In a big way, the novel fair was a welcome distraction from the aftermath of 2 car crashes. It was an exciting thing to look forward to, something that I hoped would be a great experience, even if nothing came out of it. So in late January – much later than I had hoped – I knuckled down to prepare.
Here’s what I planned to do:
- research the agents/publishers
- create a compelling pitch
- prepare my documentation
- polish my manuscript yet again
Here’s the documentation I needed:
- 1 page author biography
- Novel Synopsis (300 words)
- Novel extract (50 pages)
- Full novel
With the optional prep day looming in early February I focussed on refining my synopsis and drafting a pitch. We were given a list of questions in advance of the prep day to help us prepare to pitch:
- Tell us a bit about your writing background to date?
- Tell us about the work/novel?
- What is it that compels you to write?
- What writers do you admire?
- What other writers would you compare your work to?
- What have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed/found inspiring?
- In what genre would you categorise your novel?
- Who do you think would be your readership if your novel were to be published?
- Do you think your book has a ‘hook’ or USP and if so, what is it?
- How would you imagine your novel would be marketed?
- Why do you think your book would suit our publishing house?
- In what ways do you think you might be helpful in promoting your work? (Social media etc)
- Are you working on any other writing projects/another novel? Or have you ideas for future writing projects/your next novel? Or are you already working on it?
- Which would you prefer, to be a respected, commercial writer and sell loads of books, or to be a writer who is highly regarded in the field but who doesn’t have a huge commercial appeal?
- What do you think about the state of contemporary Irish writing at the moment?
This is a LONG list of questions. And as I learned, the agents and publishers don’t work from it. On the pitch day, most agents and publishers asked these top 5 questions:
- Tell me about you.
- Tell me about your novel.
- What genre is it?
- What author/book is most similar to you?
- Who will read this?
But here’s the key point: while most agents/publishers asked those top 5 questions, the other questions were not predictable. Some agents/publishers wanted to know what I thought of specific books similar to mine. Some asked me why I would fit with their list. Others asked me why I write. Some wanted to know about where I grew up. Others asked about the novel’s hook or USP, or asked me to differentiate between my novel and others in the same category or genre. Nearly everyone asked the same 5 questions. But the ‘curve ball’ questions came from anywhere on – and even off the list – e.g. 1 publisher asked me how my family and friends might react to the publication of my novel – a question I’ve been asking myself for years…
That’s why I think the best way to prepare to pitch is to ensure you’ve got short, compelling, clear answers to those top 5 questions, and make sure you’ve got strong answers for every other question on the list.
Instead of starting at the top and working my way through the list, I started with the questions I found easiest and shortest – e.g. in what genre would you categorise your novel. I’m not sure this is an evidence-based approach widely recommended by productivity experts. It’s just how I used to pick blackcurrants or apples – start with the low-hanging fruit.
I struggled with some questions – e.g. identifying your book’s USP or selling point can be hard when you’re oxter deep in the word soup of your work. I found it difficult to liken myself to other authors – it felt incredibly presumptuous. I dodged that question by turning the answer into a joke (when asked to liken myself to an author I said that I had no proof, but thought it was probable I was the love child of Elena Ferrante and Irvine Welsh). I strongly disliked the question pitching commercial success against critical acclaim – I made a list of writers who have both.
I entered the pitch prep day quite well prepared. Or so I thought. Turned out that the words written down on paper had to come out of my mouth, and that was hard. After we had been introduced to the judges – Catherine Dunne, Anna Carey and Anthony Glavin, and heard from former novel fair finalist Kevin Curran, we were split into smaller groups to practice our pitches with specific authors.
I was in Anthony Glavin’s group. Anthony has an incredibly calm, almost zen presence, which was very reassuring. And I’ve pitched to some very tough audiences in the tech world – it takes a lot to ruffle my feathers. Yet when it came to pitching my novel, I was trembling and on the verge of tears. I really struggled to hold myself together and give coherent answers. The words on my prep pitch doc had flown from me. And this was the huge value of the pitch day for me – it unmasked a storm of emotions that I needed to process in private before being ready to pitch in public.
After the pitch prep day, I went away and worked on 2 things:
- practising my pitch out loud
- printing and collating the documentation.
There was a great emphasis on the day on having the ‘right’ amount of printed material to give to any agents/publishers who might ask for it. That’s because it would be awful if you missed your moment simply because you didn’t have a print out with you.
But my experience was that only a few agents/publishers asked for printouts of my novel sample. NOBODY took a print out of my full manscript. Every agent/publisher took my biography and novel synopsis (2 pages total). So I was left to tote a heavy bag full of paper around on the day – which did my back injury no good, even if my kids are delighted I brought home lots of ‘scrap’ paper for drawing on.
So here’s what I recommend:
- Print 18 colour copies of your author bio (with photo).
- Print 18 black and white copies of your synopsis.
- Print around 5 copies of the first 50 pages.
If anyone asks you for the full print out, give them the first 50 pages in person, and courier the full MS over right after the novel fair. This approach would have saved me a lot of time, money, and back pain.