By Jerry Waxler
The publishing game can be maddening. Not only must you write the best possible book. You must then sell it to a publisher. Many writers feel overwhelmed at this stage asking themselves and each other, “How can I possibly turn into a sales person?” Supposedly, the “solution” is to find a literary agent who will sell it for you. The cruel irony is that you still must learn to sell your book to an agent. I decided to avoid the whole mess by publishing my first books and sell them at my workshops.
However, occasionally I look up to the cathedral in the sky, where happy published writers hang out at tea parties, and I wonder if I will ever gain admission. To learn how to storm those gates, I recently attended an all day workshop on the subject. The event was hosted at one of the region’s premier writing events, the Philadelphia Stories “Push to Publish” conference, and the speaker was literary agent, Sheree Bykofsky, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published
At first I intended to be an interested bystander, learning what other people must achieve. The morning of the workshop, I dusted off one of my favorite works in progress, a book about the importance of memoir writing, and on an impulse dashed out a one page query as fast as I could type. Quickly scanning my work, in a surge of self-congratulation, I approved my first draft.
When I arrived at the workshop I put my query on the pile with the other 24 aspiring writers. Our fate was in Sheree’s hands. When she started, she pointed to the pile and said, “I receive 200 of these a day and my job is to throw them out as quickly as possible. I’m just warning you. You are all going to hate me.” I rejected her gloomy prediction. The others might hate her, but I was sure she was going to love my query, and in return I could already feel my blossoming love for her.
She picked the first one up and said, “It’s not formatted correctly. It needs to look like a formal business letter.” She threw it aside and moved on. The next one went into the reject pile because it was right and left justified. “Always format queries ragged-right.”
I congratulated myself. I did those two things correctly. I was still in the running. She picked up the next one and said, “This is double spaced. No good.” She tossed it with the others. This surprised me. I raised my hand. “I thought that the industry standard for submitting to editors is double space.”
“No,” she said. “Not true for queries. They need to be single spaced.”
“Darn,” I thought. “She won’t like my line spacing. But I’m sure she’ll like everything else about it.”
When she started to review mine, she said, “It’s double spaced.” And then, perhaps feeling the positive vibes I was sending her, she kept commenting. “There are capitalization problems.” Finally, she correctly noted, “This looks like you wrote it quickly. Slow down and be sure your query shows off your best work.” Then she tossed it in with the other rejects. The criticism that hurt the most was her complaint about capitalization. How could she throw away my great idea because of typography details. It turned out her prediction was right. I did have to fight with my own feelings of loathing.
Despite her negative feedback, I knew my book had merit, and after the disappointment washed through me, I realized she was teaching a nifty lesson. In a little over a half an hour she had drilled into us how to get past the first round of gate keeping. I simply need to pay careful attention to formatting and other details. With a little extra effort, I could surmount this obstacle.
I learned another, even more important lesson. I had just been rejected by an agent and I was still breathing. It felt like a rite of passage. Instead of feeling defeated, I felt brave. I could do this. So I kept listening and learning about the writer’s relationship with an agent. In addition to general information, she helped me clear up some misconceptions.
Because agents often turn up at writing conferences, I suspected they only do business with people they have met in person. This discouraged me, because I only have the chance to meet a couple of agents a year. When I asked her about it, she said it wasn’t true. She has sold lots of books for authors she has never met.
Another impression that had blocked me from seeking an agent was my fear that I might pick the wrong one. I was behaving like a teenager who refuses to date for fear of entering a relationship with the wrong partner. Like that lonely teenager, I had mythologized the perfect agent as being so godlike, she didn’t exist. After today’s demonstration, I decided agents are human and fallible and that when I am ready to enter into such a relationship, I would be happy to look for a human business partner, rather than holding out for a mythical one.
Finally, she told us not to pay attention to the people who predict the end of the industry. “Publishers need books, and I sell a lot of them.”
At the end of the day, she told us how to craft an elevator speech in which we would describe our book to an agent in one minute. She then gave us fifteen minutes to craft our pitch. Then each of us stood in front of the room and gave our spiel. This was my chance to redeem myself.
This time, instead of nit-picking my formatting, she listened to the substance of my book idea, and apparently she liked what she heard. She praised me, in front of the room, a wonderful feeling that made up for my earlier disappointment. Later, she invited me to send her the book proposal.
Sheree Bykofsky’s class transformed my attitude about the whole category of literary agents from scary gatekeepers into potential allies. I decided that if they insist on letter-perfect formatting in the query letter, it’s a requirement I can live with. Now, instead of seeing the publishing business as an unattainable castle, I began to see it as less threatening and more inviting, with lots of doors, where agents greet people and occasionally help some enter. I decided it’s a little like dating. You try and fail, and try again and fail again, and learn along the way, until eventually you get it right. I’m not in yet, but I’m getting closer. At least now I know what to bring with me when I knock.
Read my article about a creative nonfiction panel at the Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish Conference.
What Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Means to Memoir Writers
List of suggestions for submitting your best work,Submit Manuscripts That Shine
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.