A Mock 15-Minute Meeting at a Conference: Follow Along

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

If you have yet to experience a meeting with an agent at a conference, or if you’ve had several but came away with regrets on your performance, you need to invest in some careful preparation. Follow along on this mock meeting and read my inner thoughts during a 15-minute meeting with a writer.

But first, a guideline. If your debut novel isn’t completed, it’s best to wait until it is finished and polished before scheduling an agent appointment. Nonfiction authors may be tempted to pitch their book as soon as it’s written, but if your platform is weak, you won’t serve your purpose to get an agent’s or editor’s interest until your name recognition is established as an authority on your topic over a broad audience base through speaking, published articles, and a strong social media following.

Publishing houses pay the travel expenses for their editors to attend conferences and connect with writers. Editors may be willing to meet with an attendee whose goal is to learn about the process or get some advice on his WIP. Agents, however, are independent contractors, which means they pay their own expenses. As a general rule, without a finished manuscript, it’s better to pick an agent’s brain at lunch or dinner or during breaks. They want their appointment schedule filled with attendees who are ready for representation.

Now, here comes my next appointment. The following are the basic questions I ask in one of these meetings.

Welcome. I’m happy to meet you. In a sentence or two, tell me a little about yourself. Note to self: friendly handshake, direct eye contact, nice relaxed smile, seems confident, prepared.

When did you decide you want to be a writer, and how have you learned your craft? Note: She’s ready with an answer, belongs to a critique group, mentioned books on craft she has read. I see her eyes light up. So far, so good.

Thirteen minutes left.

Do you have a one-sheet for your current project? Good, she knows what that is and hands me her one-page pitch for her book. Nice layout, not too crowded, easy-to-read nuggets for my quick read. Intriguing hook. I understand the primary points from her succinct description.

Tell me about your book and how you came to write it. I note her passion and excitement as she begins her elevator pitch. It sounds marketable. I’m interested in hearing more. She continues. Good, she isn’t getting bogged down in too much detail, which I couldn’t possibly follow since I haven’t read any samples yet. She’s hitting on the main points as they flow in her book. Obviously, she has spent plenty of time practicing. I’m impressed with her and decide to ask if she brought a copy of the first five pages. She easily thumbs through her bag and produces a hard copy of chapter one. The first page draws me in. I look at my watch.

One minute left.

I’d like to see a formal proposal and the first three chapters of your book. Here is my business card. Her easy smile broadens as she stands and shakes my hand, and I write on the hard copy: “Promising!”

Pitch complete and ended on time.

What main points did you draw from this fly-on-the-wall observation? What do you need to work on to be prepared for your next 15-minute meeting with an agent? What made your best agent meeting a good one?

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68 Comments

  • Barbara 'Anne' Beyer says:

    I crave an intelligent critque group to mix with in my area. So far I haven’t found a favorable one. I appreciate your outline and simulation of an interview with an agent. Definitely gives perspective on both sides. Thank you again.
    Barbara Beyer

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Barbara, it’s worth attending a conference simply for the goal of connecting with other writers and finding a critique group to join. I’ve heard of many groups who connect online and only occasionally meet together at a central location.

  • Mary, Great idea to post this. In a nutshell, do your homework well before hand, come prepared, don’t let nervousness overcome you.
    I love to watch the show, Shark Tank, where hopefuls try to convince the “sharks” to invest. When I see someone who’s unprepared–have no idea about the finances of their project, can’t succinctly answer questions, seem flustered–I weep for them. Almost always, they’ve blown their chance.
    A writer is trying to get an agent to invest in them. ‘Nuff said.

  • lisa says:

    This is so, so helpful. Thank you so much! I know I need to be so prepared. I can’t imagine losing my chance. I’d love to hear what your top ideas are for learning your craft. What books do you recommend?

  • Rick Barry says:

    Mary, kudos to you if you as the agent look at your watch and observe time restrictions. I don’t mind being gracious, but there have been cases when the the writer before me is running overtime by 2 & 3 minutes, and neither person seems to realize it. So awkward to say, “Excuse me, but it’s way past time for my interview.” (ACFW and some others take initiative to regulate interviews.)

