Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Steinhart Aquarium, San Francisco
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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.
So do you suffer from pitching performance anxiety? Relax. All is not lost if you can’t wow the agent in 150 words or less. This pitch frenzy is born of yet another 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. (And we’re not even talking about the newest adaptation– agent speed-dating.)
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? I recently wrote an article for the Christian Fiction Online Magazine http://christianfictiononlinemagazine.com/biz_agent.html where I addressed this. Let me repeat it here:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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? Also, I’m following several very interesting writers on Twitter. I’m getting to know them long before they send me work.
- 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.
- 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?
Latayne C Scott
Great, useful article, Wendy!
I tried to tweet about it but apparently Twitter is eating our entries this morning.
Latayne C Scott
This was a very helpful post! Thanks, Wendy, for giving us an inside look at how to connect with you and other agents. It is encouraging to know that attending conferences and repeated connections make a difference.
Pitch sessions can be stressful for authors, especially if your appointment is later in the day. We know the agents has already talked to so many people by that time. I try to practice my pitch aloud several times which helps me relax. Then I focus on preparing to talk about other projects, so if the first one doesn’t interest the agent, the other one might. I also try to learn as much as I can about the agent or publisher by looking at their website and talking to their clients before I meet with the agent.
Sharon A Lavy
Thanks for the advice, Wendy. It’s easy to get worked up about the stress of a pitch. I appreciate your reminder that the most important thing a writer can do is write a great book!
Ah – and some of us have just started following some interesting agents on twitter… it may just go both ways!
Wendy, this was so helpful! Thank you for taking the time to teach and invite us to understand what agents go through. It’s such a valuable thing to hear “the other side” of issues. Thanks again! Joyce
You’ve given me so much hope and clarity all at once. It’s really encouraging to know that just putting myself out there actually counts toward the goal. The goal may be daunting, but putting myself out there–that’s something I can do! Thanks for the boost!
Teri D. Smith
Wendy, I have a question. One agent suggested in an appointment, he likes a 2 minute elevator pitch and then some minutes to read the first page or so of the manuscript. Do you like that too or just prefer to visit more?
Do you like to see a full color one pager at a conference?
Thanks for your good tips.
Sounds like the agent/client selection process trends more matchmaker than lottery ~ great news for the pitching impaired.
Thank you Ms. Wendy 🙂
That’s a huge relief. I just got back from my first conference and I found the idea of pitching to be overwhelming. Thankfully, I had a critiquer show my work to an agent and I am hoping that will prove to be a great contact for me. I agree that a good “pitch” doesn’t mean someone can write. I like your allusion to musical abilities with the phrase “perfect pitch.” That made me laugh out loud. Thanks!
Great post! Thank you for all the sage advice. I especially appreciate your encouragement on remembering writers. I’ve received a number of positive responses to my writing from agents and editors, but continue to get the “not the right time; you need a bigger platform first” response. I’ve worried that when the “right time” comes and when my platform is more solid, none of them will remember me. From what you’ve said here, some of them may. 🙂 Thanks.
I’ve never been to a conference, so I have no opinion on pitch sessions. But #2 and 3 were enough to drive me to despair. If you hadn’t thrown in #5 I would be tearing my hair out. There are a lot of writers who, for one reason or another, just can’t go to conferences.
Valuable insight, as usual! Thanks for sharing!
I’ve actually never done a pitch session. Of course, as a children’s writer, the pitch would often be longer than the book.
Agents and editors must get overwhelmed by the number of one-liners thrown at them, and I’ve watched writers in tears (or nauseous) outside their appointment sessions because they’re so stressed out about their pitch. I’m sure a pitch is much better than having a writer rambling on and on and never getting to the point but I, too, prefer to meet over a coffee (thanks for the mocha, Wendy ) or a muffin.
As long as I don’t run the risk of having poppy seeds in my teeth…
For those who are discouraged by the list of the best ways to connect with an agent, just keep in mind that the author-agent connection can occur outside the parameters Wendy wrote about. There always are exceptions, and some agents at Books & Such represent clients they’ve never met. Lots of phone conversations and email exchanges have established close relationships. But all of our agents think about the client as a writer whose career we’re working to build, which is a long-term process. Which means we need to like to work with each writer and vice versa.
