Author: Donna

Preparing to pitch: From cringe to ‘bring it on!’

(from March Hearts Talk) by Sue Price and Sharyn Swanepoel, Pitch Coordinators

If you plan on attending the 30th anniversary RWA conference at the Gold Coast in August 2021, start planning now to pitch your completed manuscript to publishers. This year’s Pitch Coordinators, Sue Price and Sharyn Swanepoel, asked RWA members Anna Ugrinic, Bronwyn Stuart, Donna Munro, Maggie Mundy, Nancy Cunningham and Stephanie Mayne (who came up with the title) if they would share pitching pearls of wisdom. Thankfully, they said “Yes!” 

What are your top tips for a successful pitch?

Anna: Know your story and be yourself. The agent/editor on the other side of the table isn’t there to cross-examine you – they want your story.

Bron: Don’t be scared! As long as you’ve done some research and know the pitch-taker publishes what you write, they can only say yes or no. 

Donna: Be prepared by practising your elevator pitch until you know it by heart. You must understand the essence of your story to be able to sell it. And, if you don’t love your MS, who will?

Maggie: Keep it simple. Be polite. It’s a pitch not a synopsis. Get a good tagline to grab attention.

Nancy: Keep your pitch punchy and brief – the main part of your pitch should be no more than a few minutes.

Steph: Six weeks out – immerse yourself / refresh on all things pitching e.g. YouTube, Hearts Talk author suggestions, etc.

Four weeks out – write your pitch and read it out until it sounds natural.

Three weeks out – get over your self-consciousness by recording yourself in the mirror / on your phone and playing back in the car/alone. Note when you don’t sound confident/say ‘um’ too much. Continue practising, recording, playing back until you break through the cringe to Bring It On!

One week out –  give it a rest.

Pick it up again before the pitch appointment, with public speaking nerves and awkwardness ironed out, ready to go!

Anything you regret doing in past pitch appointments? What do you wish you’d done instead?

Anna: Years ago an editor was typing everything I said into her laptop then didn’t want the story. I worried about it afterwards. Now I would call a halt to a pitch if it was to happen again.

Bron: I got a little cranky once when I pitched a book outside of the Regency ballrooms and when the editor said they only want glam ballroom romances, I kind of switched off rather than asking questions or probing more.

Donna: (Zoom pitch 2020) In my synopsis, I left out an important plot point. When I mentioned it during the pitch, the agent probably assumed my manuscript was incomplete. She asked why I left out something crucial to the story. I thought I had to give her a blurb. Even if it says the blurb, clarify if it should be a synopsis. Don’t leave the main points out because this particular plot point made her like the story more.

Nancy: Ask more questions about what might be more marketable for them in the future.

What about measures of success? After sending your manuscript did you receive positive/encouraging feedback?

Anna: Sometimes you get feedback, sometimes you never hear back. Feedback in most cases is a broad statement about your MS not fitting their list. It will depend on the publisher/agent.

Bron: I sold two books from two different pitches at two different conferences. It absolutely can be done! I wouldn’t expect feedback though. Some never even bother replying or rejecting. It’s just the business and it’s not likely to change or get better than that.

Donna: It’s difficult to tell because after 14 weeks I still haven’t heard back, and she requested I send a full, not a partial. I guess with Covid-19, Christmas and New Year it’s understandable. But the wait is excruciating. However, I did receive positive feedback from my critique groups and other professionals after polishing the manuscript before sending it to the UK. Either way, the whole process is useful. And I won’t give up.

Nancy: I’ve only made a few pitches and actually sent the manuscript – I’ve had some good feedback, particularly from romance focused publishers!

How did you overcome nerves?

Anna: Summarise your story into three lines and have an elevator pitch handy. Deep breathing works wonders to settle the nerves. Even with limited pitch time, take a few seconds to greet and establish a rapport with the person you’re pitching to. Don’t rush straight into your pitch.

Bron: Deep breaths and no coffee/caffeine beforehand! But seriously, you do you. Mostly those nerves come from fear, but fear of what? Rejection? Being caught out because you’re pitching a book you know isn’t finished or complete? Know your story inside and out and there will be no curveballs!

