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A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

The Risk of Pitching A Memoir

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STATUS: I always enjoy doing my local conferences so it’s no surprise that this afternoon that I find myself at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference. Two conferences back to back, glutton for punishment I guess. Grin.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DON’T SPEAK by No Doubt

Last conference blog entry, I promise (at least for a little while anyway). This really occurred to me when I was out in Hawaii and I think it really needs to be said.

When you are pitching a memoir, don’t take it personally if an agent declines to look at pages.

I know. Impossible. After all, most people who write memoirs probably didn’t have a happy time of it and thus why they want to write it to begin with.

As an agent, when it’s clear that the memoir is something that might simply be too painful for me to read, I’m between a rock and hard place. Do I ask for the pages even if I know I’m not going to be able to handle reading them? Or do I decline?

One time I did decline and I felt awful because it was clear the writer was on the verge of tears. Even though I explained why I was passing on looking at pages (nicely but honestly), I knew that the writer felt like it was a personal rejection of the validity of the story and what the writer had experienced.

Ack.

So, what do I do for the future? Ask for pages knowing it’s not right for me or do I request them—knowing in my heart of hearts that we are going to pass?

I have no answer and I’m sure I’ll handle it case by case (or pitch by pitch as the case may be).


33 Responses

  1. David Kearns said:

    Awesome. She’s so honest. It’s great. Gotta love candor. Okay, so no memoirs for our Kristin. Now, you out there with a great story; get the picture? Many other agents are like, going “ooooooh, ICKY emotion!” so don’t go “emo” on the agent! Because, like, ACK!

    Man, so many rules! I’ll never make it in this business, I suppose. (sniff)stbm

    “san dimas HS football RULES!”

    http://www.mybladderisfull.blogspot.com

  2. Kourtnie McKenzie said:

    You are seriously one of the kindest people I’ve ever met at a conference. I’m not one for memoirs, but I would think that a memoir author would have appreciated the kind honesty after getting through the initial rejection shock.

    I also am astounded by how many people write memoirs. Over half the other authors I talked to were pitching their personal stories! It seems so self-exposing, and so prone to the “so what?”

  3. Lucy said:

    Kristin, I understand where you’re coming from.

    It’s a plain, established fact that trauma, like smoke, can do significant damage at second and thirdhand. There is a reason that psychologists have their own psychologists, that police officers, nurses and doctors can need professional help; and that PSTD affects soldiers who may have never fired a shot in battle. Whether it’s a secondhand audio or visual, or a thirdhand textual image, trauma carries with it the ability to harm and disrupt.

    Yes, there are things that are too disturbing to read. No, an agent does not have an obligation to read something that may be personally traumatizing. Yes, the first response to this post annoyed me. A lot. I will stop before I say something snarky.

    Hey, Kristin! Welcome back to Colorado! 🙂

  4. Rebecca Knight said:

    Honestly, I find it easier to take a “not my cup of tea” rejection before seeing pages than a rejection on a partial. I think if you ask for the pages, then it will really be like “Sorry, I don’t like your personal story,” moreso than if you didn’t ask for them.

    Just my thoughts. I haven’t written a memoir, so this is all pure speculation :).

  5. TLH said:

    This is why I write fiction… I need some distance to be able to handle the rejection.

    I still think you are always right to turn them down initially rather than give them false hope when you know from the beginning you can’t represent them. In any genre, I would always prefer to know up front where an agent stands. It’s easier to take the honest blow than to be dragged along.

    But that’s just me. 🙂

    ~Tara

  6. Kim Kasch said:

    YIKES!!! That would be a tough job.

    I think you’re right – case by case evaluation. Some people can handle a “No” and others might not be able to take it face-to-face at a conference.

  7. Louise Uccio said:

    Well, wait! Hang on. What if it were a memoir, self-help book written with a pull your head out of you &*% before you suffer anymore twist.

    Then, imagine if that memoir, included a theme full of dark humor and vulgarity that would make a truck driver feel at home!

    Set, on planet dysfunction with a full tour of the park. Where you get an in-depth tour of the park and all the details of the rides, games and stages, by the one and only Alex! Oh and of course, I couldn’t leave out an in depth caloric value of the special snacks!

    We all know that without those special snacks you couldn’t cope on P.D.!

    Yes, yes, yes, of course, I’ve lost my mind I was born where? Oh yeah, that’s right -Planet Dysfunction!

  8. Doreen Orion said:

    As a psychiatrist who has had two memoirs published (one on a traumatic experience and one humorous) I have to agree with the “better reject her now than later” approach. It would be more personal if she knows you’ve read the pages, then said no.

    In any event, anyone who seeks to be a published author better get used to rejection. Kristin, you’d be a good one to ease an aspiring author into this whole process (whether you decide to read or say “not a good fit for me”) when an author first queries, because you would be so nice about it.

