Sunday, February 05, 2023

An Essential Skill for Every Writer

By Terry Whalin @terrywhalin

Last weekend, I spent four and a half hours on a marathon pitch session with different authors. It was the first time in four years, this group was doing these pitch sessions. There were five or six other editors and agents who were also taking pitches from these authors. Several years ago from a similar session I found a number of authors to publish. I was eager to hear these book pitches.

To prepare, I had a bottle of water in easy reach and a pad of paper to make notes about each author. The various authors pitched 32 books during this time period. Normally they only pitched one book but several of them pitched more than one book. The bulk of these pitches were novels but some were nonfiction books. I heard a lot of variety within these categories of fiction or nonfiction. 

As each person made their pitch, I wrote their name, the title of their book and a few other details about them. Like my experience from years ago, I found many of these authors were not ready immediately to submit to me. For a fiction submission, I need the complete manuscript and synopsis. Many of these authors were in revision and didnt expect to be ready to submit for six months or even a year. 

As I interacted with each person, I listened carefully to learn about their book, the length of it and see if it was going to be something that Morgan James Publishing would possibly publish. As a publisher, we have a wide range of topics and possibilities. For many of the pitches, I encouraged them to send it to me when they are ready. In general, we look for clean fiction (no profanity) that is 100,000 words or less. In a few cases, the novels were over that 100,000 limit. When I heard a pitch with a larger word limit, I asked if the author could pause the story and produce two books. Our word counts are not arbitrary but are based on our experience selling books.  Particularly for a first-time author, it is hard to sell a 400 to 500 page novel--which is the result of a 170,000 to 200,000 word count. 

For the bulk of these authors, I expressed interest in their submission and encouraged them to send it whenever they were ready. One of the people assisting the traffic flow and pitches told me, When an author comes out of your room from pitching, they look like they have been to Disneyland. I was grateful to have this level of author excitement.

From my previous experience, I knew I had to take some additional action after the event. Four years ago, I gathered the email addresses of each author then wrote a personal email asking for their submission. The leader of this event told me I was the only editor or agent who collected this information and used it with the various authors.

Like last time, I collected each authors email and phone number so I can email and follow-up. For each person, I cut and pasted their information into my address book. Ive been working on my email to these authors and will get those written and out in the next few days. 

I called this article, An Essential Skill for Every Writer. The essential skill that Im writing about is follow-up and follow-through. Ive been working in the publishing community for years. I have no illusions about my writing skills or storytelling. In fact, I continue to learn and hopefully grow to improve those areas of my skills. One of my essential skills is understanding the importance of follow-up.

When Im at a conference, I will often pitch a book idea or a magazine article idea to an editor. After I pitch, I listen for their reaction and feedback. If they say something like, Thats a good idea, Terry. Write that up and send it to me. 

After I finish my conversation, I make a little note about the idea and their reaction in my notebook. Then when I go home, I write the article and send it to that editor. Its not that my pitch gets published and like others Ive been rejected many times in this process. But, at least I gave myself a chance to get published.

From traveling around the country and teaching at various conferences, writers pitch their book ideas to me. I listen and when I hear a good one, I hand them my business card and encourage them to send it when it is ready. Heres the truth: probably only about 10% to 20% of these writers actually send it to me.  Not everything that is submitted gets a book contract and eventually published. Publishing is a team process that involvcs consensus building with colleagues to get a book contract.  As a writer, you must follow-up and follow-through.

Do you have this follow-up skill? If not, you can grow it. What if it has been months or even a couple of years since you got the green light from an editor or agent to your pitch? If that editor or agent is still in their same position, I would still follow-through and send the requested material. Ive been with Morgan James for ten years. Sometimes it has been several years since an author has reapproached me with their submission. Without exception when I hear from them again, I ask them to send it. 

Often in these entries, Ive written about the necessity of pitching to the right person with the right stuff at the right time. Yes, many rights have to line up for that to happen. 

Im certain there are other essential skills for every writer. Which ones stand out to you? Let me know in the comments below.

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