Monday, February 7, 2011

Speed dating for the bookish

Speed dating for lurve

In Friday's print-edition of the SF Chronicle, the article Singles check one another out at SF Main Library told a story that would warm any bookish heart: the San Francisco Public Library sponsored a speed-dating event for readers. Actually, there were two events scheduled on successive evenings, one for people seeking opposite-sex partnerships, another for same-sex.

As reporter Jessica Kwong tells it, "Twenty-five lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender participants, and 38 straight participants the night before, got a chance to find love before Valentine’s Day [...]." Books in hand, participants spent five minutes talking about what they're reading, how they chose the book, and how they like it so far. Then a bell rang, and they'd lather, rinse, and repeat.

There was nothing magical about it, says Kwong. Awkward pauses, shy fumbling, all that. You have to figure that speed-dating always has awkward moments, squirmy silences, and what-am-I-doing-here crises -- as does blind-dating or even the vast majority of first dates. Perhaps it's fair to say that literary speed-dating is bound (is that a bookish pun?) to be especially awkward because the participants are more likely to be introverts than your average club kid. These are speed-dating bookworms.

I met the love of my life on a blind date at a café in a San Francisco bookstore. More than a dozen years later, we read together in cafés, at the breakfast table, on public transit, and at home in the evenings; and we're still jabbering away about what we're reading and writing with each other and our reading group pals.

The SFPL set up their event for folks in their 20s and 30s, which left a lot of single San Franciscans out. In fact, the library turned away 50 would-be participants because they didn't have room for everybody who wanted to come. But because of the huge interest in speed-dating for bookworms, in the coming months "the library is looking to include silver foxes and cougars for their own speed-dating event."

San Francisco isn't the only city where bookish convergence is the stuff that matches are made on. On the same day the SFPL speed-dating event was reported in the newspaper, Rachel Stout of New York's literary agency Dystel and Goderich, blogged about a bookstore called Word in Greenpoint (Brooklyn, NY) that features a board to which slips of paper are tacked by people looking for ... other people. As Ms. Stout explains, "They’re all the same format, with spaces only for "I'm a _____ looking for a ______" and what books/authors you do like and those you don’t. That’s it! No other personality traits or qualifications, these matches are made based on books and writing preference alone."

Speed dating for authors and agents

I first discovered "Speed Dating for Agents" when I looked into attending the SF Writer's Conference last February (I'll be attending again at the end of next week). To play this game, attendees pay fifty bucks beyond the base cost of attending the conference for a chance to spend an hour lobbing three-minute pitches at agents seated around the perimeter of a hotel conference room.

The recommended best practice is to spend a minute or so introducing yourself and making your pitch in a conversational way (60 seconds is a very short time for this), then take a deep breath and let the agent begin to lead (120 seconds is not very much more for Phase Two). If you're lucky, you win the prize by the time the bell rings -- an agent "date." This is not to be confused with the formality of engagement, let alone of marriage. What you're hoping for is a business card and an invitation to send a query -- and perhaps some pages -- with the hallowed words "Requested Material" on the envelope or in an e-mailed subject line.

In other words, the prize is a chance to query an agent above the scrum of the slush-pile.

The experience was nerve-wracking for me last year. No more nerve-wracking, I suppose, than the query-from-home process that I blogged about last week, except that it's all concentrated in that one intense hour of three minute performances.

I did pretty well at SFWC 2010, all things considered. I hadn't shopped my manuscript around to any literary agents before the conference, yet I finished the hour with six invitations to query from among the eight agents with whom I spoke. None offered representation in the end, but I got some excellent (albeit concise) feedback about my novel mss. That feedback helped to fuel last year's revision of Consequence ... very much for the better, judging by the response of friends and writing-group members. And I also gained valuable insight into pitching my work ... not something that comes naturally to this writer. Selling oneself and one's work are cultivated skills for many who spend as much time alone as writers do with their pages and their imaginary friends (a.k.a. "characters").

Jim McCarthy, also of the agency Dystel and Goderich, blogged a couple of weeks back from an agent's perspective about the agent-writer form of literary speed-dating. The event in which he participated was in Manhattan, at the "Writer's Digest Pitch Slam at which seemingly every agent in the universe sat around the perimeter of a Sheraton ballroom in midtown while aspiring authors lined up for the opportunity to pitch them."

Mr. McCarthy wrote that would have liked longer to talk to the authors he met. I suspect that desire was mutual ... three minutes do fly.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Losing libraries (guest post)
Six things about e-books
Book clubs in a box from the public library

Thanks to the SFWC for permission to use a photo of Agent Speed-Dating from the conference website; and to theunquietlibrary for the photo of Speed Dating Article Interviews on Social Media for Social Good ... in a library ... on flickr.

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