What I Learned from a Nightmare Pitching Experience

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One of the main reasons many people hesitate to send cold pitches is they’re afraid that a CEO, company representative, or individual is going to get angry with them for sending an unsolicited email out of nowhere. Let me first say that this is a very rare occurrence if you’re sending a true cold pitch and not spam. Second, anyone who reacts negatively to a professional email asking if they are looking for relevant services is not someone you want to work with anyway. However, I’m not going to lie and say it doesn’t happen. I sent out over a hundred cold emails when I first started PurpleInkPen, and out of all of those, I only got one negative response. By negative I mean the woman actually got angry with me, not that she just declined my services. I received plenty of declines, but they were all polite, and a good number of them promised to still keep me in mind when they did need editing or writing services.

However, one woman took personal offense to a phrase in my pitch. Granted, it was my first pitch draft, and it had its flaws, but she somehow inferred from it that I was personally insulting her by asking if she needed editing services. I had found her through Twitter, looked up her website, and contacted her that way. I thought she seemed like the perfect candidate because she’d written a staggering amount of books in varying genres that she’d either self-published through Amazon or gotten picked up by small vanity presses. I thought that was very impressive, and since she was self-publishing a lot, I figured if she didn’t have an editor already, she’d definitely be interested in one. In retrospect, the shear volume of her work and how quickly she was pumping them out ought to have been a warning sign. It was pretty clear she didn’t have an editor; she was just taking advantage of print-on-demand publishing. Maybe that’s a big, unsubstantiated inference, but based on her response, I really don’t think so, because she seemed incapable of taking any form of criticism. She invented negative criticism within my pitch.

The phrase she took offense to was, “in-depth help with sentence structure.” I was listing my services, letting her know I could do just a basic proofread or a more in-depth analysis of the work. She took this to mean that I had read one of her novels and decided that she couldn’t write a basic sentence. Well, firstly, “in-depth” implies that I’m not talking about basic sentence formation here, or at least that’s what I thought. She, however, sent me a biting email back with a link to one of her novels on Amazon (a novel I had not specifically referenced), and challenged me to find any errors in the sample. She asked me, “I’m curious why you feel this story needs in-depth help with sentence structure …? Did you find that many glaring errors in it already?”

Um, whoa. What? I was listing services that I provide and asking her if she might be interested in any of them. It is always up to the potential client to decide which services they need or if they need services at all. I tried to explain this. I also apologized for having offended her and made it clear that that wasn’t my intention at all. I made the mistake of telling her that no other recipients of the pitch thus far had responded negatively to that phrase, so I didn’t realize it was offensive. (Please let the record show that I have had clients request the in-depth sentence analysis service of a copy edit since then, so it is indeed something that some authors want.)

Thing I Learned #1: If a client quickly jumps on the defensive and assumes offense from a single explanatory phrase, realize that trying to argue in any way probably isn’t going to work. Just bite your tongue, swallow your pride, apologize, and have done with it.

This prompted her to say that there were probably plenty of other people who’d taken offense, they just hadn’t told me like she had. Okay, fair enough, but after listing her accolades (she apparently runs three writing groups and was a top-10 Amazon reviewer), she then went on to call me a spammer. She said that my email was not only spam, it was illegal spam because I hadn’t included my address in the pitch. Oh shit. I scrambled to find out if she was correct. I even contacted the lovely Gina Horkey, whose Free Kickstarter Course and 90-Day Pitch Challenge had inspired me to start cold emailing in the first place, to see if she knew anything about it. Here is what I found out from Gina’s response (she had no idea who I was at the time, but she still responded to me quickly and with extreme kindness) and from my own reading of the actual law this woman was referring to.

First, my cold pitch was not spam. Spam is a generic email sent out by a company to a massive email list. Now, yes, my pitch was developed from a standard template that I had created. However, I always personalized each pitch. I had multiple different pitch templates for different scenarios, and then I went on to customize them further by addressing the person directly and attempting to connect with them in some way. For this particular woman, I had commented on her astonishingly wide range, with so many books in so many different genres, and had let her know that I was very impressed with her dedication and her accomplishments (and I was, at the time). Really, just the direct address in the header and the fact that I had sent that specific pitch only to her meant it wasn’t spam. Now, she was right about the address thing … to a point.

