How to Navigate the Manuscript Mart at the Muse & the Marketplace 2018
By Katrin Schumann
As people mill about Grub's annual conference, The Muse and the Marketplace--eyeing the crowd for famous writers, catching up with old friends, and pitching themselves and their work--and attend sessions, there are a few rooms hidden away where extrememly nervous people trickle in and out, one by one, hour after hour. They're paired up on what essentially amounts to blind dates. This is the Manuscript Mart, when writers get a chance (for a fee) to send in some pages to an editor/agent and then sit down with him or her for a 20 minute discussion devoted to their work.
It's a nervewracking experience for many. Each person wants something from the other one, and neither knows if this is going to be a love match or not. The likelihood is high that the "couples" don't have exactly the same expectations. The chances are slim, but not negligable, that it will be love at first sight. It's okay to dream about falling in love, but it's also smart to be practical. (Ask anyone who has tried online dating and they'll tell you the same thing.)
If you've signed up for the Manuscript Mart, here are some things to keep in mind:
- You have a limited amount of time and it will go by quickly. You may not remember much of it afterwards. Go in equipped with a pencil and pad of paper, and a list of questions. Don't be embarrassed about writing notes, or asking the person to slow down or repeat/ explain something.
- Enter into the discussion with reasonable expectations, which means: go in expecting to get some tips on what is or isn't working with your idea/ writing. This is a rare opportunity--how often do you have a chance to meet with a professional and get his/ her undivided attention for 20 minutes?
- Avoid being defensive about your work. If you're spending a lot of time explaining what you're trying to do, you're probably not getting good value for money. If the agent is not responding well, try to understand why this is the case (rather than trying to talk him or her out of it).
- Remember that this is only ONE PERSON'S opinion! I once had a student with a fantastic book idea (well thought out, very well written) who met with three agents--one loved the idea, and two were completely unmoved. Again, it's a bit like dating. Sometimes it clicks, and sometimes it doesn't. If you get a lukewarm response, don't take that to mean your writing career is over. There are many, many other frogs to kiss!
- You may be nervous, but the person you're meeting with is just a human being who's only got a short amount of time to make a connection with a total stranger. Oftentimes book nerds are not that social or articulate. Don't be afraid to be friendly and normal and open.
- If it goes well, please be sure to follow up promptly. Two students of mine had great successes at the Mart and then, for various good reasons, took a long time following up. They never heard from the agents again. This may seem nuts, but sometimes it's a case of out of sight out of mind. If you say you're going to do something, do it.
- Leave the meeting with some clarity about next steps. If I revise as you've suggested, would you be interested in seeing it again? Do you have any suggestions for who else might be interested in this kind of work? If you were in my shoes, what would your priority be in terms of editing/ marketing/revising the story?
Most of all, try to have some fun. Whatever happens, you'll be buzzing afterwards with new ideas which will provide fuel for better work. Good luck and hope to see you there!
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Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann