riters attend conferences for many reasons, but one of the biggest draws is the literary agent pitch sessions. Writers get face-to-face time with those in the industry who often appear unreachable. If done correctly, these three-to-ten-minute sessions can land a writer an agent and eventually a book contract.
From my experience as the director of the Northern Colorado Writers Conference for the past four years, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with literary agents on a different level. They have shared with me their take on pitch sessions and what they like, don’t like, and what drives them crazy.
As a writer, I have also tried my hand at pitching to agents. One of my first attempts will probably go down on record as the worst pitch in history. Let’s just say I left the ten-minute session after only four minutes, giving the remaining time to another writer who hopefully was more prepared and less embarrassed than I was. I learned you should stick to your practiced pitch and don’t change it at the last minute.
Writers need to understand that agents attend conferences with the same high hopes that writers do. Writers want to find an agent who will represent them, and agents want to find clients who have a book they can get excited about. The agent/author relationship is that of a partnership where each party has the same goal in mind; to sell the book to a publishing house.
Jon Sternfeld, with the Irene Goodman Agency said, “I wish writers would see the agents more as an equal—when there's too much desperation in the writer's eyes, agents tend to de-value them. If a writer is confident, I know that they don't need me so much as we need each other.”
Are You Ready to Pitch?
Most agents only want to hear pitches from authors who have a finished product. For fiction (including memoirs) that is a completed novel and for nonfiction, that is a completed book proposal and at least three finished chapters. Agents don’t like it when a writer gets them excited about a book and then drops the bomb that it isn’t done yet.
Kristin Nelson with Nelson Literary said, “Writers with ‘ideas’ for a great novel are a dime a dozen. It’s that one in a hundred writer who actually has the perseverance and stamina to sit down and write the entire thing (which is a huge achievement all in itself since the majority of aspiring writers never even make it that far).”
“Your goal is to become an expert on this person.”
Do Your Homework
Just like publishers, literary agents specialize in different genres. Before signing up for a pitch session, do your homework. Read up on each of the agents. What authors do they currently represent? Are any of the books similar to yours? Don't waste their time pitching to them if you know your project isn't a good fit. Remember, just like you are hoping to find an agent, they are hoping to find clients.
Once you have made your choice, then find out as much as you can about the agent and agency. Many now have blogs where they share industry information as well as personal tidbits. Subscribe to it and read it. Your goal is to become an expert on this person. Then, when you sit down for the pitch session, you will feel like you know the agent. You can break the ice by commenting on something you learned, “I read on your blog that you are re-reading War and Peace. What page are you on?”
“Every writer should be prepared to explain her story in one sentence.”
Give ’em a One Liner
Every writer should be prepared to explain her story in one sentence, whether it is at the pitch session or at the evening mixer. No one wants to hear a 20-minute monologue detailing every twist and turn in your plot.
“A lot of author's get too hung up on telling me the synopsis of their book,” said Jessica Regel of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, “I don't need to know every plot point—and it doesn't make for a very interesting pitch. It should feel more authentic than that, as if you were talking to your best friend.”
At a children’s writing workshop a couple of years back, Children’s Book Insider editor Laura Backes shared a technique for creating a story line that I think works perfectly for condensing the essence of your book into one sentence.
Fill in the blanks:
My story is about ___(character)_________that wants more than anything to _____(goal)_________ but can’t because ____(conflict)_______.
Here is an example using the Wizard of Oz:
This story is about a teenage girl from Kansas named Dorothy who wants more than anything to go home, but can’t because she is stuck in a strange land.
Notice there is no mention of a tornado, munchkins, witches or a cowardly lion. That information can come later, but this is the basic premise of the novel in just one sentence.
“In the end, I know all good writers aren't great speakers,” said Jon Sternfeld, “but an ability to distill information is a part of being a writer and it's usually a turn-off if a writer says way too much (or way too little) about what I need to know about his/her project.”
Elements of a Good Pitch
Now that you have your story condensed into one sentence, you can expand a little to round it out.
Jessica Regel shared what she likes to see in a good pitch: “They need to be able to succinctly tell me what their book is about. What makes it stand out from every other book that's on the market? Who are the characters? What's the conflict? What are the major themes? What other writers/books would they compare themselves to as far as style? If it's nonfiction, why are they the exact person who should write this book? Why is it a topic that I should read about now? Why is it a book, instead of a magazine article? In both fiction and nonfiction, I need to walk away remembering their book.”
“Writers should work on their confidence before going in...”
The trick to a good pitch is to practice it so you are familiar with the content, but to present it in a way that is more conversational. Practice your pitch with friends, family and your writers group. Get some feedback on what each person liked and didn’t like. Incorporate the relevant feedback, practice a little more then trust that you are ready to go.
Jon Sternfeld said he understands pitching to an agent can be tough and he admires all writers that do it. He believes writers should work on their confidence before going in because it makes a huge difference.
Believe it or not, agents do care how you look. I am not talking about whether or not you have blond hair, smooth skin, bleached-white smile—not that—I am talking about how you dress.
One agent told me that she wished writers would dress more professionally. She didn't want to see business suits, but she wanted to see clean cut, job-interview type attire. For her, it sets the tone—it lets her know the writer understands that publishing is a business and is serious about being a professional writer.
“There is no need to jump in with your pitch the second you sit down.”
When you are called to go in for your pitch session, all you need is confidence and maybe one note card with a few key points on it. You do not need to bring your manuscript. If the agent likes your idea, she will ask you to email her a few chapters.
After you introduce yourself, there is no need to jump in with your pitch the second you sit down. You can make a little small talk before you begin, to help calm your nerves. Then start pitching. The intent is to entice the agent to ask you questions about different elements of your book and begin a conversation.
Ken Sherman, with Ken Sherman and Associates said, “Just take a deep breath and get into it and don't worry. If the story and characters are alive and original in approach, we'll pick up on it, especially if you're a good storyteller. That's what it's all about.”
“Relax! It's natural to be nervous,” said Jessica Regel, “but it's really hard for me to concentrate on what an author is telling me when they're shaking in front of me.”
After hearing about your book, an agent has to decide if it is a good fit for her. If it is, you will be asked to submit chapters, usually via email. Send the requested material within a week after the conference.
If the agent doesn’t think your book is a good fit for her, don’t fret.
“Come prepared with questions,” said Jessica Regel. “There are times when the subject of a book is just not going to interest me, no matter how it's pitched, and in those cases it's great for authors to come with questions—that way our time together doesn't go to waste!”
Regardless of how the pitch went or whether or not the agent wants to represent you, it is a good idea to convey your appreciation. Send a handwritten thank you note to the agent, thanking her for her time. The publishing business is about relationships and you want to make sure you cultivate and maintain those contacts you made during the conference.
Remember agents are people too. They also have dreams of making it big in the publishing world and in order to do that, they need good writers. If you approach your pitch session prepared, confident and professional, you will be on your way to finding the right agent for you.
Kerrie Flanagan is the Director of Northern Colorado Writers (NCW) and a freelance writer with over 100 articles published in national and regional publications. The 5th annual NWC conference is March 26-27, 2010 in Fort Collins, Colorado.
To learn more about Kerrie and NCW visit: https://www.NorthernColoradoWriters.com
(Photo of Kerrie by Desiree Suchy.)