By Louise Ure
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?