One of the things I do in my spare time (ha ha ha ha, OMG, I crack myself up. “Spare time!” That’s hilarious) is mentor for a wonderful organization called WriteGirl. (In fact, if you’re a female writer, we’d love a few more volunteers for the current season. Apply here.) So, we just had our volunteer retreat and one of the super cool things the leaders of WriteGirl did for us was bring in a panel of literary agents, literary publicists, and published writers to chat about what they do and how they do it.

Of course, this was exciting for me, as I’ve not connected with many literary reps and am always interested to learn how others do their jobs. What I wasn’t expecting was a notebook filled with scribbles about how what these fine folks said relates to the stuff that I tend to say to you fine folks, week after week.

So, this week, I present you with some Lit Lessons. And a reminder that we can all learn about our lives by listening to others talk about theirs.

Just during the panelists’ introductions, I knew I was going to get a wrist cramp, writing down the words of wisdom from these rad chicks. First, Betsy Amster of Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises said, “I like to conspire with my authors to make an impact.” When Betsy started talking about her own brand identity as a publisher, I was hooked. “She gets it,” I said to myself. “Awesome.”

Kim Dower of Kim-from-LA Literary and Media Services talked about the power of the meet-and-greet and the face-to-face when dealing with mom-and-pop bookstores. That, for me, was a nice reminder of the way in which we sometimes use social networking, mass mailing, and other types of spaghetti slinging rather than valuing the “little moments” with one another as human beings.

When Ida Ziniti of Paradigm Agency talked about finding a comedy-writing duo while scouting at UCB, I was smitten. I mean, a major agent at a major agency checking out sketch shows in LA? Awesome! “They over-prepare for pitch meetings,” she said, when asked why she loved working with this particular pair of writers she signed. Seems that they did a bit of research — See that word, folks? — and learned that the person to whom they were pitching was a lover a musicals. So, they worked a song into their pitch. Yep. Brilliant. And she totally valued that level of research and preparedness in her clients.

Betsy chimed in, on the subject of research, saying, “We love people who do their homework.”

Seeing a theme I love? Yep. Me too.

Linda Friedman of Book Events and Authors Unlimited said that she likes writers she works with to be relaxed, funny, and well-spoken. Heck, don’t we all like all people we deal with to be relaxed, funny, and well-spoken? I sure do! This comes back to that whole “being comfortable in your own skin” thing. When we get you, we know how to work with you. We know how to rep you, we know how to cast you, we know how to sell you… on and on.

April Halprin Wayland, author of Girl Coming in for a Landing and New Year at the Pier, teaches at UCLA Extension and mentioned that when an agent takes you on — unless you are an absolute beginner — she isn’t your teacher. “She’s your cheerleader,” she said. “If an agent signs you and then berates you for all that’s wrong, that’s not a good relationship,” is a statement from April with which I couldn’t agree more! (See this week’s Your Turn for more in that neighborhood, in fact.)

When asked about targeting specific agents, a few of the panelists were preaching from the church of Self-Management for Actors, as far as I could tell!

Kim said, “Ask why before planning how. Figure out why you want to work with this person before figuring out how to get on their radar.” Wow! It’s like Ready, Fire, Aim all over the place, here. I love it! Once you’ve figured out the why part, Kim said to find out how you’re unique and use that. “You’re your own marketing expert first.”

Ida said, simply, “Query letters don’t work.” Yup. Just like I discourage y’all from doing mass mailings in favor of doing more “high-impact” activities like self-producing, showcases, plays, open mic nights, and networking events, it’s the same in the literary world. “If you’re a comedy writer,” Ida continued, “perform!” She scouts regularly at the Improv and UCB, among other venues. “We’re looking for triple threats,” she said. (And of course, that no longer means “actor, singer, dancer.” It means “actor, writer, producer.”)

On the topic of self-producing, Ida continued, “Performing is a way to not be frustrated that you don’t have an agent. You’re out there working on your stuff and you’re finding you’re more connected to people who are more active and connected.” Hmm… just by being active and connected. See how that works? Love it!

One of my least favorite questions of any panel, in any industry, is, “What are your pet peeves?” You know I would always prefer what inspires people, rather than what folks are doing wrong as they reach out to them. Alas, the question was asked and the panelists shared some doozies I could of course relate with!

“I know I can’t work with the criminally naïve,” Betsy said. “We expect you to know the basics.” As she described a particularly needy client who was worried about very minor issues, clearly unaware of how many other clients were vying for Betsy’s time (some of them with less-minor issues), there were loads of laughs around the room. Of course, I thought of how many “needy actors” reach out to agents or managers or casting directors or even producers and directors all the time, not realizing they’re driving a wedge between themselves and future work, with each rub of the wrong direction.

