Conflux is Canberra’s annual speculative fiction conference. I’m there most years, one way or another – wandering around in garb (see pic at right), going to sessions, leading sessions (!), and of course pitching.
Pitching is when writers get five or ten minutes one-on-one with a publisher or agent to try to convince them to read their novel. Usually the writers are required to send in their first three chapters, synopsis, and bio beforehand (so those who want to pitch can be whittled down into a reasonable number, and sometimes so that the publisher/agent gets an idea of the book beforehand).
The first time I ever pitched was in New Zealand – I literally flew to New Zealand for that ten minutes (then the exact same publisher came to Conflux the next year!) The worst pitch I ever did was to someone who had read the first chapters and thought the entire book was all a dream because there were pirates in it, and pirates are apparently all imaginary (what the. . . ?!)
Quite a few people who let writers pitch novels to them will read all the opening chapters they’re offered during the pitch (including, luckily, the one in New Zealand). Others will pick one beforehand, and read only that one. Still others are genuinely making up their minds in the moment.
This year, no-one read our opening chapters, so I didn’t have my usual advantage (a LOT of beginning writers are truly terrible, so among unpublished authors my writing usually looks pretty good). Without quite naming anyone, here’s what pitching was like this year (I literally pitched a book to everyone – got a bit excited after being too sick to write for so long due to pregnancy).
Pitch # 1: An Agent
I pitched my newest book (YA fantasy, “Flight of Fancy”) to her, on the basis that if she was shocked that it actually wasn’t polished enough to send, at least I hadn’t looked unprofessional directly to a publisher. In truth, I used her as motivation to finish the book – and she was extremely useful for that!
I’d actually never pitched to an agent before. In Australia, agents aren’t essential to the publishing process. Also, they are just as hard-working and underpaid as publishers, and tend not to take risks. Some Australians only use an agent AFTER receiving an offer for publication (so the agent can look at the contract and negotiate terms), and I may well end up using her for that some day.
She was extremely friendly (a common phenomenon in pitches) and after I described the plot she said how much she loved fantasy’s ability to talk about real-life problems such as mental illness in a different way. That is also one of my favourite things about fantasy, and I felt like we really connected. She was more than happy to look at “Flight of Fancy” when it’s ready, and I blurted out a bit about my steampunk YA novel because it’s ready to go and seems really well suited to her – but it’s already done the rounds of quite a few publishers (which is bad for agents, because publishers won’t look at something twice). She said slushpile rejections are fine, so I should send it to her with a detailed submission history.
I finished the post-TJ edit of the YA steampunk that day, and sent it to her. I’m quite excited by the idea of having an agent in my corner, but she said up front she takes ages to read things. . . so we’ll just see. I’ll send her “Flight of Fancy” late this year – probably before she finishes the YA steampunk.
Still, that’s two “yes” answers from one pitch – a good start!
One of the most interesting things about that pitch was that she said most publishers are dead-set against anything labelled “steampunk” (as my daughter would say, “NOOOO!!!! WHYYYYYYY?????????”). Readers still like it, so steampunk sells as “gaslight fantasy”, “Victorian paranormal”, “Urban fantasy”, “Alternate history” etc.
She also said about “Flight of Fancy” – “Can you make it a bit longer?” Which I can – especially when there’s so much editing to do. Hopefully an extra 5000 words qualifies as “a bit” (when I emailed her the YA steampunk I asked if it was).
This was the pitch that was the most important to me, because the publisher (what I call a “medium” publisher because they’re certainly not one of Australia’s six biggest publishers, but I’ve read several of their authors) really likes Australian female fiction and “things other publishers wouldn’t dare take on”. My YA steampunk has a female protagonist (like most of my books), is set in Australia, and has a major character who turns out to be gay.
The person was unusual in her manner – thoughtful rather than friendly (not that she was UNfriendly, but she wasn’t going out of her way to put me at ease – and I could tell she wasn’t going to read the book just to be nice, which was scary at the time).
When I explained the plot of the book her face lit up. It turned out she doesn’t usually like steampunk (despite the fact it was specifically mentioned online as something this publisher will accept!) because of the upper-class stuff – but because my series is all about dismantling the so-called superiority of the higher classes, it sounded great. Could I please send it to her? (Yes – but not until December, because it happens to be in a contest-type thing and I can’t send it elsewhere until the results are announced. She understood perfectly.)
That was a close-run thing, and all the more satisfying as a result. It’ll be interesting to see how she likes it when she reads it.