    So, don’t feel bad about saying no.

    Darn. Shoulda checked your insurance before giving my “professional” opinion.

  9. terripatrick said:

    I love the (personal) synchronicity that you’d post about memoirs and appreciate (most) of the comments posted about this genre.

    Since I don’t read memoir, it was a surprise, and huge learning curve, when I realized I was writing one. LOL! I’m in the NO-UP FRONT group. I got one request for pages and then a personal pass from the agent that made it very clear I wouldn’t have worked with her anywho. (Intentional misspelling)

    Fortunately my memoir is more like Louise stated: “humorous, self-help, written with a pull your head out of your…” Though doesn’t follow the rest of her advice. (Cheers, Louise!) If it wasn’t, I couldn’t have spent so much time writing it when I could have been writing romances, my first choice. Or even writing tech documents like I did for many years.

    What I’ve learned researching memoir, the market, those that write them, the scandals (not truth?!?!) is that memoir is a one shot deal for most writers, and not a good business choice for agents. Maybe that’s an angle to consider when saying NO without requesting pages. Follow up with a gentle question – what else have you written?

    They may be beautiful writers, angsty stories, but the author is seldom a professional writer or has any intent to be one. This is why most published memoirs are of a celebrity status or those who already have an audience.

    It’s also why, my memoir will be self published someway, for those that want to read it. I pitched editors and agents because I wasn’t putting it out there without professional editing. BUT I JUST GOT THAT. So, I’m in the home stretch and ready to get back to fiction/romance. It’s way more fun, and definitely more believable, than the story of my life. 🙂

    Always be true to yourself. As nice as you are, a gentle NO from you should be less drama than the author endured to live, then write, the memoir. So they’ll survive. If not, their story was really lame.

  10. Anonymous said:

    You should do what most agents do: Ask for pages and then never get back to that writer. Or, if you do reply, pretend you never met them and reject them with a Dear Writer form reject. Seriously, that’s what other agents do.

    You represent so few clients, I can’t imagine anyone who has been to your website would think they’d have THAT great of a chance. With the congolomorate that is Writer’s House or Inkwell Management, maybe but, it’s you and Sara for pete’s sake.

  11. Anonymous said:

    Oops, I realized my last comment (7:18) reads really snarky. Not my intention.

    What I meant was, you’re thinking too much. If you know it’s not for you, say so. If the writer knows anything about the size of your agency, they know you don’t sign that many writers, so if they don’t have what you are looking for, they know they are in good company.

  12. Kat Harris said:

    What’s an agent to do?

    Well, I’m not an agent, but from a writer’s standpoint, I know the rejection after a simple query is a difficult pill to swallow.

    It’s even more difficult to swallow when a writer is rejected after pages have been submitted.

    Don’t be afraid to say no.
    We all need to hear it at some point.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Anonymous at 7:18 a.m., I was rejected by Writer’s House many times– once so unpleasantly that I now read the rejection letter aloud when I give talks to writer’s groups (so that they see that they can laugh about rejections… eventually).

    Then I got taken on by a tiny little agency. YMMV.

  14. behlerblog said:

    Kristin, I’m really glad you brought this up, as I specialize in memoirs and biographies. Most of these manuscripts are so personal that they would only appeal to friends and family.

    More than any genre I read, this genre suffers from myopia. The authors are too close to their subject matter and don’t have the ability to see that their stories aren’t big enough to appeal to a wide audience.

    Your desire to avoid hurting their feelings is admirable because it’s hard to break a writer’s heart. But I’m honest [gently so] in the pitch sessions because, as much as it may hurt, they paid to be critiqued, and I don’t think it’s fair to blow smoke up their Victoria Secrets.

    Rather than leave them empty handed, I suggest they read memoirs and biographies with a critical eye; analyze why they liked the book, what elements gave the book wide appeal.

    More than anything, I wouldn’t accept pages from anyone I didn’t feel had an interesting story to tell.

  15. laurasibson said:

    Your words are much kinder and easier to take than this piece that’s been floating around twitter:
    http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2009/09/i_will_not_read.php?page=2

    I think you need to stick to your guns. Though it’s intensely personal for the individual pitching, it’s still business at the end of the day. If the person gets worked up, they probably aren’t ready to pitch their story yet.

    (Ha, this is funny coming from a person who can cry at Hallmark commercials.)

  16. Lily said:

    Gee, will you look at some pages of mine just to be gentle? Probably not. Why let emotion rule in this case? It’s your job. Do it how you do it. Don’t feel responsible for the world. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a jammed in-box!

