Write-up on PitchFest 2011 at Mills College

Mills College

By Your Salonniere

On Saturday, March 12, 2011 Mills College MFA program organized and hosted Pitchfest 2011 in their Living Room where “prose writers connect with agents, industry executives and MFA alumni.” The organization of this event was impeccable and wonderfully comprehensive. Soon as we arrived the staff were quick to get us situated and even offered to slide us into open slots to meet with literary agents.  Writer and college professor Emily Breunig and myself couldn’t sing enough praises at the commitment and outreach these Mills students and alum shared throughout the day. The event started with the “Publishing Panel 101,” which covered the whole process from writing the manuscript, to seeking representation, to finding a publisher and finally,  distribution. Moderated by novelist and Mills professor Katheryn Reiss, the panel included Elise Canon, from Publisher’s Group West and The Perseus Book Group, Nina LaCour, a Mills alum who’s book Hold Still was recently published, Joe Christiano, with Pegasus Bookstores in Berkeley, and Laurie Ann Fox, associate of Linda Chester Literary Agency.

For more coverage, check out the post from novelist and a dear friend of the salon, Emily Breunig on her site Notes from a Writing Life.

The writing process with Nina LaCour

LaCour started with a kernel of an idea when she was in her second year in the MFA program at Mills. She became one of the ten finalists for Zoetrope, which sends the finalists work to agents in New York. LaCour advises that a writer needs to feel really good about her manuscript before sending it out.  She stresses, “Need to take the manuscript as far as you can until you can’t do it anymore.” She found her agent through the classic process of researching agents and querying, so its not necessarily true that you have to know someone, and she was gratified to learn the system in place can actually work.

After the manuscript was sent to the publisher, LaCour waited months and months to hear from the publisher’s house until, all of a sudden, they responded with lots of deadlines and tons of edits. LaCour had a year to write her second novel. She had to come up with the idea and then finish a manuscript in that time. Meeting the expectations of a publisher is an entirely different experience than writing for pleasure because now there’s a public with expectations. It starts feeling like a job and is not really as much fun. LaCour had a year of odd jobs after college, when she was rewriting her book though Reiss was quick to add that most writers will take five to six to ten years to work on a single manuscript, whereas, La Cour’s time was exceptionally tight.

Laurie Fox provides the skinny on the role of an agent

Fox opened by asking the audience how many were non-fiction writers and how many were poets. She quickly covered these genres since a majority of the attendees were fiction writers. Most journals, such as Milkweed, Graywolf, or Coffee House, want to deal directly with poets and don’t need agents though agents can help with the contract since neither the publisher or the writer may be familiar with the legal process and will require help navigating through the contract.

For fiction writers, Fox outlines, “if you’re lucky, an agent can be your supreme advocate, your literary lawyer assisting with the contract with the publisher, occassionally providing the services of an entertainment agent, a business manager, and part-time, really extracurricular publicist. As far as publicity is concerned the agent can help generate ideas.” Most agents pharm out editorial work to others who work inside publisher’s houses or either left publishing houses or were laid off.

When the writer needs to go into developmental stage, the agent can be a developer during the long process, so writers should look for an agent who has patience. Expect to go through three to five drafts after you land an agent and then after the book is sold, then the manuscript really goes into development. A good rule of thumb is to take eighty percent of what the agent says and screen out the rest as “crazy.” So writers need to find an agent who understands the novel and reflects the spirit of it. If you have a religious and spiritual work, you don’t want a cynical agent. Its a marriage of sorts. Agents can help shape the work into its most marketable form.

Writers should definitely keep the big picture in mind and ask themselves where they want to be in ten years. Most novelists take ten years to complete a manuscript because they have a day job and other life duties. The average novel takes ten years, and the second one, two to three years. For Fox the first took four and the second five because she has a seventy-hour work week. Everyone speaks of the nine-month pregnancy process like the production process.

The finest way to find an agent is the bible Literary Marketplace, which is very expensive, so writers aren’t recommended to buy it but seek it out at local libraries since only forty pages are pertinent to finding an agent. You’ll want to find the most up to date version that lists address, contact, and, most importantly, the genre and sensibility each agent is looking for. Most agents prefer to be emailed the manuscript, so writers no longer need to send hard copies. The second best way is to comb through acknowledgment pages of books writers love and who share the same sensibility with your own writing.

Fox urges writers not to worry about writing material that might be considered hot or trendy, which is always a moving target. She warns, “You’re going to be eating your words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Can’t psych out what’s hot. Stick to your vision.”

Elise Canon on the publisher and distributor

Canon advises to “get the pitch in really quick to book buyers.” The best advice she ever got was from her former professor at UCLA, Carolyn See, who told her to keep in touch with all the colleagues you meet along the road. Fox doesn’t agree with the doomsday sentiment and firmly believes that the independent sellers are stronger than ever for those hard-bitten veterans who deal with landlords. Independent bookstores are places where writers find people like themselves: “where we get to dream, sometimes alone but also together.”

Those in MFA programs really shouldn’t be worrying about marketing and distribution while in school, but, once a writer is ready, need to be able to identify inspiring writers and what sensibilities you love, so its good to identify comparisons.

Books are sold by distribution, so for a publisher to take on a book, need to figure out what the “disto” is. It’s good to have a pantheon of writers and muses that a writer can compare her work to. Some authors have already written books, so when a new work comes out the publisher may try and stay away from those titles if they weren’t too successful, and they’ll market the following work as a come back or breakout work.

Most audiences don’t want a hardcover and are price resistant, which doesn’t work if a new writer hasn’t found an audience yet. The publisher’s trend is to have a paperback original that gets reviewed really well. It used to be the case that reviewers wouldn’t cover paperback originals but not anymore. Fox encourages to put books in paperback originals and let the author find her audience.

