Ditch the Pitch

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Many of you are preparing for upcoming writer’s conferences. Are you getting stressed about how to pitch your book to editors and agents? I’m going to suggest you ditch the pitch. Read on. . .

More writers attend pitching workshops than ever before.  They’re honing their hooks and polishing their pitches. We’re told that we need to be able to communicate our book to an agent in the time it takes to get from the first floor to the tenth floor in an elevator. It’s sometimes even called the “elevator pitch” though it’s more commonly delivered at a conference appointment with an agent.dreamstime_xs_19770252

So do you suffer from pitching performance anxiety? Relax. Ditch the pitch. All is not lost if you can’t wow the agent in 150 words or less. This pitch frenzy is born of a publishing myth– that the best way to hook an agent is to pitch him. It’s time to debunk that myth.

I’m not saying it’s not important to be able to give a great summary of your book. It is. I’m saying that the traditional fifteen minute pitching sessions at conferences and the quick one-on-ones in elevators and hallways are highly overrated. So much pitch-tutoring has taken place in writing groups and at conferences that we hear nothing but stunning pitches these days– one after another. When every writer has perfect pitch, how does that help the agent? There’s no doubt writers can pitch. The harder question is: Can they write? That can’t be answered with a pitch.

The obvious thing for an agent would be to request a partial from every writer who presents an interesting project. Unfortunately, it’s simply not feasible. I know I couldn’t possibly fit that many potential proposals into my already full workload. So we try to sift through the possibilities in other ways– taking a cursory look at writing or finding out more about the writer. For most of us, it’s an exercise in futility. An agent can’t possibly find out enough in fifteen minutes to proceed with any confidence.

It’s a clumsy process. It’s frustrating for those of us who try not to request manuscripts unless we’re interested. What if we miss that perfect writer because we have to make snap judgments? On the other hand, we don’t want to unfairly raise hopes while loading our inboxes with proposals we never should have requested.  Nope, the Pitch-an-Agent session at conferences is not the best vehicle for finding each other.

So if pitching doesn’t work, what is the best way to find an agent?

  1. Write a Stunning Book—this almost goes without saying. If your book is anything less than remarkable, don’t expend the energy yet to connect with an agent. Put that time into the craft of writing. When the manuscript is ready, the hard part becomes how to get said manuscript in front of Perfect Agent. With queries up more than 100 – 200% over last year, every agency is drowning in submissions. We know there may be treasures among the queries but there is no way to know without asking to see more. And the simple truth is, there is no time to read any more partials. Agents and writers alike are frustrated by the impossibility of it all.
  2. Meet the Agent in Person— a perfect way to get out of the gruesome realities of the slush pile is to meet the agent at an event or at a writer’s conference. Reality: With most conferences scheduling 15-minute agent appointments back-to-back, this is not the best way to meet the agent. By the fifth or sixth appointment, it all becomes a blur. For me, I prefer meetings that happen in the lobby, at mealtimes and in groups—where I’m able to connect in a casual way with a writer and begin to see them in context. Will it happen the first time we meet? Probably not.
  3. Meet the Agent Repeatedly—I find that I take note of writers who interest me. If I eat with them once or twice and meet them in the lobby or watch them onstage at a conference, I start paying attention. I may ask other writers about them. When I’ve met the writer at a couple of conferences and still like what I see I may ask to see a manuscript. It is the repeated contact that seems to work for me. I know I’m going to work with a client for a long, long time. I don’t want to jump into something too early.
  4. Become Memorable—In an over-saturated market, the key is for a writer to become memorable to their target agent. This needs to be done in a winsome, often humorous way. The I-have-chocolate-and-I’m-not-afraid-to-use-it approach. Or by the sheer brilliance of the writing. At conferences, people talk about the writing they’ve seen.
  5. Connect with the Agent Online—I admire several writers who do this with great finesse. I noticed when our agency began blogging that there were several writers who left regular comments. Brilliant. Don’t you think we take note of those writers who are doing the hard work to find out who we are and what we’re thinking? I’m getting to know them long before they send me work.
  6. Connect with Friends/ Clients of the Agent—one of the best ways to come to an agent is with the recommendation of one of his clients. Of course, this is no small thing to ask of your fellow writer. My clients will not recommend a writer to me unless they’ve read that writer’s work, feel I would be a good match for that writer and feel like that writer would be a good fit for the Books & Such family.
  7. Come with a Contract in Hand—You often hear that a writer cannot sell a manuscript without an agent. That’s not true. There are several wonderful houses that welcome submissions directly from writers. And many writers sell their first manuscript at a writing conference. If you’ve been offered a contract that might be a perfect time to call your target agent to see if he’ll represent you. It won’t necessarily be an automatic yes, however. The agent still has to believe in you, love your writing and be willing to sign on for your whole career. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “Why would I need an agent now when I’ve already sold the book?” Selling a book is just the beginning. An agent is going to go to work on the contract, probably getting you a better offer and safeguarding you against all kinds of possibilities. Then the agent will begin to plot out your career with you—a far more complex task.

