Author Archives: mjaneross

Pitching Our Stories: Notes from a writers’ conference

M. Jane Ross

Just home from the annual Writers' League of Texas Agents Conference—a weekend of intense listening, learning, getting to know some warm-hearted and talented Texan writers, meeting agents, and pitching stories. In a detour from my usual topic of food, I wanted to share my takeaways (the non-edible kind) from the weekend. Three key points rose to the top in the ocean of information that was the conference.

The state of the publishing industry

In two words: upheaval and distress! Publishers, and by extension agents and writers, have been badly affected by the recession. Book buyers simply have less money to spend. And beyond that, corporatization and consolidation in bookselling and trade publishing as well as huge transitions in the way we all read, how and where we buy books, and the kinds of books we are buying have thrown the book business into disarray.

Until recently, big-name publishers were very willing to invest in mid-list titles, books by unknown authors that were likely to sell “only” in the tens of thousands of copies. Now, those same publishers are looking primarily for front-list titles (blockbuster books by high profile authors, likely to sell hundreds of thousands of copies) or back-list titles (books that are likely to develop a required-reading quality in some area of the market and to become automatic re-orders at Barnes and Noble over many years). So where does that leave the memoir writer and the typical SCN author? 

Jane (r) with new conference friends Stacey Jensen & Ned Bailey

The market for memoir

Alas memoir writers’ prospects in New
York trade publishing are not promising, unless the story has both
exceptional writing —“sparkling” was the word used by several
agents—and a unique angle. Agent Jim Hornfischer gave the example
of an author he had agreed to represent as a result of pitch session at
a writers conference. The author worked as a volunteer in canine search
and rescue. Her story was a memoir about the work she did with her dog,
whether searching for the remains of the Columbia astronauts across the
fields of north Texas or finding missing children in her community.
Hers is a unique and poignant story with drama and a clear narrative
arc as the author learns to handle loss and to work with communities in

Few of us have a story this unique or dramatic.
More often, our memoirs are the stories of learning to deal with the
trials and losses that are inherent in relationship and in life, within
the communities (geographical, religious, professional, and other) in
which we move. But although our stories may not have the drama and
potential to attract a national book audience, as writers we can (and
should) stay focused on crafting that sparkling prose. And we can focus
too on reaching our own unique platform and audience by other means,
whether through self-publishing, blogging, or a small-press publisher.

Know your platform

Agents stressed repeatedly the importance of knowing your platform.
If you’re Dr. Phil, your platform is your TV show and the show’s
audience. For us non-celebrities, our platforms are the communities in
which we live, work, play, volunteer, pray, share, etc. If your memoir
is of caring for an aging parent suffering from Alzheimers and you are
active in an online forum for Alzheimer caregivers, the readers of that
forum are part of your platform. If you blog and write about herbs,
then your blog readers and other herbalists are part of your platform.
Your platform includes both the medium by which you connect with others
interested in your subject and the number of engaged readers you’re
able to reach through that medium. However you plan to publish your story, you need to identify your platform. You’ll include that information in your book proposal, and you’ll refer to it as you craft the marketing plan for your book.

The best takeaway from the conference for me personally was being reminded that there is a supportive community of writers out there, sharing this journey. Beyond that, I’ve made connections with reputable agents and learned what they are looking for so I can bring that knowledge with me when I talk to my editing clients and writing circle members. I’ll soon be announcing my manuscript evaluation service. The conference experience brought me fresh knowledge and connections so I can better help writers who come to me for assistance as they take the next step towards publication.

There's so much more I could tell you about the conference. But why don't you tell me what you'd like to know. Looking forward to your questions, which I'll answer in subsequent posts.

Empowering Authors

Congratulations to Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett on the launch of the SCN Editorial Service—I’m delighted to be a participant in the service. As Kendra said in her recent blog post, a good editor plays an important role in helping the author craft her work. When we’re working to the highest level of our calling, we editors help the author to speak more clearly in her own voice and to recognize and articulate her deepest aspirations for her writing.

Title page of an 1808 treatise on math. MJ Ross  I’ve been a freelance editor for 13 years. Early on, all my clients were large publishing companies. Self publishing was rare. Recently I’ve noticed many more inquiries coming through my freelance business from authors who want to learn more about the many ways to approach the question,  “how do I get my book published?” Publishing has been democratized by self-publishing and especially thanks to print on demand. Authors are feeling empowered to pursue their own dreams for their writing, whether seeking an agent and publisher or self-publishing. And they’re not afraid of the steep learning curve involved in approaching publishing from either angle.

Just this week, I exchanged emails with one of the members of the editorial team for Kitchen Table Stories. She wanted some advice on where to start with a self-publishing project similar to KTS that her local writers' group was planning. My reply to her may be helpful for others interested in the process:

There are many many steps in the process of producing a professional-looking anthology and you'll want to check who among your group has some of the skills you’ll need for all these steps. The more you can do with volunteer labor, the less you'll have to pay out of your pocket. The steps include:

•    coordinating the submission process and selecting the pieces to include,
•    editing the pieces so that they conform to a house style,
•    getting author feedback on edits and finalizing changes,
•    formatting headings etc. by applying the correct Word styles,
•    selecting any art or illustrations needed,
•    coming up with a design (fonts, type size, indents, spacing, etc.),
•    doing the layout,
•    proofreading,
•    inputting corrections,
•    making sure the copyright page includes all the necessary info,
•    designing a cover,
•    writing cover copy,
•    making arrangements to get an ISBN if desired,
•    commissioning art or finding an illustration or photo for the cover,
•    laying out the cover,
•    outputting all files in a format that the printer can use,
•    getting files to the printer,
•    checking a proof of the printed book.

As you can see there's a lot to think about, and there are many choices to be made along the way. The SCN editorial service can provide you with the editing and proofing assistance you'll need. And I’d be happy to help any authors who want to take up the self-publishing (or the traditional publishing) challenge and need some guidance.