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Writers' Conference Advice

From an Editorial Director at Random House Children's Books

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Each year, thousands of writers flock to writers' conferences to meet with agents and editors in pitch sessions -- brief meetings in which authors pitch their book idea. If a pitch session goes well, the editor or agent will ask to see a proposal, the first step (of many) toward a book contract. Naturally, it's a nerve-wracking experience. If you only have ten minutes with an editor, how do you convince him or her that your book is worth publishing?

To find out, I spoke with an editorial director at Random House Children's Books. Though she works with children's authors, her advice applies to writers of all genres. As one of the few editors who still reads unsolicited submissions, she requested that I not use her name -- the last time she did she was overwhelmed with submissions. Of course, knowing how many writers you're competing with only underscores the necessity of following her advice to make the best possible impression.

About.com: How many writers' conferences do you attend each year, and on average how many proposals will you look at as a result?

Editorial Director: I generally attend one or two writers' conferences a year. While there, I may be on the receiving end of as many as 30 one-on-one pitch sessions.

My imprint has a policy of not accepting unsolicited manuscripts, but I usually open the submission policy for a window of two months' time after conferences for attendees only. I may receive anywhere from 55-75 submissions. In some cases I also review 10-20 manuscripts prior to attending a conference.

Sad to say, but I have never acquired a manuscript as a result of attending a writer's conference though I feel it's valuable to open myself to new relationships with writers and agents, gauge new trends, and get a bead on the level of sophistication of writers in different cities from different organizations.

AC: What should writers do to prepare for pitch sessions?

ED: Distill your story down to its essence on paper first. It's not dissimilar to writing a cover letter that would accompany your manuscript. Try summarizing your story in three sentences or less. Make it concise, punchy, intriguing, original. During the pitch you'll also want to convey that you've done your homework: place your book in a context. What's the genre? Who is the audience? What other books or writers would you compare your work to? (Beware of hubris! See the next question!) If your story isn't particularly original (and if you've done your homework, you'll know this), why should the editor bother to consider it? What sets your story apart from other books that have covered the same ground? Practice your pitch on someone who knows nothing about your story. Get feedback. Hone your pitch. Remember, this pitch is a professional exchange, almost like a job interview. You are trying to sell something. Do share relevant background information about yourself such as whether you've been published before, relevant professional experience, your "platform," etc.

AC: What are some of the mistakes writers make when meeting with you at a conference?

ED: Ah, you'd be surprised! Some people have actually overstepped the bounds of appropriate behavior such as behaving too familiarly or unprofessionally, following me into the bathroom with their manuscript (or pitching to me through the stall door -- true story!), or hounding me while I'm eating. (Editors need to recharge!) Very simple advice: don't be too forward. Don't be stiff, but do be professional! And, whatever you do, don't claim that your book is going to be a "classic" or a "bestseller" or the next Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter. Resist the impulse to share the story of why (or for whom) you wrote the book unless you are specifically asked. It's clear that some writers allow themselves to be clouded by their emotional attachment to their story. Whatever you do, don't take rejection or constructive criticism personally. The evaluation of a work is partially objective, partially subjective, but essentially it comes down to business.

AC: What can a writer do to make you want to see his or her work?

ED: Prepare your materials -- cover letter and manuscript -- carefully and professionally. Conduct yourself professionally. Be knowledgeable about the genre, market, and/or age group you're writing for. If possible, familiarize yourself with the editor's house -- since each company or imprint has a different style. Some publishers make for a better fit than others so don't try to force your work into a home where it won't fit in. If you write something original and distinctive, an editor will want to read more!

AC: Do you have advice on how to follow up in a professional manner?

ED: If an editor has agreed to consider your work, you may ask him or her for a rough time frame for when you can expect a response. You may also ask him/her whether you may follow up with a note or an e-mail -- but never a phone call! I repeat -- never call an editor to follow up on the status of your submission. A brief note or an e-mail is much more professional. (A thank you note is a welcome and subtle reminder that you're eager for a response!) Do allow sufficient time to pass. A few weeks or less after a conference is not enough time for an editor to get through conference submissions; editors are, after all, editing projects that are already signed up, and these are their first priority!

For more advice from an editor, see Jeanette Perez, of HarperCollins on submitting your novel to an editor. For some thoughts on writing for children, see this interview with Lemony Snicket.

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