What I learned about pitching at the London Book Fair

Being ready can take a long time
I started writing The PTA Assassin two and a half years ago. When it was done, I followed up with the first edit. Then a second one. Then a massive third edit took place last year when I paid someone professional to look at it. Since then it’s undergone a copy edit too, and after all that I’m confident it’s in a reasonably good state for submission.

I actually started submitting 18 months ago, sometime before the third edit, and I look back now and I’m not surprised I was rejected out of hand by everyone. It was horrible. POV was all over the map, my grammar was inexcusable in places and the climax at the end was about as dangerous as a Blue Peter advent calendar.

After a diligent manuscript review by my wonderful mentor at PWA, however, it was looking in much better shape. I got my synopsis together, brushed up my cover letter and started all over again with new agents. This time, I got some positive responses. Twice now, it’s made it off the slush pile, although not quite converted to a deal yet. Undaunted, I headed to the London Book Fair this week to meet with an agent face to face.

The Elevator Pitch
‘What’s your book about?’
So many other writers have asked me this at the LBF this week, and it’s been a brilliant way of polishing up my elevator pitch. By the time it came to meet an agent for my one-to-one session on Thursday, I could have told my 2-minute version of The PTA Assassin to her in my sleep. So instead of worrying about ‘knowing my subject’, I focused on preparing the other things an agent might be looking for when they met me – knowing around my subject.

Say it out loud before you go
I got on well with the agent I met, and she instantly warmed to the idea of the book. I have to say, that helped a lot. She asked me about the genre, the audience it’s aimed at, what books are most like the one I’ve written. Of course, nerves got the better of me at this point. I managed to a) forget Janet Evanovich’s name and then oh! the joy of remembering it, swiftly followed by b) not be able to say it properly the first five times I tried. Still, we got there in the end. I felt a bit of an idiot though. Note to self: Learn how to actually pronounce out loud the name of the person you’ve read books by since you were in your twenties and written repeatedly into your cover letter for the past two years.

Make a connection
The agent asked who my main character was, and what she was like. ‘She’s like Bridget Jones but with a gun,’ I said. ‘But more competent than Bridget.’ ‘So in a film, she’d have Melissa McCarthy playing her?’ the agent said. ‘No, I think she’s more of an Olivia Coleman,’ I replied. We laughed. ‘Got it,’ she said. It was a brilliantly fast way of getting on the same page and giving her a vision to work with. You don’t get that in an email submission.

Know what you want
She asked if there was a sequel and if I intended it to be a trilogy or a series. ‘It’s a series’ I said, although noted that there’s only a finite amount of research one can pick up on the internet about MI5 so there were limitations. We talked about where the PTA Assassin was set, how it ends, and where the next one picks up. ‘Don’t set it too far after the first one,’ said the agent, ‘or she’ll be 107 by the fifth book.’ I like the way she thinks. She asked what else I write, and what I do for a living currently. She asked briefly about another book I was writing but when I couldn’t describe it without stuttering, I asked if I could pitch that another time when I could remember what it was about and she laughed and agreed that might be best. She asked if I would be able/willing to write something at the suggestion of a publisher, rather than it being my own initial idea. We talked for 15 minutes and about half of that wasn’t about my book. It felt comfortable and not at all scary. Dare I say fun?

Please-Like-Me-Meme-Girl-FaceStay positive
She’s asked for my manuscript. Obviously I was totally cool about it and didn’t say ‘Really?’ in a high pitched squeak of excitement (honest). But even if she decides that ultimately it’s not for her, I learned a ton about pitching from that meeting. Getting face to face time was great for me. It wouldn’t suit everyone, I’m sure, but for me it was great to be able to express myself and convey my sense of humour – humour that the book contains, too. You just can’t do that on a cover letter without sounding like a total prat.

I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know yet, if I’ll ever get an agent or end up self publishing. But even if you self publish, you still have to pitch your book to people to get them to buy the damn thing. There will be signings and launches and PR to do and every time, you’ll need to convince people that your book is worth reading. So I would say to anyone out there who’s in the same position, to practice, practice, practice, and get good at telling people about what you wrote. You never know who might want to read it.

 

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What I learned about self publishing at the London Book Fair

I decided to brave the London Book Fair for the first time this year.

The LBF isn’t really for authors, but they do have a special little corner for us where talks are given and, if you were quick off the mark when the tickets went on sale, where you can get a 10-minute agent one-to-one to pitch your work. I’ve decided to use the fair to make some informed decisions regarding whether I should keep pursuing the traditional publishing route or self publish, so today I devoted my day to finding out about self publishing and sourcing people to help me do that.

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Self publishing feels like quite a daunting prospect, I don’t know why. It all seems like a lot of hard work. No, let’s put that another way:  it is a lot of hard work. And investment – of time and money – the returns on which are very unclear. I’ve toyed with the idea for sometime now but I’ve been unconvinced I’ll be very successful for a myriad of reasons: I don’t understand the tech, I’m scared of doing it wrong, I worry about wasting a lot of money on stuff I don’t need, I don’t know how to market my book to make people buy it, I won’t have the security blanket of an agent/publisher to help me make decisions, I will be the one to make all the decisions and they might be bad ones because I don’t know what I’m doing … I could go on. Basically, there’s a lot I don’t know.

Then of course there’s my ego. ‘Getting published’ sends a very clear message to your friends, family, adoring fans, unknown critics, etc etc., that you have been approved and endorsed by at least one other person who isn’t your mum.  Self publishing feels like you might have made it all up, that you are good at writing in any real way, like you paid your way into a world you don’t deserve to live in and it’s just going to be you and your mum buying 300 copies of a book for £2.27 plus postage and packing.

