Blogger: Rachelle Gardner
Recently I was asked whether a “newbie” unpublished author should pitch during their one-on-one appointments at a writers’ conference, or simply use the time to get to know an agent/editor and learn more about the process.
In the past I’ve advised newer writers that it’s okay to spend the one-on-one time telling about their project, and asking for feedback about story or marketability, rather than simply trying to sell it. In other words, use the meeting to learn more about how your own writing fits (or doesn’t fit) into the larger publishing arena. As an in-house editor, I never minded when writers used my appointment time to pick my brain and gather good feedback about their project. And of course, if it interested me enough, I asked them to send it to me.
But there are other opinions out there.
I was with several New York agents at a recent conference, all mainstream (not CBA) agents, and their stance was firm:
“Do NOT take up my valuable appointment time if you don’t have something to pitch me that’s ready to sell. I am spending my time and money to be at this conference, I’m here to find new clients, and those one-on-one meetings are my only chance. Use other times—panel discussions, mealtimes—to get your questions answered. The appointments are for pitching only.”
That had never been my stance. And yet… as someone who really does spend my own money to go to a conference, and my own time away from my family since it’s usually on a weekend… I can see the point. If I don’t find a solid business prospect at a conference, then I have to question my decision to be there (unless I’m primarily there to support my clients who are present, which is sometimes the case).
So now I have to tell you, I’m not sure how to answer the question. There are bound to be editors and agents who don’t mind if you use the time to get more general feedback about your project. There are also going to be those who prefer to take appointments only with people who have something to pitch.
Here is the safe answer:
Editors: It’s probably okay to make an appointment with them even if you’re not quite ready to sell your project. You could still pitch it and get their feedback, and learn something about your market, your genre or your idea.
Agents: Probably safer to make an appointment only if you are ready for agent representation.
This is when you have a completed, polished manuscript (fiction), or a completed, polished book proposal and 3 sample chapters (nonfiction).
And about those incomplete novels: Be aware that an agent or editor can’t evaluate it until it’s complete. The best you can hope for is someone will say, “Send it to me when it’s finished.”
Someone else asked me about pitching at meals, saying they’d heard that you should only do it if the tables are each hosted by a faculty member. This is good advice. But in all cases at conferences (as in life) just try to use your best judgment. If an opportunity presents itself where it seems an agent or editor would be receptive to your pitch, go for it. Look around you, gauge the situation, figure out if you will have the time and the attention of the agent/editor, and make your decision.
And hey, don’t be so hard on yourself if somebody tells you that you “did it wrong” or “broke a rule.” If you are polite, smiling, and kind (never pushy or overbearing), that goes a long way toward smoothing over any perceived protocol breaches.
Sorry if all of this is confusing, but conflicting advice is everywhere and there is not always a single right answer to questions!
What are your comments or questions about those one-on-one meetings at conferences? Do you do them? Do you like them? What kind of results have you gotten?
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You made me smile, Rachelle. I “pitched” at my first writer’s conference, newbie that I was. I pretty much stood still, fumbling with with something that didn’t even look like a ball. The agents/editors were all gracious. I left the conference with my self-esteem and hope intact.
Well, there’s a first time for everything, and I’ve never pitched a book. I see myself getting tongue-tied–like happens when I’m uncomfortable and feeling awkward. I would rather learn from the agent than trip all over myself trying to say it right ( yes, I know. practice it until you’re ready) Yet, the weird thing is, I can picture myself being very comfortable talking about my passion with, say, Charlie Rose. There, I wouldn’t have to ‘communicate’ the awesomeness of my book, instead I would be telling what excites me, and speaks to me, why the subject matters, and why I think it’s beautiful. Crazy, huh? It was interesting to read this, makes sense. The agents time and purpose must be respected and valued.