    At my first face-to-face, I was dry-throated and nervous. Relaxing becomes easier when you remind yourself this is a fellow human being. Your entire destiny does not rest in her palm. :)

    Final thought: It’s good for writers to clarify HOW to submit the formal proposal and sample chapters. Different agents and editors have different preferences: as email attachments, or pasted into the body of an email, or even old-fashioned paper through the U.S. mail.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      All good points, Rick. Agents are indeed fellow human beings. Most agents, certainly those of us at Books & Such, are inwardly rooting for attendees to have a successful presentation experience.

      Yes, remember to ask for specifics on submitting requested material if the agent forgets to give detailed direction.

  • Jeanne T says:

    What do I need to work on? Relaxing. When I attended my first ACFW and had agent/editor appointments, I was so nervous, I didn’t talk well about my story, even though I love it, and was pretty prepared. Sigh. Learning, learning. :)

    The other thing I need to do is have my book more polished the next time I endeavor to meet with an agent.

    I loved reading the agent’s side of these meetings. Thank you for sharing, Mary!

    • Same for me on the relaxing, Jeanne. But I daresay that’s most of us!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Jeanne, Barry offered a good reminder: agents are fellow human beings. And most of us try to help authors to relax.

      Besides being well-prepared, it is helpful to practice saying what you want to say, making sure you hit on all the major points. Time yourself to about 12-13 minutes so you know what more you can add or how much you might have to leave out. And let your enthusiasm show.

  • Jill Kemerer says:

    How fun! The biggest take-away? Be prepared. Study what materials to bring, how long your pitch should be, and the main plot points of your book.

    Also, it’s obvious our non-verbal cues make big impressions. Smile, make eye-contact, be pleasant. :)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Jill, you hit on all the bullet points. And yes, I am gathering impressions of the writer as much as of the project in the meeting.

      • Jill Kemerer says:

        I have to admit, I make impressions of people the entire conference. Not that anyone has to be someone they aren’t, but I can’t help but add up the little things, like the kind gesture in the ladies room or the welcoming smile in the lobby.

  • I’m attending a writer’s conference this weekend that included a free ten-minute agent slot with my early-bird registration. My primary purpose this conference is to network for my independent editing business and learn from the panels, but since I have this opportunity, I plan on discussing my WIP with the agent.

    How do you recommend I approach this meeting in a manner respectful to the agent, considering my manuscript (a science fiction novel) is not complete?

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Megan, what a nice opportunity. If your project is a novel, I recommend you have a stellar one-sheet to leave with the agent as well as a synopsis and first chapter. Include your book’s estimated completion date.

      If your project is nonfiction, I recommend the stellar one-sheet as well as an annotated chapter list of the entire book, bulleted list detailing your platform, and the first chapter.

      • Thank you for the feedback, Mary! I so appreciate being able to see this process from your point of view.

      • Mary, I have to thank you for encouraging me to create a one-sheet even though my WIP isn’t complete. My agent pitch went AMAZINGLY well — far better than it would have if I had timidly chosen to go in without a one-sheet. She requested everything I have written so far, as soon as I can get it to her! I am ready to kick it into high gear, months ahead of my original timeline.

  • Loved seeing this exchange from your side of the table, Mary. I had two appointments at ACFW (both with editors) and you’ve nailed that interview down perfectly. Both of my appointments went in a very similar fashion. I love that you pointed out “her eyes light up” – agents and editors want to see passion and drive! They get excited when the writer is excited. Studies show that we have “mirror neurons,” which helps us feel what the other person is feeling. These neurons help us to have empathy when people are hurting, and they also help us to get excited when someone is excited! As hard as it is, the best thing we can do is not let the nerves take over, because an agent can feel your nerves with you. I think the best thing to take away from your example above is to be confident, relaxed and prepared–not always easy to do when you’re nervous, but vital in this situation. I came away from my appointments feeling on top of the world and I actually enjoyed them!

    • Gabrielle, interesting point on those “mirror neurons.” You’re right–enthusiasm is contagious…as is a subdued affect. I remember deliberately shooting a job interview b/c I knew I’d have to do lots of MATH in that job. I had no enthusiasm, and kind of checked out. I know that would NOT be the case when discussing any of my books. I can’t help but be driven and passionate about those. Glad your interviews were invigorating!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      How interesting,Gabrielle. I haven’t heard the scientific term “mirror neurons” before, but yes, they describe what goes on between an agent and the writer in the meeting.

