It's only around four hours since I left the Mark Hopkins Hotel atop Nob Hill after spending three very intense days at the 2009 San Francisco Writer's Conference, attending workshops, networking, taking in keynote talks from established writers, enjoying great meals, and getting feedback from freelance editors--all leading up to today's climax, an hour of "speed-dating", three minutes with each of fifteen high-powered literary agents!
I went into the weekend Friday morning thinking "Can I do it?" and "What's it gonna be?" I'd read something about a "25-word pitch" to sell a book to an agent, and indeed, after welcoming remarks by Mark Larson and Elizabeth Pomada of Larson-Pomada Literary Agents, the founders and co-hosts of the annual conference, the first session in the Big Room was "Pitchcraft". Agent Katherine Sands informed us in a lively way that one must create a spark in those first few minutes, and that agents, who sort through a couple hundred proposals or manuscripts in a week, are trained to listen closely for the things they want. The speed-dating session is like a first date, she adroitly explained.
Well, to cut to the chase, I did it! At noon today, Sunday, I filed in to the Room of the Dons with dozens of other writers. There, one to a table, each table with a little sign, the agents, those juicy literary plumlets, sat. We had been advised to go to a table with little or no waiting, rather than to get in a long line that might take up most of the allotted time, and I immediately saw Jennifer Matson, the only agent in the room who handles children's literature exclusively, sitting alone. Though I'd worked mainly to prepare a pitch for a non-fiction project about my work with small children, I made a bee line for Jennifer and asked her if she'd read one of my children's picture book (fiction) stories. In the interest of time, I gave her a very short one, waited anxiously--and felt elated to see her laugh! "I like it," she said. "Funny is good!" She had some concern that it might be too short, but I assured her I had a longer one in a similar vein. "Send it to me!" she said. Success! The 3-minutes-are-up bell rang, and I thanked Jennifer and went on my way.
Across the room I noticed another "no waiting" table and saw that the agent there was Andy Ross, who for thirty years, until recently, owned the famous Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley. "I'm the least experienced agent here," he had explained in the intros. "But I've 'agented' individual copies of thousands upon thousands of titles. Not only that, but I always guaranteed returns!" I was happy to approach Andy with my non-fiction pitch.
For various reasons, however, it turned out Andy wasn't keen on what I had to sell. Well, now I had a choice: I could run crying or screaming from the room...or I could take a deep breath, size up the lines again, and take another crack.
Well, here's what I have to report, writers! One agent's nightmare can be another agent's dream! For the rest of the hour, agents took my project seriously, listened attentively, made creative suggestions, and in three cases, said, "When you've done that, write a complete book proposal and send it to me." Michael Larson, as empathetic as he is energetic, gave me the biggest lift of the day when he said, "Yours is the best title I've heard all day!" Then he said, "This is something you can do!" and proceeded to give me some very specific guidance for how to guide my project to fuition as a published BOOK.
Afterward I phoned my wife and then my mother in Florida. Judging by mom's tears and emotional voice, I felt like I'd won an Oscar or a Nobel Prize, or gotten a seven-figure advance for my book! And it's true: in a sense, this was my big test, so far.
In fact, before I go, I'd like to thank mom for believing in me enough to make my attending the San Francisco Writer's Conference, with its $645 registration fee, financially possible, and my wife Barbara for being so obliging when I phoned her at 7 AM this morning from a North Beach coffeehouse where I was starting over from scratch on my pitch after having been completely shot down yesterday by one of my favorite editor/agents in a little "pre-dating" session. Barbara had responded by telling her what SHE loves about my book...words that I knew she meant from the bottom of her heart. And THAT became the winner pitch I used.
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