A literary agent pitch session is one of those nervousmaking things in life — like proposing marriage or going in for a job interview. With these nerve-wracking events, we just want to know whether or not it went okay. While a marriage proposal usually gets a response right away, pitching a book is the sort of scenario where you put your best foot forward and then you wait for results. (Check out our full video on this topic!)
Now put yourself on the receiving end. A candidate comes in for a job interview and they do well. They present themselves professionally and answer your questions. You put them in your “maybe” pile, or maybe slot them for a second interview. Then you let them know that you’ll be calling them with your decision in a few days. Pretty standard stuff. Very much the same thing happens to me when I listen to a writer pitching a book at a writer’s conference. I listen to the pitch (and try to put the writer at ease if they are feeling nervous), then I say something along the lines of “I can’t really tell a lot about the writing from a verbal pitch, so I’d love to see a sample.” Most pitches are very short and, remember, a pitch or query letter and written prose are two very different things. I can’t extrapolate the latter from the former, even if I tried. Once I explain this to the writer and ask to see a snippet of the writing itself, I follow this with instructions for sending one. Again, pretty standard stuff.
Literary Agent Pitch Session Tips
Don’t Ask “How Did I Do?”
But imagine you’re a job interviewer at the end of an interview, and the candidate just sits there, looking at you expectantly. Or maybe they go so far as to ask, “Well, am I gonna get it?” Or, “How did I do?” Or you’re listening to a writer pitching a book–having seen none of the writing, which is what you’re “hiring” as an editor or agent–and they lean forward and ask, “So, is it gonna get published?” Or, “Did I do okay?”
We’re not a guaranteed 30-second decision credit card application hotline, guys. These are questions that have no right answers and, more often than not, they put the asker at a disadvantage.
Keep Your Insecurities to Yourself
Whenever you go from professionally presenting yourself in a literary agent pitch session, to letting your ego and insecurities drive the situation, you cross a line. The first question puts me in the very awkward position of reminding you that I haven’t seen the writing yet and, besides, I am just one person and certainly not the final word in what does and doesn’t get published. How am I supposed to know whether your work will sell, sight-unseen? Even if the premise sounds good, I don’t want to get your hopes up or seem like I’m making any promises, so the only thing you’ll get from this question is, likely, a tactful dodge (read more about premise vs plot). The second question asks me to outright lie to you about your pitch performance because nobody who asks “Did I do okay?” usually wants to hear anything resembling the truth. (And it’s the people who feel like they have to ask who usually didn’t do that well…)
In Person vs. Written Query — Etiquette is the Same
The fact is, the percentage of people who get their work picked up at conferences is equal to or just slightly higher than the percentage who get plucked out of the slush. (1% to 5%, depending on who you ask. And the reason conferences might be slightly higher is that they usually attract people who are further along in their writing or making a firmer commitment to getting published. Paying for a conference does not guarantee you’ll get published, of course, but most do attract a more serious writer.) I always applaud writers for showing up to conference, but I’m afraid that they have to play by the same rules as everyone else submitting, unless they’re in the rare situation that they make a deeply personal connection with a faculty member, in which case the game might change. Whether you’re presenting your work face-to-face in a literary agent pitch session or in a written query, the etiquette is the same: the agent or editor still wants to see the writing, and an instant decision should not be expected. (Check out this post for more on query etiquette.)
No matter how tempting it is to ask about your odds or performance, especially since you have a real, live agent or editor sitting right there, I would advise against it. I’d hope it’s awkward for you, and that you have that kind of self-awareness. Because it sure as heck is awkward for us on the other side of the desk.
A strong manuscript is your best asset in a written query or in-person pitch. My book editing services will help polish your project before presenting it professionally.
One Reply to “Literary Agent Pitch Session Tips”
Thank you for your fabulous (and funny) info at the Willamette Writers Conference pitch practice. Your concise and direct feedback to others helped me craft a stronger pitch.
I’m sad our pitch session was cancelled. I hope you will return next year.