Willamette Writers launched their 2017 year with an excellent presentation and Q&A session with local agent DongWon Song, who agents for Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. DongWon also participates in the publishing graduate program at PSU and is a frequent speaker/agent at the Willamette Writers’ Conference in August. More about him can be found at http://www.dongwonsong.com/, including his literary interests and submission guidelines.
(Photo provided by Willamette Writers)
Now for the good stuff. I’m going to recap the key ideas from DongWon’s discussion, as well as a few key take-aways and strategies for going forward. This session was specifically geared toward the process of getting an agent, and as DongWon explained, this all starts with the pitch. To give us some perspective, he explained that the pitch you make to an agent becomes the pitch an agent takes to an editor and which an editor takes to the publishing team and on to the sales team and ultimately – most importantly – the pitch you give to the reader on the jacket copy, the hook that gets them to buy and commit to your book. DongWon shared that some of his best pitches have indeed become the jacket copy for the books he’s sold.
In my recent experience (as I am actively sending my book out to publishers), I can tell you that the majority of Submissions Guidelines even say things like, “Give us a 1 paragraph synopsis of your book. Imagine this is the jacket copy for your novel.” I also recommend starting a project by writing the potential jacket copy because if we can capture the core characters, key conflicts, and critical plot moments, we also have a compass during the drafting phase of our novel. I started my last project by writing the jacket copy first (as an exercise in a workshop through Literary Arts, to give fair credit), and I found myself returning to that jacket copy when I felt I was getting off track.
Many writers feel awkward or self-conscious when delivering pitches. Too often, writers approach DongWon with, “Oh, I hate talking about my writing” or “I just can’t talk about my book.” As you can imagine, this is a bit of a turn-off. Why? Because if the writer him or herself can’t talk about the book, why should an agent? At this point in the process, the only one who cares about your book is you, and you have to be able to talk about it succinctly and positively. The remedy? Practice, practice, practice. DongWon suggested writers should be constantly pitching their projects to friends, family members, children, dogs and cats. He also recommended pitching other projects – try to convince a friend to read a book you’ve just read or watch a movie you’ve seen. By pitching other things, we practice the art of distilling the core ideas down to a 10 second persuasive pitch. It reminds me of one of the reasons I love being in a writer’s group: critiquing my colleagues’ work is the practice I need to see the flaws and potential in my own. Same goes for pitching others’ work.
What makes for a great pitch? The key thing we need to know is that agents and publishers want to understand the context and have a frame of reference. If we launch into our pitch with something like, “well, see there’s this kid who lives on a farm, and then he….” the agents and publishers are spending all their mental energy trying to place information that feels random. Without context, agents have no idea what you’re talking about, and it becomes very easy to say no. For more about this, do a little research into pattern recognition. A book recommendation was Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, a novel which, though fiction, nonetheless captures the sense of this concept.
DongWon provided an excellent formula for giving our listeners the context they need so they can hear what our story is actually about:
A + B = Awesome.
The A and B in this calculation are comp titles (comparative titles). When we pitch our books, we should have a sense of what other books out there resemble our own. The benefits to doing this are that agents and publishers have a frame of reference and their brains don’t have to parse out every bit of information, but can focus on what makes our book unique to those titles.
An example of this is The Hunger Games. DongWon suggested that someone pitching this book might say it’s Battle Royale (a Japanese book about kids killing kids) meets The Giver (a book about a dystopian futuristic world). The overlap between these ideas is that you have kids killing kids in a dystopian futuristic world. Think Venn Diagram – you’re presenting two ideas, with your novel residing in the overlap. Once the agent has the frame of reference, the writer can then hone in on what specifically makes his or her project unique and compelling.
Now, the other benefit to providing comp titles, is you also give publishers a sense of the market viability of your project. If you can show that two or three similar books sold 50,000 copies, then you have a pretty solid argument for why your book is going to sell 50,000 copies.
The A + B = Awesome portion of your pitch needs to come right up front, along with some context for the genre – “I’ve written a YA novel [genre] in which Battle Royale meets The Giver” [comp titles]. Once you’ve set the context, you then build out how your particular book is unique, and you can do so in one of four ways (or a combination of them):
- Plot hook – what about this plot is particularly interesting
- Idea – what is the high concept (most common to memoir) – “What if….”
