Notes from MisCon 27, Part 5

by syaffolee

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Learning the Game: Query Letters/Elevator Pitches
Panel members: David Boop, James Glass, Rhiannon Held, J.A. Pitts, Patrick Swenson
Panel description: It’s the game we all have to learn: how to sell our books. Our esteemed panelists will talk about what it takes, how to do it, and all those little details they wish new authors knew.

JG: Let’s start with the assumption that you’re a new writer without an agent and you’re trying to get published. How do you get yourself recognized and be seen by the main editor out of the slush?

JAP: It depends. Everyone is different. I met my editor at RadCon and we did not talk about books. Eventually I sent an e-mail and she said to send her the manuscript. There’s always someone who will break the rules.

PS: I met my editor at Clarion West on week five in the 1980s. I learned how editors worked with stuff sent into Talebones where I was an editor. It was because of Talebones and Fairwood Press that I got recognized in the business first.

DB: I owe it all to conventions where I met other writers. My first book was published by a small press. Get to know the editors as people. Ply them with alcohol while you remain sober. I found out that I graduated at the same time as an editor at Baen. Pitch when you know what they publish.

RH: I got my editor first when I got a short story critiqued. Think of the editors as human beings rather than dollar signs.

JG: The context is important. I started writing short stories. From my reputation as a short story writer, I got an agent. When I wrote a novel, I started at Baen because the editor there knew I won the Writers of the Future Contest.

PS: It doesn’t hurt to know someone.

JG: Even another author, a big author, can get you there. I’ve gotten a recommendation from C.J. Cherryh. Context in industry.

RH: It’s not only your writing talent but your social talent. Prove you’re intelligent, pleasant, and that others can work with.

DB: It’s no longer the idea of the solitary writer. Now editors want to know if you’re going to be a brand, if you can do readings, and decide on that. There’s no one way to do this right. You can try writing short stories, going to cons, workshops, etc. One will strike gold eventually. Persistence.

JAP: They used to give you a contract from a synopsis of your story. It’s now changed. Everything’s on Facebook now. Publishers will google you. Will they find you blogging about writing or drunken pictures from the last party? It’s all for public consumption. When you meet someone, you don’t know who they know. The query is the first person contact. It’s short and succinct and now they do it by e-mail. The rules to writing queries is used to deter people because they already have huge slush piles. You need to pique their interest if it’s not solicited. And have stuff ready for them when they contact you, unless you’re an already established author. You have to have product.

PS: When I worked at Talebones we had a couple hundred submissions in a month. If you’re a slush reader at an online mag, you learn a lot about the process and get to meet the editor.

JG: I published ten stories in Talebones. Everyone’s connected. Get your name out there. Produce something. I once did an elevator pitch for Tor. Learn to summarize your book in ten seconds.

RH: For my first novel, my editor wanted the whole thing after I sent a synopsis. I got an agent after I sold the book and that was when I used the pitch. I “synopsized” my synopsis since it was too long. It’s a lot about marketing–what genre fits and what’s different. Something the same but not a clone.

JAP: When editors acquire books, they only have a certain number of slots. Editors need to go up to the board to pitch your book so they use your pitch.

JG: Editors can love your book, but marketing can stop it.

DB: Or if editors already bought something similar.

PS: I gave a long pitch to an editor and his eyes started glazing over when it went too long. But he was more interested when I gave a short pitch. I didn’t have a pitch until I got an agent.

JAP: Don’t pitch until you’ve already written it. Otherwise you will lose them.

DB: Not every time. I got them reading three chapters. They bought it when it was completed.

JG: When you’re getting started, you need everything written.

RH: When I wrote my first book, I only found my theme after I finished writing it. When you pitch, you also need a theme.

DB: You need to lead with emotion. Why should I invest in these people?

JG: There are one minute and ten minute pitches, which are rarer. Some workshops have pitch sessions.

JAP: Cascade Writers is in July. They’re reading pitches and they will tell you if it worked or not. You can still do it without meeting face to face.

DB: There’s also the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference.

JAP: Publishers want to buy your product.

PS: They need to eat so they want your stuff.

JAP: It’s not a zero sum game with e-books. There’s collecting and reading. There’s no shortage of people buying.

DB: You can be more specific in particular genres. For instance, I know someone who publishes nothing but gay space pirates and they’re popular.

JG: Amazon has changed the game with publishing. In a query letter, explain the book, how long it is, what it’s about, what special qualifications you have for it, and ask if they would like to see a partial. Then you wait.

JAP: Look at their guidelines. If it says, “don’t do X”, then don’t do X. You don’t want to piss them off.

RH: It’s a test that you’re following directions. Make a good impression.

PS: There’s no excuse nowadays. Everything’s on the internet.

JAP: If you get rejected, don’t argue with them. Agents will post that out there.

JG: Even if they stung you, write a thank you letter.

PS: Actually, some editors don’t even want that.

JAP: Be polite. It’s like a job interview. They want to see if they can work with you.

DB: You’ve got to roll with it. It’s not always about the writing. It could be just the fit. Maybe they will want your next story, so don’t burn that bridge.

JG: If they want the partial, you want to include the synopsis so they know what goes in the story, that there’s an end, and that you know how to write a synopsis.

RH: I’ve revised my synopsis as many times as my novel. You want main character arcs, not events. For example, if the theme is how your character deals with fear, you want to only include what relates to the arc.

DB: I once sent in a twenty page outline. My agent told me he wanted a synopsis that was five pages. Don’t include sub-characters or events that won’t move the character.

JG: Keep it short. Leave some mystery. Don’t tell all of the story, like the back jacket blurb.

RH: But reveal the ending. Don’t stop before the end. The editor wants to know.

JG: There could be years of delay. Always send the first chapters and then the manuscript. Then it’s up to them.

JAP: And while you’re waiting, write the next book.