Matching up writers and agents

You had me at 'hello'
By ALEX IRVINE  |  February 11, 2009

At the Eastland Park Hotel on February 2, a dozen literary agents and publishers from Maine, Boston, and New York heard pitches from 75 aspiring writers on topics ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to the history of the steamship. The event was the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance's agent "speed-date," in which each attendee selected four agents to hear his or her pitch; each agent heard as many as 30 pitches during the course of the day. ("Ironic that this event is happening on Groundhog Day," remarked attendee Jill Hackett.)

MWPA executive director Shonna Humphrey devised the idea after hearing from members that while the group was good about working on writing, they needed help figuring out what to do when a manuscript was done, polished, and ready for the world's attention.

Thus the book-agent speed-date was born. It had plenty of virtues: pitches would have to be short, saving the agents from undue hardship, and simultaneously allowing each writer access to multiple agents. The only problem, or so Humphrey assumed, would be finding a dozen agents who would be willing to come up and spend a day being pitched "in Maine in the dead of winter."

But surprise, surprise! "Everyone on my initial list said yes," Humphrey says, amazed. And response from members was overwhelming; even with a fee of $175, "we had a waiting list." Plans are already being laid for a repeat in the summer.

Writers came from across Maine, and from as far away as Washington, DC. One of the DC attendees, NC Weil, heard about the event from a friend who summers in Maine and came up to get away from the big-city book scene and have a more "low-key" interaction with agents, in hopes of finding more success.

Other attendees had their own reasons. Robin Wood, who summers in the house once occupied by Rachel Field, the first woman to win a Newbery Medal, is writing a biography of Field and treated the MWPA session as a deadline for developing a complete book proposal. "It's hard to take yourself seriously" when you're working on a project solely on your own time," Wood said.

Afterward, over drinks at Top of the East, there was a general consensus that the event had exceeded expectations. Agents in attendance remarked at how well the writers had prepared, and how professionally they had presented themselves. Had they heard much worth following up on? Dan O'Connell, Edite Kroll, and Jessica Regel each pegged the strike rate at about 10 percent — which, they hasten to add, is above average for a session like this.

In addition to the benefits for writers — face time with that most critical of gatekeepers, the literary agent — events like the MWPA speed-date have benefits for agents as well, according to Regel. When you're dealing with someone through the standard submissions process, she says, "you can't tell whether they're going to be able to market themselves the way authors need to market themselves these days."

In the end, the writers go home with contacts and the agents go home with proposals that have, at least for the moment, piqued their interest. "Let the writing speak for itself" is a common refrain among the agents, meaning that even a terrific pitch doesn't mean there's a great book in the offing. Many of the 75 who came to the Eastland Park will find that their writing doesn't speak the way they want it to, at least not yet. Another common refrain among the agents is that they're seeing too many "small-town Maine stories" and memoirs about families battling one disease or another. But the agents were genuinely intrigued, and the writers had the shine of people newly energized — validated, even.

Related: Our list of who’s done Maine wrong this year, Review: On the road with David Foster Wallace, Ransom Notes, More more >
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