names of the writers they publish or represent, you can make judgments about their reading interests. The agent who represents T. Coraghessan Boyle and Carol Maso has different interests than the agent for A.M. Homes and Susan Sontag, and all these writers have different book publishers.
Writers conferences cost money to attend and offer you common ground with your literary idols, your peers, and publishing professionals. Your book represents years of hard work and imagination, so you should take seriously the research and practice you must do in order to properly pitch your book to agents or editors. Once finished, the fiction or nonfiction book is no longer about the process of getting the story written, but rather what the story is that you wrote. It isn’t about all the marvelous details that make that story such a good read, but rather how to hook someone into wanting to sit down and read your marvelous, detailed story. You really are the best person to do it. Now you know how.
On the Road
Alison Hawthorne Deming writes about the natural world of the western United States both in poetry and nonfiction and in 2003 she was faculty at four writers conferences or retreats. In June, she taught at Indiana University Writers’ Conference. In July, she was at two conferences, the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference in New Mexico, and the Canyonlands Writers River Trip in Utah. In October, she added her voice to "Reflections on the American West," the Fifth Annual Nature Writing Retreat, sponsored by the North Cascades Institute. Deming has a few books published, but there are many more writers in her league who never consider the option-and should-of traveling to a nice part of the country, or even abroad, to teach for a few days or a week. Furthermore, some writers with new or forthcoming books can take advantage of the exposure, the brief, but devoted student body, and the community.
Book promotion is the best incentive for writers to make guest appearances at conferences, and brand new books are of interest to directors. But, teaching at conferences, like teaching short-term workshops at community centers, is hard work, and writers should be compensated for it. Any income from the writing life is appreciated, especially by poets, who often make very little on book sales and depend on other sources of income. Many conferences will pay writers to teach workshops, lecture, or give readings, while others may have budgets that favor the more well-known authors and require the lesser known to work for little or no money. You can volunteer your time occasionally to give readings or lectures, but writing workshops require too much involvement on the writer’s part not to be paid at least a couple hundred dollars and travel. If your publisher considers it an extension of your book tour, they can pay for your travel and provide a stack of books for you to sell with your engaging reading style. Mostly, however, I want you to consider making a living from the niche markets that conferences and festivals can be, and how the subject of your book can make you a popular faculty prospect for conference directors.
If your book addresses spiritual faith, you may benefit from teaching at any of the Christian writers conferences, at the Zen Mountain Monastery, or at Art & Soul, sponsored by Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The 2003 theme was "Mystery and Meaning," and among the faculty were the established poet and prose writer, Kathleen Norris, and the emerging poet, Nicholas Samsaras, a recent winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for a first book.
Greg Garrett, director of Art & Soul, says the theme-specific pitches work best for his conference on the intersection of faith and creativity. He is less interested in the "broadly spiritual" or inspirational market, and more in the writers whose background and work center on established traditions of faith, and whose objective always is to create art. The theme of their conference changes every year. Even if you do not know what the next year’s will be, you can still pitch your specific expertise as it relates to art and soul.
But the conference without a built-in preference or annually changing theme, such as the Wesleyan Writers Conference, may still be interested in your faith and creativity connections, your environmental writing, your novel on the origins of racism, your classics-themed poetry, etc. And yet, they may also want to know that you can teach a workshop on the novel, give a lecture on performance traditions in poetry, or that your new book is forthcoming and to promote it, you would like to give readings all over New England next summer. In the 2003 program, Wesleyan’s conference faculty included two relatively new writers. Alexander Chee had two books, one of which won the Lambda Literary Prize, and G.E. Patterson had one novella from a few years before that had won him a fellowship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
Anne Greene, director of both the Wesleyan Writers Conference and the university’s writing programs, is happy to hear from writers who would like to be faculty at either. Be realistic when researching possible conferences and festivals. Do they prefer regional authors, nationally known authors, a mix of prize-winning and emerging writers? If you are a newer writer, you can acknowledge that in your letter, or as Greene puts it, "I know Annie Dillard teaches for you. I wonder if you also have positions for people who have one book..." Unlike Garrett at Art & Soul who would rather writers query and then leave him to his work, Greene says it is good to follow up on a first query with another a few months later because directors are busy with all aspects of the conference besides hiring (also, with other aspects of their own teaching jobs.) If you are worried about discrepancies such as this in the way different conference directors run their programs, you can either inquire through e-mail how they would like to be contacted or include a sentence in your letter that says you know how busy they are and will follow-up briefly through e-mail in a couple months to inquire about the status of your query.
The letter you write can include any of the information listed below in whichever order suits your approach. Be as direct and friendly as you can, and acknowledge the kind of conference or festival you know them to be. Include a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) for a reply or an e-mail address if you know that they prefer that form of communication. A resumé of your teaching and publishing experience is a nice enclosure, as is a press release for a just published book.
- Why you are writing to the conference or festival director-to be considered as teaching faculty, to serve on panel discussions or give a lecture on a topic, or to give a reading to promote your new book
- What your specialty is in teaching-anywhere from the basic writing workshop to leading hiking and writing tours to writing the perfect pitch, etc.
- The publication date of a forthcoming book, it’s title and publisher, and a few credentials to back up your ability to teach or lecture on a subject.
- Why you think you would fit in with the particular conference-your poetry collection about a daring young surfer (The Ocean Inside Kenji Takezo, by Rick Noguchi) may be appreciated by southern California conference-goers or as the West Virginian author of a collection of stories about Appalachian characters (Given Ground, by Ann Pancake) you may want to be a part of the discussions about humanity and the environment some year at the Sitka Symposium in Alaska, not just at any of the dozen or so Appalachian specific conferences in the southern United States. 1
- A brief description of your recent or forthcoming book in a sentence or two.
In 1987 and 1990, I attended the Santa Fe Writers Conference, and at both discovered the work of poets I had never heard of-Roo Borson and Arthur Sze. Each were just passing through, reading from their work one afternoon and going home, whereas other poets and fiction writers at the five-day conference taught workshops, gave readings, and stayed the duration. Sometimes, a writer may take advantage of the rich bounty of conferences in a region in a particular month or season, as did Deming, and give a reading at one and teach at two others. Think of it as a more sociable book tour.
Writers on book tours make solo appearances at bookstores and libraries, but writers reading and signing books at conferences are in a social swirl with their peers, inscribing their latest to people they’ve dined with. It can be difficult for people to work into daily life attendance of author readings, so audiences at bookstores and libraries tend to range rather widely, from abundant in the places where the author has lived to thin where he is a stranger. But audiences at conferences are all writers who chose to meet and seek advice from the writers on faculty. They have been conversing with faculty members and strolling with them on rolling hills and shady streets, beside beautiful bodies of water and desert mountains. They are inclined towards buying books that can be signed and inscribed to them, and to following up in years to come on reading the subsequent books of writers they discovered at the conference.
Don’t miss out on the exciting opportunities of writers conferences and festivals now that you know a bit more about them. Don’t stay home and stare too long at the page. Listen to the song of that strange bird on the window sill: pitch-pitch, pitch-pitch.
Amy Holman.em> has taught at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Writers Conference at Penn, Walloon Lake Writers’ Workshop, Connecticut Poetry Festival, Western Montana Writers’ Conference, and currently teaches "Publishing Success" classes at The New School. She is a Pushcart nominated poet and prose writer published in print and electronic journals and anthologies, including Night Train, xconnect, The Best American Poetry 1999, and the forthcoming, The Subway Chronicles. For more information, visit www.amyholman.com.
- I’m offering these writers and books up as examples, while they, to my knowledge, have not pitched themselves this way.