Writing, Pitching & Promoting in the Age of the Coronavirus

Stefanie Sanchez von Borstel and Leslie Zampetti

Today’s guest post is a Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

Like everyone in the book industry, writers have experienced considerable change over the last few months. Although they might be used to working from home, being forced to do so has impaired creativity and made it nearly impossible for some writers to focus. For others, being under lockdown has provided just the right push for them to finally finish their book project and research agents and publishers.

For those writers who are able to work at this time, questions loom:

  • If they’re writing fiction, should they adjust their story to reflect current events?
  • If they’re already published, can they effectively promote their book through social media?
  • What’s the best way to help fellow writers, booksellers, and others who may be struggling?

I asked literary agents Stefanie Sanchez von Borstel of Full Circle Literary and Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Literary, Inc. these and other similar questions, and as with all my Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers.

Please note: Although both agents answered my questions as best as they could when the interview was conducted in May, it’s a very changeable situation. Still, their answers suggest that it’s possible for writers to thrive even during unpredictable times.

Sangeeta Mehta: Many agents are advising fiction writers not to write about the pandemic, urging them to write something escapist or uplifting instead. Do you agree, even though the books being written now won’t be published for a couple of years, and the world might be ready for pandemic fiction by then? Would subplots or references to the virus be appropriate or expected?

Stefanie Sanchez von Borstel: While we’re all still deep in the pandemic, I am advising fiction writers not to center on the pandemic. We’re inundated with COVID-19 news 24/7, and so much is changing week-by-week that it would be difficult right now. 

For fiction projects, at the moment I’d prefer to represent feel-good stories and stories that explore our humanity rather than pandemic fiction. As we’re all trying to figure out how best to navigate work, school and family life, I think we can all use laughter, hope and happy moments.

Since I work with many writers of fiction for young readers, I am also concerned about young people today. Rather than focusing on the virus, which has brought so much pain and loss to many, I am encouraging my clients to dig deeper to write about people and experiences that are most meaningful to them.

Leslie Zampetti: My advice to writers stands firm: write what you need to write. Write what you’re good at. Write what excites you. Trying to chase trends will drive you crazy. I do feel that writing about the pandemic while in the midst of it is challenging. Getting your thoughts and reactions down while they’re fresh, as they happen, can be cathartic and provide material for a later book, but I feel that trying to write a novel based on the pandemic means writing about events and emotions none of us have fully processed yet.

Not writing about the pandemic doesn’t mean you’re not thinking about its impacts. Leaving out those impacts will place a book solidly pre-2020, just as details about flying place a book either pre- or post-9/11. Details matter. I’m advising my clients writing contemporary fiction to think about how the pandemic would affect their characters, even if they’re not writing about it yet.

How should those writing fiction that takes place in 2020 and beyond deal with the societal changes we’re all experiencing? For example, should their characters meet up on Zoom and wear masks if they leave their homes? Should coronavirus vocabulary, which has now become ubiquitous, be incorporated into their dialogue?

SSVB: My advice is to encourage writers to continue with their works-in-progress as planned. Manuscripts selling this summer will be published in 2022 and beyond. As quickly as COVID-19 has changed our world from just two months ago, in a few months or weeks there will be more changes. 

Even for fiction manuscripts with delivery dates this month, COVID-19 references are not being incorporated. My suggestion is to write what feels natural and don’t attempt to incorporate all of the societal changes happening right now. Any specific COVID-19 vocabulary/references can be addressed with your editor closer to publication.

However, I’d recommend keeping a written journal and photo/video journal documenting what is happening in your family and community. At a later time, you may want to incorporate COVID-19 vocabulary or references into your fiction, and can use your primary resources.

We just attended a 12-year-old’s Zoom surprise birthday party and a school graduation car parade. These were firsts for our family! Document everything since we’re living through history and these moments might become part of a story one day.

LZ: Speaking of details! These are choices a writer has to make consciously. Is their book intended to be of the moment, or is it okay that it’s obviously pre-virus? The details have to feel organic, woven into the world of the book and not just sprinkled in.

One concern of mine is that we’re living so completely in the present these days. We don’t know what the future holds, and it likely will look different in different places. For example, those of us living in crowded cities will probably be wearing masks for the foreseeable future—but will people living in suburban, rural, or isolated areas do so?

