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At a writing conference I've managed to snag a 15 minute appointment with a publisher (who published Terry Pratchett, my favourite author).

I'm a debut fantasy novelist. She will have received a cover letter, one line story summary, one page story synopsis and the first 30 pages of one of my stories.

Some background:

  • I'm a sufferer of social anxiety so being prepared is my only defense.
  • I'm not confident about my work being 'snapped up' so I don't want to waste our time.

I've found a few snippets suggesting what questions an author might be asked, these for example but none from the other way around.

What questions should I ask the publisher in order to make the most of this opportunity?

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Good question. I've done a little editing to make this more answerable on a Q&A site like this, but please revert my edits (or edit further) if I've changed your intent anywhere. –  Neil Fein Jun 4 at 18:28
    
I appreciate the edit, though some answers would be welcome! In fact @neil, I'll be meeting a literary editor too, have any feedback on the same question but editor focused? –  Tristan Warner-Smith Jun 4 at 22:54
    
I don't work for a publisher, but off the top of my head, I'd ask the publisher about what they're looking for and how it relates to your work, what their workflow is, etc - stuff of interest to them that they can answer. –  Neil Fein Jun 4 at 23:15

3 Answers 3

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I'm not clear on whether you see this is a pitch session (i.e., with the explicit goal of interesting the publisher in your novel), or simply an opportunity for a one-on-one conversation. Either way, though, I think the best way to go here (and to get through your nervousness) is to take this excellent advice from Janet Reid, classily entitled: Pitch Sessions Are Spawn of Satan. Whether or not you're actually pitching, Reid's article makes clear what she considers the greatest benefit of a one-on-one session: the opportunity for the pro to share their expertise, attention, and assistance. So that's what you want to ask for.

In a nutshell, Reid contends that the most productive thing a pro can do is to give detailed feedback on the sample or pitch. If you're a debut novelist, and I'm an established publishing gatekeeper, the best thing I can do is give you a "run-through" of how I'd react to your work, and why. And then there's this:

Writers might still be nervous, but if all they have to do is hand an agent a query, and take notes on what she says, and ask questions, I guarantee there will be less vomit involved.

Here's the thing: in your situation, the publisher is the expert. You shouldn't be required to guess what questions you should be asking. Heck, if you know what questions to ask, you'd probably be able to find the answers on your own! No: the publisher knows all kinds of interesting stuff, and will probably be a better judge than you of what might be the most helpful. (Particularly if you feel, to begin with, that you don't have specific questions or problems that are bothering you.) And the sample you're providing gives this publisher plenty to work with, to gauge where you are and what advice will be appropriate.

So your basic approach can be this:

  1. You want to give the publisher enough information about you and your writing that he has something to work with. That's your synopses and sample pages, and it's also how you introduce yourself: "Hi, I'm ((name)), I mostly work in ((genre A)) and ((genre B)), I've written ((number of short stories, novels, and WIPs)), and the goal I'm working towards now is ((to get a big-publishing contract/to get a small-press contract/to self-publish/to find an agent/to make my English teacher proud/OTHER))."
  2. Explain exactly what you'd like to get out of the session. "I don't have a list of questions; I mostly want feedback on my pages, feedback on how effective my summary and my synopsis are, and maybe if you have some more general career advice or details about publishing you think it'd be good for me to know, that would be terrific too."
  3. Let the pro give you feedback. Listen well; don't argue with anything; take notes. (Don't argue -- not because the particular pro is necessarily right about everything; just because you're here to hear his reaction, not to start arguing.)
  4. If after a few minutes you feel like you're not getting much from the pro, take a moment to consider why that is, and then raise the point politely, and ask to switch focus to some other helpful thing.
    • "Listen, I want to make sure we have time to look at..."
    • "I'm sorry, you're using some terms I'm not familiar with, could you explain what you mean by..."
    • "I understand your point about this passage, and I don't think I need more explanation there. I'd rather move on to your next thought, is that OK?".
    • "You're being a little vague and general, can I ask you to show me a particular example in my writing of what you're talking about?"
    • ...and so on.

That's it! All you want to do is let the pro guide the conversation, and let him know that that's what you want. With any luck, everything should be smooth from there on.

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This really cuts to the nature of my issue, thanks. It's my first novel, I'm not there to pitch, though if they're interested, great! Fundamentally though I do want expert feedback from them. This answer gives a nice framework through which to do that. –  Tristan Warner-Smith Jun 10 at 13:22

I would hesitate to ask: "What are you looking for?" because you should already know this.

Publishers usually list this info on their submission guidelines or blog posts by their agents. Do some research. Find out what they are looking for, then list the ways your writing fills what they are looking for. Once you have that info, ask something like this:

"You are looking for T, and my story is T in these ways. If I were to revise my novel to better fit your needs, what elements of T would you want me to enhance or add?"

(where T equals the type of story they are looking for)

Prepare a couple ideas for them that you have (or new ideas that you can write for them). If they are not interested in your current story, tell them about these ideas then ask:

Do these ideas feel like they fit? Which idea excites you the most?

Now if they turn you down for your current story, they may be excited to hear from you on a few of your other ideas and you've kept the dialogue open and kept your foot in the door.

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Good ideas, I wish there were submission guidelines to be found. For the one-to-one session all the info I have is: "Please submit a cover letter, one-page synopsis and first chapter/30 pages. The cover letter should include a one-line pitch for the novel." - Their website says "currently accepting submissions of finished manuscripts in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres." –  Tristan Warner-Smith Jun 9 at 21:38
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I am not a writer or editor, but my thought would be to enter this from the perspective of a job interview. You should be familiar with the books the company is currently publishing, such as their length, genre, target audiences, etc., along with some idea of how your story is similar or how it differs. If they have 'house' authors, you should be able to show that you are familiar with their works. Basically, it seems to me that being familiar with the publishing house, its works, and its authors can only help you. –  Benjamin Wade Jun 10 at 3:40

15 minutes isn't a lot of time so make it short and sweet. Here's a possible list of questions:

  1. What do you think of my novel proposal?
  2. Are you interested in publishing this novel?
  3. How could I change this work so that you would be interested in publishing this?
  4. Are there other publishing houses who would be interested in publishing this?
  5. Would you be interested in my next novel proposal?

Five questions is about the maximum you can ask in 15 minutes. But reframe the setting as best you can from An Interview With A Publisher to a convivial meeting with a friend or colleague who's interested in your work. We all like to work with people who we like.

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