As we head into conference season, goosebumps start to rise and stomachs start to knot over the prospect of pitching. I’m going to be delving into the how and whys of pitching later in the spring, but for the sake of all of you readers who are looking at pitching for the first time within the next few months, I am going to plumb that inexhaustible source of wisdom lurking here in our little community: all of you out there who HAVE pitched before.
C’mon, I know some of you have pitched before; I’ve seen you do it. Time to share your experience with others.
So, tell us: what do you wish someone had said to you immediately before the first time you pitched? How did you deal with pre-pitching nerves? What helped you through the experience?
To start the ball rolling: one of the first times I pitched, I was trying to get an agent for a very serious literary novel set in an academic environment. So I looked through the agent listings for the conference and picked the one and only agent there who professed to be interested in academic work. (In retrospect, this was a mistake: I wasn’t trying to sell an academic book; I was trying to sell a novel, so I should have pitched to someone who represented literary fiction.)
The agent was not, how shall I put this, a warm and fuzzy human being: walking into her cubicle was like entering one of those houses of horror Vincent Price used to frequent in old B movies. You could have stored ice cream on her tongue. But I was there to pitch, so I screwed up my nerve and began.
She stopped me at the second sentence. “Doesn’t interest me,” she said. “Why isn’t it a memoir? It would be easier to sell.”
To a novelist, this always seems like a trick question, doesn’t it? “Because it’s not about my life,” I said politely. “It’s fiction.”
She folded her arms across her chest, sighing like Nurse Rachet about to sedate an out-of-control patient. “Not a market for it as fiction. Maybe you should write about something else.” And then she blinked at me, clearly delighting in the expression on my face.
Now, I could have burst into tears — believe me, it would have required no effort at all at that particular moment. I could have asked her to have the basic courtesy to listen to the rest of my pitch before she told me to give up writing fiction altogether. I could have argued with her. I could even have pointed out to her that the vast majority of agents and editors are not sadists, and that they do not use pitch appointments to get their jollies by telling people to shoo.
However, I was lucky enough to grow up around a whole lot of writers, and if I learned anything from that experience, it was that the rare agent who doesn’t like writers cannot be sufficiently avoided.
I gathered up my bag — which was, incidentally, carrying cards from agents who had been charmed by my pitch — and stood. “Thank you for your time. Enjoy the rest of the conference.”
She was flabbergasted. “Wait! We have twelve minutes left. Don’t you want me to tell you how to market your book?”
She looked so distressed at my flight that I almost felt sorry for her. But not quite. “You’ve already told me it doesn’t interest you. Goodbye.” And I walked away, leaving her open-mouthed.
I hope, trust, and pray that none of you will have a pitching experience like this; this level of rudeness is in fact quite rare. I mention it, not to scare you, but to pass along something a very wise writer once taught me: “Pumpkin,” he said, “it’s YOUR story. If they don’t like it, walk away.”
That rather truculent advice, I must confess, has kept my head high walking into many a pitch meeting. The world, I remind myself, will not end if this agent or editor does not like my book. He’s probably going to be nice to me. And if he isn’t, he is not the only agent or editor in the world.
Now it’s your turn, readers who have pitched before. Tell us: what thought kept your head high and your knees from knocking during that meeting?