I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of pitch sessions? What makes you crazy about this process? what works for you?

50 Responses

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  1. Gus says:

    I’m curious… Do you still invest your time in pitch sessions at all, or allow more time for yourself to have natural run-ins with writers? Based on your insights, I feel compelled to not worry about pitch sessions altogether and focus on being outgoing and personable when I attend a conference.

  2. Intriguing post, Wendy. Loved reading this, and I think you have set a lot of worried hearts at ease. Bravo!
    * I’m not likely to be pitching at a conference any time soon. Stopped breathing on Saturday night (again!). Rather not do that in public.
    * Still, if by God’s grace I make it to one, you may remember me as the chap who just wants to shake your hand and say, “Thanks.”

  3. Charles Wesley’s words floated through my head as I read your words, Wendy:
    “Tis mercy all, immense and free;
    For, O my God, it found out me.”
    *Tis mercy and mystery! I do my part, humbly and obediently, and trust that “in the fullness of time” God will do his. Someday, if God wills, the right agent and publisher will “found out me.”

  4. When I went to my very first writer’s conference, way back in 2004, it felt like my one big chance. I left my first baby with my mother for the very first time (boy was he mad) and got my first professional critique as well as attended a professional conference for the first time. I didn’t know anyone and went for the classes and knowledge and chance to show my writing to another writer who had more experience. I got to one conference every year and after doing this awhile, have realized that a conference might be your big break, but most likely the value is accumulative and happens over time. Good sessions, practice pitching, meeting agents and editors again as sometimes they return to a conference, making writer friends, hearing industry news, meeting magazine editors. The process is slow, but good. I think this is what you are saying about pitching. Over time, you get to know writers. Just as it takes us time to learn and grow in our writing.

  5. Wendy, this post is so helpful. It’s yet another reminder about the importance of relationship in this business.Your points are definitely reassuring.
    *I’ve heard Jim Rubart talk about finding ways to stand out during pitch appointments. He calls it Shocking Broca. It’s basically doing something that makes you memorable to those you’re pitching to. I am still trying to be creative enough to stand out in some way. 🙂
    *Relationships, though. That is easier. Showing up to talk with someone in the lobby is something I can do. Thanks for this, Wendy!

    • I think I’d just make a shocking fool of myself, Jeanne. Lol. No … your sweet personality, just knowing you … your kindness … that’s enough to make me remember you forever. 🙂

    • YES!!! I’m SO glad you brought up Shocking Broca! I went to the MBT pitch seminar in 2013 and brought big chocolate bars to each 15 minute meeting. I remember shaking like a leaf when the very sweet and nice Sandra Bishop said “You know there’s a giant chocolate bar taped to your business card, right?”
      “Yup.”
      She smiled and slid that giant Dairy Milk into her briefcase. The meeting went very well.
      And yet…I think she’s still crushed that I got away. 😉

      • Jennifer, I’m sure Sandra Bishop was disappointed to lose you. 🙂 But I’m guessing she was grateful for the chocolate. 😉 I may have heard Jim’s talk that same year. I don’t remember. It’s such an easy concept…just a bit tricky for some of us to carry out. Afterall, we don’t all have access to Canadian chocolate like you do. 😉

    • Ooooh, I think I might have been there the first time Jim Rubart gave that talk. He’s a local writer and he’d just published his first book. It might have been 2009. Great advice. I think your sweet helpfulness is memorable. I think that my lack of spelling expertise is memorable (as I backspace to respell memorable) but thank goodness for spellcheck and my husband as they help me out in that area. I’ll have to pick something else as typos are kinda frowned upon in this industry.

  6. Wendy, when I attended my very first writing conference, I’ll admit I didn’t have my “elevator pitch” ready. The first morning I was there, an editor and I met at the toaster set at the back of the room, and wouldn’t you know it? He asked, “Tell me about your book.” Fortunately, he understood I was a newbie…and besides which, his house wasn’t anywhere near right for my idea.
    You make a good point. There are lots of other things writers need to work on. Pitching isn’t the be-all and end-all. (Matter of fact, I’d given up writing when I got my current agent…but that’s another story).

