How to Pitch

Going to conferences always gives me inspiration for blog posts! This past weekend, I was at the San Francisco Writers Conference to meet writers, and there was a good crowd of kidlit people there, which is always nice to see. This conference, and many others, does agent consultations.

Consultations work like this: writers sign up for a time slot (3 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, etc.) with an agent or editor at a specific appointment time. At other conferences, there’s a free-for-all where agents and editors are just sitting at tables and writers have a certain amount of time to pitch them before a bell rings. Whether it’s run with appointments or in this “speed dating” style, the two scenarios have one thing in common: me, sitting behind a table, listening to pitches.

And once you hear writer after writer pitch, you learn a few things about how writers pitch. Here’s a quick list of do’s and don’t’s in case you ever find yourself in a face-to-face pitching situation.

DO:

  • Do present your story quickly and don’t go into unnecessary detail.
  • Do leave yourself wide open to answer questions should the agent or editor have them… don’t be so blinded by rattling off the pitch you’ve memorized, because you’ll miss the parts of the story that raised questions from your audience… and questions can give you valuable insight into what about your pitch worked or not.
  • Do answer questions and try to think of it as a conversation, not a monologue.
  • Do give yourself time to hear the agent or editor out afterward, don’t talk for the entire time.
  • Do bring a card or some materials with you, just in case.
  • Do take notes while the agent or editor is talking, you’ll likely be nervous and won’t remember what they said unless you write it down.

Now, for the important stuff. DONT:

  • Don’t interrupt an agent or editor’s question if it comes in the middle of your pre-rehearsed speech, keep an open mind.
  • Don’t try and make an editor or agent request the project, especially if they say it’s not a fit.
  • Don’t make the editor or agent take any of your materials. It’s good to bring them but lots of people don’t take stuff home… respect that wish.
  • Don’t be nervous or read the whole time… talk naturally and make eye contact… try not to read from cue cards or notes too much… it’s YOUR STORY… you wrote it… you know it.
  • Don’t make ME read anything. I personally cannot read in a consultation environment. It’s loud, there’s too much going on, I can’t concentrate. I always like to read samples later, when I’m in my own environment and can concentrate. You can ask me to skim something or to look over your query letter, sure, but don’t ask me to evaluate your writing on the spot. First, I personally have very little control over my face and can’t hide my emotions well. I hate reading in front of writers because I know they’re scrutinizing my face for a reaction. If their writing is bad, I don’t want to make a funny face and offend them, so it’s best not to put me in that situation. The only thing I can ever tell when taking 2 minutes to look at a writing sample is whether it’s good or not, but I would never just tell a writer that judgment because a) everything is subjective and b) saying “this is good” or “this is bad” isn’t helpful at all.
  • Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.

This last point is really important. Folks, here’s the dirty secret… pitching tells us NOTHING about your writing. Pitching and writing are two very different things. You could have the worst pitch in the world but your novel could be amazing. Or you could have (as is more often the case) a crackerjack pitch and a lousy, boring novel. So my decision to represent you won’t hinge on your pitch. Heck no. It hinges on your writing.

And I always ask for you to send me a writing sample (unless the project is obviously not for me). You can stop worrying about “making me” request it. So don’t freak out about the pitch. We’re just two people who love books, talking. We have lots in common already.

A consultation is just your chance to get some feedback on your pitch, to hear some questions and reactions about your story, a chance to ask an agent or editor a burning question, and practice for talking about your writing to publishing people. It’s no more complicated than that, so don’t make it into a panic attack. I think this is the healthiest attitude a writer can have when approaching a pitching situation.

ETA: For more information on “pitchcraft,” a term trademarked by literary agent Katharine Sands, please pick up her very helpful book MAKING THE PERFECT PITCH, an invaluable guide to writers.

38 Replies to “How to Pitch”

  1. Mary — thanks for the advice. I guess the key is loving your work and being about to talk about it with enthusiasm (but not non-stop!). I look forward to meeting you in Dallas this spring.

  2. I’m wondering about the written pitch. I have been working on pitches for my work for the last two years (three novels have been a part of this pitch writing process.) I guess I was wondering how you would adapt your face-to-face dos and don’ts for the written pitch. Thanks.

  3. Mary, love the title of your blog, lol! However much research you do into pitching, querying et al, at the end of the day, it all looks like witchcraft and wizardry (in the nicest way possible). Once you send your baby out into the world, you turn into a spectator, sitting in front of the stage patiently awaiting the next act.

  4. Jen — I have talked a LOT about queries on the blog. If you look at the left-hand column, you’ll see a category for queries. Click there to see related posts and maybe you’ll see some advice that’s useful for you.

  5. Mary, if I could, I’d fly across continents to get my chance to pitch to you at a San Francisco conference. But you’re so far away…

    Are there any other such conferences you could recommend? Do you ever stray toward the other side of the Mississippi?
    d.

