On Thursday, September 8, my friend Hannah and I drove my favoritest Prius, Queen Elizabeth, across the state of Colorado to Denver. We arrived at the Renaissance Hotel around 11:00 p.m. and proceeded to spend the next three days at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference. Which is a huge event attended by published authors like myself every year, as well as folks so new to writing they’re still scared to call themselves writers.
I’ve never attended the RMFW conference before. I attended this year because an agent pitch session came with the price of admission, and since I’ve been getting nowhere with my query letters (no requests to see material, and I rarely even receive a rejection response), I thought I might have better luck meeting with someone in person.
So in June, I purchased a conference ticket, which was $384.00.
Now that is definitely a lot of money for me — it’s almost the price of a book cover for one of my novels. So I want to point out that while I am a self-publishing author, each one of my books has been queried, and I only self-publish them *after* I’ve exhausted my capacity to deal with rejection. For my first two novels, I queried over a hundred agents for each book. For my third novel, I queried around 35 agents. While querying my fourth novel this spring, I learned my new number is 20 — that’s my limit for how much rejection I can take. For some writers, they can handle the process a lot better. For me, I tell myself I can stop after 20, because the work is painful and horrifying, and makes me feel like I’ve been skinned and thrown off a bridge and run over by logging trucks. And that’s how I feel on a good day of querying agents. On a bad day, I’d just rather be dead.
I feel like I have more hope when I can pitch my book in person, a process which has never felt painful to me. So that’s what led me to Denver this month.
Several meals were included with the price of my ticket, and here is a picture of Hannah and I at the Saturday evening Awards Banquet —
There were hundreds of people seated in the ballroom with us, dining together on fancy food at fancy tables. Everyone hosting this event was super nice and super helpful. This conference is enormous, but not so big that I ever felt like a drone. The volunteer staff and presenters always made sure I felt seen and welcome.
For any budding writers who are considering attending a conference, I say, “Go!” This one in Denver is a great place to start, and there are others like this all over the country. Writers of literary fiction can attend Aspen Summer Words, for instance, which also features agent and editor pitch sessions. While it’s been five years since I pitched to an agent in Aspen, those meetings are even more elaborate than the ones in Denver, since the industry professionals read the first ten pages of your project before you sit down and pitch to them. (Ditto for the writers conference in Taos, New Mexico, each summer.)
In Denver this weekend, I was scheduled to pitch to this agent —
Thao Le of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.
I chose to pitch to Ms. Le because she’s interested in YA fantasy and likes to see strong world-building and diverse characters. Since my YA fantasy is set in the ocean, and one of the main characters is a black teen girl, I thought this agent would be a good fit for my project.
There is a whole lot of work that goes into a good pitch. As an author, you have to know the industry you’re trying to publish in, you have to know the market enough to design a good “log line” (or “elevator pitch”) and have a solid query letter and really good “comps,” or comparison books, for your manuscript. You have to know your material as a salesperson, and be able to speak with brevity on “character arc” and the “dark moment” of the book and the main character’s “personal stakes.”
When you pitch in person, you try to connect with an agent with some charisma, so I didn’t read aloud my query letter. I pitched without referring to any papers.
For Ms. Le, my YA fantasy Kinned to the Sea was a definite “no” for her because publishing houses don’t want anything having to do with mermaids. Her no to my project wasn’t a reflection of a poor pitch, and she never looked at a writing sample to judge the quality of my prose. She knew that the editors she works with want nothing to do with a mer book, which means she’d be wasting her time on my project.
At the conference, I was able to attend three different agent/editor panels, and listen to the industry professionals answer questions and talk shop. At those panels, I learned that the genre “urban fantasy” is also as toxic right now as “mermaids” are. (And that was the term the agents and editors used — “toxic.”) Because some agents still try to pitch urban fantasy to editors, agents have started to use the term “contemporary fantasy” to try to convince an editor to look at a manuscript. In the same way agents instantly reject anything that has the word “mer” in the work, editors will instantly reject anything that has the term “urban fantasy.”
