The Perfect Pitch: Pitching to Agents at a Writing Conference
by Sue Fagalde Lick
Is it worth the stress? Yes.
Many conferences allow writers to schedule short face-to-face meetings with agents and editors. It's a great opportunity to pitch one's book. It's also terribly nerve-wracking. After all, most of us are more effective on paper, and a bad meeting can ruin your chances with that person forever. But one successful meeting can make your book-publishing dreams come true. It can also save months of mailing queries and waiting for answers.
Preparation is the key. David Hale Smith of DHS Literary, Inc., attends six to eight conferences a year looking for "that one diamond in the rough." Smith urges writers to prepare a three-minute pitch in which they boil their project down to three to five sentences. Practice that pitch until you can deliver it smoothly. The whole point of the meeting is to get your writing read. You're not there to chat, make a new friend or list the problems you're having with your writing but to convince the agent to give it a look. "You're sitting there and the door's open."
Pitch sessions are obviously stressful. Smith admits he still gets nervous pitching books to editors, but he can handle his nerves because he is prepared. "Think of it as a business meeting," he says. "You're coming to a business meeting with a product." The writer must be able to describe his book clearly and briefly. If he can't, how is the agent going to describe it to an editor, who in turn has to pitch the book to his superiors and ultimately to the publisher's sales force, which has to pitch the book to the buyers?
Agent Jillian Manus, who spent several years as a development executive in the movie business, knows the importance of a pitch. She bought movie scripts solely on the basis of the writers' pitches, then turned around and pitched them to her production team. These days, the book publishing industry has also adopted the pitch as an essential sales tool. Writers who can't describe their work in four or five lines don't have a clear idea of what they are writing, Manus says.
For fiction, Manus suggests dividing the pitch into three points: the setup, hook and resolution. For nonfiction, the title should convey the main concept of the book. Explain what the book is about, why you are qualified to write it, who will read it and what you can do to promote it.
Be PreparedAgents and editors are not usually willing or able to carry your manuscript home with them, but if they are interested, they will take a brief written summary. Don't expect an agent or editor to read your synopsis while you wait. "I hate to read in front of someone because I can't think and read it simultaneously or well in that situation," says Laurie Harper of the Sebastian Literary Agency. "If you hand me a synopsis, still be able to just tell me in three minutes what it is. I'll take the synopsis with me and reread it later, but at the moment, it's more constructive to get a conversation going and rapport. Sell me on you and then the book you're doing. It is much more helpful to convince me of your talent, vision, commitment and ability and then hopefully about the book itself. In a short meeting, if I'm taken with the author, I'll follow up on the phone later and we'll get into the book stuff. If I'm not sold on you, it doesn't matter about the book because I won't take it further."
Before the conference, it helps to do a little homework. Smith says he is impressed when a writer knows something about his agency and the writers it represents. At minimum, know whether the agent represents your kind of book. Don't pitch your adult thriller to an agent who handles only children's books. Know where your project falls in the marketplace. If it's fiction, is it a romance, a mystery, mainstream? Can you compare it to another published author's work? If it's nonfiction, who is the audience? What types of publishers are likely to buy it?
Harper says authors must know about similar books that have been published and why theirs will be different. What category does it fall into, who are the readers and how will it fit into the market?
If you don't have all of this information, perhaps you should wait until the next conference to pitch your book. If you're just starting to outline your nonfiction book or aren't sure how your novel will end, save the pitch until you know what you're pitching.
Conquer the NervesNervous though you may be, don't tell the agent, "I'm so nervous. I'm not good at this."
"I don't want to hear that stuff," Smith says. "What do you have that I can sell, that's it."
Some writers can't bear the idea of pitching their work in person. They know they'll stutter and stumble. If you really can't do it, don't sign up for a pitch session. After all, as Smith says, "On paper's how we do most of our business."
It is possible to send your material to the agent before the conference, but allow plenty of time in advance. Smith says he receives 250 submissions a month and 200-300 query letters. He may not have time to get to your manuscript before the conference. It might boil down to taking it on the plane and hoping he has time to read it. It's better to wait for the conference, where he is expecting to hear your pitch.
You can certainly send a pitch to an agent after the conference instead of giving it in person, but sooner or later you'll have to do it verbally. Harper says, "I would encourage writers to try the verbal meeting, even if it doesn't go perfectly. Learn from it. Practice. Get comfortable talking to agents and get comfortable 'blurbing' your book."
Manus believes that writers must conquer the butterflies and learn to pitch. After the book is sold, the author will be expected to talk about the book with editors and marketing people and to help publicize it when it comes out. Fiction writers might be able to hide behind the written word, but nonfiction authors must learn to pitch in person, she says.
Anyone can memorize four lines, Manus adds. "You can blurt out those four lines and then that opens the door." Once the agent hears the basic idea, they can discuss it. "We're there to work as a team."
Accept CriticismOne of the things authors fear in meeting agents and editors is criticism of their work, but that's part of the deal. "Nerves should be left at home," Manus says. "Writers should bring confidence and a willingness to accept criticism." It's the agent's or editor's responsibility to help them figure out what might be wrong with their proposal. Not everyone takes criticism gracefully. "I've had people leap over the table."
Harper adds, "You have to want honest answers, even if it isn't what you want to hear. Professional feedback will help you get the book right for publication and success. If you act like you can't take the truth, the agent or editor will just give you an excuse and get away from you, and you'll be nowhere. The more you ask for candid, honest advice or feedback and demonstrate you can handle it maturely, the better information and real help you'll get."
Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books, says the thing he hates most at conferences is "neediness," writers who are looking to him to make all their dreams come true and can't take no for an answer. "I really don't like to be cornered or pushed. I'm particularly sensitive to someone who's practicing their assertiveness training on me."
Margolin urges writers to approach publishers and agents as "co-professionals" who can work together for mutual benefit. He appreciates finding writers who know about his publishing house and present appropriate ideas. Arrive with an open mind and if the project is not right for him, "Allow everybody room to back off with dignity."
Although a meeting may be scheduled for 10 minutes or longer, don't feel you have to fill the entire appointment time. The pitch has one purpose: to get your project read. "Once you've done that, you've done your job. You can feel a connection or not," Smith says. Don't stay after the meeting is over. Thank the agent and move on. Agents and editors at conferences often spend hours meeting with eager writers. A few quiet minutes to stretch, use the restroom or get a cup of coffee are a real blessing.
They're Just PeopleRemember that the agents and editors attending conferences are working through the weekend instead of relaxing with their families. They may enjoy conferences, but respect that they get tired, just like you. Smith is not averse to accepting a beer or a cup of coffee in exchange for a few minutes of informal talk, but don't monopolize his entire weekend.
Manus, who attends an average of eight conferences a year, stresses that agents and editors go to conferences because they want to, even if they are not paid and have to give up their free time to do it. "They get as inspired by you as you do by them." She loves meeting new writers, seeing what they are writing, spotting trends. When talking to writers about their books, she hopes she can give the right advice. "We're as nervous as they are," she says.
One mistake authors make, says Harper, is wanting "any agent." "Agents are usually all good at what they do, but they're good at different things. A writer does not want any agent; he or she wants the right match of agent for their book and category." It's better to have no agent than the wrong agent. In meeting agents, it is perfectly okay to ask agents about their activities or interests in a given category of books, she adds.
"Authors tend to put agents on a pedestal, but the actual successful working relationship over the long haul is about the two of you working closely together as partners -- business partners," Harper says. "Your agent offers the market and publisher savvy, together with contracts and money, and the author offers the talent, writing ability and audience savvy. It takes both."
Conference meetings are usually just a beginning, an in-person query. But they can lead to bigger things. If an agent or editor finds an author whose work matches what publishers are looking for, publication is almost guaranteed.
What you have at a conference pitch session, Margolin says, is an introduction. This is not the place where deals are closed but an opportunity to find out if both parties want to take the next step.
But it can be the beginning of something wonderful.
If you don't speak up, you'll never know.