A few weeks ago I attended my third Writers Meet Agents conference hosted by the League of Vermont Writers. If you live anywhere close to Vermont and are looking for an agent, you need to attend this conference. LVW does a fantastic job of getting top agents from around the country who represent many different genres. They sit on panels, some of them give individual talks, and you can sign up for 10-minute pitch sessions. This is terrifying but such an important experience if you are going the agent route. Even if you’re planning to self-publish, it doesn’t hurt to practice your elevator pitch for the endless hours you are going to spent trying to market your book.
This time was a unique experience for me, because with my first book recently published and my agent signed in 2016, it was the first time I wasn’t there to pitch. At my first meeting back in…2010? (12? Who can remember? ), I pitched my first book, THE ROAD UNRAVELED. The agent and I didn’t connect, but even though she said “I mean you can send it to me, if you want,” I somehow computed this into a win, sent her my submission, and never heard from her again. The second time I was pitching FRIENDS AND OTHER LIARS, (at the time called Less to Carry), having shelved The Road Unraveled due to complete failure to obtain representation. Both the agents I pitched thought it was a great concept and asked me to submit. One of them I really didn’t connect with and later did not find very good information about online. The other one I submitted to and was ultimately rejected. So, even though many many many writers with agents have gotten them through in-person pitching, that was not to be my path.
So needless to say, I felt about a billion times more relaxed this time around knowing that I didn’t need to market myself and my book all in about three minutes whilst trying not to sweat through my shirt. But I also felt a little like an intruder. I kept the fact that I’ve published a book quiet until one attendee blatantly asked me why I wasn’t pitching. I kept it under wraps before that because I didn’t want to come across as arrogant, (although, the table told me, I should have been shouting it from the rooftops, I know they all would have wanted to set me on fire had I actually done that. I know because I would have wanted to if I were them).
So I skipped the first few sessions on how to get an agent, but I still knew that just being in a room full of writers is a valuable experience. It’s a little mecca of creativity that keeps me inspired, that reminds me that there is a huge, vibrant community of unique people out there who share my dream. Within 10 minutes of finding my seat (after 10 vulnerable minutes of “Is anybody sitting there?”), I found two women who wanted to form a writing group, and we have a “date” later this month to meet and figure out how to critique each other’s work. If these women become valuable crit partners, the conference just paid for itself. And that’s before the cool workshops I attended that helped me realize a few things I need to tweak in my WIP.
Throughout the day, the big questions everyone was asking each other were 1) Are you pitching/Did you pitch? and 2) Are you nervous/How did it go? Some of the answers to this second question made me cringe, but I didn’t want to crush anyone’s spirits or come across as a know-it-all just because I’ve published a book. So I thought I would write this post for those of you looking to pitch an agent in hopes it can be helpful before the big day.
These are some examples of snippets I overheard and some comments that may help you if you are preparing to pitch:
“They told me I needed to add 10-20,000 words and then they might be interested. But I told them I was an English teacher so my writing is very tight, so I think I’ll send it along as is and they’ll remember that I know what I’m doing.”
So many things wrong with this. First of all, it’s totally cool to include a SHORT bio in your pitch if you have writing cred (an M.F.A., something else that’s been published, experience as a journalist, etc.). Being an English teacher is kinda relevant, but it’s not a dealmaker, especially not if this is your first book and you’ve never been published before. No agent is going to be like “Novels are generally 80-100,000 words, and this woman’s is 60, but hey she’s an English teacher so what do I know?” You might know writing but they know the business. And that’s the partnership you want – you focus on the writing, they focus on the business.
Second, this person used the word “them,” which tells me the person pitched more than one agent and got the same feedback. Now, I’m not saying that every piece of feedback you receive you need to act on. You have to make the right choices for your work, (please please please based on your instincts and not your ego), because it’s not worth getting into the publishing game if you’re not proud of the work you’re putting out there. BUT, if you are getting many people who are experts in their field telling you the same thing…they’re probably right.