If the editors decide they want mer books, then agents will want mer books. If editors decide they want urban fantasy, agents will want urban fantasy.
But right now, no one wants them, so no matter how well you can pitch them, as a debut author, your chances of convincing an agent to look at your pages is… well, excuse me if I use the word “impossible,” but this feels pretty impossible. The authors publishing “mer books” (or “mer-related” books) are all established voices, not debut authors. Once you have a known readership, editors will take risks on genres that aren’t strong sellers.
As my friend Blair said to me in May, “The world is not a meritocracy,” but we cling to the hope that it is, that it will be, that it can be. That’s why I bought a conference ticket and went to Denver this month — in the hope that I could get around the industry resistance to “a mer book” by pitching in person.
Ms. Le did tell me that her colleague, Jessica Watterson, has expressed an interest in mermaids, and suggested I query her with my book —
And that is information I can put in a query letter to Ms. Watterson — that I met with her colleague, and her colleague recommended me to her. Hope springs eternal, and never more so than in the heart of a writer who dreams of a book contract.
But I will tell you this, dearest Thought Candy readers — I find I never love my books more than when I know they’re unwanted. Something in me hears “mermaids are toxic” and I rub my hands together, anticipating great things. Why? Because I’m a shameless Goodreads addict, and I know there are readers upon readers who crave “a good mermaid book” — and those readers feel like the market hasn’t delivered one yet.
And when I hear “fantasy readers don’t want science in books,” I rub my hands together again, with that same sense of anticipation. I love fantasy, I also love science fiction, and I love when my science-loving brain is respected in fantasy books. I know I’m not the only reader who feels this way. This is another realm in which my shameless addiction to reading book reviews serves me well.
There *are* readers who want both. Readers who love fantasy, readers who appreciate science sprinkled into their fantasy, and readers who want “a good mer book” as well. If “fantasy with science” and “mers” are all toxic to the industry, then this is the point when self-publishing enters the equation, and the solution is simple: put the book out there anyway.
Kinned to the Sea isn’t ready to publish. It needs to be edited again, and it needs more beta-reads before I would take the big step to self-publish. But I have no doubt I can make it what I want it to be, so that by the time my friend Bethany reads the book, to give me her final beta-reading stamp of approval, she can say — as she has for all of my books, “It’s great, Melissa. Go for it.”
Bethany doesn’t call herself a science fiction reader, but she loves my third novel, Mark of the Pterren, and she was really hoping I could sell Bloodshade of the Goddess, my urban fantasy, so I could have the financial ability to write the sequels to Pterren. She isn’t alone — and knowing that is like a wave of confidence I ride when I do things like drive to Denver and pitch a toxic book to an agent.
It also really helps that my husband sent me a text right before my big pitch to say, “Good luck my little Sweety. I believe in you even if I sound like a dick sometimes.” Because Greg just always has my back like that.
I have two unpublished manuscripts that fall into the toxic category, and both of them will be finished this year — Bloodshade of the Goddess and Kinned to the Sea.
I’ve already queried Bloodshade twenty times. I’ll send out twenty queries for Kinned as well. Then I’ll move on. My next book is another murder mystery — it’s set in Colorado, and my opening line came to me last week: “The trouble began on the night of the strawberry moon.” I’m really excited for this novel. With every book I begin, I have this giant surge of hope that says, “This one will make it — this will be the book that gets an agent.”
In the meantime, I bought a whole pile of books at the conference in Denver, since authors were present at tables on Friday night to sign copies of their books —
And one of them, a short story publication by Travis Heermann, I’ve already finished —
“Legs” is a piece of horror erotica, which isn’t a genre I normally read. The author told me this story was around 6,000 words long, which is about the length of one of my own fantasy short stories. Since I’ve been thinking about publishing my own short stories in a collection one day, I bought this copy and had it signed.