  6. Ha, I’m one of those who’s terrible at pitches! I get so nervous, it’s annoying because I just want to be able to talk about my novel, and I know the agent’s not going to bite. I think I actually get nervous about being nervous, like, don’t get nervous, don’t get nervous, which of course makes my heart start to pound and my palms sweat…

  7. Very informative post, as always. I already knew I’m not ready for a conference, although I’d love to attend one. Just talking to an agent on the phone turns me into a tongue-tied twit. I can’t imagine what a face-to-face would do to me.

  8. Don — I’ll be doing many more conferences on the east coast of the US after this summer. I already have on in New Jersey in June, one in Florida in October and one in NYC in January 2011. I’ll update my Events page with the latest soon!

    @jmartinlibrary — Jeez Louise! I have been hearing from DFW attendees for so long, you’d think the conference was this weekend! Y’all are a very enthusiastic bunch! I can’t wait to be there. 🙂

  9. I can’t imagine that anyone would expect you to read at a conference while they’re looking at you. How awkward.

    I’m going to the NESCBWI conference in May, and will take this pitching list for my query and my ten-page critique. Thankfully, the agents/editors will get them in advance. I use this opportunity to get feedback that I can rarely get any other way – especially on the quality of my query.

    Chuck Sambuchino had a similar post on on 02/10.

  10. Theresa — Ah, Chuck and I should join forces! I read so much for work and have so many other things to do that I rarely — and this is a horrible thing for a blogger to say — read OTHER blogs! Eek.

  11. Mary, I know. We are kind of an enthusiastic group. I just cannot say enough good things about DFWWW. The mentors really raise the bar, and I learn a lot. Crit groups can be delightful or dreadful, and I’m so glad to have found a good one.

  12. Ha! You always seem to post about the things that are heaviest on my mind at the moment. Gearing up to see you at the DFW conference, and I’m so glad you did this post! Do you recommend that authors have business cards? The thought of a card with my contact info makes me laugh…I don’t know why. But, this is the second post I’ve read about pitches that nods to them.

  13. @jmartinlibrary — Can’t wait to see it in action.

    Olleymae — Everyone does it these days. If you don’t want to do a card, get some bookmarks printed. I’m a fiend for paper products, so I found a great graphic designer to do a bookmark for me (for this site). It’s a little more creative than going to VistaPrint and getting generic business cards. If you want, though. They’re going to most likely end up at the bottom of someone’s bag and then, later, in the recycling, but maybe someone will want to contact your or you’ll meet some other writers and want to keep in touch with them. Easier to have your card on you than scribbling your contact info on loose scraps.

  14. Thank you for this post–I’d been crafting an email to ask you about this, since I signed up to meet you at the TMCC conference in April. I had no idea how the meetings are generally structured. Thanks again!

  15. Mary,
    Thank you for this advice. I’ve had one consultation and it wasn’t too painful. I think I behaved myself. :>)I received lots of good advice which has led to much rewriting–of course.
    Will you ever visit Florida? Sarasota is usually wonderful in February. This year is unseasonably chillllly.

  16. Mary, I’d love to be able to get to New Jersey to see you in June, but looks like I’ll be down in Texas — did someone say you were going to be in Dallas sometime?

    I’ve been looking on your website for your schedule. So far it’s eluded me. Any hints?

  17. Mary,

    Thanks so much for your insights on pitching. While I didn’t get a chance to meet you, and so wanted to, I did get to hear Katharine Sands on Pitchcraft and it was a huge help for my pitching skills, such as they are. She likened our pitch as being on trail for murder and we didn’t do it. We have to get right to the spark of our story and sell it in a theatrical way that leaves the agent wanting more. Nice way to think of it, I think. Changed my pitch completely.

  18. This would have been nice to know… before I did EVERYTHING you’re not supposed to do.
    I pitched a book, I “had a good feeling about.” Yikes!

    Then I cut off the agent.

    Then I word vomited all over her nice suit.

    Worse. Moment. EVER.

    I pretty sure if she was a blogger she would have blogged about it.

  19. Mary, Thank you for the advice on the do’s and don’t of pitching your novel. I’m new to your blog and will keep coming back to gain further insight into the world of writing/publishing.

  20. As others have pointed out, this is a good, concise piece of advice. Like so many things, it’s all about getting over the fear, taking the risk, and acting professionally.

    I’m always terrified to read the “do’s and don’t’s” posts from people I meet at conferences. How did I inspire the list, I wonder. In a good way or a bad way? And if I didn’t inspire something in the list… how could I possibly be so forgettable?

  21. These are such great tips. I pitched last October in the Muse Online Writers Conference to 4RV Publishing. It was a nerve wrecking experience, and it wasn’t even face to face.

    I was allowed to send my manuscript and got a contract for a children’s fantasy chapter book.

    Your points are something I wish I had last year!

    Thanks for another great post.

  22. How timely–my critique group was just discussing this. I’d be interested in suggestions of conferences with pitch sessions (or at least the organizations that run them) that relate to kidlit. I hear of RWA doing this, but none of the SCBWI conferences I or anyone in my crit group been to have done them.

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