Why You Should Take Part in #Pitmad (What I Learned)

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Hollywood rules commercial fiction publishing.

Don’t believe me? Just go look for advice on plotting a novel, and you’ll inevitably come into contact with a book called Save the Cat, a primer on writing screenplays. These days, books are novelizations before they are ever novels. Hence, it should surprise no one that when it comes to choosing books for publication, the publishing industry has adopted the Hollywood-style elevator pitch.

In recent years, elevator pitches have moved out of the elevator and onto Twitter. During a quarterly manuscript pitching party (called #Pitmad), an aspiring author can now pitch- in 280 character (including spaces)- their finished works out into the internet ether with the hope that an industry insider will discover them.

Note that not all agents take part in this pitch party, and some find the quarterly event, which for some reason is always held on a Thursday when many aspiring authors are tethered to their day jobs, an unproductive means to find new writers. “One-hundred and forty characters should never be enough to properly describe your book,” says Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary Agency.

Still, if you have the time and a finished book, I think it’s worth taking part in #Pitmad. There’s also a lot you can learn.

Being an agent is hard

This was one takeaway from the experience. Not only did I participate by pitching my recently completed book, I also followed the hashtag throughout the day (sporadically as I was working), reading the pitches as they came up in my Twitter feed. As I read and retweeted, I became a quasi-agent for a day.

The above-mentioned agent is right: it is difficult to tell anything about a novel in a 280-character tweet. All of them read like entries in Plotto or Plots Unlimited. Things likes:

Carol, a struggling waitress, finds a magic lamp in a dumpster behind the restaurant. She rubs it and out comes Jack, a Djinni. (660a) (713) (1024)

That story could be boring. It could be great. So much of everything depends on execution. Just how does an agent decide?

The other aspect of pitching is throwing out comp titles. This isn’t required, but I noticed that the pitches using them often got many more retweets, especially if the comp title was incredibly popular.

I assume things like number of retweets can catch an agent’s eyes. I didn’t add comp titles to my pitch. So that’s another lesson learned about pitching.

Do a close reading of the rules for #Pitmad

This was my first go at this rodeo. I hadn’t really heard of #Pitmad before, which just shows you how new to Twitter I am. I first became aware of the event two weeks ago, when fellow writers I follow on Twitter started talking about polishing their pitches. I really wanted to put my recently completed manuscript out there in as many ways as possible. So I got to work.

Naturally, I went to the #Pitmad webpage for more information, but I stupidly skimmed the text. I didn’t read the part about being able to pitch three times during the day. As a result, I only prepared one pitch, and that pitch was of the Carol and Jack variety.

If I had to do it again, and I can on June 3rd, I would make three different pitches. One would be of the Carol and Jack variety and another would hit hard on comp titles. I’m not yet sure how to frame the third one I’d post. I guess I have time to figure it out.

I have no Twitter game

Another thing I learned is that I have no Twitter game. I use the app only for belonging to a writing community, one that is often helpful, I might add. The problem is that I kind of find Twitter really boring. I don’t think I spend more than fifteen minutes a day on the app, and when I do, I’m mostly searching for Tweets from authors seeking advice or encouragement. When it comes to getting retweets of your pitch, however, this kind of limited engagement is a handicap.

Indeed, none of the writers who follow me retweeted my pitch. Almost all my retweets were from strangers.

My pitch received only 9 retweets in total

The bulk of these came in soon after I tweeted my pitch, which is why writing three pitches and posting them throughout the day is much better for getting engagement. Pitches in the internet ether have a short half-life.

Still, I got nine retweets. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but in hindsight, getting even that many retweets of my pitch turned out to be the best aspect of the #Pitmad experience.

When it comes to writing, I always feel unsure if I’m treading the correct path, especially when it comes to knowing if the kinds of books I write are marketable. Are other people interested in the type of storytelling I’m interested in? Are my tastes just too odd or idiosyncratic? Am I just too unique? Maybe even a mad genius before their time? A visionary?

Thankfully, the answer is a resounding No!

Strangers retweeting my pitch tells me that there is an audience out there, however big or small.

And then there were the coveted likes. I received one from a developmental editor trying to drum up business. I checked out their website and learned that for a grand sum of $6,500 dollars I can have the full publishing experience- developmental, copy, and line editing as well as a final proofread. Too bad they were barking up the wrong tree. I’m too poor for that.

