Blogger: Mary Keeley
Pitch appointments can be stomach-churning, nerve-wracking moments of angst and brain freeze, which seem to last forever in too little time. It’s understandable when you view them as do-or-die verdicts on your career as a writer. Let’s observe a pitch appointment through an agent’s lens. Hopefully, it will minimize your apprehension that your whole career is in the balance.
But first, I’ll set the scene for a pitch appointment. I witness authors at every conference I’m at, and it’s pretty easy to spot writers who already have had an appointment and came away with regrets on your performance or lackluster interest in your book.
If your debut novel isn’t completed, it may be more worthwhile for you to schedule appointments with editors to get advice on the marketability of your book. It’s best to wait until your novel is finished and polished before scheduling an agent appointment. Nonfiction authors may be tempted to pitch your book as soon as you have the chapter descriptions and first three chapters completed. However, if your platform is weak, you won’t serve yourself well in terms of getting an agent’s interest until you grow it further.
The point is to be prepared.
Believe it or not, agents I know in the industry try hard to put authors at ease so you can give it your best shot. With this perspective in mind, peek into a typical agent’s inner thoughts during a pitch appointment with an author.
“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, relaxed smile, and confidant. My first impression is that she would be enjoyable to work with. Good start.
If you are an unpublished author, the agent will likely ask something like this: “When did you decide you want to be an author, and how have you been learning your craft?”
Note: She has invested time to learn craft and the industry and belongs to a critique group. She goes on to list books on craft she has read and industry blogs she follows. I see enthusiasm in her eyes. So far, so good.
“Describe your audience and what you are doing to connect with these readers.”
She is ready with a clear description. Next, she details how she connects with them via social media networks in which they are most active, newsletter, speaking events, and by hanging out where they hang out. She gives examples of how they connect with her and what she writes. Looking better yet.
“Tell me about your book and how you came to write it.”
I note her passion and excitement as she begins with her elevator pitch. The book sounds marketable. I’m interested in hearing more as 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 sticks to the main plot and the main characters’ struggles and motivations (or developing the main theme for nonfiction) as the book progresses. Obviously, she has spent plenty of time practicing. I’m impressed.
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 respects her time limit, stands, and shakes my hand. I write on my notes: “Promising!”
Pitch complete and ended on time.
If your previous pitch meetings haven’t gone so well, this little peek will help you to know where to improve for next time. Like I said, agents are rooting for you because we love authors and we’re hoping to find a gem.
How does this little glimpse help you to know how you need to ready mentally and emotionally for your pitch meetings? What do you need to work on to be fully prepared for your next 15-minute meeting with an agent? What made your best agent meeting a good one?
Here is a peek into what the agent is thinking during your pitch appointment at a conference? Click to Tweet.
Here is what gets an agent’s attention during your pitch at a conference. Click to Tweet.
My 4th-grade grandson is an aspiring author. Filling the time while waiting for our food to arrive in a restaurant, I asked him to summarize his work in progress in a couple sentences. He did well: “Humans invade earth. The original inhabitants hide while they decide how to fight back.” Then I explained how to pitch your book. He made a sincere effort, and then declared, “This is hard!”
*He was pitching to a loving grandma and an indulgent uncle. We’re his cheer squad. A real agent is so much harder.
*Thank you, Mary, for making it feel almost as easy as pitching to Grandma.
Shirlee, one of my boys aspires to write as well. When opportunity allows, I try to teach him certain aspects of writing too. It’s so fun to see them work to try new things, isn’t it?
Fun story, Shirlee. Your grandson has a good start and a great mentor.
I think it helps to check what the agent is looking to acquire. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time by pitching an agent looking for sci-fi instead of romance.
I appreciate your approach of easing an author into pitching her story.
Jackie, choosing the right agents to pitch to is an important part of being prepared. Thanks for mentioning this.
I pitched to an editor and to an agent last weekend. They were completely different meetings! The agent did give me good advice though to include in my pitch how I am growing my platform. But then the editor wanted to know titles of my top blog posts and how readers respond when a post resonates with them. She was more concerned with relationship and engagement than actual numbers.
*I found the most frustrating part to be not knowing if I’ll hear from them. A “no” or a “not yet” would be easier than silence, but I completely understand that they are very busy.
Wow, Becky…if someone asked me for the titles of my top blog posts I would have to honestly say that I have no idea.
I have my top posts listed on my blog … so I see them constantly, but if someone asked me, I’d probably get the titles all jumbled. 🙂 Let me pitch my posts … 🙂 I’d be more able to tell you what they are about … oh goodness.
Shelli, you’re a step ahead of me. I know I have some really high-end readership/engagement posts, but I can’t remember what they were about. As a ZenDude I don’t keep much of a sense of personal history (or future), and in this case I seem to be tripping over my satori and landing on my zazen.