Nancy: Be prepared to ask questions – if they don’t want your manuscript – don’t ask ‘why not?’ Ask them what they are looking for. What you have currently may not be for them, but what you write next might just be what they’re after!

Should you bring a business card or not – did any pitch taker ever ask for one?

Anna: Take a business card just in case. I have been asked for one in the past. At one pitch I asked the editor if she needed/wanted a business card and she did take it.

Bron: I do have one to give out. I don’t think it hurts as long as the information is pertinent and up to date. Name, email, phone number and socials handles, website, etc. It’s all about discoverability and they may google you to see where you are.

Donna: Rescue Remedy usually works for me, but I didn’t take any. Ha, ha, probably why I was so nervous.

Nancy: Yes, bring a business card but don’t offer it unless asked – it’s fairly likely they won’t want it if they haven’t asked.

Any other tips or funny stories you’re willing to share with those new to pitching?

Anna: I can’t stress enough how important it is to know your story and be able to summarise it for the opening gambit. The editor will ask relevant questions about the details. Try not to take written notes that go for a page or more. Leave time for questions and always thank the editor/agent for their time.  Even if they don’t ask for this manuscript, they might just take another from you at another pitch.

Prepare for the unexpected. I pitched to a publisher who told me outright she couldn’t sell my story and asked what else I had. After an impromptu pitch of another manuscript (barely started), her comment – “I don’t care if it takes you six months just send me a story I can’t say no to.”

Make them laugh! My professional background is IT, which thrives on acronyms. The (then) unwieldy title of my MS was shortened to SOSG (read sausage). Mentioned this and the editor laughed loud enough for everyone in the pitching area to look over. Humour is a great ice-breaker and nerve-settler. And yes, she did ask for the MS.

Bron: Be your most professional because publishers want career authors not one-shot wonders. They will likely ask what you’re working on next (after the book you pitch) so have something ready. No rambling. Just pitch the hook and then let them ask questions.

Maggie: Don’t take a copy of your manuscript to appointment. Don’t take gifts. Don’t follow agents to the loo. Yes, I have seen that. They sometimes ask about your media presence.

Sue and Sharyn’s additional preparation tips

Don’t leave this to the last minute. Consider these questions as you’re writing, pondering, lying on the couch daydreaming.

Think about what makes your story different to others in the genre/market. (We bet you have some interesting characters or an amazing setting or a cheeky plot twist).

Who will your story appeal to? Picture your reader – give them a name. Tell them about your story.

Don’t memorize great wads of text – it’s going to make you super nervous – believe us, Sue’s been that person and she couldn’t enjoy the rest of the conference because her whole focus was on going over and over that text for fear she’d forget it.

Practice your pitch on others and get their feedback – would they want to read that book? Ask them to ask you questions, and get used to explaining details succinctly, after all, who knows your characters, setting and plot better than you?

Know your genre. Think about your writing strengths. If you can’t express an answer to ‘what books are similar to yours?’ or ‘where does your book fit in the market?’, think about your future readers and imagine the authors they’d like. This is difficult to do at first but broaden your thoughts – it’s not about finding a book that has everything in common with yours, but it might be the themes you write about or the tone of your writing. For example, your story might have a light, quirky tone that appeals to readers of Janet Evanovich’s Plum series. Read widely and take note of what appeals to you in the books you read. Is it the fast pace? The lush detail of the setting? The banter between characters?

Expect to be asked about other projects you’re working on. Even if you have only hashed out an outline for a future novel, be able to describe the story in a high concept sentence or two – who are the main characters, what are their goals and what is the problem or conflict.

Finally, congratulate yourself for writing a story and putting yourself out there. If you don’t get a manuscript request – they’ll likely explain why – i.e. it’s not what they’re looking for – ask what is. As Anna said, you might be working on something else that they’re interested in. Maybe you didn’t intrigue them enough with your pitch. That’s why getting feedback from others beforehand is so worthwhile. If you don’t know who to ask, reach out to other members of the RWA community and you’re bound to have someone offer to read/listen to your pitch. 

