Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.50: How to Hand-Sell Your Manuscript to Agents and Editors, with Michael Underwood and Marco Palmieri

Marco Palmieri and Michael Underwood took the stage with Howard and Dan at GenCon Indy 2015 to discuss hand-selling manuscripts. Marco Palmieri is a senior editor at Tor, and Michael Underwood is an author, and is also the North American Sales and Marketing manager for Angry Robot Books.

We begin with a list of the things to avoid doing, including the classic mistakes like chasing editors into restrooms, but we quickly move on to where you get started, and what your task list is going to look like. We cover resources like Literary Marketplace, Locus, and Publishers Lunch, and the not-so-secret-anymore #MSWL hash-tag.

Homework: Your character has to go undercover at a writing conference, and steal a super-secret manuscript from an editor

Thing of the week:The Providence of Fire: Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, book 2, by Brian Staveley, narrated by Simon Vance.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Don’t try to pitch unless you have read the instructions! Also, know the market. Don’t compare your book to things it has nothing to do with. Don’t interrupt a conversation to pitch your book, don’t pitch your book while the editor is eating, and don’t follow the editor into the bathroom. Do research the markets and the editors. Go to the bookstores, look at the acknowledgements and dedications, and then dig around the web to find out about the editors. Watch the online resources, and social media. Go to the convention publishers’ presentations. Talk to the editor as a person first, then ask about giving a short pitch. The pitch? Brevity! What is the core, emotional or dramatic? What is the essence? Editors are often at a convention to meet writers — don’t be afraid, they are looking for you!

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 50.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, How to Hand-Sell Your Manuscript to Editors and Agents.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Michael] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Marco] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan, and with us today, we have two wonderful guests, Mike Underwood and Marco Palmieri. Introduce yourself. Mike, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
[Michael] I’m Michael Underwood. I’m an author. My first series starts with Geekomancy. It is a world where fandom is magic, and because this is GenCon, I feel right at home. I’m also the sales and marketing manager for Angry Robot Books, an award-winning science fiction publisher, and it is super fun to work here.
[Dan] Awesome. If you guys have been listening to our show for a while, you’ve heard us promo like everything he’s ever written at some point, because we are all big fans. Marco, tell us about yourself.
[Marco] I’m Marco Palmieri, and I’m a senior editor at Tor books, where I have the privilege of editing authors like Max Gladstone, Brian Staveley, Kameron Hurley, Wesley Chu, Laura Lamb, Ilona Meyer, and many, many others.
[Dan] And for two weeks, me.

[Howard] All right. Well, our topic… Mike, you pitched this to us, which was hand-selling manuscripts. I have zero knowledge of this, so I just don’t think I’m the right guide to ask the questions. Dan?
[Dan] I’m going to ask some questions then instead.
[Howard] Oh, thank you.
[Dan] So we are a podcast specifically for aspiring writers. They email us all the time, they talk to us at conventions, and one of the things they really want to know is, how do you… I have this book, it’s wonderful, and I think that someone will love it and publish it. How do I get it in front of them? Before we get to that question, I want to start with the other question first, which is, “What do you not do?” A lot of people who have never pitched something before, who have never sold anything before, they have no idea. This idea of cornering an editor in an elevator and giving them the hard sell… What do you hate getting that they can avoid? Let’s start there.
[Michael] Sure. So one of the things you definitely don’t want to do is go… Try to pitch something to someone, when they’ve specifically told you how to do it and you’re not following instructions. There are publishers who take open submissions that if you send something to them and don’t pay attention to those instructions, you are right out. So first read the instructions. It’s very important for all things. So do that first. Second, know the market. So know how to sell it. There’s kind of an embedded question here. Reading a bunch is going to be super important. So if you sell your book and compare it to things it has nothing to do with, it has not… There’s no chance it’s going to sell like this thing, and it’s not even conceptually close to that thing, don’t compare your work to those things. You have to be smarter about where you’re going to position your work.
[Dan] So this is the thing like I’ve heard countless pitches of “My book is Game of Thrones in Space.” “My book is Game of Thrones with cats.” “My book is…” Whatever.
[Howard] Game of Thrones meets Calvin and Hobbes.
[Dan] Okay. I would read the hell out of that.
[Dan] Marco, what about you? What advice can you give our listeners to avoid, when they are pitching a book, trying to sell a book?
[Marco] Well, I would absolutely echo everything that Mike just said, and add to it that if you see an editor in person, like at a convention or some other social function, the three things I think that are most important to avoid is not to interrupt an editor when they’re having a conversation with someone else in order to pitch your book. Don’t try to pitch your book to an editor while he’s eating. And don’t follow an editor into the bathroom.
[Dan] I’m going to guess, this is just a wild guess, that all of those… All three of those have happened to you at some point.
[Marco] Well, there’s no need to get into that.
[Dan] All right, well, let’s…
[Howard] And Marco calls bingo!