I do think that writers will have to allow for common changes in vocabulary and action, just as they have had to allow for other societal changes like technologies (cell phones), political movements, social mores and etiquette, etc. These choices need to be made thoughtfully—for example, choosing to write a YA novel without cell phones simply because it’s easier logistically is a lazy choice and one that signifies a weakness in the plot.

How is the pandemic changing how you are pitching manuscripts to acquiring editors? For example, are you submitting less frequently and more cautiously? Are you finding that publishers are more responsive but less willing to take risks? Or is business continuing (almost) as usual, as this piece from Publishers Marketplace suggests?

SSVB: While agents are handling submissions in different ways, I am continuing to pitch and submit projects in specific areas. I represent many children’s books and nonfiction projects, which, according to the Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly reports, are two of the areas continuing to see strong sales during the pandemic.

(BTW, Publishers Weekly, the publishing industry trade magazine, is offering open access for all to digital issues of PW during COVID-19. Here is a link where readers can keep up with latest book news and reviews.)

Editors have been very responsive, especially to middle grade submissions. Most editors tell me they are looking ahead to the future. This week, I just closed an auction on a middle grade novel that resulted in a two-book, six-figure deal. Yet the key is to send projects that will stand out. 

I’m seeing response times are split. Some editors have shared they have more reading time right now, and are responding to submissions within a couple of weeks. Other editors have less reading time as they juggle working from home and family schedules, and are letting us know they will be taking longer to read. I’m doing my best to keep communication open on projects to accommodate varying schedules and response times. 

LZ: Every agent is different. I’m submitting in smaller rounds and focusing even more on editors with whom I’ve connected. I’m finding that editors are eager to meet virtually and talk about their changing wish lists. Responses to pitches and submissions seem to be slower than usual in some cases, likely due to the constraints editors are experiencing while working from home. 

School and public libraries are a big market for children’s books, so I hope that we’ll see increasing stability and purchases from them in the fall, whether schools re-open or virtual education becomes more successful. That would boost publishers’ confidence, hopefully meaning more acquisitions.

But business is continuing: I have several submissions out and recently made a deal.

Do you have any suggestions for authors who are promoting books that have recently released or are about to release? For example, should they avoid referring to the pandemic, or could that be seen as inconsiderate or irresponsible? Do you think authors will be encouraged or required to make themselves more visible on social media as publishers rely more on online marketing? Will virtual book tours likely become standard?

SSVB: We’ve had several titles released this spring and summer releases coming soon, and my advice is for authors to embrace the situation and try to think creatively about how to make changes work for you. If you’re going to be home with your kiddos 24/7, how about getting your kids involved?

For example, debut author Adrianna Cuevas filmed a video with her 12-year-old son baking guava pastelitos (favorite food of main character Nestor Lopez in her book) to share both her book and a baking activity. She also photographed her son doing a reenactment of the front cover of her book, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez, which is coming out this July. Families can enjoy these together and might be inspired to reenact book covers or try foods featured in their favorite books. Hopefully they pre-order, too!

Virtual book tours, online panels and read-alouds are now accessible to more readers. These online events can be attended by everyone everywhere and archived for sharing. For example, I enjoyed the recent Everywhere Book Fest! This festival brought together authors with spring releases who had launch events cancelled, and I hope these online festivals become standard (in addition to the live festivals, if possible!). Several authors are pairing up for Q&As or participating in multi-author events that would have never been possible before due to geographic limitations or scheduling.

LZ: We’re all looking for good news these days, and a book birthday is always good news!

I don’t think authors need to apologize for promoting their books, but the purpose of social media is to connect with others. It’s a two-way street. Celebrate and promote your book, but also offer something to your audience. Maybe writing advice, or little extras about your characters, or just encouragement in these difficult times.

Virtual book tours are both a blessing and a bane. Making events available to people who don’t have access to in-person book launches, discussions, etc., is wonderful. But we need to be concerned about accessibility for those who lack good devices, access to broadband, or accommodations for disabilities. If virtual events become standard, then we need to pay attention to how they can become another way of privileging certain groups of people just as in-person events have.

