Thursday, June 9, 2011

Conference Secrets: Welcome to the Jungle

This workshop at the Pennwriter's Conference, with agent Barbara Poelle and novelist CJ Lyons was my favorite. It was also the only one I didn't take any notes on.

CJ started the workshop by turning off the tape recorder and closing the door. "This is just between us. You can ask us anything. If you don't want to raise your hand, write your question on a piece of paper and pass it up. There's nothing we won't answer."

And there really wasn't anything they wouldn't touch on. It was a comfortable, inviting experience. The highest compliment I can give this workshop is that, barring the lack of Bombay Sapphire, it felt more like sitting at the bar with two friends than a workshop.

Man, can you tell Barbara was a comedienne in a past life. She's funny as hell and completely off the cuff. Sharp and smart but amazingly for the industry, not jaded. 

She is passionate about what she does, saying she was born to be a agent. Most of the questions directed towards her were about the state of the industry (is publishing dead?) and ebooks (is print publishing dead?) This is the kind of agent you want in your corner, seriously. Nothing fazed her. She genuinely believes that this is the most exciting time to be working in the industry, on the cusp of all this change. When asked if she was worried that Amazon was setting up what looked like a traditional publishing house (ie. that they would 'corner the market') she said, "They sell spatulas too. Spatula makers aren't worried. I'm not worried."

One point she made that gave me the warm and fuzzies (which echos what Nathan Bransford said in his post this week about rejections.) was that, when she gets in to work in the morning, NOTHING WOULD MAKE HER HAPPIER THAN SAYING 'YES.' We have this image of agents as gatekeepers, trolls under bridges or bouncers at a VIP party, their only joy being to gleefully say NO to you. Couldn't be further from the truth, says Barbara. She makes her living on 'yes', she's dying for there to be 'yes'. She's not sitting there looking for the tiniest flaw in your query letter and sample pages, she's looking for potential. She wants what you want. Barbara knows what will sell, knows what the publishers she deals with are looking for, and she's going through haystacks to find those 'yeses.'

Some key points from CJ Lyons

  • Know your audience and brand yourself accordingly. It's as valuable to know who isn't your audience as it is to know who is.
  • An Author platform is not, contrary to popular belief, a website, a twitter account or a facebook page. It's Soylent Green. No! Sorry, kidding. But it is people. Your audience is your platform. How you get that audience to follow you, care about you is how you brand yourself and your books.
  • And obvious but bears repeating in these 'author, market yourself' times: Your product is your best advert.
Some key points from Barbara Poelle
  • She's looking for: 
    • Authority
    • Authenticity 
    • Unique Voice
  • And in your query* letter you should have "The hook, the cook (journey) and the book (sample pages)"
So, did I leave the Welcome to the Jungle workshop hearing Axl Rose snarling "You gonna die!" in my head? No. I left feeling that the publishing 'jungle' is an industry like any other and not my own personal purgatory. It's not a validating or invalidating Mount Olympus peopled by unfeeling demi-gods. I would totes buy Barbara and CJ a drink any time. Especially if they spill more secrets.

Check out my conference mate Laura's post on Researching the Police

*In a few weeks, I'll be posting the query letter I sent to her along with her comments/corrections.


  1. Wonderful post. I wish Barbara Poelle repped what I write. I think she's awesome.

  2. Thank you for this! Wish I could have been there, but your post is the next best thing.

    I have read that Barbara Poelle is keen on thrillers. With that genre being what I write, I've been watching her for quite some time.

    Thanks again!

  3. Thanks for this post and giving us an inside on Ms. Poelle's thoughts on agenting. Every word is comforting as an writer.

  4. Cool post. Sounds like a great conference. Thanks for passing on this advice.


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