- Setting – what about this setting is unique or intriguing – “In a world where….”
- Character – who is this character and why will readers engage with him/her (this is the most common type of pitch)
This portion of your pitch should be about 2-3 sentences, with the whole pitch taking around 10 seconds. On a query letter, you have more room to do this, with many agents often asking for 1 page that includes the pitch, synopsis, marketing, and author bio – i.e. what about you makes you the right person to write this novel. If you’re delivering this pitch in person, say at the Willamette Writers’ Conference next August, then you deliver your 10 second pitch and wait to see if you hear the oh-so-longed-for “Interesting, tell me more.” If you get a pass, DongWon suggested using that time to chat and just generally be a friendly person – relationship building that may result in a yes on a future project. After all, agents and publishers are more than vending machines; they are people too. 🙂
Now I want to transition to some of the questions which were asked. A question was raised about self-publishing and how an author goes about getting an agent for a book he/she has already self-published. DongWon expressed it is very difficult to sell a self-published book to a publisher and he generally passes on those projects. The main reason is that even if you can show you’ve sold 500 copies, the publisher will say, “well, that’s 500 books we can’t sell” and it also becomes an indication that perhaps the market for your book is only 500 readers – thus, your successes also become your limitors. DongWon put it this way: self-publishers have to have an entrepreneurial spirit. They have to be the CEO of their books, hiring a team of proofreaders and editors, cover art designers and formatters, and a publisher. They then have to go to conventions and set up a table to handsell their books. If you’ve ever wanted to be a small business owner, he said, then sure, self-publish. If those aren’t your skill sets and you’re not willing to build those skills, then traditional publishing is the best route.
Another question was raised about the author – agent relationship, and the extent to which an author should interview the agent rather than just scream “yes, yes, yes!” into the phone. DongWon shared that when an author asks questions about the process and questions him as an agent, this shows the author is informed and invested, and it reflects well on the author. However, he also warned some agents may be turned off by this, but of utmost importance is making sure that the fit is a good one. Too many careers have been ruined or stagnated, he said, by a poor agent-author relationship, a situation that can be very painful to both parties for a long time.
Another question of note was how a pitch for non-fiction is different from a pitch for fiction. The information above mostly pertains to fiction, however, there is quite a bit of overlap. Of most notable difference is that a non-fiction project (i.e. research heavy) will often be represented and sold based on the proposal and thus the writer doesn’t actually begin to write the book until it has been bought. Memoir operates more like fiction, though, in which you should have the manuscript ready before seeking representation.
Next, a question was raised about an author’s platform and presence. DongWon suggested the best way to show you have a readership and following is to create an email newsletter and get others to subscribe to it. Blogs are out (ahem, except this one, of course). Facebook and Twitter are great, but even if you have thousands of followers, you can’t know which of them you’re actually reaching – and thus, those numbers aren’t that important either. Apparently, publishers look at how many email addresses you have attached to your newsletter, so if you have a New Year’s resolution to build your online presence, do it through a newsletter. (Now, personally, I still think we should develop our online presence in whatever way feels right for us, but to be honest, I don’t write this blog because I think it’s going to do something for my career. I write this blog because I feel it’s my way of being a good literary citizen. I want to share information I’ve obtained and which may help you. Whether that leads to readers or not is kind of beside the point. Oh, hello, soapbox.)
The final question was about when to start querying agents. Don’t start looking for an agent until you have a finished, polished manuscript in hand. As DongWon said, “I don’t care if this book is going to be finished in 3 months. If I want it, I want it now.” It can be difficult to embark on a process without knowing if it’s even viable, but this is the risk we all take as writers. Ultimately, even if a book isn’t picked up by an agent, the practice of writing it becomes the building blocks for the next thing we create and the next and the next.
This wraps up the core ideas expressed in DongWon’s presentation. If anyone else was present and feels I’ve missed something, please add them to the comments section.
Below are some additional resources suggested by DongWon in terms of finding agents, as well as a few links from my own researches.
Poets & Writers Agent Database
Writer Beware – for Science Fiction and Fantasy
Cindy Brown’s Newsletter
Max Gladstone’s Newsletter