Opportunity Isn’t Always Knocking

The setting: A regional booksellers’ trade show, at which sales reps from publishers of all sizes show off the books for the upcoming season to local booksellers.

The players:
Sales rep,
as mentioned above;
an author,
signing some of his books;
an unpublished writer, hoping to network.

AUTHOR sits at a table, surrounded by piles of his books.  He clearly has a small line of booksellers to whom he is talking.  He is constantly taking books from the piles, putting his John Hancock on the title page, and handing them to the booksellers.  This repeated action should be a clue that he’s an author, not an employee of the publishing house.

(However, in case there’s any lingering confusion, he is also wearing a name badge that is a different color than the ones worn by publisher-attendees.  Publisher badges are in turn a different color than bookseller/librarian badges.  Keep this in mind.)

UNPUBLISHED WRITER wanders over to table, pretending to look at the books on display, but more obviously waiting until the line dies down.  She stands directly in front of the author, waiting to get his attention.

UNPUBLISHED WRITER, to AUTHOR:  Hello, how are you?

AUTHOR:  Very well, thank you.  Would you like me to sign a copy of my book for you?

UW:  Oh, um, no thank you.  Do you publish gardening books?

AUTHOR, baffled-but-gracious:  I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that, but this lady would.  (AUTHOR gestures kindly to SALES REP.)

SALES REP:  We do have some gardening titles.  I can show you–

UW, still to AUTHOR, ignoring SALES REP:  I’ve written this book on backyard gardens, you see.

AUTHOR, politely:  Oh, that’s… lovely.  Good for you!

UW, still to AUTHOR:  So I was wondering which imprints you have that publish gardening books.

AUTHOR, gesturing once more to SALES REP:  I honestly wouldn’t know.  I’m just here to sign books, but this lady can tell you.

SALES REP, trying to rescue author:  Our imprints are X, Y and Z, but they don’t put out many gardening books.  However, we distribute for A, B and C, who do.  I can show you their catalog.

UW, finally acknowledging SALES REP:  Are you an editor?

SALES REP:  No, I sell books to booksellers.

UW:  Oh.  (Looks hopefully back at AUTHOR, who has mercifully been engaged by a bookseller.)  Are there any editors here?

SALES REP:  No ma’am.  It’s mostly sales reps that come to regional shows.

UW, deflating:  Oh. (Walks away without a thank you or even a goodbye.)


I knew what this person was after as soon as she came up to our table.  Her body language had a certain determination to it, and something in the way she made eye contact set off my “we’re about to be pitched” alarms.

I’ve been doing this for ten years.  Not a show has gone by where we haven’t been approached by a hopeful author.  Why this woman insisted on continuing to ask questions of the author rather than the person who quite clearly works for the publisher, I’m not sure.  I suppose the author looked more… editorial than I do. But had I been an editor, she sure wouldn’t have been earning any brownie points with that dismissal.

Many writerly places online suggest that you always be ready to pitch, just in case you have that random experience of bumping into someone who can get your foot in the door.  Writers are encouraged to attend local conventions, too, where agents and editors might be lurking.  A lot of those functions are specifically geared towards (or at the very least, welcome) new writers.  If you look at the schedule and see panels dedicated to honing your pitches and query letters, or if the guest list posted online features agents and editors whose bios say “So-and-so is looking for…” then you’re in the right place to pitch.

But not every book industry event is geared towards networking.  Put another way, it’s not always about what’s up-and-coming.  Sometimes it’s about what’s coming right now.

If you’re attending an industry gathering that is NOT specifically tuned for writers: 

Learn the purpose of the event.  For example, the situation above happened at a trade show.  A trade show is a place where sales representatives connect with their booksellers.  They showcase the upcoming season’s books, highlighting can’t-miss titles and hidden gems on their lists.  Booksellers often have a day or two worth of workshops and panels on the business of bookselling.  While I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has a story of how they got published by making a connection at a regional fall show, it’s not the event’s primary function.

Or say you scored an invite to a launch party for someone else’s book.  That’s great!  A launch party is pretty much what it sounds like:  an evening of WOOHOO, THIS NEW AWESOME BOOK IS OUT!  Keep in mind that the focus of that particular night will be — rightfully — on the author of the shiny new book.

Know WHO will be attending.  At a trade show, in addition to sales reps and authors, you might find a few publicists or marketing people in attendance.  Editors generally don’t come to trade shows, though it’s not unheard of.  However, if they’re present, it’s probably because one of their authors is making an appearance.  They’re going to focus on that person.  If you do bump into an editor, it is probably not a great time to pitch — they’re working, and not on finding new talent.

A launch party will have a mish-mash of people:  the book’s editor, the publicist, marketing people.  Possibly a sales rep from the area.  The author’s agent.  Local booksellers.  Book bloggers.  Reviewers.  The author’s friends and family.  Again, this night is about that particular author.  You might indeed find yourself next to an editor or agent while at the cheese tray or in line for the bar.  If you strike up a conversation, remember that the party celebrates their success, too, in bringing the book into print.  Know something about the author or the title and say something nice about it before you bring up your own stuff.