I just happened to know because of my top posts sitting on my side bar, so they were fresh in my mind. And I had just written a post people loved. I consider myself lucky that I didn’t flop that question!
Becky, though I’ve not had an editor or agent ask about my top blog posts, I’ve heard from a few in the publishing industry that relationship and engagement are strong indicators of sales potential (for lack of a clearer way to explain it). Earlier this year, a publicist told our local ACFW group that engagement is what they are looking for, even more than numbers.
*Mary, I’d love your take on that idea. 🙂
Jeanne, I am happy to report that editors have begun to realize that huge social media numbers can be purchased or accumulated for the sole purpose of increasing numbers without genuine engagement. Bottom line: publishers have found that social media numbers alone do not equate to parallel sales numbers. These days agents and editors are far more interested in actual engagement data, which if more equitable for authors.
Yes! I was so pleased that she asked those questions because I feel like the answers tell so much about my platform and relationship with readers. I felt like she really got to know me, whereas numbers don’t set me apart from anyone else with my same platform size.
True, Becky. Agent and editor appointments often focus differently in a pitch meeting, depending on if the author is new or published and already agented or not.
I understand your frustration about not hearing from agents. Believe me, it’s frustrating for us too. Much as we would love to respond and be relational and encouraging to every author who submits to us, it simply isn’t possible. We wouldn’t be able to care for the clients we already have. It’s a fact of life in publishing. View it as an opportunity to further develop your thick author skin, which every author needs throughout the journey of their career. I hope this helps a little.
Absolutely. Writer friends and I were discussing it this weekend, that it’s frustrating for all of us, but there really isn’t a better way of doing it. Just like I wish I had more than 15 minutes to pitch, but there’s just no way that makes a few days away worth it for an agent or editor. None of it is ideal, but it’s the best way for now.
Thank you, Mary, for your helpful advice. I felt like I was sitting across the table as you shared these pitch appointment tips. I’m marking this post for future reference.
I’m glad you found it helpful, Lara. Best wishes for your future pitch appointments.
I haven’t had a pitch appointment, but you’ve really clarified the process beforehand, Mary. Thank you.
* I’d fail badly at this. from the very first. “When did you decide to be an author?” The truth is that I have no idea.
* As to who my audience is, I was helped a lot in realizing that my definition had been faulty by Janet’s and Rachelle’s posts this week, on endorsements and comps respectively.
* I had used the stock ‘Christians, primarily women, in the 35-70 age group’. But while this is true in some specifics, it’s woefully incomplete, and fundamentally inaccurate. So here’s the definitive version, and if anyone could tell me how to connect to these people, much less explain it to an agent without sounding like a wannabe New Age guru…I’m all ears.
* I write for an audience of people like me, who follow few genres but look for authors with a worldview that gives them hope, and helps to repair the damage to their souls. Some are Christian, some are Buddhist, some sing to their sacred crystals. Age ranges from teens to 80s. What they have in common is that they are looking for something they have lost, and without which life’s journey is coldly meaningless.
Andrew, your audience description works for a general market publisher, and comprises a significant population. But it’s a little too general. It would help if you could add a descriptive word specific to the type of damage that is shared among those groups.
Sure, Mary. What this audience has lost is the innocence of transcendent experience.
* Most had, at some time, and experience of the uncanny, or supernatural, or literally transcendent. This shaped their faith that a life without faith was in itself a contradiction.
* That has been leached away by cynicism, by materialism, and by the explicit atheism that is such a large part of the visual and internet media.
* These readers have lost their moral innocence, and they want to go back, and go home.
* The descriptive word for the damage? “Gangrene of the heart”. Well, that’s four words.
Kristen Joy Wilks
What was most helpful to me was deciding to pitch something, every single year when I went to our local writer’s conference. Was I heartbroken at the hearing “no” and “if only you’d age up your protagonist” and “I love your voice but don’t think I can sell this”, yes. Was it really hard to get proposal requests year after year and have the answer still be one of these 4 months after the conference. Yep. But this made me practice. Every year I prepped to pitch, changed my materials, revised and edited. Determine to improve each time you pitch. I think that truly helps. I’ve been pitching every year for 8 years now and I get better at it every time, still feel like I’m going to throw up, but it is good practice, even when you’ve already sold something.
Thank you for your comment, Kristen. You deftly described reality for new authors and went on to give us an example of a winning author attitude. Your responsive determination may be the most important attribute toward reaching you goal. I wish you every success.
Y’all know I love Beatrix Potter … loved the movie Ms. Potter … it shows her going to the editor and giving her pitch … and one disapproved, one accepted …. I love the story. I love this YouTube video (hope it attaches properly) … https://youtu.be/aERfvEGC3ZI
On a practical level, there are some things I’ve noticed during interviews that are probably best avoided:
1) Repeating the interviewer’s question back. “So, when did you decide to be an author?”…”When did I decide to be an author…hmm, let’s see…”
2) That segues into conversational placeholders like “hmm…let’s see…” and “honestly” and “That’s a good question”. They don’t do anything except eat up time.
