The morning of the Novel Fair dawned, bright, cold and sunny. A blue sky stretched over Dublin. And I still wasn’t ready.
I hadn’t got the clips I needed to put my handouts and extracts together, and I didn’t have a container for the 2 copies of my full manuscript. But I had scheduled time to get these last bits together over a coffee in town. So I left the school and creche runs to my husband, then jumped on the Luas and stopped at Jervis so I could walk over to Easons. Within a few metres I felt the truth of an old Irish proverb:
Is trom cearc i bhfad.(Even a hen becomes a burden on a long journey).
I knew I’d pay for walking with such a heavy bag on my still-injured back. But I also knew I’d enough painkillers to see me through the day – pain wasn’t going to hold me back. I had just arrived at Easons when I heard someone say “Michelle Gallen”. Dublin is such a small place that for local people, bumping into someone is an unremarkable event. But after years away from the city, this doesn’t happen me much outside of my school run. Yet on the steps of Easons I met someone I’ve known from home since the age of 5. We hugged and she asked what I was doing. I explained I was on my way to the Irish Writers Centre to pitch my novel to a room full of agents and publishers. She asked me to pitch to her, and I did. And she laughed and said ‘That doesn’t sound like fiction.’ She wished me luck, and I ducked into Easons, feeling there was some kind of magic swirling in the early Spring sunshine, that brought us, natives of a tiny border town, to meet steps away from O’Connell street on that particular morning.
I clipped my work together while necking a coffee, then walked up to the IWC. Outside was strung with rainbow bunting, my name was one of those written on the chalkboard announcing the Novel Fair outside. The granite glittered in the sunshine. Everything felt crystal clear and marvellous. I stepped into the building and went upstairs to find my place.
Going up the stairs I realised that perhaps I should’ve asked for a quiet place to sit. I have sensory issues, and struggle with noise and movement. I am easily overwhelmed in crowds, and get exhausted trying to filter the faces. I have had prosopagnosia since my brain injury at 23. This condition is more commonly known as ‘face blindness’. I struggle to recognise faces, even those of friends and family. I find this is much worse in crowds, where I can only compute around 3 people at a time. Often, at family social events, I recognise people by zoning out on the visuals, and listening to voices. At professional networking events I have been known to spend half an hour speaking to a new person, only to reintroduce myself 5 minutes later, as if they have never met me. I have been accused of being aloof, or snobby, of not paying attention to people or caring enough to recognise them. It causes me huge anxiety and stress before any social event where I am expected to recognise faces. It’s the reason I cofounded a tech start-up way back in 2010, when apps were in their infancy, designing Shhmooze – a mobile app that helped me and other people ‘cheat’ our way to recognising who was around us.
But when I arrived in the room I found the seat I’d been assigned once again it felt like a magic was at work behind the scenes – I had a seat tucked away at the back of the room, beside the window. I knew right away it was the ‘best’ seat for my brain – I had a blank wall beside me, and the Garden of Remembrance to one side, and fellow Northern Irish woman Sue Divins to my other side.
I was trying to conserve my energy so I sat in my seat and tried to arrange my reams of paper neatly, so I could grab what I needed with as little fuss as possible. The event started on time, and I launched into pitching my dream.
Let’s start with the stuff I’d do differently next time around:
- I’d bring less paper. As pointed out in the previous post, you only need:
- 18 colour copies of your author bio (with photo).
- 18 black and white copies of your synopsis.
- Around 5 copies of the first 50 pages.
- I’d condense my research findings on the agents and publishers into a few bullet points.
- I’d bring business cards.
Let’s talk about point 2 first. Shhmooze – the networking app I built – was designed to identify who was attending and event or conference. It created a ‘cheatsheet’ of information about your connections – and the strangers – around you. The vision behind the app was that anyone could use it to quickly identify the people they knew, and those they needed to know. The app provided everyone with information they could use to kickstart a conversation because we wanted everyone to make the best use of their most precious time – face-to-face interactions with other humans. We even built a prediction engine that pinpointed not just where your contacts were at a particular event, but where they were likely to be. Unfortunately we discovered that humans are a lot more interested in stalking than talking. Sales people and recruiters – those with a real business need to find and speak to new people – loved our app. They just didn’t tell anyone they were using it. They preferred to use the app to put together a list of people they wanted to talk to, then used our cheatsheet to open compelling conversations, but never admitted that all this research had been done on the fly by our app.
In the weeks before the novel fair I had done a lot of research on the agents and publishers, had read books from their lists, or at least downloaded and read free Kindle chapters to get a ‘feel’ for their authors, and had trawled through social media profiles and posts in the hope of being as prepared as possible. I had amassed a lot of information, but I hadn’t distilled it down, like our app would’ve done. So in the short transition between one agent/publisher leaving and another arriving, I had seconds to glance at a sheet of words to pick out the key facts. I would’ve done better to create something like this:
- Agent/Publisher name, organisation and where they grew up/live.
- 5 books/authors they have found success with.
- 1 recent news story/scandal associated with the publisher/agent or their authors.
- Something personal I connected with.
