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The Writing Life: Pitching in Person

Organized Tables, Valencia, Spain, March 2007Now that I’ve moved into traditionally marketing some of my book again, I’ve found that I get much better responses to queries when I give them in person than when I send them by email. This is something new and scary for me. I’ve only verbally pitched agents and editors a grand total of nine times, the last two just on Friday at the Portland Writing Workshop. But this limited experience means I’m also still close to the terror of doing so, because it can be quite terrifying. If you’re also new at this, here’s a quick list of what I’ve discovered learning to do it:

1) Verbal pitches work best when they are NOT the same as a query letter.

This isn’t too surprising, since written words and conversations are totally different. That’s not to say many people don’t just sit down and read their query, and the agent/editor will tolerate that, but that’s also pretty stiff. A personal connection is important when pitching. So when you prepare the pitch ahead of time, pare down the query into something about half. It should still introduce the characters, tension, and stakes of the book, but as concisely as possible. That leaves room for the agent/editor to ask questions after you give the pitch, and you can elaborate on the other aspects of the novel then. You need a prepared pitch, so you don’t blank out on talking about your novel, but ultimately it’s the conversation you want–like telling a friend about your book.

2) Make a copy of your pitch in large print or type and more space to reference. 

It’s amazing how small 12 point font in a solid paragraph looks when sitting there face to face with an agent/editor. I either double space my pitch in 16 point font or hand write it with every other line left blank on the notebook paper. If you’re pretty good at public speaking you might even just have your pitch in the form of bullet points so you can refer to them easily. The idea is, when you’re talking about your book and your brain hits a blank spot, you can just glance down and see where you left off and trigger the rest of it.

3) Practice aloud. Lots. And with other people as well as on your own.

Speaking and reading silently are totally different. You want your pitch to roll off the tongue smoothly. You want to sound polished. You don’t have to memorize it, but if you read it aloud over and over, eventually you should be able to go a couple sentences each time without looking at it, and just glance back down at it for the next bit.

Even better, practice with other people. The other people giving pitches at the event are great people to practice with. Each take a turn pitching. Practice making eye contact and sounding excited about your work (because you are, even if you’re also terrified). Then listen to their feedback and adjust your pitch if you need to. When you listen to theirs, ask questions about their book. What sorts of things does their pitch make you want to know about the book? Hopefully they will ask questions too.

4) Research the agents and editors at the event ahead of them.

Some events require you to pick the people when you register, some events you wait in line to pitch to the people you favor. Either way, you should research all the people you plan to pitch online ahead of time. A piece of paper with a few notes under each one to keep them straight during the event is a good idea.

I’ve found it’s also really handy to have this for ALL the agents/editors at the event, not just the ones you’re planning on pitching to. Sometimes there’s extra spaces for you to get in more pitches. On Friday’s event I could have signed up for some extra sessions, but since I hadn’t planned on it, I couldn’t remember which genres the remaining agents represented and so missed my chance. Sometimes the agent/editor you pitch to explains you’ve classified your genre wrong  and should try other people who represent that genre. This happened to me last summer, but luckily the event had a sheet with all the agents and what the represented in my program.

5) Treat the session as half job interview, half talking to a friend.

Before my first pitch, I was completely terrified, so I kept asking the people ahead of me how theirs went. Everyone kept saying things like, well, they’re just people, friendly people, and I relaxed and had a good time. Right. I wasn’t buying that, until I actually had my pitch session. I found that by the end of it, I totally had relaxed and just related to the agents/editors as people. Everything they’d said was true. It was like talking to a friend about writing… just a bit more formal. Be sure you have your written pitch and a pen/pencil.

Here’s my breakdown of the meeting:

Introduce yourself – Even if you have a name tag, this helps trigger normal social skills and make this a more pleasant interaction.

Tell the person if you’re overly nervous – There’s nothing wrong with saying, this is my first pitch/time doing this or I’m new at this, boy am I nervous. If you’re shaking or something, it’s even better to, first because saying it aloud will help calm your nerves, and second because chances are the agent/editor will say outright, that’s alright, don’t worry, just relax, or some other helpful response. If they’re a jerk about it, then you know they aren’t the right agent/editor for you anyway.

Give your pitch – It’s good to make eye contact. Don’t sweat reading/saying your pitch exactly the way you wrote it, so long as you cover all the points/ideas you meant to. Brief is good, because it allows for the next step.

Expect questions – If you’re pitch has done its job, the agent/editor will want to know more. They’ll ask you about your book or sometimes about you or your goals.  If there’s time, you can also ask any questions of your own you have. If they ask for materials, make sure you write down what (query, pages, synopsis), who (name and email), and how to title it (since many people use filters). Sometimes they’ll give you a business card, but taking a couple quick notes are useful when you’re trying to send the right stuff to the right person later.

Thank them – These sessions are timed usually, so this is brief and you may not have time to shake their hand, but nothing ends a pitch session than a big smile and a, “Thank you so much.”