Be interested.  Notice that I didn’t say “be interesting” — sure, you want people to like you, but the sparkliest personality in the world does jack and shit if you demonstrate you can’t be arsed about why the other guests are there.

No matter what kind of event you’re at, if the focus is on something other than you-the-writer, be enthusiastic about that thing.

I’m not saying you should wave pompoms around and declare your undying love for typefaces (“I want to have Helvetica’s babies!”)  But if you’re a guest at someone else’s housewarming party, you don’t start every conversation with how awesome your own house is while the host is giving a tour, do you?

Participate in conversations, or if you truly have no idea what your fellow party-goers are talking about, listen politely.  And attentively — people notice when your eyes have glazed over.

Ask questions/make comments that aren’t designed to lead into your own stuff. If you’re spending most of your time analyzing the conversation for good segues into your own work, stop.  Go back to the part where you listen politely.

Let’s set a guideline, shall we? You might — if it’s an honest-to-baby-Jesus appropriate moment, and the point is relevant — mention your work once during the conversation: “Oh, you ride horses? I was doing some research into Seabiscuit’s bloodline, and found this Really Cool Fact.” You could say you were doing the research “for a book,” but honestly, the carrot has been dangled at this point. If the person you’re conversing with asks why you were researching thoroughbred bloodlines, by all means, say you’re writing a book.

But if they don’t reach for that carrot, if they don’t start following your breadcrumb trail, if the scent of your delicious apple-and-conversation pie doesn’t lead them to your windowsill, drop it. Do not keep hinting. Do not keep finding ways to work in more mentions.

It’s a fair bet that they know what you’re trying to get them to ask. If they don’t spit out that golden question, respect that maybe, just maybe, they would like to take a night off from being pitched.

If the angels sing and “What is your book about?” comes flowing forth from their lips, you’re still not in the clear. Try out your one-liner (“It’s a historical romance about a farrier and a horse thief.”)

Then watch their response. I don’t mean you ought to stare at them and scrutinize their every move. That’s creepy. But be honest with yourself: does the person you’re talking to seem genuinely interested? Or are they trying to steer the topic to something else?

Here’s another thing: if I’ve been talking to you for ten minutes, thinking you’re engaging me sincerely because we share an interest, then, wham, you go into elevator pitch mode, I’m going to feel used. Like you’ve only been pretending to give a shit so you can get something out of me.

It can be hard to gauge this. I know. What I’m aiming for here is, be ready to talk about your book in normal conversation. But be ready to stop talking about your book, too.

Connect, don’t network.  Chances are, you won’t be the first writer who has encountered an editor or agent out in the wild and attempted a pitch.  As you can see from above, it’s not restricted to agents and editors, either.  Some people hear “I work for a publisher” and their brain jumps right to OMFG THIS IS MY BIG CHANCE.

It happened to me at a friend’s wedding:  the significant other of my friend’s friend came marching up to me, gave me a firm, practiced handshake, and said, “You’re the one who works in publishing, right?”

I said yes, that’s true.  I told her what I do, hoping to pre-empt the inevitable.  I even said something like, “I don’t touch the editorial or acquisitions side of the business.” But she didn’t even hear it; she was so busy gearing up to hit me with the premise of her YA novel.  All attempts I made to steer the conversation towards How to Get an Agent were met with blank eyes and an oh-that’s-nice grin.

It was an awkward few minutes during which she waited for me to say “Oh hey, why don’t I bring that back to the editors?  Matter of fact, why don’t I email it to them RIGHT NOW?” and during which I said nothing of the sort.

I thanked baby zombie Jesus when I learned we’d be sitting at separate tables.

Thing is, when we’re treated like nothing more than your potential big break, we notice.  Consider that it might be better to spend an evening talking about books you loved, or your favorite bookstore, or the library you spent your childhood in.  Then, if you’ve been invited to contact the editor or agent later on, you’ll be remembered as the person who spent an evening talking to them like another human being rather than “the one who wanted to cram a manuscript in my cordon bleu.”

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2 Responses to Opportunity Isn’t Always Knocking

  1. Chris Bauer says:

    Thanks for sharing this insight. While I’ve yet to behave like some of the folks described in your post, I can see how it could “accidentally” happen. Appreciate the wisdom.

  2. falconesse says:

    It’s a grey area, absolutely, and it can be really hard to tell when someone’s giving you that legitimate opening if they’re not specifically saying, “Let me hear your pitch.” But there are some sites that suggest any writer who comes into contact with anyone who works for a publisher should take the shot, and oof, that’s awful advice.

    My guess is, the authors who have approached me in this way have read article after article about how to promote themselves, and spent more time getting dubious writing tips on the internet than they do actually writing or editing their work. (Or, as Jim Macdonald puts it, they’re playing Author: The Roleplaying Game. Which makes me an NPC who can give them experience points, I guess?)

    It’s not as bad as the stories of people shoving manuscripts under the bathroom door when an editor’s in the stall, but it’s about as effective. Less, actually, since all I can do is tell them (politely) they need an agent to submit to my employer.

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