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?