Pitch Mania

…wherein I wonder, to pitch or not to pitch? That is the question.

Last week, driving up to the Pennwriters Conference in Lancaster, I listened to the 10th Anniversary Concert CD of Les Miserables. It is the perfect length for this drive: CD 1 on the way up, CD 2 on the way home.

I’m partial to Les Mis because Marius was my first literary crush, the novel made me love literature, and I remain enthralled by the battle between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.

As someone of French heritage, I am inspired by the musical retelling of revolution. So I arrived inspired at the conference, ready to teach about craft and encourage my fellow writers to persevere against the odds.

Pennwriters puts on a terrific conference. There are courses on craft, marketing, query workshops and agent/editor panels. A full range of options, plus the big kahuna (for some): the pitch session.

The pitch sessions were ten minute meetings between a writer and an agent. Sometimes conferences charge extra for pitch appointments; sometimes not. At ten minutes a pop, an agent can see a lot of writers during a three day conference.  During both of my workshops, nervous writers invariably slunk away, trying not to be disruptive, as they left for a scheduled pitch.

For the pitch, the writer memorizes a one-line description of his/her manuscript that includes the genre, the plot and a hook. With luck, the agent will hear that line and say, “Hmm. Tell me more.” So the writer follows up with a longer, also verbal, version.

The pitch session is touted as a writer’s shot to impress an agent and, hopefully, score a request to send a manuscript for consideration. It’s Your Chance. Your Shot. Your Moment. Your Lucky Break.

This is a good thing, right? Agents come to conferences looking for new clients. There must be some value to the pitch session for both sides, and for the conference planners; otherwise, why would anyone do them?

All of this would be great, except for one thing.

Not all writers are great at distilling their work into neat, tidy, spoken, packages. I know this through emails and list-serve posts with writers agonizing over how to get the sentence exactly to form. Added to the stress of this is the fact that it’s verbal. Being an author does not necessarily mean you are a confident public speaker. Add to the agony and the stress the pressure of This Is Your Big Shot, and the result is high anxiety.

My room was across the hall from an agent’s. All weekend, I witnessed anxious writers going in and out of their pitch sessions. Every time I got off the elevator, people were sprawled in the foyer, lined up like the faithful awaiting a papal audience.

In the hallway, a very serious man was stationed like the gatekeeper to Nirvana in front of the agent’s door. The first time I approached, he looked at my nametag, checked his clipboard and asked if I had an appointment. Confused, I held up my card key and pointed at my door. He apologized for interrogating me and made a sheepish comment about sticking to the schedule, because if someone goes past their 10 minutes, it messes up everyone to follow.

It was kind of funny. At first.  At first, when I realized what the line in the foyer was for, I wished people luck. Knock him dead! You can do it! You’ll be great! But by Sunday, people who had been waiting for three days for their 10 minutes didn’t need cheerleading. They needed a case of Jack Daniels. I think I was less nerve-wracked awaiting childbirth—and I had twins.

The angst level was bizarre. And a little disturbing.

Am I alone in thinking the “you have 10 minutes with this exalted person to pitch your book, and it must be done this way or else” is a bit absurd? And, perhaps, a little demeaning? Is this the most effective way for writers to communicate? Would it be so wrong for an author to hand over a piece of paper? “I’m a writer, it’s a book, so here it is in writing.”

But that is only part of the issue. The process had a cattle call feel to it that bugged me more with each passing day. I saw so many nervous, upset people at this conference, where they should be learning, but instead were stressed out over the 10 minutes.

All of the agents and editors said they were open to emails from the attendees.  I sat between two editors at lunch, did a session with an agent, and had dinner with another agent. I have several golden opportunities, and I didn’t say a word my work as a writer (I did talk about editing.) I thought it would be boring for them and undignified of me. So we chatted about books and library funding and whether or not we get motion sickness reading on a train. They were all nice people, very accessible and normal and human. Not one of them asked me to kiss his ring.  When someone at the table asked about contacting them, they all said to send a query and mention the conference.

As an editor, I see how hard new writers work and how much heart and sweat they put into their stories. But publishing is a business, and writers are professionals. How professional is it to hook up with a guy you’ve never met before, in a hotel room, for an allotted few minutes, while you perform in a prescribed manner—and then be judged, to your face, on your performance?

I wonder if there are writers out there who dread the idea of a pitch, but think this is the only way to capture an agent’s notice.  It’s not. It’s one process, and maybe it’s a good one for some people. Many writers are perfectly fine with spouting their book descriptions verbally. For those people, good for you! The pitch session is an ideal vehicle and, by all means, take advantage of that opportunity.

But if you aren’t as comfortable with a verbal pitch; if the thought of memorizing  a descriptive sentence of your book makes you break out in a sweat;  if you pay hundreds of dollars to attend a conference and worry it will be ruined because you blow your ten minutes, I dare to say this:

Don’t pitch.

Send a standard query. Email a nice follow-up letter thanking the agent/editor for the informative panel discussion, and add a written pitch.

