Yesterday, I switched gears a little in my ongoing series on common faux pas writers inadvertently commit, infractions of industry etiquette the eager often stumble into without realizing. I had intended, from here on out, to talk about only what you should do, rather than what you shouldn’t. However, since conference season is coming up, with its concomitant pitching opportunities, I thought it would be a good idea to follow Norbert’s example from yesterday with another unfortunately pervasive conference misstep.
This next example is the one that most consistently breaks my heart, because it is almost always merely a side effect of the nervousness most writers feel the first few times they pitch their work — and, as such, seems to me disproportionately frowned-upon in the industry. This is the one that prompted me to establish the Pitch Practicing Palace, actually, because so very many first-time pitchers do it. Case in point.
Misguided approach 2: Olive has been querying her excellent first novel unsuccessfully for some years. Having read that it is easier to make contact with an agent at a literary conference than through cold querying (which is quite true, generally speaking), she plunks down a significant amount of cash to attend a major regional conference.
Once there, however, she becomes intimidated by both the enormity of pitching her beloved novel to a powerful stranger and the sheer number of confident-seeming writers around her, all geared up to pitch successfully. Since she knows no one there, she does not have an opportunity to talk through her fears before her appointment; she walks into her pitch meeting with agent Osprey shaking visibly.
Osprey is a nice enough guy to see that she is nervous, so he does his best not to be any more intimidating than their relative positions dictate. He shakes Olive’s hand, offers her a seat, and asks, not unreasonably, “So, what is your book about?”
His kindness is the last blow to her already tenuous composure. Staring down at the tabletop between her and the agent of her dreams, Olive is horrified to hear herself begin to babble not about the book, but about how difficult it has been to try to find a home for it. About her years of querying. About her frantic total revisions of the book after every 20th rejection or so. About how she has gotten to the submission stage a few times, but was never given any reason why her book was rejected — so when she sat down to revise again, she was doing it essentially in the dark.
She has become, in fact, the complete anti-salesperson for her book. Every so often, Osprey tries to steer her back toward the book’s content and why it would appeal to her target audience, but by now, it feels so good to talk to someone, anyone, in the industry about how hard it’s been for her that she just can’t stop. Her every third sentence seems to begin, “Well, you probably wouldn’t be interested, because…”
After awhile, Osprey stops asking questions, letting her ramble. When she finally works up nerve to glance up at his face, her throat contracts: his eyes are distinctly glazed over, as though he were thinking about something else. At that point, all Olive wants to do is run away.
“So,” Osprey says, making a note on a paper before him behind a defensive arm. “What is your book actually about?”
This situation is so sad that I hesitate to ask this, but what did Olive do wrong? Not from a writer’s point of view, but from Osprey’s?
From a writer’s POV, of course, her problem was lack of confidence that led Olive to go off on a tangent unrelated to her pitch, right? But Osprey is an agent well used to dealing with nervous pitchers: her fear alone would not necessarily have put him off.
Her real mistake was telling him — indirectly, of course — that she would be hard to help.
How? By not telling him what the book was. What book category, at what target market it aimed, who the characters are, what the premise is. What the book is ABOUT. Essentially, by airing her fears of rejection at such great length, Olive turned the pitch meeting into a guessing game for Osprey.
Translation: she made it clear to Osprey that if he wanted to hear about her book project — which is, ostensibly, the primary reason they are having this conversation — he was going to have to invest quite a bit of energy in drawing the book out of her. Sad but true. Even sadder, Osprey never got an opportunity to hear about Olive’s book, which is actually very well written.
Try not to judge Olive too harshly — she fell into a very common panic spiral. It may seem odd to those of you who have never pitched your work verbally, but in the moment, it’s amazingly common for pitchers to take five or ten minutes to calm down before they are able to talk about the book at all. This is why every conference guide ever printed will tell you to prepare your pitch in advance: so you actually talk about the book.
Advance preparation can substantially reduce the probability of falling into a panic spiral — or into the other form Olive’s faux pas often takes (I am re-using Olive here, to give her a happier lifepath):
Misguided approach 3: Olive has brought her excellent novel to pitch to agent Osprey. He shakes her hand, offers her a seat, and asks, “So,” he checks his schedule here, “Olive, tell me what your book is about?”
Delighted by his interest, Olive tells him her title, then proceeds to tell him the entire plot of the book, beginning on page 1. Ten minutes later, she has reached the end of Chapter 4.
Osprey looks shell-shocked, but that might just be effects of the day’s cumulative pitch fatigue. “Um, that sounds very interesting,” he says, standing to lead her back to the appointment desk, “but a trifle complicated for us.”
This version of Olive reached the same result — convincing Osprey that she would be hard to help — by completely opposite means. By presenting a kitchen-sink pitch, replicating the entire storyline rather than concentrating on the primary themes of the book, Olive told Osprey — again, indirectly — that he would need to put in a lot of effort to make her work market-worthy.
In other words, by prepping your pitch in advance (and don’t worry; I’ll do a nice, juicy series on how to do that between now and conference season), you are telling the agent to whom you pitch, “Here I am, making it as easy as humanly possible to help me. I am more than prepared to meet you halfway, and together, let’s walk the path to publication.”
Sort of disorienting, isn’t it, to think of it that way? Give some thought to how you can present yourself as easy for an agent to help, and keep up the good work!