I’m heading to a conference this summer to pitch for the first time (proposal and chapters are almost done, hooray!). I get to schedule my appointments next week. How do I decide whether to see agents and/or editors and then how do I decide which ones? I’m hoping there will be agents that I already have on my list to query.
Hi Becky, it can be difficult to choose those agents & editors when you don’t know much about them. Usually the conference website lists some information about what each of them are looking for; and of course you can visit their websites. It’s not an exact science but hopefully you’ll make some good connections anyway!
It strikes me as odd that agents go to conferences to get new clients. (I always thought they were there on the payroll of the conference host)
I hear all the time about agents getting 10,000 queries a year and only taking on 1 or 2 new clients per year. With those kind of odds, the chance of scheduling 15 or 20 pitch sessions (even with more serious writers who ponied up to attend the conference) seems like really long odds.
Are the queries really that bad? Are the conference pitches really that good?
Sheila, it’s just like any other area of life – there’s no substitute for a face to face meeting with someone. Sometimes the project is just right, and the chemistry is just right, and both author and agent can bypass the query process. It’s great when that happens.
I think I’d have trouble in a face-to-face pitch; I get by on about two words per hour in most social settings, and those few words can come across in a kind of forceful way. Might need to attend charm school first. (I’ve been told that in conversational give-and-take all I need to set the proper ambience is a bright light to shine in the face of the person whom I’m interrog…uh, with whom I’m chatting.)
\* But perhaps fortunately, the conference pitch won’t happen for me. I’ll take my chances with queries, and trust in God.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Well, I did hear you string maybe 5 or 6 words together once.
(And this is the part where I inform you that the first sentence was intended to be wry and somewhat humorous.)
I have done pitches at conferences. My first time, I warned the editor that she was my first-ever pitch. I think this set the tone for the rest of our meeting. She looked at my work and gave me some feedback, which was helpful.
*If I know that an agent is open to talking about things other than my project, I’ll ask other questions. One time, I asked an agent who wasn’t acquiring how to make my pitch stronger. She was very helpful in that.
*I’ve had requests to send a proposal or manuscript, which is always encouraging. And I’ve had times where nothing was requested. 🙂 It’s all a learning process. Pitching opportunities help me grow in confidence about my story and confidence in sharing it with professionals.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
In 2013, you and Beth Vogt persuaded me to take the MBT Pitch class and I was astounded at how much they taught in one morning, and how valuable all the knowledge was!!! , etc.
That class totally changed my mindset on pitching and how to read the room and adapt
I love when we can help each other! And congrats on winning a book pack from Wendy. 😉
Rachelle, this is interesting. I don’t guess I’d ever considered just picking an agent’s brain during a meeting. I pitched to three agents at last year’s ACFW conference. It was a valuable time to learn (as a new author on the scene) and obtain priceless practice. Those one-on-one’s were actually springboards for taking the next step in my commitment to writing for publication. The pitch gave me real incentive to frame the conversations forward.
Great post. I attended a writers conference (my first one) and received a free pitch session, because I signed up early.
Nervous, excited, and without a manuscript to pitch, I opted for the “pick their brain” general advice approach.
I’ll just say that approach was not well-received. The agent, from New York, definitely had the mentality Rachelle describes above. As a business person myself, I understand their rationale, however my recommendation is for them to make clear to conference organizers that they’ll only accept pitch sessions.
Hopefully, that will prevent agents from being placed in the awkward position of educating.
Kristen Joy Wilks
I waited until I was ready to start querying agents to pitch at conferences and yet, the book wasn’t ready. But I had no way of knowing that without pitching. I’d gone through a 2 year class with that book and my instructor said it was ready to send out. The only way to know at that point was to plunge in. I pitched that same story at a conference last week. The book is so much better now…but still…I’m going to go through it one more time before I send out that proposal. Who knows but that what I have learned this year might be just what this old story needs. So, when you think you are ready, pitch! But learning happens continually. Don’t beat yourself up about it, revise your story and pitch again. I think this is how we learn so jump on in.