3) A lot of people have been given the dreadful advice that it’s inappropriate to talk with one’s hands during an interview. Watching an interviewee struggle with this conversational conceit is like watching a bound captive with cramping muscles. Painful. Just talk like who you are.
Good advice, Andrew.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Makes a deer in the headlights face.
Since it appears I won’t be going to ACFW this year, I can exhale all the pent up pitch angst.
Of course if someone has a few grand laying around in a pile next to their Ferrari keys? Call me. By 5pm CST. Thaaaanks
Also, my brain is fried from driving 3 hours each day, for 4 days straight, to bring #4 kid to goalie camp.
How fried? I typed “brian” and “friend” 3 times each.
*what made my best agent meeting a good one?
Well, I think I know the answer to that.
And having been on the outside of the “agented writer” door, and looking in at those writers who had agents and may have occasionally blathered on about them in a somewhat “I’m all good” manner? I try not to, as it’s not easy to read when one is waiting.
That being said? My BEST agent meeting was at ACFW 2013, Sunday morning, over an Earl Grey and some discussion about my work.
And then OUT Of The BLUE, Thursday’s Books and Such blogger offered me (ME!!!?? the flaming newb!!) representation.
Always bring Kleenex to pitch meetings!! Even the ones you don’t realize are actually serious cry fests.
Jennifer, I remember that day with a smile and a chuckle at your astonished expression. Your story gives hope for many writers who prepare, communicate with passion, and yes, bring tissues.
Great post, Mary. I always enjoy the “from the agent’s perspective” posts.
*One thing that I’ve read is that it’s good to engage in a little conversation before diving into your pitch. Knowing a little about the agent and engaging them on that topic may be helpful. I’ve found this gives me a minute to collect myself before diving in. 🙂
*One of my best agent appointments was one that could have felt intimidating. This agent made me feel comfortable. They also asked questions about my story, which gave me an opportunity to share aspects of it that you don’t include on a one sheet, if that makes sense. The questions I was asked made me think about some of the deeper aspects of my book, and it felt good to be able to answer said questions. 🙂 Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but that appointment encouraged me, even if the questions were not the ones I expected from an agent. 🙂
*I have a question for you, Mary. For editor appointments, is okay to ask questions rather than pitch a story? Or is it better to only schedule an editor appointment if I have something to pitch?
Publishers pay the expenses for their editors to attend conferences to meet in-person with agents and take appointments with authors. If the author is agented and published, or not, an appointment with an editor can be used to pitch a new project. If the author is not agented or published, the best use of a meeting with an editor may be to get feedback on the marketability and quality of the writing, based on the synopsis and first page or two of the manuscript. Most editors accept submissions from agents only.
Mary, a practical question…dress code for a conference pitch?
* Important for me, because I can really only wear cargo shorts due to burn and shrapnel damage to my legs. Long pants are painful, and business-casual slacks excruciating.
* Would this be a deal-killer for many agents? It seems idiotic to explain why I showed up looking like a surf bum, and the alternative of wearing a hakama (with a bokken tucked into the obi) would lead the agent to expect a pitch of a literary reboot of ‘Seven Samurai’.
Depends on the conference. The one I went to this weekend was relatively causal, but certainly not jeans. I think because your wardrobe is reflective of your needs and not your lack of regard for etiquette, it wouldn’t be a big issue. Curious to see what Mary says.
Andrew, I can only speak for myself in response to your question. I would appreciate hearing a one-sentence comment about why you are wearing shorts. It would lend quick reflection into your background and who you are as a person and an author. If you are wearing a business-casual shirt, you communicate that you are savvy to the business environment within your limitations.
Thanks, Mary. That makes sense.
Before I had my meetings, I memorized my pitch, picked out my outfits and had paper and pen ready to take notes. Even after preparation, I bumbled my way through the meetings. It’s the nature of the nervous. Try to hard to prepare for every angle and limit the rambling.
*I echo Becky’s sentiments that some meetings follow their own course. Just gotta roll with the tide.
*My best meeting came as an accident, just a random interaction outside of an appointment. It gave me a different perspective of the agents and editors as a whole. Since then, I respect their private time away from appointments. I refuse to be a “bathroom pitch” story.
Sarah, I’ve seen this in authors. The unplanned interactions happen naturally, before nerves build in anticipation of their moment in a structured meeting. But I appreciate your respect of agents’ and editors’ time outside of pitch appointments. That is when they usually are rushing to and from meetings with each other.
Thank you for sharing! I’m delighted to know that I’ve already nailed some of the necessary things. Score. One question: How large does our social media platform have to be? I would hope that as long as we are striving to build our platform, it would be sufficient.