Third, no qualification in the world will overcome the defensive and superior attitude this person displayed. Remember that agents are looking for more than your writing; they’re looking at you as a whole package. If you have great writing and qualifications but your attitude is entitled and all around sucky in your first meeting, then how difficult will it be for them to suggest changes to your book that will help it and you be more successful?
No matter what, listen, be humble, and say thank you to any agent who bothers to give you feedback. If you have been querying at all, you know that most agents cannot take the time and respond only with a “not for me” form letter.
“I told them how much my friends liked it.”
Oh geez, just don’t say this. Like, just don’t bother. Even if your friends are total unsupportive bitches and still liked the book, agents do. not. care. if your friends or your mom or your sister liked your book. Even if you know for sure that your readers are being honest with you, even if one of them is a local news reporter or another aspiring author or an English teacher. These peeps are great for reading your book, and may have even provided great feedback, but they are not agents, they are likely not experts in the industry, and they don’t read hundreds of manuscripts a week. All that your friends liking it tells them is that you do, indeed, have friends that like you enough to devote hours to reading your novel.
“I wasn’t quite finished summarizing the plot when they called time, so I didn’t get any feedback, but I think she liked it.”
You should practice your pitch and time yourself many times before you get to the big day. Don’t worry so much about memorizing word for word, but get some bullet points down on paper and time yourself as you talk. Trim, trim, trim. The summary of what your book is about (NOT the entire plot), should only be like 3 minutes. The rest of the time should be a regular ‘ole conversation where they ask you targeted questions and you answer and maybe ask them a question or two that’s been burning on your mind and shows that you are doing your research on the industry (for example: “I’ve always thought of this book as a potential series, do you see that fitting into my genre?” NOT “Will you be my agent?”). You want to leave time for this, because this is where you will (maybe) make an actual connection with your potential agent. And this is where they might give you valuable feedback you can take back to your work and/or your pursuit of representation. And you will smile and stay open and say thank you, RIGHT?
“They told me my book was unpublishable because all my research came from Wikipedia.”
Oh. Just…no. I don’t know the full context of this, but I know for an agent to have said that the book must have been heavily based on the research, and that research was probably wrong. Seriously, my heart broke for the person who said this. Anyone who has written a novel-length work (around 100,000 words) KNOWS how much time goes into a book. To be told it’s unpublishable, whether the person should have put more of that time into research or not, is devastating.
“I went bold and told them I wanted to be the next J.K. Rowling.”
If the agent on the receiving end of this “boldness” didn’t roll their eyes, they deserve a medal. Because first of all, DUH, everyone wants to be the next J.K. Rowling, regardless of the genre they write in. And while you may think it’s cute to say this, and may even demonstrate your level of ambition, agents are not going to think either of those things. All this tells them is that your expectations are unrealistic, that you haven’t done the research on your market, that you might even be a diva! Agents know you want to be as successful as possible, otherwise you wouldn’t be there.
“I didn’t really prepare anything, I just sat down and started asking her what and who she represented.”
Facepalm. This person didn’t just freeze, they just didn’t even bother to prepare. This makes me, a Type A overpreparer, want to scream. But let me calm down to explain: this is your shot to impress someone who could sell your book. To a publisher. For money. Don’t phone it in! Be prepared! Do some research on the agent, find out what they like and if your book is up his/her alley; prepare a few sentences about what your book is about, practice some answers to common questions agents ask, come up with one or two questions you can ask them (NOT what genres do they represent). It’s a pretty nerve-wracking thing you can’t ever be 100% prepared for, but in this day in age there is no excuse for not going in there with your shit together.
This post is getting very long, so I won’t go further, but Here’s a great article about all the elements of a pitch, questions you might be asked, etc. Read it. And read many many many other articles a few weeks in advance. Practice your pitch in the mirror, with friends, with your dog, whatever. And when it starts to feel more natural, stop. Practice once or twice the morning of the conference and then relax, trust that you’ve got it down, and breathe.