Past, Present and Future

For this anniversary conference, with Past, Present and Future in mind, we read through old editions of HT. Did you know Hearts Talk is available anytime from website – when logged in as a member? Here’s a sample of great articles to boost your confidence and get you pitch ready:

  •  In HT March 2020 (pp7-8) Michelle Diener wrote “Secrets of a Successful Pitch.” Full of great advice. We particularly liked her tip to “…look at the back page blurb of books that are similar to yours, or books whose blurb really jumped out at you. Study how they are put together, what you like, what you don’t like, and start to put something unique together for your story.” Read the full article which is chock full of practical tips on formulating your pitch.
  • In the wonderful new edition of Best of Hearts Talk Craft (p.1-5) is a fab article titled, “How To Nail Your Premise With A 25-Word Pitch” by Amanda Ashby from Hearts Talk January 2016. It starts with – “Have you ever been at a party and made the (often fatal) mistake of saying, “I’m writing a book”? Then someone asks what your book’s about and suddenly this stream of consciousness comes pouring out of your mouth like a hideous tidal wave that can’t be stopped.” The first example is hilarious. Don’t miss this one.
  • If you’re feeling scared, have a read of Madeline Ash’s article about her bumpy road to publication in HT 2016 (p.16) It’s not about pitching, but it’s about overcoming rejection with determination.

We’ll be posting further information on the blog in the coming weeks. We encourage you to look at the agents and publishers, not just to see what they are accepting, but also to see if you think they are a good fit for you. As many of our interviewees have said “you be you”, and that means you need to have someone who will support you in your career.

That’s all for now. Check back for a post about Business Appointments.

Top publisher shares her take on the industry

(Appeared in March Hearts Talk) By Tracey Rosen – Conference Marketing Co-ordinator

The Gold Coast 2021 Conference team would like to introduce you to our international guest from Hodder & Stoughton in London, Kimberley Atkins.

Unfortunalely, Kimberley is not taking pitches at our 2021 conference. This blog is a repeat of a Hearts Talk article before some circumstances changed.

Kimberley Atkins

Kimberley has worked with a range of best selling authors including Jojo Moyes and Liane Moriarty, and she is currently the publisher for Women’s Fiction. Not to mention that she has also self published a novel herself on behalf of her mother which led to her going on to publish another eight novels (look up Dani Atkins).

We asked Kimberley what she would be looking for at our conference and maybe a little sneak peak at her workshop also.

Kimberley, you’ve worked in a lot of different places in the world, including Australia. What would you say is the biggest benefit to working in the publishing landscape in London?

I feel very lucky to have had an international publishing career and cannot stress enough how much I loved my time working at Penguin Random House in Sydney, where I got to discover new Australian voices for their local publishing list. There was genuinely a day where I worked from the beach, reading a manuscript and sending off editorial notes to an author, and it was probably my favourite work day EVER. So the bar was set very high when I returned to the UK in 2018! 

The biggest change I noticed when I returned to the UK again was the volume of submissions I was receiving – there are so many more literary agents in the UK than in Australia, and I was suddenly tasked with dealing with a lot more reading! In the UK, I also see a lot of submissions from rights teams or agents in the US – whereas, in Australia I saw a lot less from that market. (The reason for that is that UK publishers often buy UK and British Commonwealth rights, which includes Australia and New Zealand, so there are less opportunities for the US to sell rights directly to those territories). This means that the pace in the UK feels a lot more hectic – but that’s also what makes it exciting. There is no better feeling than reading a submission overnight, falling in love with a book and championing it to my colleagues the next day. I’ve been lucky enough to get sign some incredible novels for Hodder & Stoughton, where I work as Publisher for women’s fiction.

I’m also incredibly fortunate to work for a big publisher with brilliant international ties – and that’s meant I’ve been able to travel to New York with work to meet publishers and agents there, as well as coming back to Sydney and getting to spend a week in the Hachette Australia office. For me, forging those connections with colleagues around the world is a huge perk to the job. 

