How to Pitch Agents at a Writers Conference

pitching agents at writers conferences
Photo credit: World Relief Spokane via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

This summer, I’ll be speaking at the Midwest Writers Workshop (Muncie, Indiana) and the Writer’s Digest Conference (New York City). Both events involve agent/editor appointments, and few things instill such a high level of anxiety in writers as an agent pitch. Because of this, some conferences wisely provide special rooms writers can retreat to after an appointment or pitch, staffed with knowledgeable folks, who talk them through the emotional high or low they’ve just experienced.

I’ve attended several hundred conferences over the course of my career, and listened to perhaps thousands of pitches. While it’s important to get out there and interact with professionals and understand how to pitch your work—and treat your publishing effort like the business that it is or can be—pitching can be a difficult task for the new writer. Here’s how to make it a little easier on yourself.

It’s normal to be nervous. Compensate by overpreparing.

If you’re inexperienced in pitching, you are more likely to walk into the meeting nervous and anxious—and unsure what to expect. And all of that anxious energy can detract from the quality of the pitch, particularly if you haven’t prepared what you’re going to say.

When I was an acquiring editor, writers who pitched me would often fill the first few minutes with apologies for being nervous, or rambling about inconsequential details of their personal life or writing life. That’s exactly what you don’t want to do.

The good news is that agents/editors know too well the pressure you’re feeling, and they’ll be very forgiving of your nerves. But it’s harder for them to help if you haven’t come prepared with a focused pitch. So come up with a 30-60 second pitch for your work using one of the following methods. While I’d try memorizing it, don’t hesitate to write it down and read it from an index card.

Option 1 (novels/narratives)

I have a completed [word count][genre] titled [title] about [protagonist name + small description] who [conflict].

Option 2 (novels/narratives) 

  1. What does your character want?
  2. Why does he want it?
  3. What keeps him from getting it?

Option 3 (novels/narratives)

  1. Character name/description
  2. The conflict they’re going through
  3. The choices they have to make

Nonfiction pitches (not narratives)

Answer the following three questions:

  1. So what: What is the relevance of your topic and why is it important?
  2. Who cares: Who is this book going to help? Whose problems will it solve?
  3. Who are you: Why do you have the authority, credibility, and/or platform to be the author of this book?

Keep it short. Brevity is your friend! Just because you have three minutes (or 5 or 10) doesn’t mean you should take up all the time. Never talk for as long as possible—it can take a mere 15 seconds to deliver a convincing storyline. The longer you talk, the less time the agent or editor is talking. You want to hear their feedback and reaction.

Stop at a moment of tension and wait. Rather than talk and talk, remind yourself that it’s OK not to explain all the details or the final outcome. If possible, let the agent guide the discussion; find out what’s caught their attention or what piece is missing.

Demonstrate openness to feedback.

If you demonstrate flexibility and openness to feedback during the pitch, the agent or editor will remember that. In today’s publishing environment, agents and editors look for people they’d enjoy working with, who are focused on long-term career growth and success. A writer who’s too invested in a single project, and seeks validation for a book they’ve worked on for a decade or more, can be a red flag. It’s a sign of a writer stagnating rather than growing.

Don’t rely on an emotional approach or appeal.

Some writers expect their heart and their passion for their book to carry the pitch. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Unfortunately, feeling passionate about your work doesn’t always translate into a persuasive pitch. You have to know how to position and sell yourself, rather than stress your dedication to your work. Dedication is often assumed; salability is not.

Bring questions with you.

Develop a specific list of questions that, if answered, would help you better understand the strengths and weaknesses of your project or position. If you can, try to elicit answers that would help you develop next steps after the conference.

Take the pressure off: it really isn’t a make-it-or-break-it moment.

Some writers place too much importance on the pitch, treating it as the official verdict on whether they should continue as a writer or continue with a particular project. The truth is that in-person pitches have about the same success rate in gaining a writer representation as a cold query, less than 1 percent typically.

If you become overly focused on this mythic opportunity—and hearing that “yes” or “no” verdict—you might miss out on the biggest benefit of the pitch experience, which is getting instant feedback on your project. This is your chance to have a meaningful conversation with an industry insider about the market for your work. Such information can dramatically reduce future frustration and shorten your path to publication. Sometimes just five minutes of very insightful professional advice can change your perspective, approach, or slant. But this mindset is tough to adopt. “Education” or “course correction” are not the dream. The dream is “get an agent” or “get published.”

Writers often experience the pitch as a highly intense, emotional, and personal process. But whenever engaging in a business conversation (which is what a pitch is), it’s important to have some distance and perspective. That’s why I find it’s usually a pleasure to be pitched by authors who have a business or marketing background. They know that getting an idea shot down isn’t personal, and they’re more likely to be receptive to a conversation about the marketability of a project and alternative routes to success. To the best of your ability, try to approach the pitch process as part of the business of being a writer.

Be prepared for a lukewarm (or no) response afterward.

Agents and editors are human, too, and don’t want to reject you to your face. They may find it easier to say in person, “Sure, send us X pages.” And this is the dirty secret of pitch appointments: there’s a very high rate of agents and editors requesting materials. Many writers compare notes with each other at conferences, to see how many manuscript requests they scored. But this number is ultimately meaningless. Most writers, just like the ones who cold query, get rejected in a business-like fashion upon submitting their materials. Even worse, sometimes there is no rejection at all, just silence. Be prepared for this, no matter how well the pitch went. It’s just how the business works, and you have little control over how agents or editors respond after the fact. All you can control is your professionalism during the pitch, and how you steer the conversation while you have the agent or editor’s ear.

When is the right time to pitch agents?

I don’t recommend pitching your work unless you have submission-ready material—a completed, polished manuscript or book proposal, ready to go. It doesn’t do you much good to get an invitation to send materials, then not be able to follow up until the agent or editor has lost enthusiasm or forgotten all about you. It also puts you in the extremely unfavorable position of having to rush to get something done and possibly not put forth your best work. You don’t want to be in that panic, trust me. That said, if you’ve pitched before you should have, I think it’s much better to take the time you need to prepare and polish your work before sending. Rushing isn’t good for anyone in the end.

For all those writers who walk away disappointed from a pitch experience, remember that success is rarely attained in those specific five to fifteen minutes. Rather, it’s all the years of work leading up to that moment, and how someone’s years of experience give them the appearance of success—that feeling that they’re on the verge of breaking out. There’s not really any way to fake that, and it’s what agents and editors are ultimately looking for. People who have that breakout feeling look and feel prepared, and demonstrate a kind of easy confidence that makes them a pleasure to talk to. Breakout folks tend to ask smart questions. They demonstrate curiosity and engagement. And perhaps most important, they appear flexible but resilient when dealing with the business side of publishing. Agents and editors can tell they don’t have to fear saying the wrong thing around such a writer, or hurting their feelings. When agents and editors meet you and feel like they’d love to work with you, even if the project you’re pitching isn’t a good fit, then you’re on your way to breaking out.

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