So you’re going to a writer’s conference that boasts a plethora of agents and editors just chomping at the bit to hear about the book you’ve been sweating over for the past five years. This is the chance you’ve been waiting for. No pressure! So what do you do? How do you pitch your book in such a way that grabs their attention and makes them beg you for a copy? Here are some tips to help you gain an edge on the nerve-wracking experience that is pitching your book at a writer’s conference.
Be succinct: You typically have a short amount of time to make your pitch, (sometimes only a few minutes), so spend that time showing me what makes your book stand out from other books on the market. I often like to ask questions during a pitch, so make sure you leave me enough time to do that.
Be specific: There are millions of books about women who travel somewhere far away and end up finding themselves/learning to love themselves, so if that’s what your book is about, focus on the details of where she goes/who she meets/what she does, in order to make your book stand out. For example, it’s one thing to say that your character travels to Tibet to find her spirituality, it’s another thing to say that she lives in complete silence with 50 Tibetan monks for 4 months. The first description sounds like tons of other books on the market, the second description peaks my interest and makes me think, “Wow! What was that like?”
Think of it as a conversation: I often hear pitches where the author recites their query letter that they painstakingly memorized. I understand why authors do this. They’re spent hours crafting a query letter that perfectly and succinctly describes plot and characters, while revealing their unique, creative style. These kinds of pitches are ok, but oftentimes the author’s well-constructed sentences and creative word choice end up sounding convoluted and awkward when spoken aloud. Most people use simpler vocabulary and sentence structure when they’re having a conversation than when they’re writing a query letter, which is helpful to an agent because there is a difference between reading words on a page and hearing them spoken aloud. When I read a query letter, I have the time to process it as quickly or slowly as I want, which is especially helpful if I’ve had a long day and I’m having trouble focusing. When an author says his/her query letter out loud to me, I have no control over the speed at which I hear it. I have to process it immediately, because the author is already on to the next plot point. And if I miss a few words because the room is noisy, (which it always is), I miss important parts of the pitch. When you have a conversation with an agent about your book, instead of reciting a memorized script, you use simpler language that’s easier to follow and you automatically leave pauses between each idea, which gives the agent time to process what you’re saying and ask questions.
Agents are just people: I know it seems like agents are these demi-god decision makers with your fate in their hands, but we’re really just people. People who are actively seeking out what you’re offering (books). So don’t worry about saying the right thing to impress us. Just take a deep breath, and talk to us like you would talk to a friend.
Don’t attempt to relay your entire plot: I think one of the reasons authors memorize their query letters is so that they don’t forget any important details when they’re pitching the book. So let me just say, the purpose of a pitch is not to relay the complete synopsis of your book. It’s to give the agent enough relevant details about the plot and the characters to intrigue them, and make them want to read your book. This is especially true when you’re at a pitch event where you have five minutes or less to make your pitch. If you have a 10-15 minute pitch appointment, obviously you have a lot more time to make your pitch, so you could cover the entire plot. Whether you have three minutes or fifteen, use that time showing me what makes your book stand out from other books on the market. That is usually more important than telling me, “First, she goes over here and fights this bad guy. Then she goes over here and fights this other bad guy.”
Research who you’re meeting with in advance: I represent a pretty wide range of fiction and nonfiction, but there are certain types of books that grab my interest immediately. I love mysteries, historical fiction, and character-driven stories that skirt the line between commercial and literary fiction. I love books with rich character psychologies, (especially psychological thrillers). I love books set in the Victorian era, (especially in London). I love retellings of Hamlet. I love books featuring multicultural and LGBT characters. I love fictionalized stories about famous historical figures. So if you say to me, “I have a literary mystery set in Victorian London featuring a closeted gay detective,” I’ll be dying to read your book. The same goes for if you tell me, “I’m writing a fictionalized account of Emily Dickenson’s life” or “I’m writing a retelling of Hamlet, set in feudal Japan.” So if you can figure out what buzz words will catch the interest of the agent you’re pitching to, be sure to use them. (Provided they actually apply to the book you’re pitching.) And you may need to look beyond the agent’s website to figure out what those buzz words are. Sometimes if you google an agent, you’ll find interviews they’ve done, their Twitter page and a bunch of other valuable resources that can give you a greater sense of their specific interests.
A pitch is not a job interview: I see authors put so much pressure on themselves about pitches. It’s like they think this is their make or break moment, and if they screw it up, they’ve ruined their chances with that particular agent. And that just isn’t true. During pitch appointments, there are definitely some pitches that grab me more than others, (because they used my personal buzz words), but I know the proof is in the writing. Even if I love the concept of a book (which is what you’re pitching to me), if I can’t connect to the writing, I’m not going to represent it. So that’s why I always say, a pitch appointment is not a job interview. It’s more like going to a job fair and talking to a recruiter. When you pitch your book to me, I haven’t read your writing yet, so if the concept of your book sounds within the bounds of my interests, I’ll usually ask to see a query, synopsis and the first two chapters. Which is sort of like a recruiter saying, “Send me your resume.” Your writing itself is the job interview. Every agent is different in how they handle pitch appointments. Some will only ask to see books they’re seriously interested in, and some will ask to see anything that catches their interests. Either way, if you do your research to figure out which agents will be most interested in your type of book, treat the pitch like a conversation, and bring up the most interesting/unique elements of your story, you will have done your best.