I’ve also loved having the chance to reconnect with authors and agents back in the UK with lots of meetings over coffee or lunch. I’d forgotten how easy it is to see people in England as opposed to Australia, where you can genuinely be time zones apart from colleagues or authors! Having the opportunity to meet up face-to-face is a really valuable part of the job, and something I know we’ve all been missing in 2020.

With all of the changes we have seen in the world this year, what is the thing you think will be the biggest change in the stories that are published in the future? We’ve all seen the memes about COVID romances, but do readers really want that sort of reality in their romance?

I’ve talked to a lot of my authors about whether or not they should acknowledge the events of 2020 in their fiction. Personally, I’m not convinced that this is a time that we will necessarily want to be reminded of in fiction, and unless there’s a specific reason to include detail about Covid-19 or lockdowns in a novel I’m inclined to dissuade people from including it! Obviously it depends completely on the book, and in the UK we’ve already seen a few titles that have come to market (or that are coming very soon) which focus on people falling in love or crimes being committed (depending on the genre) against the backdrop of 2020. But for most novels, I don’t think that we need to explicitly try and shoe-horn social distancing or curfews into fiction – at best it’s a sad reminder of the challenges of this year, and at worst it’s clunky, off-putting or genuinely upsetting.  

In terms of how 2020 has affected market trends, it was so interesting to see that early on in the year there was a moment of people genuinely seeking out dystopian novels, almost looking for answers to questions about how to confront this new situation. Throughout the year it’s been great to see book sales being more robust than I think a lot of people feared, and I think that there will increasingly be people looking for reading to escape into different stories and worlds. I expect that uplifting fiction will be popular and that people will be looking for love stories that they can get lost in. 

You’ve lived in Australia, so what are you most looking forward to when you return that you can’t get or do in London?

I am desperate to come back to Australia for a visit as soon as I can – beyond a day trip to France, I’ve not left the UK all year and can’t wait to get on that 24 hour flight again! There’s so much I miss about Australia – and of course, what I miss the most are my brilliant friends who live there and who I’ve not seen in so long. Other than them, of course I miss the sunshine and the gorgeous beaches, the good coffee and the breakfast spots on the coast where you can watch people surf while eating smashed avo on toast! I miss Anzac biscuits which we used to bulk buy and which we made at the weekend in an effort to recreate the Australian experience. What I DON’T miss at all is the insects – I never got used to cockroaches in the street or giant huntsman spiders lurking by the car (you can keep those Australia!) 

What sort of stories will you be looking for at the Gold Coast Conference in 2021?

I’m so looking forward to the conference next year and getting to meet RWA members and aspiring writers. I’m always looking for new voices and ideas – I’m most excited by a story if it has a pitch you can sum up in one line that sets it apart from the pack. I love books with genuine heart and now more than ever am looking for stories that transport me through place and time and make me feel something new. I’m particularly drawn to voice-driven narratives with unforgettable female characters and love stories that break your heart. Equally anything with an unexpected ending or a clever structure (think One Day or The Time Traveler’s Wife).

And with your variety of experience, of course we want to know what you will be including in your workshop? 

I’m hoping my workshop can shed a little light on the industry from a publisher’s perspective – I’d love to talk about market trends and what has been working in the market (and what publishers are looking for!) I’ll also explore what really sets a submission apart for me, and how I know that I want to publish a book when I first read it. I’ll touch on what the acquisition process is like in my experience and will talk about ways to think about framing submissions or pitches to grab the reader right away.

Finally, for a bit of fun, which three authors living or dead would you like to have dinner with?

Oooh such a tough question! I think it has to be Jane Austen, Marian Keyes and Kazuo Ishiguro. All brilliant writers who are particularly gifted at creating characters – I think the conversation would be fascinating! 

Thank you Kimberley for sparing your time to give us some insight into you and we look forward to seeing you on the Gold Coast in August 2021.

PLEASE NOTE: Due to most overseas guest not being able to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions, Kimberley will be holding a virtual workshop 10 Tips when Submitting to a Publisher at 11:00am on Saturday 14 August. Her pitches will also be virtual.