I thought the author needed a better editor to catch his word repeats in the first few pages, and I thought the story’s setting should’ve been introduced sooner, but most of this story was well-written, even if it didn’t feature much in the way of horror, or erotica. But it was the ending where “Legs” really failed — the story ended too soon, like the writer accidentally chopped off the last page or two. I read “Legs” aloud to Hannah on our way home from Denver, and Hannah felt the same way. The ending doesn’t leave you with any sense of closure or a sense of what will happen next. After the last sentence, you just feel like, “Wait — what?? That’s the end?? What??”
I hope to share reviews soon for the rest of those books — other than Carol Berg’s work, these are all indie authors (either self-published or published with a small press) who desperately need more reviews (both on Goodreads and on Amazon). As a self-publishing author myself, I never give a book lower than a 3-star review, since those low-star reviews damage sales. A 3-star review doesn’t hurt though — ask anyone in the industry, and those reviews still help. It’s a numbers game, and those 3-star reviews are considered “good reviews” and therefore help bring more sales.
So I’ll give “Legs” 3 stars because of its ending. A lot of people at the conference were shocked by how many books I bought, and I wanted to say, “You think this is a lot? You should see my friend Blair in a bookshop.” But I never said that. One man laughed at me and said, “Well, it looks like you’ve got your reading for the rest of the year!” and I did say to him, “More like a month.” Because I felt pretty annoyed by his comment. I know what kind of books take me a long time to read, and none of these novels qualify. These are all breeze-through reads. Two of them are YA, two are middle grade fiction, one is women’s fiction, and three are sci-fi. Antler Dust might take me the longest to read, since it’s (I believe) a mystery western, and sometimes I take longer with mystery. I also know that the author, Mark Stevens, writes with a more literary flair, probably the biggest factor in slowing me down.
One woman in line, an aspiring author, asked me how I could “justify” spending “so much money on books.” (My pile of novels came to $128.00 — a post-pitch gift from my hubbie Greg.) I told the woman that I know I’m helping these authors by purchasing their work and reviewing their books, that I’m sending the very best karma I can out into the world. I told her that I can spend “seven dollars on two lattes for me and a friend at Starbucks, so why not use that money to help someone in their career?” She asked me which books I bought and why, and after I answered (very enthusiastically), she left the line and bought her own copies of two of those books.
The woman in front of me said, “Wow, you just earned those authors two more sales.” She was amazed, and impressed.
What I think I really did was to help that aspiring author to help herself. I know of no successful author who doesn’t read voraciously and buy books whenever they can, including books that might not be “great reads.” Successful authors take chances. They put their money into the industry that supports their own careers. The married couple who run the book room at the RMFW conference are not rolling in cash, buying a mansion somewhere, driving around flashy cars. They run a bookstore because they love books, and somehow, they survive on a slim margin of profit. They do a tremendous amount of unpaid work promoting indie authors each year, and on special occasions, they provide free soup to everyone in their store, including welcoming in the homeless for a free meal. I’m happy to support those local booksellers, and to support the indie authors standing at their tables, hoping someone will check out their work. Participating in this activity feels as important to me as attending my pitch session, and if I’d had more money, I’d have taken home a book from every table.
My pitch session wasn’t successful, and I write toxic books, and I love books as much as I love breathing, and this is my life. My weird and wonderful life.
Thanks for letting me share it with you, and for reading my work! My Thought Candy readers keep following along on this journey with me, through student loans and secret societies and winged warriors called pterren, and soon you’ll see my vampires and my mermaids too — and one day I’ll have a dragon book, and maybe some war unicorns, and maybe a Viking love story — and you’ll be able to nod your heads and say, “I knew this writer when she only wrote sort-of nutty stuff, before she went full-on weird.” Thank you all for supporting my weird. It means a whole heck of a lot.