Thanks for your thoughts, Wendy. I started attending the Greater Philadelphia Writers Conference and the Lancaster Christian Writers group two years. I got on Twitter and I follow agents read their blog posts. All of the above has taught me loads about what to do and what not to do against the day when my manuscript is ready to submit. But your suggestion that writers be memorable, especially in the I’ve-got-chocolate-and-I’m-not-afraid-to-use-it way makes me uncomfortable. I just get a little icked out when I think of acting so manipulatively (though, really, I’d love to introduce you to my favorite gourmet chocolate. And anyone who gives me such chocolate, I’ll remember!) And chatting in the lobby or around the lunch tables . . . I think I’d feel like just another wannabe writer who, suddenly finding herself with a !!!REAL AGENT!!! nearby, desperately starts casting about in her mind for something to say about herself or her WIP to make either impressive and memorable. Unlikely. The brilliance of the writing? Brilliance is a strong word . . . Possibly, given that I have a strong editorial eye and understand that lots of revision is necessary. But to get an agent to read what I’ve written? I’d have to set a 15 minute appt. and make a great pitch. Well now I’m writing myself into a conundrum . . .
Thanks for your thoughts, Wendy. I started attending conferences and my local writers’ group two years ago. Then I got on Twitter, and I do follow agents and read their blog posts. All of the above has taught me loads about what to do and what not to do against the day when my manuscript is ready to submit. But your suggestion that writers be memorable, especially in the I’ve-got-chocolate-and-I’m-not-afraid-to-use-it way makes me uncomfortable. I just get a little icked out when I think of acting so manipulatively (though, really, I’d love to share with you some of my favorite gourmet chocolate. And anyone who gives me such chocolate, I’ll remember!) And chatting in the lobby or around the lunch tables . . . I think I’d feel like just another wannabe writer who, suddenly finding herself with a !!!REAL AGENT!!!, desperately starts casting about in her mind for something to say about herself or her WIP to make herself impressive and memorable. Unlikely. The brilliance of the writing? Possibly, given that I’ve got a strong editorial eye and I really do understand how much revision is necessary. But to get an agent to read my writing? I’d need to make the traditional 15 minute appt. and make a great pitch . . .
Okay, I’m going to search out the world’s finest gourmet chocolate . . . Do you prefer dark, or milk?
Against the day.
Thank you so much for the advice. I too was getting discouraged in the fact that I can’t attend writing conferences on a regular basis. Now I know that being myself and trying to connect in the ways that are comfortable and available to me might also get my foot in the door.
I love this blog. However, my boss might feel differently seeing as how I am supposed to be working on a tax return right now but instead I am reading about how to pitch my book.
Catherine L. Osornio
I have read lots of the pros and cons of pitches. Personally, I think it’s a helpful tool to summarize your manuscript, even if you never get a chance to present it to anyone at a conference. I gave my first and only pitch once at the SCBWI Editor’s Day last year, and although I was nervous, at least I was prepared. The pitch didn’t lead to anything, but now I know I can do it if the situation presents itself again.
Oh no! I posted twice by mistake. I couldn’t tell if my comment had posted, so I reposted it. Except I also reread it and revised. So my second post is markedly improved! Yay for revision!
Should that be dark chocolate or milk chocolate?
Thanks for the great information. I will be attending my first writers conference (CCWC) next month and the writing group I belong to was just discussing pitches this morning.
Teri, In answer to your question, I play it by ear at conferences. I think the agent who likes a short pitch and a look at the writing is striking a nice balance. I like to balance all three– the idea, the writing and the person.
Thanks, everyone, for all the comments. I hope you realize that there’s no reason to be nervous– we’re all in this together. The nice thing is– as my esteemed colleague, Janet Kobobel Grant pointed out– that agents are all different and look for different things. You can tell I really like to meet clients in person but to many other agents, it makes no difference.
And Bill– always milk chocolate– preferably with nuts. But since you’re already well-represented I’ll not be expecting bribes.
Great post. Most helpful. It’s all an exciting process, that’s for sure.
Thank you for this post. I’ve been to two Mount Hermon writer’s conferences and I can tell you that the pressure to make every lunch count is almost overwhelming at times. It’s hard to balance “sucking up” with giving people an honest look at who you really are.
Pitching my work is a struggle. If I am supposed to be humble, how can I with integrity pitch my work?
For me there is a burning desire to write, it has become a passion. Doesn’t it take being published to be confident enough to pitch your work?
I’m in the teachable phase. I have asked two editors to review my work and I attend regular writer workshops where my work is critiqued.
I’ll have to think on this one. Thank you.
Taking the advice of the many “How to Write” books, I have tacked down my narrative point-of-view, chopped out trite idioms, inflated my flat characters and eradicated every picturesque adjective in my manuscript. Now you want me to throw all that back in to make a 100 word commercial for my book?
As one who has been sifting through websites, looking for agents who might write the least-crushing but realistic rejection letters, your blog was a treat (I do look for appropriate genre representation too).
At this very early and speculative stage of my search I was starting to ask the same question, “Does a fantastic pitch indicate an equally good book?” Sometimes it seems that there is more emphasis on the pitch than the product, but isn’t that the way the game is played for most goods? A little bit of stark reality poking its head into my dreams of publication. What is there left to do but learn how to play?