There’s more than one way to write a story, and there is more than one way to make contact with publishing professionals, too. If this is not the best way for you, don’t do it! Just say no. Don’t pitch.

So, what do you think? Are pitches the best and most effective way to get an agent? Is anyone who passes up a pitch session a fool? Is it okay to go the traditional written route? Am I just a big grumpy pants?

Ramona

9 thoughts on “Pitch Mania

  1. You won’t be surprised that I’m the weirdo around here. I LIKE the pitch sessions — but then again, I’m a licensed DJ and speaking in front of people (as you well know) is second nature to me.

    When it comes to the pitch sessions, I walk in with less of a focus on “Take me!” and more of a “Tell me if this idea has potential. Is it marketable.” One of the agents at Pennwriters told me it was a really smart idea.

    Doing this, I get uninterrupted face time with an industry pro. I don’t have to worry about getting near an agent and working up to a pitch — or being interrupted by someone who wants to be near the conferences rock stars.

    AND it takes the pressure off. “Here’s what I’m working on. Tell me how you view it” instead of “Pick MEEE!!!!!!”

    Ya know?

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  2. Susan, your comments are a great example of knowing your strengths and using them to your advantage.

    You nailed my point exactly. It’s the “Pick Me!” that made me crazy. But going your route–using that time as a discussion rather than a performance–makes full use of the opportunity. Bravo to you!

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  3. Ramona,

    I attended the International Thriller Conference last summer and opted in for the Agent Pitch Session for an extra fee. Reading your comments about the “cattle call” formula of such events brought back that guttural feeling of the several hour experience. My take on this may be similar to Susan’s. I found that in delivering my prepared pitch to a variety of agents I was able to get a feel for what they were looking for in a novel … no heavy politics, strong female characters, unique writing style. I did find that putting a face with a name was important and was glad I attended.

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  4. Darden, thanks for the insight, and it’s good to know the experience worked for you.

    I wonder if pitching to multiple agents, one after another, would be less stressful than the one-on-one in a room? Maybe in that regard the cattle call ambiance is helpful, because the individual writer feels less on the spot. Hmmm….

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  5. I hate the very idea of pitch sessions. It took me years to get comfortable speaking in front of people. The added pressure of having 10 minutes to make a pitch would turn me into a basket case.

    I’ve always resented those people who say you have to do a verbal pitch or you’re doomed as a writer. That writers who fail at this will never have chance in hell.

    Like you, I would much rather meet the agent on a panel or even in the corridor or bar, say hi and then later send a query saying I heard you or met you and here’s my written pitch. The last time I did this I got an immediate email back saying ‘Yes, send it by all means’ whereas if I had talked to her personally and tried to pitch I’m sure I would have flubbed it or stumbled and stammered through it. Feeling bad and hating myself afterward.

    So no, I don’t think it’s the only way to go.

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  6. I think it boils down to what you’re comfortable doing. If you’re outgoing and don’t freeze up when you’re nervous, pitches are fine.

    I don’t do the formal pitches. No matter how well I had my pitch down, I’d flub it. At conferences, I much prefer just sitting and chatting with an agent. I don’t even mention what I’m writing unless he or she asks. Make friends first, query later.

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  7. Pat and Joyce, thanks for the views from the other side. It sounds like you both have made conscious decisions that work for you, too.

    There is a part of me–my inner cheerleader–that’s tempted to say, No, don’t put yourself down! You can do this! But just as Susan recognizes her strengths, I think it’s important to acknowledge your comfort zone. If pitching it out of it, there’s another route.

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  8. I’m your Devil’s Advocate. 🙂 At a writers’ conference that I attended as a speaker, I was seated at the author/agent/editor reception between a veteran editor and a veteran agent. I asked them whether they’d ever picked up a new client at a conference pitch session. They both said no, and they said that their colleagues hadn’t done so either.

    Since they had no expectation of finding a client at that conference, their reasons for attending were to a) help writers focus their ideas, b) offer feedback, and c) keep their house/agency on the radar screen.

    In all the time that I’ve been writing, I’ve heard of two (2) authors who found their agents via a conference pitch session. There are always exceptions. Still…

    At that same conference, I helped writers at a pitch workshop. Several writers at my table had difficulty sharpening a pitch because their manuscripts were either unfinished or were lacking in structural integrity. If your ms. is unfinished, or it has problems with theme, conflict, or plot, you won’t be able to pull together a concise pitch. That’s where you’ll find the vast majority of writers who pitch to agents at conferences.

    If you’re an author who is between publishers, and you’ve done your research, a pitch session with a targeted agent or editor might help you make a viable connection. Otherwise, IMHO I think you should focus your conference time on improving your craft, networking with other writers, and having fun.

    Suzanne Adair
    http://www.suzanneadair.com

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  9. Suzanne, thanks for another interesting perspective.

    I love your comments about why pitches weren’t coming together during the workshop you led. What a learning experience. I also love the term “structural integrity.” I am so going to add that to my teaching lexicon.

    I do know some authors at Pennwriters whose pitch sessions resulted in requests for manuscripts. I hope they have the best success with that.

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