  17. Tina Lynn said:

    In the whole picture-the-audience-in-their-underwear tradition, just imagine trying to pitch it to pub houses–eyes streaming, fighting nausea, total emotional wreck–yeah, you can sell this. Yeah, no! Just say no, as so eloquently stated above. I’ve been rejected by you and I still like you:) It’s best to just get it out of the way. Those of us who are trying to land agents may have completely idealistic and unrealistic expectations of what an agent can do for us. But surely those who you do represent likely don’t want you wasting your time. They want you working hard selling their manuscripts not muscling through your gag reflex reading pages you already know you won’t represent *grin*.

  18. Vacuum Queen said:

    Do all pitch clinic participants expect pages to be asked for?! Or at least an on the spot decision? I thought they were more about helping writers make a better pitch. Shows what I know.

  19. Lucy said:

    Oops, PTSD, not PSTD. Dang, I need an editor. And an agent. *huge hopeful grin*

    Thank you, Anne, you scored some excellent points on this subject. My favorite:

    “A book-length memoir is read and marketed as a novel.” Ergo, write it with some of the same principles in mind. If you all want to know more, go and read Anne’s awesome column. (She did not pay me to say this, although she might have promised me a box of Easter Peeps in another life. Wait, I think that was Frank McCourt.) 😉

  20. Anonymous said:

    Some good comments, some genre bashing, but here’s what I haven’t seen yet: a good memoirist does not confuse the art with the life. As someone in the revision stages of a memoir, my primary goal is to tell a great story, not merely bear witness or turn it into therapy on the page. If I were to “pitch” you and you rejected the pitch, it is merely that, not a rejection of my life experience. It’s all about the writing, whether it’s memoir or any other genre.

    So: there is no reason for you to feel worse about rejecting a memoir than other kinds of stories. (Especially when you’re doing the rejecting at a conference in Hawaii.)

  21. A.Gates said:

    I applaud you for your job, especially when done face to face. It’s really pitch by pitch, as hard as it may be, especially with that person standing in front of you. But it is your job, and your choice, you decide because it will be your time invested into it.

    On a side note, great song! I saw it perform over the summer on their concert tour and it’s just as powerful as it is on the media player 🙂

  22. David Kearns said:

    This crowd seems to know so, so much about everything about do’s and don’ts.
    Do’s and don’ts hmmmmm. I get nervous when I hear this. I wonder what would have happened if Thomas Merton for instance, responded to a list of do’s and don’ts from a group of his fellows.
    Let’s face it: publishing is in trouble right now, likely because of this ridiculous system of self policing and self censure. Reach down from your guts and write the truth. That way, when a reader picks it up, he or she will know it to be true, and purchase it. Save publishing: don’t listen to the self appointed experts.

  23. Bron said:

    I’m voting with all the others on rejecting pages immediately, for both your sake and the writer’s. Why waste your own time reading something that may traumatise you and that you know you’re not going to sell?

    And for the writer, I imagine it’s like pulling off a band-aid. You can do it the quick way, which hurts immediately but at least it’s over, or you can pull it off slowly, which as we all know hurts more in the long run. I think the others are right in saying it would be worse receiving a rejection on a partial than on a pitch.

  24. Lady Heidi, Duchess of Kneale said:

    Above all, this is your job, and it should be pleasant at best, tolerable at worst.

    Why would you want to put yourself in a position where you have to deal with something you would find traumatic?

    While I understand your desire to be nice to all who seek representation, do not sacrifice your own personal contentment.
    It might affect your job, your sleep and your own happiness, and we can’t have that.

  25. Anonymous said:

    Say, “That sounds interesting but it’s not right for me. Good luck in your journey!”

    Be nice but firm and don’t read it especially if you have no intention of taking it.

    I done a lot of freelance newspaper writing and go for a “home run” query every time I pitch. Either hire and don’t respond, either way I get the message. Whatever you do, don’t waste my time trying to make me feel good. I pitched because I’m trying to make some money and I’d assume that you are in this business for the same reasons. If you want to console switch careers and try psychotherapy.

  26. the Lola Letters said:

    QUESTION:

    Are all memoirs sad?

    (I’m seriously asking. I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea as to what I’m talking about in the literary world, and I really just want to know.)

    I just wrote a huge post on my blog about forgiving Kanye West for being an inconsiderate jerk to Taylor Swift at the VMAs because I once threw gum in a girl’s hair on the school bus… and I’ve since received a bunch of emails from people saying that I should write a memoir because they need a good laugh… but maybe they are like me and have no idea as to what a memoir actually is. Help?

    http://thelolaletters.blogspot.com/2009/09/title-1taylor-swift-kanye-west-story.html

  27. Naomi Ulsted said:

    You know, even if the piece is memoir, it’s still a piece of art and is subject to the same criticism and potential rejection as any piece of art. I choose to put my personal life into words and out for the public, but in doing so, I’ve committed to looking at rejection of the work as just that, not rejection of myself or my experience. If I can’t get through rejection of my work without getting all “emo,” then I’m not ready to put it out there.

    http://www.naomiulstedwriting.blogspot.com

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