[Dan] Let’s move on them. What are the good things? What’s the first piece of starting advice? Aspiring author, I have just finished this book. I want to sell it to someone. Where do I start?
[Michael] Step one is research markets and within that, editors. So look at what is out there, especially what is really exciting you, and what you think is close to your work. So if you are writing something that’s kind of other world weird with cool stuff you’re doing with magic, then you might look up that Marco Palmieri is the editor of Max Gladstone’s The Craft sequence. So because you know what’s going on and who edits what, you already are ahead of the game if you have a work that you think might be applicable to an editor based on what they’ve already acquired.
[Howard] Mike, let’s pretend for a moment that I’m a writer who lives in his basement. You said research what’s out there?
[Michael] Yup.
[Howard] I don’t even know where to start. I don’t even know what to look at first to find out what is out there. Am I googling “science fiction editors?” How do… Help?
[Michael] Well, one thing you can do… So if you have local bookstores, you can just walk the shelves. Pick up books, flip to the acknowledgments, and almost all writers, and mostly the good ones, will thank their editor.
[Dan] Burn!
[Michael] So you can…
[Michael] So you can find it there. Sometimes it’s in the dedication. So you can do that. You can look in your favorite writers’ websites, and sometimes they’ll talk about their editors. You can go to publisher websites and look on the staff pages or the about us and you can find editors. Or, if you have access to Publishers Weekly, you can look at new deals and it will say, “X writer has written this book, which agent Q has sold to editor Y.” So then you can also see what those editors are buying very recently. You can also find this in Locus magazine.

[Dan] I feel like a lot of this goes back to what you said earlier about knowing your genre in general and reading a lot of it. If you are writing urban fantasy, but you’ve never read any urban fantasy, first of all, you’re probably repeating a lot of tropes and clichés that other people have already done to death. Second of all, you’re not going to have any idea of where to start with those books. Which ones to look in the acknowledgments of. So make sure that you’re well read. Marco, what advice do you give us, to this hypothetical aspiring first time book pitcher?
[Marco] In addition to the kind of research Mike was saying, there’s also some online resources that are really, really valuable. One of them is Publishers Lunch, which is a daily newsletter that reports on deals, who’s buying what, and what’s being sold. There’s the Literary which is a great way to research agents and editors and what they specialize in. There’s also social media. I mean, we live in a miraculous age where we can actually stay in contact with the editors and agents who are also on social media and get a sense… You don’t get to know them necessarily, but you do get a sense of where their sensibilities are and whether or not those sensibilities may match your own. So that’s a good way to do it as well. There’s also a wonderful little hashtag on Twitter that occasionally flares up once in a while called mswl. It’s manuscript wish list. Editors and agents on occasion will use that hashtag to throw out into the world the kinds of books they’re currently looking for at that moment in time. It’s a lot of fun to follow.
[Dan] A lot of those are great to read. I love to do those. One piece of advice I like to give to people if you have the wherewithal to go to a convention, something like… I’ve seen this at DragonCon and I’ve seen this at WorldCon, publishers will have an hour-long panel in which they basically do a slideshow of all their upcoming titles. That’s fantastic, because you get to sit there for an hour and listen to editors talk about what they love. That gives you a wonderful sense of oh, that one I should talk to and that one probably isn’t interested and she would love it. So, there you go.
[Howard] As an object lesson, we are here recording at GenCon…
[Howard] So we’re recording in front of a live audience. Now everybody in this audience knows who Marco Palmieri is. I’m so sorry to have dropped this.
[Howard] They’re all going to follow you into the bathroom, Marco.
[Marco] Instead, please follow me on twitter at mxpalmieri.
[Howard] There you go. But… When I first started going to conventions, I would see people up on stage, have no idea who they were, but I would listen and listen and listen. Suddenly I realized, “Oh, my goodness. This is the person who personally edited some of my very favorite books.” That was a thrill for me. Then I got to meet those people.

[Dan] All right. Let’s take a pause here for our book of the week. Marco, I believe you were going to pitch one to us today?
[Marco] Yeah. I’m really excited to tell you guys about The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley, which is the second book in a trilogy called Chronicle of the Unhuman Throne. It’s epic fantasy that is set in motion by the assassination of the Emperor of a vast and sprawling empire, and follows the exploits of his three young adult children who are trying to navigate the treacherous waters that have been stirred it in the wake of the death of their father.
[Dan] Cool. Tell us the title again.
[Marco] The Providence of Fire.
[Dan] Awesome.
[Howard], start a 30-day free trial membership, support your favorite writing podcast, or Writing Excuses, and get a copy of Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley… Did I get that right?
[Marco] Yes, you did.
[Howard] Absolutely free.