      In addition to being well-prepared, practicing what you plan to say out loud helps immensely to relieve nerves.

      • Dr. Caroline Leaf, a Communication Pathologist (and passionate Christian), has some phenomenal books on the brain (published by Thomas Nelson). Two I highly recommend are Who Switched Off My Brain? And The Gift In You. After reading The Gift In You, I knew it was time to start pursuing my dream to be a published author. She talks about mirror neurons, among many other fascinating subjects. I also own her book Who Switched Off YOUR Brain? Solving the Mystery of He Said/She Said. I’m looking forward to reading about the differences in men’s and women’s brains! http://www.drleaf.com

  • Thanks for this insight, Mary. I think for me, being prepared and having practiced my pitch for a variety of people beforehand was so helpful. I think it’s important to show you really know your story and at a high level–because ultimately, you don’t have time to give too much detail, and you’ll only confuse the agent (and probably yourself!) if you try.

  • I most likely will have “Don’t be an idiot-don’t be an idiot-act like a grown-up-don’t be an idiot” written up and down my arm in heat activated invisible ink. Actually, I’ll write it in Spanish, that’ll narrow down the people who can understand my “tattoo”.

    Thank you for this, Mary. This is a perfect tutorial for an agent interview. This tells me what to expect and what to have prepared. I’ll practice my pitch beforehand with friends who are hard to impress, that way I’ve beaten down a few nerves.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Jennifer, you won’t have any problem showing your passion for your book. I can sense your eyes lighting up in your comments. Practicing your pitch out loud will be invaluable in making sure you focus on the main plot and eliminate lesser details you don’t have time to include.

      And as Rick said, we agents are regular human beings too.

    • Jill Kemerer says:

      This made me laugh, Jennifer! I’m forever putting my foot in my mouth or walking around with a junior mint plastered to my bottom…

  • Lori says:

    What do I need to work on? EVERYTHING!

    This is just as bad as preparing for a job interview. Maybe even worse since I really have not been in the position you were describing today.

    Great blog post Mary, I learn quite a bit today.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Lori, my goal in writing it was to help you know what to expect and to relieve nerves so you can enjoy giving a successful pitch. I’m happy to know it was helpful.

  • I love your mention of the friendly handshake, Mary. My father was a lawyer at a time when a handshake meant something in business. I remember as a young child practicing my handshake with him. It shouldn’t be too limp, like a dead fish, but it shouldn’t be too firm so that the other’s hand tingles with the pressure. Now, my children like to practice their little handshakes with me.

    I need to work on my answer to how I have learned the craft. There are so many different things to include, such as craft books, writer and agent blogs, copious reading, e-mail loops, local writer groups. I need to condense it into a succinct answer.

    Thank you for sharing the inside of your head. It helps to take away the jitters.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Meghan, I agree a friendly handshake, smiling face, and eye contact communicate confidence and a knowledge of how to present oneself positively in a business conversation.

      The list of learning tools you gave here is already succinct and would take only a few seconds to say. From it I would conclude that you are serious about writing and learning craft.

      I’m glad the mock exercise relieved your jitters.

  • Jan Thompson says:

    Thank you, Mary. Good prep! I’m saving it for future reference.

    I noticed that this is the second time in recent blogs that you mentioned critique groups. IIRC. Could you please shed some light on the pros and cons of a critique group, how to find good critique groups in the writer’s sub-genre, and when do you know if the rapport isn’t working out? If you already have blogged on this, my apologies for not finding it in the Books&Such archives.

    Joseph Finder said, IIRC, that he doesn’t show his mss to any first readers for feedback (I would assume they’d be in the critique group) until it’s good and ready to be shown. OTOH I read in several places that CBA authors are doing it chapter by chapter. I also haven’t heard/read of any of my favorite mainstream authors being in critique groups at all. At most they credit their spouses for being their first readers or first editors, but not any critique partners.

