At the North Carolina Writers' Network 2014 Fall Conference, Carin Siegfried and Betsy Thorpe will lead a workshop on "The Art of the Pitch." After years of perfecting your manuscript, now it’s time to think about how you’re going to pitch your work—to agents, editors, publishers, and readers. Learn the secrets of a perfect query letter, and how to engage your reader. Carin Siegfried and Betsy Thorpe spent years as acquiring editors in New York for St. Martin’s and Random House, respectively, reading pitches from agents and authors, and can tell you what made them drop everything to read a manuscript sparked by an amazing pitch.
Carin Siegfried has been in the book business for twenty years, since starting work in the Davidson College library. She was an editor for Thomas Dunne Books at St. Martin’s Press in New York for five years, acquiring twenty-five books, including a New York Times bestseller, a Kelly Ripa Book Club selection, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. In addition, she worked on more than 100 books on behalf of Tom Dunne, including numerous bestsellers and award winners. More recently she was the New England independent bookstore sales rep, and then a national account manager, for book wholesaler Baker & Taylor. In 2009 she founded the Charlotte chapter of the Women’s National Book Association and she is currently President of the national WNBA. She runs her own editorial service, Carin Siegfried Editorial, where she enjoys helping writers make their books the very best. She is the author of The Insider's Guide to a Career in Book Publishing (6/2014, Chickadee Books), a book explaining the ins and outs of the publishing industry for young adults wanting to break into the field.
Betsy Thorpe has been in the book business for twenty years, working in the adult trade departments as a developmental and acquisitions editor at Atheneum, HarperCollins, Broadway Doubleday, Macmillan, and John Wiley & Sons. Since leaving New York, she founded Betsy Thorpe Literary Services, an independent book consultancy, where she works with authors on their book projects, helps with pitches and finding agents, and pulls together independent editorial teams and designers for self-publishing. She has co-written four books, three of which have been featured in The New York Times.
What’s one piece of advice no one gave you when you were starting out, that you wish they had?
Carin Siegfried: Marketing is really, really hard. I knew that beforehand, but I had no idea until I tried doing it and it’s a nightmare. So many moving parts, so many options, so many costs, no way to know what will stick. We know 50 percent of marketing works… just not which 50 percent. This is true for my business, and even more so for my book.
Betsy Thorpe: When I was an acquiring editor I was rejecting many books that were very good, but not quite “there.” As an aspiring novelist, this got me down, and put me off writing my own novel for sixteen years.
Did you have a teacher or mentor who had a big, positive impact on you?
CS: I had several great English professors in college who all taught the pop culture has value. They did not value so-called “literature” over just plain, regular fiction. They acknowledged that we don’t know which contemporary books will one day be classics, and also that one can find value in pop culture in a literary way, a la Don Delillo’s White Noise. I loved their non-snobbery and appreciation of all types of genres and styles.
BT: I had many mentors and amazing professors, but I have to go all the way back to high school, where two English teachers, Mrs. Lang and Mr. Krill, inspired me to (respectively) be a writer, and to love the middle ages.
Who is your literary hero?
CS: David Sedaris. He’s a little guy with a squeaky voice writing about everyday life, from getting a colonoscopy to picking up trash on the side of the road, and he not only makes it hilarious and riveting, but he’s made an entire career out of it. And yet, he still does events at independent bookstores, and for every tour he picks a book that he personally likes and he touts it everywhere he goes, spreading the wealth. If you’ve ever seen him in person, you’ll know he could not be less pretentious or celebrity-esque. He has never left an event before every book has been signed, and he talks to everyone.
BT: Oh man, impossible to have just one! I’d have to say Jane Austen for bucking the conventions of the time when women were meant to be ornaments, and not keen and observant writers. I love literary pioneers.
If you could live in any literary world for the rest of your life, where would you find yourself?
CS: I’m fine where I am. No magical realms, nor even historical. Both are too scary. I couldn’t deal with the sexism and lack of TV. So I’ll go with the '90s in NYC restaurants and live in Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl.
BT: Narnia (C.S. Lewis), followed by Avonlea on Prince Edward Island (L.M. Montgomery), followed by King Arthur’s Court (Geoffrey of Monmouth).
If you could have written one book that someone else wrote, which book would it be?
CS: Pride and Prejudice. It’s only the best book ever, so why would anyone pick anything else?
BT: Bel Canto—pure genius. I stand in awe at Ann Patchett’s skills there.