[Dan] Fantastic. All right. So, I’ve done my research. I know who I want to talk to. I see them at a convention. What do I do next?
[Michael] So I think it’s… For almost all editors, in my experience, because I’ve pitched a few editors directly at cons and not gotten thrown out, so there you go. It’s going to be way easier if you have had a human conversation with the editor first. You can, maybe, if you’re bold and/or very good, have that human conversation and finish it by trying to probe to see if it’s okay to pitch. So talk with this editor as a person about the con, about stuff they’re excited in, or find something that you have in common that has nothing to do with books. Because then this editor can see that you are engaging as a person, and that you’re not just there because you’re on laser sight, “Oh, this is an editor, I will sell my book.”
[Michael] Once you’ve done that, and once you’ve kind of created enough of a rapport, you can say, “I’ve got a book. You might be interested in it. Would it be okay if I gave you a short pitch?” Then the editor has a way out. They can say, “Why don’t you email me instead?” Or “I’m not really feeling great right now.” So you’ve reduced the amount of pressure you’re putting on them. If they’ve given you an opening, then you probably want to find like the elevator pitch version of your… Of what makes your book awesome. You’re going to watch and read social cues from the editor to get a sense of whether they are going to be interested in any more. Some editors will help you out.
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, Marcos stopped nodding at everything Michael said and started trembling in terror.

[Howard] Michael, so we’re here at GenCon where role-playing game metaphors play well. What you’ve just told us is that for building our writer character, charisma is not a dump stat. We have to learn how to read social cues, we have to learn how to talk to other people, we have to learn how to go into any conversation, not just with an editor, without interrupting and conversational elephanting our way in.
[Dan] Yeah. On the other hand, you’ve also told us that this is a lot easier than I think a lot of writers think it is. When you initially said, “Then you’re going to probe to see if it’s okay to pitch,” a lot of our listeners out there were like, “Okay. I’m going to find out the secret, mystical, subtle…” No! The subtle probe was, “Would it be all right if I pitched it to you?” Just as clear and direct and low impact. That’s easy to do.
[Michael] It’s super hard to do, because you’re really emotionally invested in your work, but I think… There’s a good chance that you’re going to have a more positive response by leaving it very much in the editor’s hands. Because some editors are at cons because they want to sign writers, and they’re going to create the opportunity. By doing kind of an inquiry probe, you’re giving them the ability to control that conversation, so they’re not made uncomfortable.

[Dan] Awesome. So, you talk about pitching. Marco, what can you tell us? What makes a good elevator pitch?
[Marco] Brevity. The shortest, most concise pitch you can come up with. I mean, that’s why it’s called an elevator pitch, because you want to be able to communicate it inside the span of an elevator ride with someone.
[Dan] Usually not in an actual elevator.
[Marco] Not in an actual elevator, but the metaphor is sound. Yep, brevity is really important. You want to encapsulate it into what is it at its core. Whether it’s the emotional core or the dramatic core. Get it down to its essence. The kind of thing that Mike was talking about earlier I happen to like, if you… It’s some… Dresden Files meets Planet of the Apes. That’s a perfectly decent elevator pitch as far as I’m concerned. I won’t necessarily buy Dresden Files meets Planet of the Apes, but it’s a good elevator pitch.
[Howard] Have you heard that one, because now I want to write it? Right?
[Marco] Let’s talk.
[Dan] See how easy it is [garbled]

[Howard] I have another question for Marco. If you and I are meeting for the first time, and I let drop, in a very conversationally natural way, “Oh, I write.” Are you going to lead with a question like, “Oh, well, what do you write?”
[Marco] I might. Yeah. I’m very much inclined to do that in a setting like this, because that’s partly why I’m here. It’s like to get to know people and to… Especially people who are interested in the same business I am. To see if there is any common ground that we share, which might lead to a professional relationship. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m pursuing that aggressively…
[Howard] Right. It’s not always going to happen.
[Marco] But if it’s going to happen organically, I absolutely have no problem encouraging it.
[Dan] That’s a good point to bring up, that you don’t need to be afraid, in a convention setting, to approach an editor, because most of them are at that convention to work. That’s part of their job, is to find new books and new authors. So you’re not imposing on them, you’re part of their job.
[Marco] It’s actually very flattering. I mean, to have someone actually want to talk to you because they… You somehow represent something that they feel that they… A passion that you share with them.

[Dan] Awesome. Well. I believe we are about out of time. So thanks, both of you, for being on the show. I think this has been incredibly helpful to our listeners. I believe we have a writing prompt?
[Michael] All right. So your character has to go undercover at a writing conference and get access to an editor so that you can steal a supersecret manuscript. Figure out how they are going to case the editor, their interests, and pitch them so that they can then get access to the secret USB with the manuscript of awesomeness.
[Dan] Excellent. The manuscript of awesomeness.
[Marco] They have to do it without following the guy into the bathroom.
[Howard] Okay. So the bathroom and the elevator are off-limits.
[Dan] Okay. Very good. Well. All right. Thank you very much. For our listeners, you are out of excuses. Now go write.