Third in a series following my memoir as it moves from manuscript to published book (May 2018). You can find the first two installments here.
I mentioned in the last post that I'd drop back now and then to glimpse what transpired before I knew my book had found its home. A lot happened before—some of it perhaps helpful to those currently seeking a publisher for a memoir (or any book, for that matter).
Dropping back to spring of 2016, one year exactly before I signed with University of Nevada Press, I began to query small traditional publishers who accept un-agented work—boutique literary publishers, some university presses; and I entered a few book manuscript contests.
Except for the contests, this meant I needed a compelling query/cover letter. That's where my background in public relations, and experience getting assignments for freelance articles helped—and also hindered me. It's one thing to be proficient at tooting the horn of a client, as PR pros do, and landing article assignments about topics that I'm interested in but that aren't as passionately close to my heart, as my memoir. It's quite another to evaluate, position, and pitch your own work—and harder still to separate one's writing self from one's memoir manuscript.
My first query/cover letter was good, but not great; a bit too workmanlike and overly focused on literary craft. I was, perhaps, trying to follow too much differing advice: mirror the voice of the book – give the full narrative scope as you would a novel – highlight the published excerpts – focus on author background and publishing history – sell the takeaway – emphasize the emotional arc. In the first six months, I got a handful of requests for opening chapters, and was long-listed for one contest. But no requests for the full manuscript.
I had an inkling I wasn't being my own best advocate. I was too close to the work and could not really see what to do differently. Mind you, I routinely help revise and edit others' query letters and synopses (many of which have led to publishing deals), but you know what they say about doctors who treat themselves (they have a fool for a patient!).
We all have blind spots, and it would turn out mine were labeled: (1) Thinking too small. (2) Thinking too much like a writer.
I attended a writers conference in fall of 2016 and—reluctantly but thinking why not—signed up for three slots in the agent pitch sessions. Faced with a strict five minutes to interest them in my manuscript and answer their questions--across a tiny round table, with 20 other tiny round table pitching conversations happening in the room--I had to frame my story in a compelling way that cut through the noise and what I can only imagine is the mental exhaustion agents experience in such a setting.
Did I mention that I love talking to new people, listening, and learning from them?
The first two were polite and seemingly enthusiastic, asking me to send them chapters. Just as important, I was able to see—on their faces, in their body language, the way they moved their gaze from me to my pages—and to hear—in their tone of voice, pauses, inflection—which of my words, descriptions, phrasing, and focal points were resonating. And which were falling flat.
But the third agent delivered the true value of those 15 minutes. He prompted me to re-evaluate how I was thinking about my book and how I'd been positioning it when querying. He listened to my initial 45-second spiel, asked a question or two, skimmed the first few pages (we'd been instructed to bring along).
Then he said something like this: Let's assume it's a given that your work is beautifully written, well structured, highly polished. I’m not your MFA mentor; you don't have to convince me you're a good writer. I want you to tell me who your ideal reader is and why they will want to read this instead of a bunch of other books. Tell me why your book would interest someone who is not in the literary world. What might this memoir mean to someone you don't know? What's the message? Think big.
Wouldn’t most writers have wanted an hour to draft, revise, and rewrite something in response to that? But he was waiting for me to reply, then and there, across that tiny table, in that buzzing room. For maybe the first time, I allowed myself to imagine my manuscript as a finished book, one that deserved space on a bookstore shelf, a book that went way beyond little old me telling my story. A book with bigger sweep. With something to say to strangers, something of value.
After I finished talking for a minute or so (rambling, more like), he smiled and said, That's more like it. Now I'm interested.
This two-minute exchange changed everything.
It shifted my thinking back to my early PR days. Now I was the client with a product to publicize. What makes this client's product (book) not only great, but preferable to others? What—in sales terms—is the (book's) Unique Selling Proposition? Why this product (book) and not another one?
I had been thinking of, and perhaps positioning the manuscript as a creative project, entirely me-driven—which is how one must think of a manuscript while writing it—instead of a book, one of many competing for attention of readers. It now had to stand out as something completely separate from me, separate from my writing brain, my personal life, even from my reasons for writing it.
When I left the pitch session, I found a quiet spot in the hotel lobby, pulled out my computer and wrote an entirely new query letter. There would be six more months of querying, but those were dotted frequently with requests for chapters, and, in the end, five requests for the full manuscript.
Although it was an in-person unplanned meeting—during which I talked about my book—with the director of my future publisher (and not my revised query letter) that led to the offer I'd accept (I eventually had two offers), I credit that agent I met in a nerve-wracking pitch session six months before, for setting me in motion on a new track. His challenge that day changed the way I thought about, and talked about, my book. And that changed everything.
Other posts in the series – Part I (Contract signing, waiting period; working with a university press); Part II (Final manuscript revisions).
You can find tips on preparing for pitch sessions at this post from Susan Breen.