Many writers are solitary creatures. Coming to an event like Fall Conference can be a little intimidating, navigating the exhibit hall and ballroom events. Any advice for working the room?
CS: I recently heard that the best thing to do is not to approach a single, but to approach a twosome. That way you’re not stuck and you have a decent chance of being able to peel off and continue to mingle.
BT: I’m really awkward at working a room as well. I once spoke to a group in South Carolina, and after I finished, a woman introduced herself. She said she was a realtor by day, but was so happy to be surrounded by fellow writers at this conference because until then, she’d felt very alone in her pursuit of writing. It’s hard in your everyday world for people to know what writing is like, and how it can be both amazing and heartbreaking. So enjoy the fellowship of your fellow writers. Just introduce yourself and tell the other person what you’re working on and what you’re hoping to get out of the conference and make sure you “friend” them on Facebook or get e-mail addresses to keep in touch! Get a support group or a writers’ group together.
Who gave the best reading or talk you've ever been to? What made it so good?
CS: David Sedaris is always the best reading I’ve been to. I’ve seen him four times in three cities. He’s hilarious and I love that despite how popular he is, he doesn’t exclusively do expensive paid events. He still does free shows at indies all the time. He gives away random free things at his signings like hotel toiletries and coat hangers and condoms. And I love hearing him try out new material, and then see the final version later in his next book.
BT: I loved the talk that Debbie Macomber gave at Bookmarks last year. She told the story of how she dreamed she could have a career as a writer, but kept getting rejected, time and time again. It took her five years of multiple submissions of multiple manuscripts before she got her first contract. Her story showed that butt in chair plus talent plus a dogged determination got her to be a bestselling author.
Any advice for attendees who sign up for the Open Mic?
CS: Remember to breathe.
BT: Humor always wins people over. And brevity.
The city of Charlotte was founded on two established Native American trading routes. Now, of course, it's the 2nd biggest banking center in the country. Fall Conference will boast an exhibit hall packed with vendors. How do you approach an exhibit hall at a conference such as this? To shop, to chat, or both?
CS: Both. I’ve been on both sides of the booth, and I actually think it’s a little easier to be in the booth, waiting for people to approach you. As a participant, sometimes the vendors seem desperate and I’m scared if I approach them I’ll never get away. So I am hesitant and I prefer a booth where the vendors don’t jump on every person the second they walk up. Relax. If the material’s good and right for the person, they’ll stay a minute.
They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but of course most of us do. What is one—or some—of your favorite book cover(s)?
CS: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was beautiful. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was not just awesome but it also glow in the dark! Blindness by Jose Saramago was simple and yet perfect.
BT: Recently, I’ve loved the cover for Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. And Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson kills me every time I see it.
What do you hope attendees takeaway from the conference, especially if they sign up for your workshop?
CS: Everyone will take away something different. Some people need more confidence, some people need to know how hard it is so they won’t take a few rejections so to heart, and some people need to know when to give up and start something new. As long as you learn something—it doesn’t matter what—you’ve had a successful day.
BT: Pitching a book is so important and should be given a lot of attention to perfect. It’s not true that “unless you know somebody” you have no shot at getting published. A great pitch letter will get you a read by a powerful and knowledgable agent. Make sure it’s got all the elements that need to go into a great pitch letter.
What is your guilty pleasure read?
CS: Valley of the Dolls was fantastic. Everyone should read it. You’ll love it.
BT: So many types of books fit in this category for me. But I’m always a sucker for historical fiction with a dash of romance, suspense, and mystery.
What makes you cringe when you see it on the page?
CS: “Entitled” instead of “titled.” But this is a battle I’m losing. The improper definition is even in most dictionaries now. (Entitled is a legal term meaning you are owed or due something. If you’re talking about the title of a book or TV show, it’s simply “titled.”)
BT: So much! An editor is supposed to be on the lookout for multiple sins on the page, and being an English major you learn to critique and analyze the greats. But my number one pet peeve at the moment is bad dialogue and dialogue tags.
Caffeine of choice? (English Breakfast, Caramel macchiato, etc.)
CS: Dr. Pepper.
BT: PG tips tea. Thanks to living in England for a couple of years, that’s your basic everyday tea, but I love a good Darjeeling or Lady Grey when splashing out on a slightly better tea. With milk, hold the sugar.
Registration for the North Carolina Writers' Network 2014 Fall Conference is now open.