Two more likes came from people who probably don’t know about #Pitmad and its rules. It was yet another confirmation to me that readers might be interested in the book I wrote.

The fourth like came from an agent. I should be jumping up and down. Unfortunately, neither the agent nor the agency they work for shows up on QueryTracker. And though the agency’s website looks legit, when I clicked on the list of authors they represent, I quickly realized that none of them have a book deal. Also, the agent’s manuscript wish list indicates that they don’t really represent the genre I work in. Because of this, I’m on the fence about querying them.

So that was my #Pitmad experience. It was pitiful but also insightful and reassuring. I glimpsed a potential audience for my work out there. For look, I also got this comment on my pitch:

And that comment made my day.

Let me know in the comments what you think about #Pitmad or if you participated last week. Should I query the agent who liked my tweet? All advice will be greatly appreciated.

Also, want to know when I post something new? Follow me here or on Twitter.

What My Literary Agent Got Me

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Why would an agent ghost a client?

Now there’s a baffling question.

Aren’t we always told (in no uncertain terms) that a literary agent and a writer are business partners? And if so, shouldn’t open communication be a part of this relationship?

Still, in recent weeks, there’s been some hubbub over the fraught relationship between literary agents and the authors they represent.

In fact, ghosting was just one accusation leveled against superstar literary agent, Brooks Sherman. In a now deleted post on Querytracker, a former client alleges that Sherman stopped responding to their e-mails once their novel wasn’t picked-up by a publisher. When the writer attempted to sever their “working” relationship, Sherman never responded.

The allegations against Sherman, however, didn’t stop there. There was another, more chilling one posted on QueryTracker. Here, the anonymous denouncer mentions how Brooks Sherman lied about submitting manuscripts, lied about submitting for foreign rights, failed to give editorial feedback, and even neglected to read client manuscripts.

I suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as Brooks Sherman is concerned. But the truth is, most of it will remain secret, or spoken about in whisper networks.

The reason I’ve been following this closely is because I queried Mr. Sherman at the beginning of February. In fact, the second allegation I mentioned was already in the comments. Thinking back, why hadn’t I stopped to consider it? Why did it not give me pause before I went ahead and queried the guy?

Probably because agents are the gatekeepers to traditional publishing. In fact, they are the first of many you’ll encounter on that journey. This gives an agent power. It even creates a power imbalance between the agent and his or her client. Any such partnership will be an unequal one, especially at the beginning. Which explains why all the allegations have been anonymous. Power can silence people.

It’s no surprise then that many publishing industry insiders have just swept this scandal under the rug. We’ve been warned many a time that there are agents and there are schmagents. I call this the bad apple defense of the publishing industry. Just take out the few bad ones before the whole barrel goes bad, and everything will be fine.

But I think Brooks Sherman is too high profile to be considered a mere schmagent. From what I can tell, he’s an agent to some and a schmagent to others. This isn’t too surprising for someone like me who comes from academia. We all know that some Ph.D. advisors are mentors and some are schmentors. And most are like Brooks Sherman: mentors to some; schmentors to others.

But why would an agent even behave in this way? What do they get out of it?

I have no idea. My guess is that they think they’ve found you, and therefore have some claim over you- on the off chance you create something truly marketable. It’s kind of like a conquistador sticking a flag in a continent. They don’t know exactly what’s there, but by God, they own it.

But that’s just a guess.

What I’ve really been pondering is what the agent- writer relationship is really like. Is it what people say? Is it a partnership?

An Agent Represent a Writer

While on Twitter, I came across a tweet thread posted by romance writer, Courtney Milan. It really spoke to me because I’m just the silly sort of writer she’s describing. I believe “A bad agent is better than no agent.”

Courtney Milan on agents and the writers they represent

My logic: having an agent means at least you’re in the game.

Milan then goes ahead and demolishes that line of thinking. I believe she is a lawyer, which explains why she’s so amazing at constructing arguments.

But towards the end, her tweet thread becomes even more interesting. She writes:

“One of the most painful things that agents do is treat the publisher as if they are the client, and themselves as talent scouts. This person might get you a deal, but it will bite you.

The agent who thinks that their relationship with a publisher is more important than their relationship with an author is not functioning as an agent.

Your agent represents YOU. Period.”

How sure that “Period” is!