Irene, don’t forget that when the Bible talks about pride it’s not referring to honestly telling what we can do.
Pride means thinking we don’t need God– a totally different issue. I’m guessing that’s not your problem. Charles Spurgeon said the following about humility: “Humility is to feel that we have no power of ourselves, but that it all cometh from God.” See, that’s not connected to pitching or promoting at all.
Too often when we are called on to promote ourselves and our books we wrongly get all tangled up in the pride and humility thing.
Don’t worry about pitching or about promoting yourself or your book. There’s nothing easier to spot than self-promotional braggadocio. My guess is that if you’re worrying about it, it’s probably not your problem. 🙂 True pitching/promotion is informational and can be delivered with finesse and humility.
You just need to listen to that burning desire/passion to write and see where it takes you.
AJ wrote:At this very early and speculative stage of my search I was starting to ask the same question, “Does a fantastic pitch indicate an equally good book?”
Don’t think we don’t obsess about that. We worry that the best books may have the clumsiest pitches and vice versa. But it is physically impossible to read portions of all potential projects– even if we speed-read for 24 hours a day. Reading queries and listening to pitches is a skill we keep honing. We pray we are gifted enough to discern the ones that represent something special.
And that’s always the rub. How does an agent, an editor, a sales force, a bookstore buyer, a bookstore retailer, and a potential reader get a handle on a book in thirty seconds? From a pitch? Catalog copy? Back cover copy? A trailer? An ad? All are inexact and fall short.
Truth? It’s a miracle when a book makes it through each gatekeeper from the agent to the final reader. It requires the very best at every stage. The best pitch, the best writing, the best advertising copy, the best cover, etc.
The good news is that books make it all the way every single day.
Thanks Wendy. (giggle giggle)
I rock! My book really rocks! No, that’s not right. God made it rock! Or did he make me rock! My book and I both rock because God rocked us?!
Thanks again for the chuckle and the inspiration to continue following my passion.
Very interesting article. I’ve done one pitch session and it was interesting. A good experience, but something I know I will never excel at. Not everyone is capable of being comfortable talking to strangers. I write far better than I can speak off the top of my head.
What a bunch of (I could put anything in this spot, but I’m opting for) great information!
And I’m so glad I found this, because I realize now that I’ve never queried you or your agency. This may turn out to be a serendipitous oversight on my part! Which I will rectify in the near future. So keep an eye on your incoming email for a query.
And, yes, I do have chocolate, but I’m not giving it up without an offer. We can negotiate that part later.
Motivating and informative. I love reading blogs like this. Keeps me going even on days when I feel hopeless.
Thanks very much for your article. There are a ton of websites and books that seem to focus on the pitch process at the expense on the actual writing of the book.
Thanks for the information in this post. There are many of us struggling writers out here who just cannot afford to go to a writers conference, no matter how much we want to. Reading that pitch sessions aren’t that great, and seeing the suggestions of other ways to connect without attending a conference was very helpful.
You have made a good point in that if every pitch is perfect then none of them are. All the perfect pitches become one note wonders. However, by being bold enough to add a little flair to your meeting and spend some time at the back door instead of the front, a writer can get around the Thundering Herd. I’m encouraged and still in the race.
Excellent post, Wendy. Being on the writing end, I can’t imagine how overwhelming the “pitch” sessions are for the agents, but I’m grateful that such opportunities exist. Any opportunity a writer has to present him/herself to an agent and pitch a story is a step forward for both. Feedback, whether good or bad, is important and what we do with that feedback helps define us as writers. I would love to say all the feedback I’ve gotten from literary agents has been positive, but it hasn’t. I can honestly say all their feedback has had a positive affect on my writing, and that is all a humble writer can ask.
I’ve found literary agents, in reality, want nothing more than the same things we as writers hope to achieve- a great story, skillfully crafted and presented. That being said, we should also embrace the notion that the great story we eagerly hope will be recognized as such by an agent or publisher probably will not be our first effort. Your suggestion of persistence is spot on. The bookshelves are filled with best selling authors whose first books just didn’t cut the mustard. We tend to forget there was a time when Dan Brown and John Grisham were reading best sellers, not writing them. Who knows what advise they were given along the way, but whatever they were told I would bet they listened and acted upon it.
How might Shakespeare put it? Rejection, thy sword wounds deep but only kills those whom ignore its cut.
Sorry, that was the English mystery writer in me.
Shakespeare wouldn’t have written ‘whom’ there. It’s the subject of the verb ignore.
Signed, an incurable pedant.
I always appreciate an edit, Crisetta. And you’re right, detail is important, especially when aligned with the Bard.