But today I listened to lots of people talking about the self-publishing experience and concluded that there are some very compelling reasons why I should get over myself and seriously think about doing it. In terms of control over your work and your career, it seems like self publishing beats trad hands down. You work at your own speed, have complete control of your end product (no editors changing your book title, ending, etc), retain the ability to flit between genres without upsetting a publisher who wants you to only write a certain kind of book, and stay directly in contact with your readers.

Of course, the little devil on my shoulder still says that self publishing means your book wasn’t ‘good enough’ to get picked up by an agent or publisher. And there is no doubt that for many people, the holy grail of getting one is the most important thing. But a number of authors who spoke today had deliberately chosen self publishing, even though they had been traditionally published before. Yes, there is a lack of reach, due to money and time and the ability to distribute across all the same channels as trad publishers enjoy. But something that really struck a chord for me was the entrepreneurial spirit of these authors: their joy in acquiring knowledge about the industry, the tech, the marketing and distribution; the buzz they clearly had, of being successful and respected, not only as authors but as business people too. It looked like a lot of fun.

The confidence in their product and the way they had got their stories out there was really interesting to observe. All of them had strengths and weaknesses; all of them identified their weaknesses, hired someone to do that bit of the process, and moved on. I thought about the crushing feeling of getting rejection after rejection, of the endless waiting to hear from an agent, of the vague notion that your book (as you wrote it) might never see the light of day. Your self confidence as a fledgling author is being permanently bashed up and it’s hard to stay positive when you’re staring into the abyss of having to do yet another submission to keep the dream alive. I’m finding it hard to be patient and stay positive through that. But then I thought about the motivation and satisfaction I get, from learning what good looks like. Of getting a job done well – and of having something to aim for – of having deadlines and being organised and in charge. I came to the conclusion that self publishing might just be a way to remove all the anxieties about being ‘good enough’ and just get on with achieving something.

One of the authors speaking made the point, that you will only ever be successful if you make your book indistinguishable from published authors of the same genre, which means you have to write a very good book. So either way, you have to write a very good book. How you get it out there and convince people to read it is purely down to luck, personal preference, or because your cousin’s husband works for a literary agent. So, lots to think about. Tomorrow I’m back to the LBF to pitch to an agent and consider the trad route. It will be interesting to compare how I’m feeling about things after that. If my ego is still speaking to me by then, of course. 

Conformity

The brilliant Matt Haig posted on Twitter yesterday. Anyone who follows him will know this is hardly unusual, but this particular tweet stood up, grabbed the microphone and shouted ‘Faye! I’m talking to YOU.’

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Deep, huh? It immediately made me think about the past few years, of moving country and returning to London, and of my determination to ‘fit in’ with people I thought I had things in common with. On paper, fitting in should have made me happy, but instead I managed to accomplish a whole new level of invisible within the environment I’d placed myself, simply by attempting to conform. When Matt wrote ‘The moment you fit right in, you disappear’ I could immediately identify with it, and when I thought about it in the context of writing, I realised the conundrum was also true of books as well.

In fiction there are always trends coming and going – think unreliable narrators, vampires and, if my tween-radar is pointing in the right direction, llamas – and it would be fair to assume that the easiest way to get a publishing deal might be to write to a particular trend. For example, my Twitter feed has been overflowing for a while now with books displaying threatening titles in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS about women with revenge issues. There have been some chillingly great books written in this genre in the past few years. But the original thing we all liked about them was the twist at the end, the unexpected violence, the shocking revelation. Conformity to the genre has rendered invisible many of the books sitting within it. Now we all know what to expect when we pick up one of these books, and we look for it, which makes it less exciting and therefore less attractive to the reader who no longer feels the thrill these books once offered.

I’m not saying it’s not important to write within a genre. If you don’t conform to something then most people are going to struggle to identify what your book is about, whether they will like it, and most importantly, whether they will buy it. If a reader likes books about llamas, chances are they’ll buy more than one of them, too, which is why you generally want your book to sit on a shelf next to lots of other books about llamas. It’s why agents and publishers always look for books they can categorise, preferably one that’s right in the sweet spot of the ‘genre du jour’ so they can ride the wave and max their sales.

As an author, you need to conform to the genre you are writing in so that you can compete. But as soon as you do, you become invisible, so you have to make sure you have something extra to offer. You must write (and write extremely well) in a recognisable genre, whilst maintaining something different about your novel that makes it stand out from the crowd. As a new author in particular, that’s hard, because you’re also sitting in the slush pile – somewhere you definitely don’t want to ‘fit in’.

My novel, The PTA Assassin, sits squarely in the behemoth that is ‘Commercial women’s fiction’. Personally, I think this genre sounds as appealing as cold custard on broccoli, and when I’m submitting to agents, I like to emphasise other qualities of the book that make it different. It’s a spy novel. A middle-aged woman is the protagonist. It’s humorous. Actually, someone told me not to describe it as funny in case it wasn’t – comedy is notoriously hard to pitch – but the rebel in me refused to conform so for better or for worse, I left it in anyway.

Possibly for the better. At the moment my full manuscript is sitting with an agent. Whether the writing is good enough, whether the story holds up, whether the agent believes it will sell, remains to be seen. But it gives me hope that I got off the slush pile, that maybe the book was just different enough to be noticed without being out-and-out weird. Which come to think of it, is exactly how I’d like to be thought of, too.