But is this true? Does an agent represent you, the writer, and not the publishing house? As I said, Milan is a lawyer, and lawyers represent their clients. In fact, they have no relationship with the entity opposing you in a case. It’s possible Milan thinks that the relationship between an agent and a writer is similar. It makes sense. The more money an agent can bring in to his client, the more money they themselves make. Win-win.

But is this how agenting really works? I mean, we may want it to work that way. The actual truth, however, may be something different.

In fact, I’ve always considered an agent an adjunct to the publishing house. Once upon a time, publishers read their own slush piles. Nowadays, this is outsourced, and an agent mines this mountain of manuscripts and extracts whatever gold they can.

What I think is that literary agents are more like estate agents. Sure, estate agents drive clients around and help them find their dream homes, but in reality, they work for the property seller. Of course, this analogy doesn’t work either. If we overlay this analogy atop of the writer-agent-publisher scenario, the writer is both the client looking for the new house and the house/ property itself.

And boy, wouldn’t that be twisted.

What Publishers Paid Me

We may, however, not want to believe agent’s relationships to publishing is stronger than it is with their clients. And who know? Possibly, it’s not. I’ve never traditionally published a thing. I also suspect I never will.

But my free associating mind made me think of that Twitter hashtag: what publishers paid me.

This hashtag brought to light the large discrepancies between advances given out to white and non-white writers.

What really struck me is that no one blamed their agent.

Why wasn’t the rallying cry, “#Whatmyagentgotme”? Surely, it’s the agent who negotiates the advance (and everything else).

But that’s probably because everyone knows that the publisher has the real power. And the agent is his man.

Let me know what you think about all this in the comments below.

Also, want to know when I post something new? Follow me here or on Twitter.

Querying in Batches: Is there an advantage?

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When it comes to querying, do you dip your toe into the chilly waters or do you wade right in?

After you have scoured AgentQuery, Manuscript Wish List, and Twitter for names of agents representing your genre, written an exciting hook for your novel along with a writer’s biography and a sales pitch that includes a comparison title, the next step is putting your query out there. If you’re like me, a compulsive reader of writer’s blogs about writing, you’ll already know there are many blog posts devoted to this process. That shouldn’t surprise anyone: there’s advice out there for just about every aspect of publishing.

Some of it good. Some of it dubious.

One common bit of advice I’ve seen is to query in batches, a strategy that entails sending out only seven to ten queries at a time. But is batch querying the right choice for you?

The testing the waters

First, sending queries in batches can be a strategy for success.

The big idea here is that each batch acts as an experiment that tests whether the query is any good. If you end up with no requests for either a partial or a full manuscript, then you can tweak your query hook and resend the updated query letter to a new batch of agents. In theory, you can rinse and repeat this strategy until you have exhausted your agent list.

At first, I found this advice exciting. It seemed sensible. In fact, it was better than sensible. It was a plan. The problem, however, is that the strategy seems impractical. Testing a query hook requires that your agent list contains a large number of agents with quick response times. While there are a few highly organized agents who respond the next day- sometimes the same day, these are few and far between. You’d at least need to have a small group of agents that respond within a two to four-week period. This might be likely if you’re looking for an agent that represents a perennially popular genre like mystery, but if your work is more niche, you’ll find your supply of guinea pig agents sorely lacking.

Another major issue with this strategy is that you have no way of knowing what an agent liked or didn’t like about your query hook. Most rejection letters are nicely worded form letters, and often times, the reason for the rejection is vague. The most common one I’ve received is that the book doesn’t fit their list. Knowing that can’t possibly help you tweak your query letter.

On top of that, an agent can pass on your book for a myriad or reasons unrelated to the hook, including word count, subject matter, character gender or ethnicity, etc. There’s a reason why a common refrain in rejection letters is how the business is subjective. Going back to tweak the hook in these cases would be fruitless, like spinning your wheels. You might even end up harming your well-written query hook.

What I suspect is that the benefits of batch querying are psychological. It gives a hopeful author a semblance of control in a situation where they have none.

Manage feelings of rejection

In fact, another touted advantage to batch querying is psychological (see here). In the article I linked to, there’s no tweaking of query hooks. You merely send out queries in batches, then wait for responses. When one comes back negative, you merely send out the next one.

At first, I thought, okay- it’s a little like gardening. Anyone who grows vegetables during the summer knows that you have to keep sowing seeds to replenish anything you harvest, and by doing so systematically, you can guarantee yourself a supply of lettuce all summer long.