Thing I Learned #2: When companies send out marketing material, they are required to include the address of the business. This is for places like The Gap or Walmart who send out promotional materials about sales to everyone who has ever bought anything in their store and been forced to cough up an email. That was not what I was doing, so I was not required to include an address. My email was not illegal in any way. Did I still include an address on every cold pitch from then on? You bet your sweet ass I did. I wasn’t doing that do-si-do again.

Gina made a great point, as well. I had contacted this woman through her website’s contact page. It was an email she had opened to the public, not an email I had sniffed out through nefarious ways or paid her internet provider for. Does she call her fans spammers for contacting her through that page, too? The fact that she didn’t like the email I sent doesn’t make me a spammer. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if she called someone who’d really read her book and contacted her with some actual criticism a spammer.

Anyway, I realized that trying to explain this to her would be a waste of my time and only make me more upset. Just reliving this whole thing months later is making me queasy. So, I apologized again for unintentionally offending her, explained that I was unaware of the address requirement, told her she’d made it quite clear she didn’t want my services, and that was fine, I wouldn’t bother her again.

For days afterward, I kept envisioning her smirking to her writers’ group, telling them all how she’d bested a low-life spammer. I kept thinking about her emails, replaying everything in my head while I was trying to work or sleep. I stopped cold pitching and focused on responding to job board posts. Then, around day three, I slapped myself. Why the hell should I care if she didn’t like me? I didn’t like her, either. She would have made a terrible editing client. If she found criticism where it was not intended and got that angry about it, how would she react if I were to actually work as her editor and intentionally deliver constructive criticism? We would get nowhere.

I would like to sit in on one of her writing groups and see if anything actually gets done. She told me that I ought to be more careful with my marketing strategy because authors are sensitive artists who don’t like being treated like “hunks of meat.” First, who called anyone a hunk of meat? Certainly not me. Second, “sensitive artists” need to suck it up. I write fiction; I know it can hurt to hear that your favorite character isn’t as compelling as you’d hoped or that something in the complex plot line that you slaved over doesn’t make sense. It hurts to hear that the language is boring in a certain section or that your descriptions are getting repetitive. But you aren’t a good artist unless you learn to take constructive criticism on the chin, mull it over, learn from it, and apply it. If you don’t, you may be able to produce something pretty good, but I assure you it won’t be great. The greatest authors of all time had/have editors who tore through their manuscripts with an unforgiving but helpful red pen.

Thing I Learned #3: You can sometimes pull constructive advice out of the muck of impolite criticism.

I wasn’t going to let that woman stop me from cold pitching just because her delicate artist sensibilities caused her to see a personal attack in a list of services. I decided to get back to it, but first, I revamped my whole pitch. I gave specific attention to the phrase that had so enraged her. I realized that her inference had probably come from the word “structure.” I could see how it might imply that I would help the author form individual sentences, and not improve the overall tone and flow of sentences to make sure the author’s voice stayed consistent throughout, which is what I intended and is what I tried to explain to her afterward. I had been trying to be concise, but I decided that perhaps I should give a little more detail about what that service entailed and make the pitch concise in other areas.

But I could not figure out how she had decided that a list of offered editing services meant that I thought she couldn’t write worth a damn. So, I ignored that part of her criticism because that was clearly her own personal hang up. However, my encounter with her made me want a clean start, so I basically made a brand new pitch that was punchier and generally more effective. Before I made the switch, only about half the pitch recipients responded on the first email, with roughly ninety percent responding once I sent a single follow-up email. When I reworked the pitch, though, I was getting about a 75% response on the first email and about a 98% response after sending a follow-up.

So, I’m not going to tell you that you won’t have a bad experience or two if you decide to cold pitch, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. If you do have someone respond negatively and accuse you of things you never intended, just apologize and make the most of it. There can be shreds of truth even in the most unwarranted backlashes, and if you can let the unfounded complaints roll off your back and use the grounded ones to continuously improve your approach, then cold pitching can become your number one source for landing great clients.

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