By Louise Ure
Some months ago I wrote two blog posts on query letters – how to write them and where to send them. Today I’m tackling another area of interest to new writers and that is, “How to Pitch to an Agent.”
There are two occasions in which you might find yourself face-to-face with that rarest of all indigenous creatures, the literary agent:
- Meeting them casually at conventions
- Getting one of those coveted pitch session time slots at a writers’ conference
Let’s take the first of those: the convention run-in. You’re at Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime. There, sitting by himself at the end of the bar and putting his cell phone away is that agent that you have your heart set on. You know, the guy who represented what’s-his-name … who got the big advance for that newbie author who went on win all the awards. You want to meet him. How do you handle that?
In the immortal words of the much-missed Miss Snark:
What to say after you say hello:
1. What are you reading now that you love?
2. How did you get started agenting? Do you love it?
3. Is this your first time here (if it’s not in NYC).
Do you have a place you like to tell everyone to see here in NYC?
4. What was your favorite book as a kid?
5. May I buy you a drink?
Things NOT to say:
1. What advice can you give me?
2. Are you having a good time?
3. You look tired.
4. Can I show you my manuscript/query letter/pages?
5. I know I’m not supposed to do/say this but….
6. Can I have lunch with you?
7. You rejected me but…
8. I sent you a query/email. Do you remember…
9. Remember me?
I would add to Miss Snark’s wise advice:
- You might move #5 (“May I buy you a drink?”) up to #1.
- Leave before his eyes glass over. If he’s looking over your shoulder or down at his iPhone, you’ve already overstayed your welcome. Remember, these few conference days are also when agents need to spend time with their current clients and check in with editors they don’t see regularly.
- Talk about anything other than your book, so that said agent doesn’t have to hide when he sees you coming for the rest of the con.
- If the agent does ask what you’re writing, boil it down to a conversational but tight 25-words-or-less. (“It’s about a blind female auto mechanic in Arizona who becomes the only witness to a murder.) If he’s intrigued, he can always ask for more detail.
- No agent is going to ask for a copy of your manuscript based on a two-minute casual conversation. But that short interchange may lead to a later email where you say how nice it was to spend a bit of time with the agent and now that you’ve met her and know about her passion for Jane Eyre, you realize that your just completed novel may be of interest to her.
- Oh, and if Philip Spitzer is the agent you’ve buttonholed, always laugh at his jokes.
Now on to the more gut-wrenching, hysteria-inducing “pitch sessions.” Sometimes you can pay extra at a writers’ conference or win a lottery to get one of the “pitch session” slots with an agent. You’ll have somewhere between three and fifteen minutes to introduce yourself and your work and leave the agent with the impression that she simply must read your novel.
First of all, many writers are introverts and a pitch session feels a lot like being naked, walking up to a stranger and asking her to marry you. It takes confidence to do that. Balls, some would say.
Secondly, writers as a breed are not noted for their salesmanship. It’s not a skill many of us practice until we find ourselves on out on that first book tour. (Speaking of authors’ skills on book tours, check out this marvelous page on the author Jincy Willett’s website.)
And third, you’re probably thinking that this five-minute agent pitch is going to be the make-it-or-break-it moment in your literary career and you’re hyperventilating just thinking about it.
The best thing to do is to practice. I recently attended a local RWA meeting where they set aside a period of time for interested members to rehearse and practice their pitches in mock interview sessions. Afterward, the rest of the chapter commented and made suggestions about how the performance could be strengthened. It served two goals: perfecting the language of the pitch itself and easing the nerves of the writer who is facing this situation for the first time.
Once you have your pitch session lined up, here’s what I think you need to do:
- Keep your pitch short. Just because you have fifteen minutes to fill doesn’t mean you have to. The very best pitch session is one where that agent is interested enough to ask questions and make comments. Leave her the time to do so.
- Focus on your character and the major conflict in your novel. You don’t have to go through every detail and twist and turn. Who’s the character? What does she want? What’s stopping her from getting it?
- You’re not just a talking head. Tell the agent something about yourself, why you started writing and what drove you to write this particular novel.
- Be passionate about your work. Passion equals confidence and confidence equals success. Nobody wants to represent a writer who is wishy-washy about her story.
- Listen to what the agent has to say. No agent in a pitch session is going to tell you your idea sucks. Instead, they might make suggestions or ask questions and that feedback is invaluable to you. It will tell you what caught their attention or what piece of information is missing in your delivery. It will help you sell your novel.
Agent Kimberley Cameron sums it up beautifully: “Breathe.”
“They tend to feel so nervous that they speak way too quickly,” Kimberley goes on to say. “What we agents are looking for is a story that resonates, and the best way to deliver that is to share it with us, as if we were a friend. We all are looking to make something happen together, and the best pitches I get are relaxed and fun. I always ask the author to tell me about themselves and their writing to relax them and start a dialog together.
“In the best scenario, their genre will be just what I’m looking for, and they will have hooked me with a good premise – it’s really nothing more than that! Tell them to be positive and genuine, and that communication is the key, which is two ways… “
See? It’s more like a blind date than walking up naked and asking her to marry you after all.
How about all you ‘Ratini out there? Any other advice for giving the perfect pitch? Or any horror stories about close encounters with an agent?