But what are you guaranteeing yourself here? I suspect what you are sowing is hope- keeping it alive, but why you’d want to is puzzling. The obverse of sowing hope in this manner is having a prolonged period of rejection letters. And who wants that? I mean, isn’t it better to know right away if the industry isn’t interested in your project so that you can psychologically move on to your next project?

So, should you send your queries in batches? It all depends on your psychological makeup. Do you gently tug at a Band-Aid or just tear it off? I remember watching a fluff piece on morning television about groups of speedo-clad men bathing in the Baltic. They rushed headlong into the chilly water. No toe-dipping for them. And that seemed to work best.

That said, happy querying.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve queried in batches and found it useful. I’m on the fence about it.

Also, want to know when I post something new? Follow me here or on Twitter.

Why you can’t self-publish everything

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“If I can’t get an agent, I’ll self-publish on Amazon.”

That’s what a writer friend of mine always says.

It’s a good mindset to have- one in which a writer has a choice between traditional publishing and self-publishing- but is it a smart strategy?

Most of the arguments for or against taking one route over another focus on tradeoffs. If you traditionally publish, you lose authorial control over publishing rights, book titles, and cover images. The upside, however, is that you gain a team of experts. Not just an editor, but also professional cover artists, book formatters, and various other industry experts who understand how to market books.

But by far, the greatest appeal to self-publishing is the lure of higher royalties. Blog post after blog post, each with some variation of the title “Why I Choose to Self Publish”, emphasizes this aspect of self-publishing. This isn’t surprising. Many writers going down this path say that self-publishing is akin to starting up a small business. One in which you the writer must take charge of editing, cover design, and marketing. And if that doesn’t seem burdensome enough, you must also take the financial risk as well.

So let’s say you have written a book you love, have money to burn, and are willing to spend the time marketing your product.  Should you then plunge into self-publishing. Well, according to the writing chatterati, it’s your choice. You have to weigh the pros and cons and determine what’s best for you.

But I disagree. I say the choice is an illusion.

And if you’re wondering why, it’s because self-publishing and traditional publishing are two different markets that service two different kinds of readers.

Self-Publishing: the new pulp fiction

When we think of pulp, we think of noir mysteries. But pulp is a much wider field than that. At its most basic, pulp refers to price point. Pulp novels were hastily written, quickly published, and cheaply priced. As an art form, they were written to be enjoyed and then disposed of. To be pulped.

Back in the day, pulp represented a wide range of genres including mysteries, adventure stories, Westerns, and romance. These days, if you walk into your local Target or grocery store, the pulp fiction selection is much smaller. There are only a handful of truly pulp works available, and most of these are romance.

But pulp hasn’t disappeared. It’s only migrated to the eReader. The truth is indie-publishing is the new pulp fiction.

This means that writers who want to break out in self-publishing have to think like a pulp publisher of yore. Understand the genre they are writing. Know what is essential and what can be experimented with. After all, readers shelling out their hard-earned $1.99 or $4.99 for a book will come with expectations, and those expectations have to be met. A novel with a bare-chested dude on the cover ought to have a small amount of erotica even if it’s totally vanilla. Likewise, such a book must also end with a happily ever after. Failing to meet these kinds of genre expectations will only lead to obscurity.

So, what does this mean for the writer sitting at their dining room table, typing away at their novel? The kind of book they always wanted to read.

Well, that book you’ve been longing for better be pulp fiction.

Traditional publishing

Of course, an aspiring author can take the other path. Traditional publishing.

A while back, I sampled the first chapter of Donald Maass’ book, Writing 21st Century Fiction. Maass, who is a New York based literary agent, is an industry insider of some repute. His book suggests that there’s been a shift in publishing. Bestselling fiction is no longer just about plot; it’s also literary in style. He envisions “the death of genre” in favor of authorial voice. Books have to “rise above category”, “transcend” genre, maybe even “blend” them. It’s not hard to see that here is the path for writers whose books don’t meet pulp expectations.

Here is also, I suppose, a challenge to self-publishing. As the pulp market slowly slips away from trad publishing’s control, the industry has to focus on quality. Since most agents barely read sample pages submitted during the querying process, traditional publishing also leans towards books with high concept premises.

So you better have that or you’ll be traveling up the creek without a paddle.