“We look for red flags,” Kim agreed. She talked about how she wouldn’t take on a writer who emails in the middle of the night or on Sunday. (This shocked me! I do tons of emailing in the middle of the night. I never realized that it might come across as a red flag! So, this was truly enlightening for me to hear.) “There are problems there. That’s when they think of things. An email in the middle of the night is intimate,” she explained, further clarifying that people who email “when they think of things” will email every time they think of things. And that’s needy.

Further, Kim said she’d never work with someone who was rude or mean to her assistant. “If you’re mean to my assistant, you’re not a nice person. I’m not interested. Am I turning down people with talent? Yes. But it’s about connections and knowing someone, in this business.” She’s right. I think we’ve all turned down working with people who bring more problems than they’re worth. (I even have a special, higher rate for some of these folks. Because there is an amount I can be paid to work with them. They just can’t afford it, usually. Turns out, that’s fine with me.)

As for non-traditional ways onto the radar of agents, a good tip for those who consider investing in “pitch fests” came from Ida, who described — during the pet peeve portion — receiving two really crappy pitches at one she recently attended. Lesson: If you’re going to do a pitch fest, do your homework, know to whom you’re pitching, and also know the climate for the type of material you’re pitching, know the buyers, and know your audience. That said, Ida’s first words were, “Pitch fests generally are a waste of money.” Got that? Good.

Next, we talked about branding. You know I love that topic! Back to Kim on this one: “It’s easier to sell someone who has a platform. You have more to bring to the party. But sometimes, it doesn’t make a difference. Our business isn’t scientific. Some will say don’t blog, instead put that energy into writing a book. Others get a book deal because of their blog. So, I don’t know!”

Here’s where I remind you that it’s never the one thing you do. It’s all the things you do. And you just do what lines up with how you want to do business, how you are at your most authentic moments, and what your goals are. Then you’ll attract the right partners in your career. It’s like auditioning being all about showing us who you are and what you do, not trying to figure out what we’re looking for. If all you do is teach us how to get you, we’re going to remember you when you are what we need!

At this point in the Q&A for the panel, the topic turned to self-publishing (let’s call this “self-producing,” for you actor types).

Betsy led things off with this: “A self-published book needs to look like a real book from a major publisher. It shows us how seriously you take what you’re doing.” She talked about ways in which self-published books look self-published (bad margins, no proofing, ugly cover art) and then mentioned that self-published authors need to take advantage of “major sales in a small area,” like even 300 books sold in a single book store. She said that’s enough to get on the radar of a major publisher. It shows you have a — say it with me — fanbase! And they love that.

Kim hopped in with, “the self-publishing climate has changed. It’s okay now. Many books sell to major publishers after being self-published, if they’re done well. Self-publishers are good promoters. They understand publicity. They don’t depend on their publishers to do the legwork. They know what it takes to get out there. Self-publishing has become a viable way to publish a book.” And, I’ll remind you here, so has self-producing become a part of the new business model. We’ve watched this evolution happen during the lifetime of this column!

When asked about getting a team to be excited about a client, Betsy explained that, “What you’re selling is your enthusiasm. It’s the love factor.” And of course, I adore this, because it explains the marriage of craft and business of showbiz. If an agent or manager gets you, is on board with what you’re putting out there, and believes that you understand the business well enough to respect what they’re doing, they’re going to hustle for you.

“My agent won’t look at my poetry,” Kim began. “Or, rather, he will, but it’s like handing him plutonium.” Oh, I laughed so hard at this point, as it described perfectly the way many agents and managers in Los Angeles feel about actors doing theatre. Because there’s just no “big money” in it for them, they have to really understand its place in your overall package, and even then they may still be reluctant to put any energy into it (and discourage you from doing so too). Of course, after Ida talked about scouting in small theatres in LA, I hope no one who loves live performing feels discouraged about the chance they’ll be seen out there, doing it.

The final question of the afternoon came from lovely actor, writer, and WriteGirl volunteer Retta Putignano. She asked my favorite question, when in panel discussion or Q&A situations with the industry: “What type of work would you love to put out in the world?” (It’s the, “What makes your heart sing?” question I so adore.)

Betsy began: “I am seduced by voice. I want quality, voice, values, good stories.”

Kim continued, “Quality. If I love the quality of the writing, I’m in. Why would I want to call radio stations and tell them, ‘You’ve got to talk to this author,’ if the manuscript is unreadable? It’s a violation of the code. How can I? I can’t take on a writer if I can’t even read the book. Times are tough for me to turn down work, but quality has to be there.”

“I’d love for the industry to be less reactionary,” Ida said. “The Hangover is a good example. We have a hit and then everyone wants the next one just like it. It causes a watered-down effect for the next three years.”

And April wrapped up the issue nicely by explaining what makes the storytelling process a joy for those who do the storytelling and those who consume the stories (including those whose job it is to sell the stories and the storytellers to the world). “It’s about telling the truth from your deepest place. Those are the stories that resonate with me.”

And with us all, I’d imagine.


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/001104.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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