Let’s talk about this: please share your pitching experiences

I’ve been getting such great feedback from readers returning, exhausted, from the Conference That Shall Not Be Named about their pitching experiences that I want to extend an open invitation for attendees (of this or any other pitch-centered conference) to post their insights as comments here.

There’s nothing like a writers’-eye view for getting the skinny on the perils of approaching agents and editors — and it would be hard for the dispatches from the pitching front to be any more up-to-date than this.

So do share your thoughts: how was it different from what you expected, and what part of preparation helped you the most? What do you wish you had known before you pitched, and what did you hit out of the ballpark?

I’m sure writers gearing up to pitching for the first time would love to hear it. Heck, we’d all like to hear it, wouldn’t we?

A couple of caveats: keep your observations G-rated, please, and for your own sake, please forbear from naming names. (I learned at a recent after-hours party that my readership amongst industry types is quite a bit broader than I had realized, and I don’t want to be the means of anyone’s burning any bridges that might conceivably be handy in crossing rivers down the line.)

To get the ball rolling, at a recent conference that I shall not identify, I noticed (and so did the agents and editors) that the pros’ schedules had been set up so tightly as to minimize their non-appointment time wandering around the hallways to a practically unprecedented low. To put it as delicately as possible while still conveying meaning, their scheduled social obligations seemed often to result in oversleeping and an aversion to loud noises in the morning hours.

Which necessarily sharply limited the hallway pitching opportunities for anyone who was not habitually distributing bloody marys with one hand and coffee with the other.

Frankly, I’d never seen this happen before, at least not to the extent of — and this is just a rumor, mind you — cancelled a.m. pitching appointments. It made me wish that I had given my readers a heads-up about the possibility of having either structurally or socially limited access. I promise that I shall be racking my brains to come up with a few clever strategies for dealing with it in future, but I would love to hear how readers handled it in the present.

So I am turning it over to you: what did you learn from your pitching experience that might help others? What worked for you?

PS: If you have complaints, compliments, or suggestions about how any conference you attend could be improved, you should contact the organization that threw it directly about them; please don’t assume that anything you say here will necessarily get back to them. Most conference organizers do take attendee feedback fairly seriously, and sharing your views might result in a better conference for everyone next year.

10 Replies to “Let’s talk about this: please share your pitching experiences”

  1. I’m SO glad people did research: since I’d been able to post so much information about attending agents and editors last year, it’s really been bugging me not to have been able to offer it this time around.

    Knowing the work of the person in front of you makes a world of difference, both at the time and down the line, when you’re networking. You never know when you’re going to end up at a literary party, chatting with an editor who, say, used to work exclusively on books for men, but has recently changed houses and focus — and thus is open to a pitch. Not that anything like that happened recently or anything.

  2. I took your advice and camped out at the agents/editors table all afternoon Saturday. (The staff who ran it were WONDERFUL, btw.) I saw 4 agents, all of whom asked for partials ranging from 30 to 100 pages.

    For me, what helped was practicing the pitch out loud a number of times. Also, my editor’s appt. was first, which was helpful. I got to hear five other pitches along with the editor’s feedback. Since most editors don’t take unagented manuscripts in my genre, it didn’t feel as though the stakes were as high as when pitching to an agent, i.e. it was a less stressful (for me) opportunity to practice in front of a pro.

  3. My first interview with an agent went badly–we both knew almost immediately that she wasn’t interested in me and I wasn’t interested in her. However, previously in the editor interview, the editor told me … as I’d already heard online … that my sort of story is the next big trend and listed the agents present that I definitely needed to meet (funny how that first agent wasn’t on her list). One was an agent I had been too shy to approach, for she already has a HUGE list that includes a few of my favorite romance authors. But at the editor’s advice I picked up an appointment. I was her last appointment of the day, I was so tired I was stumbling over words–and she was fabulous–wrote down notes about my work, told me to send her 50 pages, but also spent the appointment giving me detailed advice about younger agents building their lists that she would recommend and the specific editors that I needed to approach at various houses. She also highly recommended the specific agent that I had attended the conference to meet. I’d nabbed this agent earlier that day just to introduce myself, and she was every bit as nice as I’d heard from her published romance authors (I’ve been wanting to meet her for five years). She was my final scheduled appointment–I went in there and we started chatting–she asked about my story but almost immediately gave me this huge grin and said, ‘Kari, I was your judge in the contest. I LOVE your story and I want you to send me your entire manuscript”…and she gave me what I think is her home address so that it wouldn’t get lost in her slush pile at her office. We spent the rest of the time talking about our kids and possible markets (and her feelings regarding this mirrored my own).

