Speeding Dating for Authors and Editors

I was at Carol Kent’s Speak Up conference this weekend, team teaching a session on storytelling in nonfiction with my fellow editor Janyre Tromp and taking one-on-one appointments with writers and speakers.

One-on-ones at writers conferences are a strange beast, and more than one person I met with commented on the format at the end of their appointments. Basically the writer or speaker has fifteen minutes to explain their project, tell me what gap it fills in the market, and describe why they have the expertise and platform to write the manuscript and reach lots of readers. This isn’t the first conference where I’ve felt like I’m getting paid to speed date with authors. In an hour, I’ve talked to four people who have pitched me everything from trauma memoirs to soul-and-body fitness manuals to anxiety and depression workbooks to how-to texts for starting your own Red Tent events.

I’m highly introverted, so I can be ambivalent about meeting new people, and mingling over breaks or meals at conferences isn’t my jam. But there’s something about one-on-ones that works for me, probably because they’re carefully regimented and I know what to expect. Writers are always passionate about their projects, so they bring a lot of energy to the appointment and it’s easy to kickstart the conversation.

I also enjoy the work of diagnosing where they are and helping them figure out next steps. In some cases this is obvious: they have their elevator pitch down, they have an agent representing them, they have the proposal all ready to go. If it fits with my publishing house, I simply have to hand them my card and ask them to ask their agent to send me the proposal. (Incidentally, I talked with several authors whose agent was sitting across the hall from me taking appointments as well, so I could just point and say, “Tell him to send me your proposal.”)

For other authors, next steps might not be so straightforward. Maybe I really like their project, they’ve written a few chapters, and their proposal is almost ready—but it doesn’t fit with the publishing plan of the house I work for. If I really like the project, I may encourage them to tweak the material so it would fit with my house. Or I may direct them toward other publishers that are better equipped for their genre and topic.

Other authors may have an agent and a few books under their belt, but they’re developing a new project and proposal, and they’re trying to get a feel from editors if the topic and hook will resonant in the market. These appointments can turn into brainstorming sessions: How is your book different from Book X that’s already been published? Why are you bringing these different topics/themes together? Have you considered structuring your table of contents this way?

New writers can be especially fun to work with because there are so many possibilities. They’ve begun writing a memoir, but they’ve wondered about turning it into a nonfiction book on Topic Y. They have a passion for Z, and they’re thinking about starting a blog or creating professional social media accounts. They want to write a book, but they’re not sure where to start. These conversations can be a little less concrete as we talk through what they want to accomplish with their writing and who they want to write to.

Whoever I’m meeting for a one-on-one at a writers conference, though, I’m sure to hear an interesting book idea and often the personal story that inspired it.

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