Pitch # 3
This was a large publisher – or at least, large enough that any writer would have heard of them. It was a slightly-awkward pitch because the actual person listening to pitches represents the adult fantasy section, and I was pitching my YA steampunk novel (I called it “YA alternate history” based on the agent’s advice – and it seemed to work).
This was another publisher who was making up her mind as she went along. She was very friendly, and even stopped to chat to us outside afterwards (brave, since she’d said no to at least one person in the room).
I was very clear it was a young adult book. . . but she said it sounded so good she hoped to be able to keep it for the adult department. This was a huge and pleasant surprise (I’ve actually had VERY slow responses from that exact publisher in the past, so I didn’t expect enthusiasm at all). It’ll be interesting to see if she is still enthusiastic when I actually send it to her (in December, because of that contest – again, she understood the situation perfectly and didn’t mind at all).
Pitch # 4
This publisher is small – I recognise the name of one of their authors, but haven’t read his books – and has an incredibly enthusiastic vibe, so I felt very confident they’d just say yes to everyone who pitched. I met several of the staff in the dealer’s room the previous day, so that gave me a bit of a sense of them too.
Being aware that small publishers tend not to pay advances (unfortunately, most books make a LOSS for most publishers – they’re kept afloat by the rare successes – but a small publisher can’t take financial risks like that), I chose a book that has been rejected very thoroughly in a lot of places.
It was a pretty friendly pitch, and they gave me a card and said to send them the whole thing. There were two unusual things – first, there was a second person in the room. To this day, I don’t know what her position in the company is (and I promptly forgot her name in the general nervousness, so I can’t even google her). Secondly, they asked, “Why are you pitching this book to us instead of someone else?” Instead of saying, “Well, everyone on Earth other than you has already rejected it” I chose the other honest reply – that they’re a vibrant, exciting, fast-moving publisher, and it seemed like fun. And of course mentioned that I’d written a book since TJ was born, and can produce books pretty quick if required. And that the YA fantasy book I was pitching was the first in a trilogy (which was written, but needed to be re-written), that was linked by the setting to a kids’ trilogy which is entirely finished and polished (I didn’t even realise until later that they also publish kids’ books).
Oh! The other unusual thing: At their book launch the previous night, the publisher had been chatting to someone and told them to come pitch their book (I met her in the waiting room, and declared that we’d be their children’s line). So, like I said, enthusiastic.
They requested the full manuscript. I hadn’t looked at it for a long time, so I gave it an extremely hasty edit and emailed it to them about midnight that very night (since I’d said how cool it was that they were fast-moving, it seemed wrong to not send it on the day). I was very pleasantly surprised by how good my book is after all this time – perhaps I shouldn’t have been, because a lot of the people who rejected it gave me great advice on fixing it, and I took it all.
Pitch # 5
Another medium publisher – and another person I’d met in the dealer’s room.
She also asked, “Why this publisher?” and I gave what amounted to a general “why a medium publisher?” answer – that is, they’re willing to take risks (with unusual writing, I mean) and they tend to like stuff set in Australia. The book I was pitching was a YA realist novel (set among a group of geeks), mainly because it was the best book that wasn’t earmarked for anyone else, or actually sitting on someone’s desk waiting for a reply.
It was actually HER first time pitching, which was funny to me (having spent much of my day in a room of deeply nervous writers). She gave me a piece of paper with instructions on how to send the first three chapters – ie she was clearly going to read everyone’s opening chapters. Which suits me fine. It was a relief NOT to send the whole book, because I’ve done two manic edits in the last week – plus a bunch of manic writing lately on “Flight of Fancy” – so all I had to do was check over the first three chapters and send it.
In the email, I made it clear that I usually write YA fantasy, so if the writing seems good but the book doesn’t suit them, I’d very happily send them something else (once it’s free). I’m not sure I made the right choice of novel, but I’m still grateful that she gave me the benefit of the doubt.
The book is so unusual that there may not ever be a publisher who likes it – I suppose it deserves one last chance at publication before I give up on it. The manuscript assessor I hired adored it, and I think the opening won $75 in a contest, too. But neither of those means much when it comes to publication.
All in all, an extremely exciting weekend. It’s fun to be back in the saddle writing-wise, and sad to realise that I’ve been excited so many times before, and never got a publishing contract out of it.
My lack of health is frightening at the moment. I can write, but almost everything else is hazardous or impossible. It would be nice if life was like fiction – if you work hard enough, follow your dreams, and have a desperate need to succeed – you will.
But I’ll keep working on my health, and hopefully I’ll be able to do some properly paid work early next year. In the meantime, at least I can write.