Independent publishers are different than the big time.  PGW is an aggregate, part of the big ten including Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Norton, among others. Independents don’t have to have a profit margin so they can take chances with works that aren’t always sexy. Their risks can be wonderful and weird like McSweeney’s talmudic novel, The Instructions, by Adam Levine or Milkweed working with Susan Straight on Aqua Boogie.

Fox mentioned Milkweed’s Fiction Prize, which is another way to get published, bypassing the agent search. She mentioned Tinhouse and Hawthorne, two of the most successful publishers from Portland, which is a strong literary community. PGW represents Open City, Tinhouse, Granta and McSweeney’s. Fox asked the audience how many had been to Litquake, which is a great way to meet authors and agents. She stresses that being a writer “isn’t just about sitting alone at the desk jamming out emails but very much involves being about the world and building community. The goal of the publisher is give the book a long life.”

Unlike most retailers bookstores can send back their products. “If a dressmaker buys dresses that don’t sell, they have to cut the price into deep discount to make up for the loss, but bookstores can pack up what doesn’t sell and send the books back to publishers and get their money returned, which is especially important if the bookstore owes money. It’s a different business than most. Publishers try to give their books a reasonable time to sell, knowing that the bookbuyers are looking for reasons to skip through the catalog. So publishers need to say that the author is very active, building a world and that she has more than just family and friends who are going to follow the book. Writers should consider what connections they have and how active they are in the world.”

Joe Christiano on being your best ambassador

Admits that he’s the guy who says yes or no to a book. “Though everyone on the panel will be your representative, when all is said and done,” Christiano argues, “the author is the best ambassador for her book, so the author needs to know how the book is interact with the world.” Christiano went to SFSU for undergraduate school but decided to bypass graduate school and learn how the industry works firsthand. He urges that writers be humble about their work. A lot of times, novelists will come into the store with a sense of entitlement, asking “why aren’t you carrying my book?” or “my book has just come out, can I do a reading here?” Writers would be wise to ask instead, “do you have a place for this?” Presenting a hardened sense of reality, Christiano says no one is going to care about your work as much as you so be realistic.

Booksellers want to be able to help writers and are best at “handselling” because they put the novel into readers hands. First Person Singular, a regular literary event that Christiano organizes, is held at Pegasus Bookstore in Berkeley in Solano, which presents author’s work through live performances by local talent. Authors can watch their own work performed and see how the story holds an audience or not.

Christiano impresses agents are looking for an “aura of humility” not arrogance of brashness, which can be “a big turn off.” All parties appreciate someone who knows how the book can “grow.” Authors who are most humble tend to be the most successful.

The panel wrapped up with a few more words of wisdom in hopes that publishers would adopt the European model of releasing original paperbacks. Our economy can barely support hardcover, Canon insists. If authors get an opportunity for an original in paperback, there should be no reservations. In addition, Canon advises that authors find out which organizations they can bring on board for their book, especially if there are big organizations with charters in major cities. Agents are interested in how your life informs your writing, so writers should be in tune with how their other activities lend to their work.

One of the audience members asked about editorial assistance and one of the panelists suggested the Bay Area Editor’s Forum and Journalist’s Association. Also, Susan Page’s The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book was highly recommended for emerging novelists since Page really talks about the reality of publication, so expectations are set at the right level.

This was one of the most informative and most welcoming literary events attended by your Salonniere. A huge thanks goes to Kristina Miltenberger, Cheena Marie Lo, and all the other Mills grad students and alum who made this thoroughly enlightening and engaging lit fest possible. This is an invaluable resource that all emerging writers would be wise to take advantage of in such a beautiful setting among committed and passionate artists. Much appreciated Mills. ‘Til next year!

To check out more lit events at Mills College, peep out their Place for Writers.

Do you have any tips on the agent-obtaining process, as Emily Breunig calls it? Got ideas on how to pitch your novel or whittle the plot-line to that perfect one-sentence plug? We’d love to hear your suggestions and thoughts at the salon.


  1. very good stuff here, very useful. thanks!

    as a poet, i’m fortunate (or not) to bypass the literary agent aspect of the biz. the plus is getting to interact with prospective publishers directly, and then this means i really have to have my ‘game’ on, and self-market or self-promote. this is challenging, because it’s a different skill set than actually writing each poem then writing each book, then editing and revising.

    i do like very much what joe christiano has to say about humility. that’s also challenging when you’re in self-marketing mode. i still think it’s good to be confident about the work in the cover letter to prospective publishers; i mean, you’ve worked as hard as you could to write the best thing you could, you’ve fleshed out a project and taken it as far as you could. i do think there’s a way to represent yourself confidently w/o being/sounding arrogant.

    anyway, sounds like an awesome, useful event. thanks for sharing!

  2. So true about the “take it as far as you can yourself.” I did that, and I couldn’t conceive of where else it could go–until my agent gently pointed me in that direction. Whoops! And now it’s very cheerfully moving along in ways that make total sense, but that I wouldn’t have spotted myself.

    Great writeup!

  3. Barbara- Thanks for stopping by. Dealing directly with publishers sounds far more engaging and satisfying, yet I can definitely see how a poet then has to fend for herself through the gamut. Joe was amazing. He sent a follow up summary to attendees urging writers to really whittle down their pitch to a bare bones and urgent one-sentence precís. Makes perfect sense. It’s almost like a thesis that forces the novelist to know her work inside and out. The event was incredible. I almost didn’t go because of mid-semester burn out, but I’m so glad I did! Hope you’re well.

    Emily- Let’s definitely attend more of these events together. So inspiring. And, who knows, maybe someday soon we can have our workshop.

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