This past weekend, I attended a nonfiction agent panel conducted by the New York Writers’ Workshop. These panels are done in coordination with the organization’s pitch weekends, where writers learn how to and then pitch their manuscripts directly to editors, which sounds like a great program, though I’ve not done it myself.
I've attended these panels before-- both for nonfiction and fiction-- and met several different agents, many of whom are household names in the households of aspiring authors. This time, the agents on the panel were Peter Rubie, CEO of Fine Print Literary Management; Katherine Fausset, an agent with Curtis Brown; Rita Rosenkranz head of the Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency; and Richard Florest, an agent with Rob Weisbach Creative Management.
The panels are great opportunities for writers in the NY area to get a sense of what these agents are looking for, and as Fausset said, you can slide mention of these workshops in your query letter as a small demonstration of your dedication to the craft and to answer the question about why you’re pitching your manuscript or proposal to the specific agent.
To be honest, this particular panel reiterated a lot of the basics that most of us have heard before, and I’m not going to go over them point-by-point. The good news is nonfiction is currently a strong market for writers, especially if you have built a strong platform. One tidbit I found particularly interesting that I wanted to share here: If you can show that your self-published book -- fiction or nonfiction -- sold at least 5,000 copies, your ability to succeed in an agent’s eyes goes up significantly. Of course, 10,000 is better, and they’re not saying that they’re going to rep that specific book that you self-pubbed, but they’d be willing to hear your pitch for the next book. But if your first book still had an audience to meet, then maybe they would pick it up. It’s not common, but it happens.
I also enjoyed the discussion of “community,” in other words, your reach on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. But, as Rubie said, “No one knows yet how social media translates to sales.”
I spoke with Rubie after the panel and he explained that there really are no metrics to determine what a strong community means in terms of sales. Part of the problem is that things are changing so quickly that the value of something as a measuring tool is ephemeral. Basically, what worked last summer might have run its course by Thanksgiving. Moreover, followers don't translate to product moving out the door. You might have 1500 Twitter followers, for example, but it’s entirely possible that fewer than ten of them will buy your book.
To be honest, I'm starting to wonder if I, and most writers without major marketing teams behind them, are approaching social media the right way. I know Twitter is a great way to develop conversations with your audience, but I'm not sure it sells books. Facebook? I've found it invaluable to rebuilding friendships with those I went to school with. And I've met writers I wouldn't have met otherwise. I might even have sold a book or two, but probably not a lot of them. My blog? Let's just say it is in the midst of a rethink.
Although the panel didn’t discuss this, it reminded me of the concept of “influencers,” which is a term used in advertising about the specific word-of-mouth folks who can really change people’s minds (Oprah being the most often-cited example, back when she still had a ratings-dominant television show.) Not everyone’s Oprah. But you probably have an influencer or two in your lists of followers. If you are the type of person who understands how to drill down into your twitter and Facebook following data, if you can quantify your audience that way, you might be able to drive home the potential audience for your book to an agent. More power to you. In fact, if you know how to do that well, I might want to chat with you…
Indeed, I'd like to hear from you on a few things. How is social media working for you? Do you have any real metrics for how it's helping you build your audience? Or do you use it for other purposes?
Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which earlier this year published a short story anthology called Spring Fevers, available through Smashwords, Amazon, and in print via CreateSpace. EBP's latest anthology, The Fall, will be released in late October. Both anthologies include stories by fellow FTWA writers, including Cat Woods, J. Lea Lopez, Mindy McGinnis, and R.S. Mellette; R.C. Lewis and Jean Oram also have stories that will be in The Fall. Matt blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68