There’s also a difference in the energy and joy between in-person and virtual events. Try to harness that joy in your promotions, whether through video, emoji, or even exclamation points!

Given that the traditional publishing route has always been uncertain, and self-publishing might give writers a sense of control, would you encourage those who have already been considering self-publishing to go through with it? If so, should they focus on creating ebooks and audiobooks since such formats are probably easier to sell at this time?

SSVB: Traditional publishers are trying to navigate printer closures, shipping/warehouse restrictions, and distribution to readers in the midst of bookstores, libraries, and school closures. Ebooks make the most sense in the current market, especially if you have a timely topic. While I don’t have enough experience with self-publishing to share concrete suggestions, it seems like a challenging time for writers to self-publish since they’d need to manage these extra distribution challenges, in addition to editing, designing, marketing, etc.

LZ: Self-publishing requires a tremendous commitment from an author if it’s going to be successful. My usual advice applies: if there’s a highly targeted market that isn’t served by traditional publishers, and/or if the author is willing to put in the time, effort, and money needed, then it can be a positive experience. Self-publishing looks easy, but there’s a reason that publishers have editors, copyeditors, designers, and many other roles contributing to the process. Does the author have the energy and expertise to fill those roles, or do they have the funds to hire freelancers?

If an author is determined to self-publish, I would recommend focusing on ebooks right now, because there are supply chain issues with hard copies. That doesn’t mean cutting corners on editing or design, though. Audiobook narration is a specialized skill; the narration makes or breaks the reading experience, so I’d be careful about focusing on that format.

Just as the pandemic has magnified the class divide in our country, in that lower income populations tend to be at a higher risk due to their living and working conditions, is the same happening in the writing community? After all, most writers can’t just escape to the countryside and instead have to keep working second or multiple jobs. How can this latter, already disadvantaged group take back any strides they may have achieved in recent years?

SSVB: Not sure how to answer this one. As a Latina working in publishing for 25+ years, I don’t agree that underrepresented writers have made significant strides in recent years. According to the 2018 Cooperative Children’s Book Center statistics for children’s books, Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote only 7% of new children’s booksOnly 34% of books about Latinx were by Latinx authors/illustrators and only 29% of books about African/African-American people were by Black authors/illustrators. (Update: Here are the 2019 figures.)

Most of my clients have full-time jobs in addition to writing, and parents are now carrying the extra responsibility of 24/7 childcare and home schooling. At the same time, there continues to be misrepresentation of underrepresented groups, as book creators, agents, and editors do not reflect our society. A statistic that stood out in Lee & Low’s 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey: the percentage of people in editorial positions who identified as White increased from 82% in 2015 to 85% in 2019.

I’ve had a long commitment to underrepresented writers and artists, and I strongly believe that each successful book we represent opens the door to new writers and artists. So although this is a challenging time, we all press forward!

LZ: This is a difficult question. Current conditions are obviously exacerbating inequalities in the writing community. (Though virtual events should help if they are accessible to all and offered at a lower cost.) 

The burden of reclaiming the small strides that have been made should not be placed solely on those who are disadvantaged. Those of us who are more privileged need to consider what we can do to keep the focus on marginalized voices and help to make opportunities available, like donating critique opportunities or helping to provide scholarships to events. I work with organizations like Dominican Writers and Inked Voices to encourage these voices.

Common advice is to keep writing. Writing means effort and time spent thinking, dreaming, reading other work—and that is the hardest time to claw back from other responsibilities. How do you choose to write for 15 minutes instead of sleep when you’re already drained from working, caring for others, making your voice heard?

On the one hand, writers are hearing that they shouldn’t pressure themselves to write or worry if their books aren’t selling, but on the other hand, they’re being asked to donate to independent bookstores and writing organizations undergoing financial hardships. Is there a way to strike the right balance between focusing on their individual careers so they have the means to donate, and keeping our literary ecosystem healthy so that all can benefit?

SSVB: The pandemic has impacted writers in many different ways as they also navigate childcare needs and extra support to families and neighbors. Taking care of yourself and your family needs to come first.