    So I feel like I must’ve somehow swallowed an entire dose of Felix Felicis that lasted all weekend. The things that helped me most?:

    1) Anne Mini! Anne, your advice is always spot on and you really took all of the fear out of the conference experience for me. Thanks again!

    2) Research, research, research. I had googled my scheduled editor and two agents extensively, so it was no shock to me that the editor did not accept unagented manuscripts or that agent number one basically had no interest in my work (I’d scheduled her because her agency represented a leading local author in my genre who they helped to skyrocket to fame … which I mentioned immediately in the interview, only to be informed coldly that said author had left them for another agency. Oops. NOT an auspicious beginning for an interview).

    However, I’d also researched every other agent attending the conference who might be interested in my work on the chance that I might meet them, including the great woman I was too hesitant to approach. And the agent I specifically wanted to meet–well, on one of her author’s sites she had blogged in detail about herself and what she likes to see happen in a scheduled pitch. It was easy to structure notes around that and to be really prepared to speak to her.

    3) Like Serenissima, I was lucky to have the editor appointment first. I was also highly impressed by the fact that this editor and the two agents I liked truly did want to help me succeed. It wasn’t really about whether they loved or hated my pitch–the real value was that they listened and then gave me very focused and positive leads about what to do next … whether or not they ended up working with me. Informally, I’d had the opportunity to socialize Thursday night with the keynote speaker’s agent, and she told us that most of the agents attended conferences not to acquire material, but to share information. Their helpful approach made me realize that writing is a business and that success or failure in a pitch is absolutely NOT personal. So I was able really just to relax and enjoy myself, with none of the self-consciousness that would have hamstrung me in a pitching situation when I began writing a few years ago.

    Anne, the lack of elevator opportunities truly didn’t really bother me. I actually rode in an elevator with your agent and didn’t pitch (please don’t kick me!). But I know several people who lined up after the agents’ forum, quickly pitched, and had materials requested. And because agents were so tightly scheduled, there were several cancellations and the opportunity to grab a few extra pitch appointments.

    A long response–but I hope it encourages others to attend conferences with enthusiasm and without fear!


  4. Conference advice specific to shy people: Force yourself out of your comfort zone early and often. Go to one of those workshops where you have to turn to the person next to you and pitch your book. Sign up for an extra pitching appointment before you can think about it enough to chicken out. Sit in the front row at the agents’/editors’ forum (get there early), and raise your hand and ask a question. Make eye contact and smile at pretty much everyone you pass in the hall. When you’re waiting in the little group for your appointment, look around for someone else who is visibly nervous, and say something reassuring to them. (Not “God, I’m nervous too,” but “You’re pitching to Agent So-and-So? I hear she’s really easy to talk to. You’ll do great.”) Make believe you’re brave, like Oscar Hammerstein said.

    Advice for everyone: Do your homework. Know more about the agent (any agent you might conceivably pitch to, not just the one you were assigned an appointment with) than what’s in the conference brochure. If you can work in an admiring comment about one of her authors (preferably someone whose work has some resemblance, thematically, stylistically, or otherwise, to what you’re pitching), then it gives you an instant credibility boost, gives the agent a hook to remember you by (one of the agents I did this with, in an elevator pitch, actually asked me to mention the author again in my cover letter, to jog her memory of who I was), and gives you a few seconds of relating to one another as two people who just love good books, rather than, you know, gatekeeper and supplicant.

    What surprised me most: the agents and editors really WERE pleasant, and easy to talk to.

    What I wish I’d done better: been ready with some author-bio stuff. When an agent asked me what I did besides writing, I was so completely unprepared that I’m sure I came off sounding like the dullest person in creation.

  5. What Kari said about research is CRITICAL. If you don’t know who you’re going to be pitching to until 10 minutes before you pitch, research every single agent and editor who’s going to be taking pitches at the conference.

    An example of why research matters: At a recent conference I went to, one of the editors I was assigned to pitch to was from a house that doesn’t publish anything at all like my work and I knew that from my research. He is, however, from Boston and had mentioned during a panel that he was a Red Sox fan. So when I sat down I said “well, I don’t know about your taste in mysteries, but you have great taste in baseball.” We had some good laughs and he told me a great deal about what I needed to do to make my manuscript attractive to agents/editors who *do* handle that kind of thing. He even offered to look at a partial himself if I made some of those changes in order to give me further advice.