I just pitched at Colorado Christian Writers Conference for the first time, but I did have completed manuscripts. There was an excellent interview worksheet provided by the conference that helped me prepare. It recommended starting with a 60-90 second introduction to me and my project. I described my peculiar background and the overarching theme of the series I’m working on. I am an extrovert, which helps, but I found the interview after that turned into a comfortable conversation led by the interviewer. The worksheet recommended going to the interview with 2 or 3 questions I’d like to ask, ordered by importance. It also recommended collecting information on the agent/agency or editor/publishing company, including the types of books they work with. Both recommendations were very helpful for being prepared enough to not become too nervous. I completed the relevant parts of the worksheet and reviewed it shortly before the interview.
*I had the good fortune to run into the one agent who was on my schedule in the cafeteria line. After an enjoyable conversation over breakfast, I released my appointment time for someone else. The other two interviews were with editors. Each requested a full manuscript on a different novel, so I’m following up on that now. If that turns out to be more than a polite formality that goes nowhere because I don’t have a big enough platform for them yet, I guess I might have to try to find a good agent.
The information worksheet sounds like a really good idea. I may adopt something of the sort for this year’s WriteAngles Conference.
Another helpful document the conference provided was a one-sheet example. I pulled a resume template from Word and modified it to have the right section titles.
I have handled the Agent meetings at the WriteAngles Conference in central Massachusetts for the past couple of years. The rules for getting a meeting are that you must have either a completed fiction manuscript or a short (1-2 page) non-fiction proposal summary. Authors send their query letters or summaries prior to the meeting and that information is sent to the agent they will meet. The difference between WriteAngles and most other conferences I’m aware of is that the meetings are 10 minutes long. The conversation always starts with the query/proposal but may proceed in whatever direction is acceptable to both the agent and the author. If there was ever a situation in which not all of the meeting slots were filled and an individual wanted a conversation not related to a completed book or proposal, I would ask the agent if they were agreeable to a meeting on those terms. The reason for the restrictions is simple–we have plenty of authors with completed books or proposals and giving meeting times to those who don’t have them would take away a valuable resource from the people who need it most. On the other hand, the agents do have lunch with us and anyone can talk to them during the rest of the conference.
Janet Ann Collins
There’s a big difference between the attitudes of agents and editors at secular and Christian conferences. At Christian ones the agents and editors are much more polite and willing to put up with mistakes by conferees. Do you suppose being Christians actually makes those people kinder? Duh!
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I’ve pitched 5 times at 2 different ACFW conferences.
At no time did any agent laugh, hurl, run away, or pull out the pepper spray and call 911.
As for liking those meetings? Maybe if I could sit back, pop my cowboy boots on the coffee table and tell a good old campfire yarn. But since that behaviour would *perhaps* have my beloved agent tilting her head and asking me to explain why I thought that approach was a good idea, I’ll stick with Plan B which is Well Faked Professional Adult.
Sadly, I always skip to Plan C, which is Nervous Wreck On Helium Sounding Like A Crying Auctioneer.
Janet Ann Collins
I didn’t mean they were that rude! 😉
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Janet, I didn’t mean to refer to your comment. I was simply mentioning my own experiences with my nerves, and how no agent ever got even the slightest bit ruffled with me.
Somehow I doubt you show your nerves as much as you think you do. 🙂 I get really nervous when I pitch too. 🙂
James L. Rubart
If a newbie isn’t ready to pitch, one of the best uses of their free time is to connect with published authors. There are always a good number of authors at conferences, and the majority of them know most of the agents and editors.
So they can give excellent insight and counsel before newbies pitch.
At my first writing conference I connected with Randy Ingermanson and Tricia Goyer. Each were extremely helpful in sharing their knowledge in the early days of my career.
Should I schedule a pitch with an agent that I’ve already queried (but not heard back from)? Would this be a waste of time, or provide a better chance for a conversation?