I admire writers Shea Serrano and Celeste Ng for funding scholarships and grants to support writers and interns from diverse backgrounds. However, there are many other ways to give to the writing community such as volunteering your time as a mentor to writing organizations or pitch events, offering critiques to new writers, or providing guidance to debut authors based on your experience. Boost links and drive your readers to the online bookstore Bookshop.org or to the audiobook service Libro.fm, both of which designate a portion of profits to the indie bookstore of your choice. Writers can offer to host virtual author events or giveaways with book sales directed to their local indie, building a mutually beneficial relationship.

LZ: I firmly believe that we need to take care of ourselves right now. And if that means focusing only on your individual career, then make a note to yourself to pay it forward later on.

But giving to others benefits the giver as well, and donations of time and/or effort are just as important as money—maybe more so, given the high opportunity cost of time for many writers. Writing down budgets or mapping out schedules on a calendar can help make visible how much time and effort you have available to help others.

Will you have more impact locally or by participating in large organizations? Making small choices, such as linking to indie bookstores instead of Amazon, can have plenty of impact. Consider where your donation can have the most impact.

According to a recent Publishers Weekly campaign, “Now more than ever, books are essential to the well-being, education, and entertainment of our society and culture.” Not everyone agrees with this statement, however. Do you have an opinion on this issue?

SSVB: During this uncertain time, I’ve come to realize how much I value all of the people that make books and get them into the hands of readers. I miss stopping by my local bookstore, Run for Cover Bookstore, regularly to pick up books for gifts and weekend reading. Now that my sixth grader son is deep into online school from home, I have a renewed appreciation for teachers and librarians who use books creatively with students. 

I’ve come to appreciate even more the editors that take extra care in every detail and the publicists who champion a book with new opportunities as the marketplace has changed so suddenly. I am grateful for editors and art directors who are looking ahead to the future.

LZ: I would say stories are essential. Connecting with others through books is essential. Educating oneself about other perspectives, other places, and other experiences is essential. But to say “books are essential” implies that booksellers and the workers who make up the supply chain for publishing are essential, and I don’t think that most of those employees are being supported as if they are.

However, I can’t imagine life without books. I can imagine never travelling again, or not eating out, or not enjoying museum visits. Even not being able to watch movies or TV. But not reading? No.

How would you describe the writer who is most likely to withstand all this uncertainty and come out of the pandemic stronger than before? Do you have any other advice for writers on how to navigate the new publishing terrain we’re currently living in?

SSVB: The writer with perseverance and commitment will withstand the pandemic. Loads of patience helps! We’re all hearing about some of the greatest accomplishments that have occurred in difficult times in history. Newton began observing laws of gravity when he was forced to quarantine in Cambridge during the Great Plague. So who knows what will come out of our quarantine?

As we’re living through these uncertain times, keep observing. Keep writing. Keep illustrating. Continue to revise and work on new projects, consider trying something new (a new genre or writing for a different age group than your past works) to give yourself an extra challenge. With summer almost here, enjoy time reading and listening to the birds!  

LZ: Persistent and patient. That’s a good description for writers at any time.

Inform yourself as best you can about the changing conditions of the industry, and then focus on the positive. Focus on the things you can control—your craft, your writing habits, your creativity. Focus on the reader who needs your book, whoever that may be.

Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel (@fullcirclelit) is a literary agent and co-founder of Full Circle Literary with 25 years of experience in publishing. Prior to agenting, she worked in editorial, publicity, and trade marketing with Penguin and Harcourt. Since she is currently at home reading lots of middle grade lit with her 12-year-old, Stefanie would especially love to bring more exciting middle grade writers (contemporary, historical, magical realism, narrative nonfiction) and graphic novels to her list! Find out more about Stefanie and Full Circle Literary.

After years of experience as a librarian and writer, Leslie Zampetti (@leslie_zampetti) became a literary agent with Dunham Literary. Her clients include Ann Clare LeZotte (SHOW ME A SIGN, now available) and Lisa Rose (THE SINGER AND THE SCIENTIST, forthcoming). For children, Leslie represents picture books through YA, but middle grade is her sweet spot. Right now, Leslie is seeking more humor (dry or sweet, not gross), mysteries for all ages, and friendship/sibling/found family stories. For adults, Leslie is seeking upmarket mysteries and romances. Inclusivity and stories by marginalized creators are a priority.

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