As this week’s FutureBook20 conference has shown, this is a year where change is at the top of the agenda for the publishing industry. And when it comes to changing the sort of books that get published and the sort of authors whose voices are heard, broadening the acquisition process is crucial.
Approaching literary agencies and publishers can feel intimidating to new writers, especially those who feel they don’t traditionally ‘belong’ in the trade. One way publishers, agencies and individual agents and editors have been trying to broaden the net and make the process feel more approachable is through social media.
But does it work?
US-based pitching project #PitchMad, and Curtis Brown’s UK equivalent, #PitchCB, are two of the highest-profile examples. Richard Pike, who was one of the Curtis Brown agents supervising the hashtag, explains the rationale behind the initiative.
“When we launched PitchCB in July 2015, our intent was to challenge a widely held perception (at the time) that some literary agencies, including Curtis Brown, were difficult to approach. We set out to address the opinion (fair, in my view) that the process of submitting to an agent could be opaque and unnecessarily complicated. We wanted to be more proactive in reaching as many writers as possible via the communities that already existed on Twitter and beyond. We were inspired by the success of similar US initiatives and received remarkable support from across the industry. We saw thousands of pitches from authors, eventually encouraging us to run our first online free festival of writing – Discovery Day Online – in November 2015.”
This Discovery Day involved accepting pitches, a free day of writing tips, and even a time allotted for writers to ask agents their questions. According to Pike, Pitch CB led to a few client signings and in his words, at least one book deal.
For some writers, social media pitching can be both liberating and valuable. Farhana Shaikh is a writer and editor who tried using the hashtag herself in 2016. “While I had some insight into the [publishing] industry at that point I had never connected with agents before and I thought [#PitchCB] would be the least scary way of doing it as opposed to being in a room with them."
Shaikh decided to tweet out her manuscript idea, which felt a quick and unthreatening way to pitch, considering her comfort level with Twitter. "My pitch was liked, so I had the option of connecting with an agent," she says. She emailed the Curtis Brown agent with whom she made contact and sent in her submission. Ultimately the book was not signed, but she received valuable feedback, which "helped me see my work in a different light."
An editor herself, Shaikh also uses social media to try to find new voices as well for her small press, Dahlia Books. The first seven days of the month are reserved for receiving pitches in her Twitter direct messages, and she has recently published short stories by a writer she met this way. "It brought me a writer that I absolutely love. Being a writer in Leicester I think Twitter helps writers connect with people they wouldn't ordinarily network with.”
What about other efforts?
#AskAgent is another hashtag that allows writers to connect with agents, to gain insight or advice on the industry and even writing in general. Most agents will let their users know when they will host a session and also provide guidelines as to the types of questions they’ll answer. Each agent uses the hashtag their own way.
Juliet Mushens, the founder ofMushens Entertainment, is a fan. She started using #AskAgent around 2012-2013, when most submissions still had to be sent through the post. “I thought to myself, ‘So many people have questions, and I’m in a position where I can answer them.’” Mushens began devoting some of her free time to answering as many questions as possible about anything from how to write a synopsis, whether or not to number pages, and even more complex questions about page length and multi-genre book descriptions. After noticing the positive responses she was getting, Mushens continued to have #AskAgent Q & A sessions on Twitter, and several agents started doing the same. During UKs first lockdown, many agents even decided to commit to one hour of answering questions every Wednesday.
But does all of this work translate into signings? “I think lots of submissions have come about from it and a few of my clients have participated in Ask Agents before. [One of them is] an author called Steve Aryan who has six books published and has another two under contract. An example of a big author who signed with me is Jessie Burton who wrote The Miniaturist which was a Sunday Times and New York Times Bestseller. She submitted because she followed me on Twitter and didn't ask questions, but she used to read [Ask Agent] each week and said in her submission letter, 'The reason I'm submitting to you is that I follow you on Twitter and you seem really nice.'"
Juliet Pickering from Blake Friedman also uses #AskAgent to try to reach out to new authors on Twitter. "I worry about the fact that [agents] seem remote or untouchable and I think social media is a great way of trying to just be human. I don't like to be thought of as a gatekeeper. I completely understand that I probably am and that's how I'm perceived but also, I want to make the finding of authors and the way that we communicate as democratic and open as possible," she says.
Pickering also finds that #AskAgent has been extra useful under lockdown: a lonely and frustrating time for many writers. "I'd done AskAgents in previous years but I wanted to set up a weekly one, and I also wanted to support authors going through lockdown themselves. Most questions were about agenting or publishing, but I also wanted to have something for writers who had questions about edits, structure, or character."
But, like most things on the internet, social pitching isn’t without its challenges and pitfalls.
According to Pickering some people seem to be suspicious of efforts such as #AskAgent due to negative past experiences with literary agents. Others are rightfully sceptical whenever agents suddenly express an interest in stories by people of color, working-class or underrepresented authors. "That is completely understandable," she says. Authors from marginalized communities may wonder if agents will still be interested in their stories on a consistent basis. "All you can say is, 'It has always been my intention to amplify those voices and I will continue doing that.'"
Similarly, after realising that they weren’t reaching new writers to the degree they wanted, the #PitchCB decided to change their strategy. Instead of continuing this short-form social pitching approach, they decided to implement alternative programs such as the #WriteCBC competition, the Discoveries prize for women writers and the 12-week Writing Workouts courses.
Pickering and her colleagues at Blake Friedman are also considering running an online event to help authors get to know them, and hope to use #AskAgent as an insight channel for the project. "I think that might be the next step for us as an agency to just reinforce the point that we're there and we're listening," she says.
So social media pitching isn’t a catch-all solution for agents, particularly when it comes to translating submissions into actual sales.
After all, pitching is a tough and particular skill, whatever medium you use. Whether you do it on social media, Zoom, or in-person, people who come from marginalized backgrounds, who aren’t familiar with public speaking, or who may have speech issues or learning disabilities may have difficulties getting their point across through the use of social media alone.
And of course people who don’t actively use Twitter or other social media to promote their work or brand, who rarely tweet about trending news, or who don’t know how to use certain hashtags may never be seen. Regardless of how many outreach efforts, even great writers with a story may fall through the cracks during social media campaigns.
Thankfully, agencies, publishers, and agents who understand that writers need to find ways to be heard seem open to adjusting their methods to cast a wider net. Pitching hashtags are just the start.
Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer and independent filmmaker.