In the end, I found the ‘something personal I could connect with’ the most valuable piece of information from my research. For example, 1 of the agents noted that she was a Sweet Valley High super fan. I had first read Sweet Valley High books when I was 13, staying with my cousins in upstate New York. My mother had sent me and my 14 year old sister there for the summer, to people we’d never met, hoping we’d learn there was more to life than the Troubles and our small town. At 13 I was an avid book reader, but my cousins weren’t. The only books in their house were the entire Sweet Valley High series, and Gone with the Wind. I remember thinking Gone with the Wind looked more promising than SVH, but the novel was snapped from my hands by an adult when they noticed what I was reading. And so I spent my summer reading Sweet Valley High from start to finish. Those novels were a world apart from the one I was growing up in – and I consumed the SVH series in much the same way I consumed the horror novels of Stephen King and James Herbert and the science fiction I found in the adult section of the library at home, and that long hot summer in the USA. They were sheer fantasy, a world I immersed myself in, before resuming life as I knew it. I had a strong impression that the agent who said she was a Sweet Vally High fan was not a strong fit for my novel. And rather than club her over the head with a relentless pitch, I opened the conversation talking about Sweet Valley High. And we spent 5 glorious minutes talking about those novels and what they meant for us as teenage girls – how she read the novels coming from where she did, how they read to me from my background. I did in the end pitch my novel, which she passed it to her assistant to read. The agency didn’t take me on, as I’d anticipated, but their rejection email told me that they had really enjoyed the manuscript, and it had been a close thing. The whole interaction – from pitch to rejection – felt a lot more positive from having been rooted in our connection over SVH than if I’d simply banged on about why my novel was the ‘right’ thing for their list.
Finally – I didn’t bring business cards as I wasn’t sure that it was the right thing to do. But if I had to do over, I would. When handing over my bio, synopsis and sample to interested agents/publishers, I didn’t expect anything in return. So quite a few times I forgot to get contact information from people I needed to follow up with. Running a start-up, I learned the hard way that 99% of the time, no matter how ‘hot’ you are, you will be the one doing the chasing. I advise you to get a head start by having the agent/publisher’s direct contact details, rather than ‘email@example.com’). If I’d had a little stack of business cards, with the name of my novel hand-written on the back, I would’ve done this methodically.
Now let’s look at the stuff that worked well:
- Pitching the novel.
- Passing on my bio and synopsis.
- Taking breaks
- Hanging out with the writers afterwards
Pitching your novel effectively is not something you achieve on the day. All the work should have been done in advance. I found that between my own preparation, following the advice of the IWC and the advice of former novel fair finalists I knew, my pitch was strong. I still benefited from practicing out loud and the pitch got stronger as the day progressed. I’ve seen time and again in start-ups that a great pitch can sell a crappy product. But I’ve also seen a poor pitch sink a brilliant product. Preparation and practice are key to you making the most of the opportunities you will have on the day.
Having a 1 page bio and 1 page synopsis for the agents and publishers was practical. Tip: ensure your bio includes links to where the recipient can download your full MS (I also included a link to the opening chapters of my second novel, which is in progress). Very few people were interested in taking away the 40 page sample. Nobody took the full MS. This left me with a heavy rucksack full of paper that I had to haul to the pub, then home. So focus on having a sharp informative bio and synopsis that will help the agent or publisher remember you and your pitch when they come to the novel again – weeks – or even months later.
Taking breaks is something I needed to do to make it through the day. And instead of doing what I would’ve done in London, using my ‘break’ to connect with other writers and the agents/publishers, I nipped outside to the Garden of Remembrance, where I walked in the sunshine, focussed on breathing, and tried to contain my energy. I also ate chocolate peanuts because I crave sugar when doing high-intensity interactions. I highly recommend working with your natural energy – take quiet time outs if that’s what recharges you, get a walk if you need to re-energise, speak to the people around you if that’s your thing. Do whatever you can to pace yourself.
Finally, going to the pub and spending some time with the other novel fair finalists was a very valuable experience. Not only was it fun to hang out with everyone and learn more about their work and lives, we had the opportunity to do what is normally the privilege of agents and publishers – we compared notes. One of the problems I’ve encountered in publishing is that the power lies very firmly with the agents and publishers. You, as a single person, submit your manuscript (most likely the solitary work of years), to agents or publishers who will read and assess it on their terms. I know many agents and publishers do not accept what is called ‘simultaneous submissions’. In part, I believe this rule helps them protect their very finite time – nobody wants to invest time reading a novel and making an offer, only to find the author has gone off with someone else. But in part the ‘no simultaneous submissions’ rule helps the publisher keep the power on their side. If you can only approach one publisher at a time, you have no leverage when it comes to making a deal. If that agent/publisher decides to offer you a deal, you can’t return to another publisher to try and push the price higher. And it’s here where agents can do a spectacular job in achieving the holy grail of publishing deals – a 3 or 4 or 5 way auction, where they have submitted a book to a range of publishers, some of whom express interest, and they are forced to bid for the book’s rights. While professional agents can do this, authors are not encouraged to take this approach – indeed I have seen publishers state that they will ‘know’ you have made a simultaneous submission because they talk to each other, discussing what’s popped up in their inbox. The novel fair provides the finalists with a very rare opportunity to do what publishers get paid to do – compare notes and take the temperature.
I was one of the last of the finalists to leave the pub. As I stood at the door saying goodbye to a fellow writer, I spotted a 20 euro note on the floor. I picked it up and the writer said to me that my luck was in. I agreed. I had woken up that morning with the ambition of having a 50% hit rate at the novel fair – I wanted half of the agents and publishers to want to read my manuscript. By the end of the day, every agent and publisher had asked for it. I had never had a better chance of publication. On my way to the Luas I dropped the 20 euros into a paper cup held by someone crouching on the street. It was a paltry way to share some of the luck of that day, but it was better than nothing. I hobbled down O’Connell street with my rucksack, and made it home just in time for the kids’ bedtime. I bathed in the afterglow of a day spent with writers, talking about my writing, and connecting with people whose passion is books. I didn’t allow myself to think of the weeks of waiting – and probably rejections – ahead.