    So… all that to ask: Are critique groups a CBA phenomenon? TIA.

    :-)

  • Elissa says:

    This is very helpful insight.

    Obviously being prepared is the key. It wouldn’t hurt to role play a pitch session with a fellow writer, taking turns on who plays the agent/editor. If another writer isn’t available, one can still practice pitching to a non-writing friend or family member.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Absolutely, Elissa. Listeners can tell you if they are able to follow and understand the flow of your book as you’re describing the main points. They also can give you feedback on your eye contact, countenance, level of apparent confidence, and pitch of your voice as you speak.

  • This is a great example, Mary. I like reading how you approach it. My experiences have been similar, but reading it on the blog seems different than experiencing it face-to-face. I think that’s because I’m the one doing most of the talking. That’s the way it is presented here, too, but it’s more intimidating doing it. :)

    One thing I would really like to work on is making my one-page as animated as my pitch. An agent mentioned to me that I was animated and passionate in my pitch, but my one-page was kind of dull.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Cheryl, that was a nice affirming comment about your presentation. This aspect is the hardest for many authors. The helpful feedback about your one-page sounds like an easier fix. Perhaps you need to sharpen the hook or use more vibrant, descriptive words in your description. Is there room to include a relevant image on the page that captures energy?

  • I had some wonderful meetings with agents and fellow authors this year at Mount Hermon.
    Getting to know the agents before the conference by interacting with them on their agency blog was helpful. You may also want to sit with them at a conference meal before your meeting. The agents I met with had already read my proposal, so we transitioned to questions they had, and ideas for gaining reader interest. The multi-published author I met with read my synopsis and first few pages in front of me. Talk about nerve-wracking.
    One thing I need to do in future is curb my enthusiasm. I had to hold back from doing a cheerleading move and cartwheel as I left the meeting. :-)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Good suggestions, Jenni. Wow, you won’t forget this Mount Hermon experience for a very long time, if ever. I’m catching your enthusiasm. Must be those mirror neurons Gabrielle mentioned. Congratulations on your great meetings.

  • Mary – what a wonderful post! I think one of the things I took away from this is that we authors need to come to you with the intention of steering the interview. We can shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot if we’re constantly reacting to you reacting to us!

    Thank you!
    Becky

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Becky, the real point is that you are ready and fully prepared to answer any questions the agent may ask you. The term “steering the interview” gives me pause. It hints at treading a thin line between respectfully responding to questions by focusing on the main points and crossing the line to being overbearing. Remember, the agent is the interviewer; the author is the interviewee.

  • Larry says:

    One good way to prepare is that if you know what agents are attending, do a little research on their agency, and be ready to discuss the agents’ experience representing similar titles to the one you are pitching.

    Having a basis for discussing what the author / agent partnership would be like is just as important as pitching your novel. As Mary has pointed out, it is not just your novel that is being discussed, but in many ways the author him /herself. Thus being able to see how the agent has handled similar works within the industry, and being able to discuss ones’ novel in that context provides a way to discuss more than just the story itself (and frankly, he or she has probably heard similar stories pitched or read similar stories; so try to balance between the actual product you are presenting, and who you are as an author and person that your potential agent would be representing).

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Larry, good idea to research agents and their agency before attending a conference. And in some future conversation, should there be one, it’s wise to ask about the agent’s experience with a specific genre. But there isn’t time in a 15-minute meeting. The author needs to focus on giving the best, most complete pitch for his or her book with passion and enthusiasm. If the pitch doesn’t go well, the likelihood of a future conversation is greatly reduced.

      • Larry says:

        Indeed, Mary, I agree fully. Guess I didn’t word it quite as well as I meant to; tried to say that the novel should be the focus, even if one is discussing how it could be marketed during the pitching process (that the pitching process, from my experience, shouldn’t just be a summary of the events of the story, but help give the potential agent an idea of who the author is as being capable of marketing the book, as well as how well the book itself could fit within the current market, which would naturally include discussing with the agent their experience with representing other works, to show them that the authors’ novel would be able to fit within the portfolio of what the agent already represents).