This is such great advice, Louise. People are so eager to pitch their books that they forget that an agent ultimately represents the author. If an agent doesn’t respect you personally, it’s much easier for him or her to pass on the book (or, more likely, to never even look at it).
I had to laugh at this because at the last Bouchercon I met a very nice man in the buffet line and we were talking and cracking jokes. Then he asked me if I was a writer and I blathered something vague about having a manuscript that was sort of a suspense – thinking he was a fellow attendee, and not really in the mood to discuss it.
Later I found out that very nice man was Phil Spitzer. And instead of knowing that I had an intriguing novel in the works, he knew that I could talk a lot about food and make him laugh at my jokes.
Fact was, I knew my manuscript wasn’t ready so wasn’t actually agent-hunting at the time – but it wouldn’t have hurt to have rattled off a succinct and intriguing summary!
Having just come back from a conference myself, where I heard dozens of pitches, I second Kimberley’s advice. Everybody’s always wound tight, for reasons I understand, and I tell them: Don’t pitch me, just talk to me. I learn a lot more that way.
But do have a good idea of just what your book is, and also where it fits on the publishing spectrum — calling it "a cross between Henry James and a Friday night date movie," as I heard once at the conference, is not going to be much of a help!
Alafair, it’s a good reminder that the agent represents the author and all her books, not just this one.
Sara, that’s funny. You probably made a friend who would remember you from that day.
"A cross between Henry James and a Friday night date movie." Neil, you’re a stronger soul than I.
I have a horror story actually. I drove three states away to attend a conference because my number one choice agent was giving pitch sessions. I practiced, I recited, I tried to prepare mentally…and I almost passed out in front of her. Seriously, I ended up reading the pitch, broke out in hives and spent the rest of the conference hiding from her. Why didn’t someone tell me there’s medication for this?! 😛
Very timely, as I will be attending Bouchercon next month and may well want to speak to an agent of two. If you think about it, those bar tips are common sense. An agent is a person who’s going to represent another person–you. Treat them like people. Show an interest in them and see if they’re response indicates someone you’d be comfortable working closely with.
I’d say you summed it up perfectly, Louise. I’ve listened to many pitches at screenwriting conventions and the process is exactly the same.
Oh Shannon, I know those terrors! Mine usually hit ten minutes after the presentation.
And yes, Dana, B’con is a perfect place to network. Just be yourself.
The advice to breathe and listen resonates tremendously. One of the best pitch sessions I had was long ago, the agent had read the first 50 pages of one of my manuscripts and it was obvious that her agency wasn’t going to take me on — so for the next 15 minutes we just talked . . . about my writing and career aspirations, about what she loved about her job, about the industry. We both enjoyed ourselves and remained in contact until she left the industry a few years later.
Some of her pearls of wisdom helped me avoid real mistakes later.
Pari, you made the very best use of that pitch session. You learned from it.
Excellent post, and it segues nicely into the one I’m writing for tomorrow….
Hi J.D., can I peek? I spend so much time on your "Fresh Hell" blog that I feel like we’re having a daily conversation.
Louise, that was great and I’ve passed it onto the Twitter friend who asked a couple weeks ago. You and Sophie "encouraged" me to do my first practice pitch, which I thought was loads of fun, but as I noted then I’m used to this from my legal days. This is great advice, and another chapter in your forthcoming "how to" book.
I may get some more practice at Bouchercon, we’ll see.
Thanks for the suggestion, Allison. I thought you did a great job in your informal RWA pitch. One thing that became clear to me when I first starting talking about my work is that it was much different than all the advertising presentations I’d done before. It was much tougher to "sell myself" or my own work than it was the work of the creative department. The same may have been true for you, as well. A lawyer’s presentation for a client feels different than defending/supporting your own work.
Hi J.D., can I peek?
Sure, there’s a draft n the queue.
Hey, Stephen, I missed your comment in the queue. You’re in the enviable (?) position of having seen these pitch sessions from both sides. I’ll bet that makes you very, very good at it.
And J.D., I’m sneaking over there now. By the time this West Coast girl logs on to read our Murderati posts, the rest of you are on your way to lunch and I get left behind!
Excellent advice, LU. In a way, I guess we’re pitching our stories every time we speak to fans at a book signing or at a cocktail party. The stakes aren’t as high but the intent is the same–to share our passion for the story.
Yep, Patty. It’s a perpetual pitch session. Hopefully it’s also a conversation.
Hell, pitching an agent NOW would give me hives, and I know quite a few of them.
The best thing to remember is to be classy, be engaging, and don’t hit them up. Agents like to be treated as people, just like everyone else.
Great one, Ms L!
Fantastic post, Louise. (I’m sorry I’m late to the conversation! My internet was wonky all day–they’re digging some sort of big ass hole in the front of the neighborhood. Last time they did this, they hit a gas line. I expect explosions any minute.)
I think pitch sessions are great, but I also think too much is made of them, sometimes, so that people going to a conference feel like it is their one big chance… which can have a feel of "the only chance." Unless publishing is folding its doors forever and every agent is on the next bus out of NY, there will be other chances. Perspective helps relieve the stress.
JT, you would rock giving a pitch. Could I bribe you to pitch my work?
And Toni, that’s not a pit ass pit, it’s a communal barbecue. Think whole pig luau. And don’t tell the relatives.