  7. I love the pitch sessons … time with the agent. It’s glorious time-in-person with someone I’ve communicated with for a while on-line … ones you’ve come to love. That 15 minutes goes by way too fast. When the time lady comes … you’re like: what? But that “pitch” makes me feel like a phoney. I really wanted to tear my paper I’d written in on … it does nothing but make me turn red in the face and make me feel like a total loser. I love how you greeted me with a hug and told me to just drop the rehearsed pitch and share about my book. I didn’t have to feel perfect, or have a perfect performance. You know? More than anything, I didn’t walk away feeling like a failure. I was encouraged. Thank you.

    • I remember hearing your pitch and thinking, “Wow, she’s so good!!!” and then ever so nicely suggesting you speak a weeeeeee bit faster.
      You are a very sweet and genuine person, and nowhere near a loser or failure!!!!!

  8. This is such invaluable information. Thank you! I’ve not yet experienced a pitch session, but I can imagine they wouldn’t be terribly comfortable – for author or agent.
    *My question is…how do you go about asking an author friend to recommend you to their agent? I have several author friends whose work I greatly respect and feel like their agent might be a good fit for me, based on what I’ve seen them do for my friends (and by friends I mean people I’ve met online and chat with but have never met face to face, mostly). Some of you more experienced authors out there on this page: have you had friends and online “friends” ask you this? How did it feel?

  9. Sarah Sundin says:

    Love this!! Maybe because I stink at pitches 🙂

    This also underscores why I love Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference – sharing meals with editors and agents is far more conducive to relationship building than the pitch session. One year at lunch, a rather shy author gave her short pitch. The editor wasn’t interested, but others at the table were. We asked her questions, and she opened up and shared her heart for the story. The editor ended up requesting that novel – and publishing it!

    • <3 This is so encouraging, Sarah! I really hope to make it there one day!

    • Love this, Sarah.

    • Wow, Sarah. What a great story! I haven’t been to Mt Hermon yet. I hope to get to that conference one year. I always hear such marvelous things about it!

    • Jerusha Agen says:

      That is so encouraging, Sarah! Thanks for sharing that. I’ve been looking at the Mount Hermon website today and was surprised to see how different the conference’s structure is from the ACFW conference, which I’m more familiar with. ACFW used to have the tables hosted by specific editors or agents, and I really loved that opportunity to meet them in a less pressured setting. Sounds like the encouragement of other writers really paid off for this writer!

      • Janet Ann Collins says:

        Jerusha, Agents, Publishers, and all the other speakers do have tables at Mount Hermon during lunch and dinner, but they’re allowed just to sit with each other at breakfast.

    • What a great story, Sarah! It reminded me of so many similar wonderful meals at the Mount Hermon conference with amazing and stimulating conversations. It’s always a joy to witness those God-ordained times. Every year I have made such wonderful connections and friends there–like you! Now it’s reminiscent of a family reunion and always a highlight of my year. I always try to look out for first-timers, remembering how nervous I was my very first time, and I love offering encouragement and making new friends. That conference has opened many doors for me, including the joy of being on faculty some years. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

  10. Pitch sessions scare the freckles off of me. And I have several million to deal with.
    I had 3 pitch sessions at ACFW 2015 that were rather memorable. One involved crying, and lots of encouragement. One involved me silently telling myself, as I spoke, that the mere subject totally scared the editor and to just wind this thing up, and one was pleasant but unremarkable.
    I think I have #4 down, no matter where I go. NO idea why, but I’m sure it’s because I always say genteel, inspirational, and highly intelligent things to people, usually in a hushed whisper.
    One on one seems/seemed to work best for me, and longer than 15 minutes.
    And yes, as strange as it may seem, I still am in awe that I have the agent I have. 3 years and counting, and I still pinch myself. I thank the Lord every single day that He has brought me to this table.

  11. Carol Ashby says:

    Be memorable? That brings all sorts of outlandish things to my mind of a sartorial nature – hats, scarves, flamboyant colors. As a scientist among more artsy folk, I was dressed more for an engineering conference than a gathering of artistic creatives. I wore what was already in my closet, and my engineer’s “uniform” stood out.

    *I detect an inclination to extort chocolate from those who pitch to you, Wendy, but what should a person do if the agent is allergic to chocolate or loves dark but hates milk? I use to offer the visitors to my office their choice of milk or dark chocolate kisses, and several of the ones who chose dark told me they heartily disliked milk.