    Not to put things too delicately, but there’s another reason you want to do research: not every editor/agent who signs up to hear pitches is either competent or even honest. A few minutes online looking at the various agent/editor research sites will help you discover whether you should bother cornering such folks at cocktail parties! (I offer this from personal experience.)

    I have my notes on pitching in a post here:

  6. As it happened, my pitching experiences this year were not as numerically rewarding as last year. Then I ended up with two formal and one “hallway” pitch, all of which resulted in requests for material. Perhaps it was because of the apparent attempt to crutial informal contact with agents and editors that I did not have a chance to “run in to” agents in the hall. Nonetheless, I did come away with a request for material, both from an agent and an editor.
    I feel that it was a good arrangement in that I had my editor’s appointment first. This individual suggested that we not do our actual pitch, but that we do more of an elevator or hallway pitch, after which she explicitly told us what she was looking for. She passed along her contact information and asked that if we thought she would still be interested, to go ahead and send a portion of our work to her. This approach seemed to work well, as it allowed all seven of us to talk a little about our work. (The previous year, the first person dominated the time and left very little of the half hour session for the remaining writers. It also helped me to learn that this editor is a big fan of a series of books that are in much the same mold as mine.
    As to my agent appointment, I ended up switching from the one pre-selected by the organization, concluding (with help) that that particular agent might not have been the best for my particular type of work. I rescheduled with an agent who seemed to look for something special, something different, rather than focusing on particular categories or genres. The actual appointment went moderately well. The agent did say that perhaps my work might be to much into a specific genre for her tastes. She did seem a bit more interested when I mentioned that the editor had shown some enthusiasm for it. And with regards to what really matters, she did ask that I submit a partial to her.
    In addition, I did chance to meet with my originally scheduled agent in other circumstances, and inquired if I might send a query letter. As I wrap up loose ends from the conference, I shall most certainly send that query letter, as well as query letters to agents in attendance with whom I would have liked to have spoken but never had the chance.
    This year as last year, I did find an opportunity, that if I wrote a completely different catagory, I could have pitched my work. Both times, I found myself heading back to the room following the awards ceremony, and walking along with this same agent. However, as I write fiction and she only represents non-fiction, our conversation was in general, about the conference as a whole, the weather and other everyday and mundane things.
    While I did not come away with the amount of requests for submissions as I did the year before, it was still well worth it to have attended this year’s conference. To me, it is really great to be surrounded by hundreds of other writers, and to be so surrounded for the entire length of the event.
    P. S. My congrats as well to those readers of Anne’s blog who were named as finalists, and to those who placed! I know I met at least one of you. Hi Kim! Perhaps I met or interacted with more and didn’t know it.

  7. Hello Anne! I’m new to your blog and I wanted to tell you how helpful your posts have been, as I am considering attending my first conference in a few months.

    A couple of questions sprung up as I read your suggestions and others’ comments here…
    I’m not really sure that I’m ready to pitch yet. I’m still working on my first manuscript and I don’t know if it will be ‘marketable’ or even complete by the time I’m done. My question is, do you think I should schedule an appointment with an agent or editor? Is one preferable over the other? The agent and/or editor appts come with the price of registration… so it’s technically a ‘freebie’, but I’m not sure who to choose. I checked out the editors who write in my genre and most (except 1) accept unagented submissions, so I’m sure I could submit to them in later months when my manuscript is ready. But I’m also thinking maybe I can just use the time to speak with them about my work and my WIP (without trying to pitch) or about the ‘biz’ in general, or whatever other questions I can come up with! Is that what you would do if you were in my place? Who would you go for, an editor or agent? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, if you’re willing.

    Some of the readers here mentioned that the editors gave tips about the next step with your manuscript and I’m wondering if you asked directly about it or did it just flow with the conversation?
    I have no idea what to expect from a conference and since I’m a *ve-ry* shy introverted person I’m unsure about the whole process… it’s also why I keep having second thoughts about attending!
    On the other hand, a conference seems like a great opportunity to network with other writers as well as the editors and agents in the industry– provided I can work up my courage and speak out more than I normally do. 🙂 BTW, thanks to “md” for the suggestions for shy people– I’m sure I’ll keep those in mind!

    Anywho, sorry this is somewhat longwinded. Thanks again for your helpful posts, Anne, and thanks to everyone for sharing about your experiences!

    1. Welcome, Skye! What great questions these are, and what a perfect place to have posted them! I’ve been reading over the comments here, and *I’ve* kept wishing I’d heard some of these things before the first time I pitched.