  • Linda Strawn says:

    I haven’t attended a conference yet, so whenever I read about meeting with an agent, I’m befuddled. Thanks to your wonderful post, I have an idea what to expect and how to prepare myself. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Sarah Grimm says:

    Mary,

    This could not have come at a better time for me! I am busy trying to make sure everything is set for the pitches I’ll be giving at a conference I am attending next weekend and not only did this give me a burst of confidence, and calm my nerves (a little), but the perspective really helped me to see areas where I would be weak (the nerves thing for sure) so I can work on fixing them beforehand. Thank you!

  • Laura Moe says:

    Thank you for posting this. One thing you could mention is to be sure the agent represents your genre. I made an a** of myself by pitching a YA title to an agent who did not represent YA. I also had one too many glasses of wine first. ;)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      You suggest a good point, Laura. As Larry also mentioned, it’s a good idea to learn about the agents who will be at the conference beforehand so you’ll know with whom to seek appointments.

  • Thanks for this, Mary. Very helpful and gives me a better idea what an agent will be looking for when I get my manuscript polished.

  • Kira says:

    This is a really great post, thank you. I feel like pitching your novel in person is the hardest thing in the world.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Kira, hopefully the insights into what to expect will calm your nerves and boost your confidence so you can adequately prepare and think clearly in your next 15-minute meeting.

  • The social media component is huge. I think the thing that might surprise writers is the length of time it takes to gather followers. I try to have an organized approach, with several specific social media tasks planned for each day. Then, I try to focus on writing and not get caught in a loop with checking numbers. Hootsuite helps.

  • Bonnie Doran says:

    My best agent meeting? When I could tell him I had a completed manuscript.

  • Dr. Michelle Bengtson says:

    Mary,
    Thank you for this post. It provided such useful information. Wish I’d read this 2 weeks ago before Mt. Hermon!

    It beautifully illustrates what we’ve been told since we were young children: practice, practice, practice; do your homework; anything worth doing is worth doing well!

    Blessings!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Amen, Michelle. I can’t imagine giving a motivational speech without lots of practice beforehand, perhaps in front of a mirror. Your pitch to an agent is of parallel importance. You are trying to motivate the agent to seriously consider your project.

  • Thanks so much for offering this perspective! It’s great help to see what an agent considers to be the most basic questions. I thought the questions would be more specific, such as, “What have you done to build your platform?” Going into a conversation cold, I would be least prepared to answer, “When did you decide you want to be a writer, and how have you learned your craft?” That seems to necessitate a very formal response – one I don’t have! I became passionate about writing after starting a blog. I imagine that bloggers who want to write books are a dime a dozen and that the blogging connection makes agents’ eyes roll. I would be curious how agents view writers who start as bloggers, and how to best position that…if you need a post idea for another time. :) Thanks again.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Natasha, I have two purposes for asking that question, first as an ice breaker to help the author relax and begin a conversation. The other purpose if to get to know the author and his or her level of passion for writing and for the book being pitched.

      Blogging is a good way to begin writing. It’s a natural way to discover and refine your unique voice. And, as in your case, it’s a way of discovering you have a love for writing that you might not otherwise have detected. The key issue is if you are passionate enough to invest the necessary time and resources to learn the craft and continue learning the craft. Because it’s a never ending process.

      Thanks for the post idea. Good suggestion.

  • Wish I had read that list before my first conference in 2011, but can’t complain at all. To me the biggest thing was (and is) to understand your topic and be ready for questions and clarifications.

    What has helped me the most over the last couple years with my topic is speaking on it in various lengths — from a 3 minute spot on radio interviews to a 2 day men’s retreat.

    Thinking of your topic’s “Key Points” change when you have minutes or hours, and having that thought through in advance helps you not get lost in details – until details are needed and asked for.

    My favorite discussion at my first conference (well, other than the one that led to representation) was with an editor because the 15 minute appointment went almost an hour and raised ideas of other potential books. Wow!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      True, Rich. Once you have the key points established, you can adapt the amount of additional detail you can add commensurate with your time allotment.

      Congratulations on your fruitful first conference. It doesn’t get much better than that kind of experience.

  • Thanks so much–this information is invaluable. And you’ll be proud to hear that I actually know what a “one sheet” is. Now I just have to figure out how to make a great one!

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