    • I had an intro to education class in college that had 500 students in it. At the end of the first class, she had us all walk by a video camera and say our first names. The next day, as we each walked in, she greeted every single one of us by first name! The great thing was, she called out once everyone was seated, “Where’s Sarah? I need to thank Sarah because she said, ‘My name is Sarah, and I like wheat bread.'” I LOVED that because she gave the information that was needed, but just a little extra teaser to make her totally stand out from the rest. I always try to think, “what’s my ‘wheat bread'” going to be. LOL

      • Carol Ashby says:

        That is truly mind-boggling, Jennifer. When I TA’d freshman chemistry in grad school, I only had 70 students, I tried to learn all their names in the first week so at least someone on the 35K-student campus would call the kids straight out of high school by name. That took some paying attention to where each sat. I can’t imagine having 500 straight in one day with a mere walk-by, even the ones who didn’t eat wheat bread.

      • Oooh, my husband is like this! He’s a camp director and I am always amazed at how many camper and camp counselor names he can remember, even years later. “Weren’t you a camper when you were ten?” It is amazing.

      • Thank you for sharing your “I’m Sarah and I love wheat bread” story. I sometimes fade into the wallpaper at conferences. Your approach will help me remember how I’m like to other people and how I’m unique. “I’m Sharon and I love bright colors and novels that include an entire family.

  12. Rick Barry says:

    I believe you’ve just lifted enormous pressure from many writers who have convinced themselves their entire future hinges on 15 minutes of dazzling an agent. Good work!

    Like so many others, I’ve attended conferences and refined my pitches and received requests for proposals. But I gained my agent when I wasn’t even trying. Several of us were simply chatting while waiting for the dining room doors to open. In the middle of just being myself and talking, an agent said, “I didn’t know you have a suspense manuscript. Send that to me.” She soon offered representation. That manuscript became my third published novel.

  13. Jerusha Agen says:

    I love your take on pitches, Wendy! What a relief it would be to not have to worry about those and the nerves that go along with trying to get them “just right.” The idea of building a relationship with an agent before representation is ideal for both parties. I appreciate your practical tips on how to go about doing that! I’m comforted by the knowledge that, ultimately, God will bring together the client and agent that He wishes, at the proper time. Seeing how He works to bring about those matches and other positive career developments without, or even despite, our help is amazing. Thank you for this encouragement today!

  14. I don’t write the sort of things Books and Such agents represent, but I feel like some of you are personal friends. However I hate to take up your time at writers’ conferences when so many others are trying to talk with you about their work. Is it selfish of me to sit at your table or try to chat with you at conferences?

  15. Angie says:

    Thanks for the tips!! Do you also recommend have a full manuscript done before even talking to an agent?

  16. Ginny Smith says:

    Ahhhhh… That was the sound of pressure releasing.

    It takes a LOT of effort to deliver one of those elevator pitches in a relaxed, conversational tone. Most people can’t pull it off, so they come out flat and uncomfortable. The kind agent or editor will smile and allow the awkward pitch to run its course, and then deftly question the writer to draw out the real passion of the book. The less kind ones lift their noses and say, “Not interested,” leaving the pitcher even more uncomfortable and less willing to try again.

    I’ve always thought the often wooden-sounding pitches were largely useless. An agent-writer partnership goes so far beyond one book, even a brilliant one. Thanks for letting us off the hook!

  17. Cindy Huff says:

    Great post. I see so much value in this. Over the years I have done these things organically which inevitably resulted in a contract and an agent. Patience is the key. Don’t give up and don’t make it all about yourself. Find ways to help other authors on their journey and you might find yourself making great connections. Be a friend for friendships sake. An agent I often spoke with at conferences because I appreciated his wisdom never took me on as a client. He retired and his predecessor did.

  18. Thanks for confirming a few things I already seem to be doing right, and giving great direction for several things I can improve, Wendy! 🙂

  19. Amy Ballard says:

    Awesome post, Wendy. I appreciate your affirming, yet honest approach. May God bless your efforts in this new year!

  20. Beth Aldrich says:

    EXCELLENT ideas as I prepare for my first writer’s conference in a couple of weeks. Thank you!

  21. Congrats on this great blog and award, Wendy!

  22. Michael Ireland says:

    Dear Wendy, your blog post here is the reason I chose to connect with you next week at the University of Northwestern St.Paul Writer’s Conference. I’m looking forward to meeting you in person and hoping to make an (appropriate) first impression! The name’s Ireland, but the accent is English…Ireland’s the name, and writing is my game. Corny, but memorable? Sure hope so! See you at 2 p.m., Saturday, July 15. Best, Michael.