      Yes, it is worth your while to schedule a pitch meeting, especially if it’s a freebie, if only for the practice. No need to tell them that the work is not complete, if it isn’t: pitch it as if it were, and send it when it is ready.

      Or not, if you prefer. It’s entirely up to you. A surprisingly high percentage of pitchers never actually send requested materials, so it is not as though you would be generating ill-will if you decided not to submit.

      In your place, I would probably go for an appointment with an agent, and I would probably do a dry run of the pitch. It’s been my experience as a pitching teacher that shy people benefit rather more from dry-run practicing than others, so it might well be fabulous to be able to walk into your first pitch meeting thinking, “I can be free to take this lightly, because this doesn’t really count.”

      UNLESS one of the editors in question handled a book that you really loved, or that you felt was very similar to yours. Then, it would be very worthwhile to book an appointment and ask the question Amy mentions above — how would you position a book like this in the current market?

      To which I would probably add: and if you had a book like mine, which agents would you query with it first?

      I’m a big fan of the direct question in pitch meetings, if only because the agents and editors occasionally encounter writers who are too nervous to speak. It’s hard for them to tell from their side of the desk whether a writer is just being polite or can’t quite cough out, “My book is a vampire romance…”

      Or is just very shy. And it is definitely true that agents and editors are often quite relieved to meet a writer who ISN’T trying to pitch them, so you may well end up in a great conversation.

      However, do be aware that there are some cranky souls who will look askance at writers who want to talk shop, thinking, “And why does this person have a pitch appointment with me? Couldn’t I be, say, running down the hall to grab my 18th Diet Coke of the day instead?” So not all of them will like you better for not pushing.

      But ultimately, what’s important here is that YOU get what you want and need out of the conference, not that you make the agents’ and editors’ lives easier. (Ooh, radical thought!) If you want to make connections for down the line, pitching is probably the better route; if you want to learn more about the particular market for which you’ll be writing — a perfectly legitimate and laudable goal — questions may serve you better.

      But either way you decide, I would HIGHLY encourage you to go to the conference in question, if only to make friends. Writers are often terrific people — generous, I think, at a higher rate than the general population. We’re well worth knowing.

      One of the best writers I know is as shy as it is possible to be and still speak occasionally, but after several years of conferences, she has oceans of friends to support her and her work. And to go to her book readings, so she has the comfort of a friendly face in the crowd.

      To help demystify the process a little, I would encourage you to air your concerns here as the conference date approaches — as you may see, there are many delightful, intelligent folks who understand what you’re feeling. That’s one of the reasons I started this blog, and believe me, for every person like you who is brave enough to share her fears, there are thousands who have the same worries.

      I would also suggest that it might ease your mind a little to go through the INDUSTRY ETIQUETTE category between now and the conference. Quite a few of the examples in that series take place at conferences, and even in pitching meetings, and seeing what can and can’t go wrong for a well-intentioned, nice, polite person might be helpful.

      Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine.

  8. Anne, Anne, Anne, where to begin? First, thank you for steering me right in so many ways and shame on me for ignoring some of your recommendations.

    Here’s what I did right: in my pitch, I used sensory details from a short scene in my book like the screenwriter in the film, The Player. Of the 6 pitches I made, all the agents raised an eyebrow or cocked their heads at the exact same instant. This suggestion Anne, was priceless.

    Here’s what I did wrong: skipped the moringing agent and editor panels, thinking I’d wing it from what I googled the night before in a jetlag haze. That landed me in an appointment with an editor who represents no one but men — he said as much in the panel–a fact known to everyone apparently except me. It was an awkward 30 minutes with 8 guys (why is everyone a guy I wondered) and me.

    Most of the agents I met was genuine human beings, exhausted, but nice, and were welcoming when I approached their table and sat down for my appointment. One, however, said nothing when I said hello and crossed her hands over her chest. For a moment I didn’t know what to do, then realized that she’s waiting for my pitch!

    I ended up asking all the agents/editors I spoke to how they have positioned books similar to mine. It may have been unorthodox and it surprised a few, but their answers were revealing of their experience, expertise, and character, important considerations for me.

    1. Ah, I know precisely the eyebrow raise you mean, Amy. It comes just before the greed sheen starts to shine from their eyes, the one that denotes, “I can SELL this!” They do so love to hear something they have never heard before.

      The positioning question was a VERY good one — it indicated that you had done your homework.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *