Pitching a manuscript isn’t for cowards, the thin skinned, or those with no endurance. Believing your project is worthy, truly believing in it, is required, as is the patience of a saint.
75 rejections taught me this.
I have a spreadsheet listing every agent I contacted. It includes the date I pitched, a follow up date, their proposal requirements (they were not all the same), an expiration date, and some additional notes, if relevant. It is 75 rows long.
Every line is marked in red, indicating a rejection, either directly via email or indirectly via silence.
My memoir, The Same River Twice, published on November 3, 2020—on Election Day, during a pandemic, by Skyhorse, distributed by Simon & Schuster.
I sold it without an agent.
“Your following is too small.”
Shortly before my book’s release date, I had a call with my press publicist. She asked if I was on social media.
I started to laugh. I’ve been active online for nearly 20 years. “Yes, I have a blog,” I said. “I’m on Twitter and Facebook, I am on Instagram, I even have an IG for my dog.”
“Great,” my publicist said, “Many of our authors aren’t even on social.”
Yet the rejections often said my following was too small. “Apparently, you can’t sell a memoir unless you have Kardashian level followers,” one writer friend joked.
I’ve been on social for twenty years now, and while my following isn’t huge, it’s tightly targeted, plus it’s organic. I didn’t buy followers or join Instagram pods or go crazy with the hashtags. I followed people I liked conversing with or who posted interesting things. Sometimes they followed me back.
Among those followers was the acquisitions editor who later sent me my book contract.
I finished my manuscript in the winter of 2018. Well, first draft finished. Pitch ready finished. Not final edit finished.
I followed by spending several months not writing a book proposal, really committing to telling myself I couldn’t do it. Instead, I talked to my published friends, shared my manuscript with a handful of beta readers, and tried not to fuss with the pages I’d written. I worked on other freelance projects, paid my bill, and continued to not write a book proposal.
In spring, 2019, I decided it was time. I cracked open Jane’s guide to writing proposals and… I wrote a proposal. Honestly, I felt a bit of an idiot for putting it off for so long. A few things were more difficult than others: the chapter synopsis and the marketing plan come to mind, but the entire project took me no more than a week.
Without knowing what parts of the proposal agents would want, I made myself write all the components. This tactic came in handy when I started pitching. Agents don’t, it turns out, all want the same things. But because I’d written each chunk, it was easy for me to snap the bits together like Lego when it came to customizing the proposal for each pitch. Chapter summary? Got that. Comps? Got that too. I used every piece, though not for every proposal.
Show your work
Next up, the research. Finding out who to pitch.
I headed to Twitter to talk about my project. This was helpful because several writer friends offered to introduce me to their agents. That was so kind and so welcome, and even the rejections were useful. Personal introductions came with more personal rejections.
Those personal rejections were how I learned my social following was too small, or that maybe I’d have better luck pitching the story as fiction, or, more commonly, travel memoir is just such a hard sell right now. (Oh, 2019, you had no idea, did you?)
Weekly I researched agents, read the submission guidelines in exhaustive detail, and sent customized submissions. The right number of chapters. A proposal with the right pieces. Just the proposal. Just the chapters. A less than detail oriented person by nature, I was meticulous about reading guidelines and sending in exactly what each agent had asked for.
Weekly, I posted my pitch score to Twitter. 10 pitches, 3 rejections, 7 no responses. 17 pitches, 9 rejections, 12 manuscript requests, 16 no responses. 49 pitches… you get the drill.
I posted my count to Twitter.
And I posted about the rejections. One agent called my book “gutsy” while another said it was clear I had chops at the keyboard. One agent sat on my book for months, and would occasionally email me to say she loved the book and was conflicted about if it would sell. Others said a simple “not for me” or sent me a canned “best of luck” notice.
Those terse rejections were easy to take, easier than the rejections from agents who said they liked the book but just couldn’t see a way to bring it to market.
The rejections piled up. There were 75 in November 2019. I was tired and sad and demoralized. My next step was to quit pitching agents and try to get on an academic or smaller press after the holidays.
Then I got a tweet from an acquisitions editor. “I’ve seen your tweets about pitching a book. I’ve been following your work for a while; I’d like to see what you’ve got.”
I had all of it, of course. I’d done the work.
This process isn’t replicable. Or maybe it is.
Fast forward, we inked a deal, I signed, the book came out in November 2020. The editing process was great, I had a lot of say in the cover, and the early reviews have been complimentary.
I didn’t have an educated negotiator on my side, so I didn’t know what to ask for. I was lucky to have friends who shared information with me about their contracts. I was able to make educated requests for minor changes to the terms—though I don’t know what I left on the table. I also don’t know if an agent would have been helpful in getting more publicity for the book once it appeared in the world.
Without an agent, I chose to trust my editor. I decided to believe he had my best interests in mind and would get me a deal that was, if not as generous as I wanted, certainly standard for a first memoirist of my status. Yes, I’d have liked a bigger advance, a bigger cut. Also, my book is now in bookstores. That’s thrilling.
While the way I found my press was unconventional, I followed all the rules of traditional process to get there—with one exception. It was the confessional nature of my process that clued this interested editor into the fact that I had a book I was trying to sell.
Also, it turns out my follower numbers weren’t too small at all. It’s not how many followers you have, writers, it’s who they are. Mine included the acquisitions editor who bought my book.
I figure my follower count is just right.