Guest writer HOLLY LORINCZ is a novelist as well as a publishing consultant at MacGregor Literary, and Chip’s assistant. Before Mac Lit, Holly was the editor of a literary magazine and then an award winning instructor, teaching journalism, speech and writing at the high school and college level. She was also a nationally recognized competitive speaking coach for years, giving her a unique perspective on book pitches.
PITCHING: ARE YOU PREPARED?
By Holly Lorincz
The brilliant Chip MacGregor (the man who signs my checks) recently posted an article regarding what agents look for when they attend writing conferences. I would like to extend his comments on pitches, since many of you are getting ready for RWA.
When was the last time you were at a conference, pitching? Sitting in a hotel banquet room crowded with tables and sweaty, nervous writers? I’m not saying that to be judgmental . . . I’ve been that sweaty, nervous writer hoping to win over an agent with my charm, if not my book. I went in with my satchel stuffed with one-sheets, copies of the synopsis and the first fifty pages. I’d even made up clever business cards. I was dressed in a skirt and heels, making sure I didn’t look stupid even if I said something stupid. Which, with me, was bound to happen. And knowing that, I practiced the heck out of my pitch, making sure I sounded comfortable and natural (though completely memorized) while describing the hook and major premise in less than two minutes. I made sure the agents/editors I was signed up to talk to were actually looking for books in my genre, checked out their bios so I could try to figure out what they might be interested in. Oh, I had done my research. I was prepared.
Shockingly, a good chunk of the writers were less prepared. Or not prepared at all. They were using their expensive fifteen-minute appointments to sell themselves by showing off their crinkled khakis, yellowed athletic socks, cat sweaters and unbrushed hair. Worse, they didn’t have writing samples. Death, they didn’t bother to prepare a short pitch, stumbling about like a drunk trying to recite the alphabet backwards. I’d watch out of the corner of my eye the non-responsive agents and wonder if the authors couldn’t see the responses: crossed arms, the rubbing of the temples, the yawns.
At the time, I thought I was witnessing an anomaly, that other conferences would be different.
I was wrong. Now I’m on the other side of the table, as a representative of MacGregor Literary looking for the next great book. I am amazed at the number of writers who sign up to sell their book and yet come empty handed with no idea how to explain their work to others. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sensitive to the fact writers tend to be introverted, that a good chunk of them would rather be chewing on glass than trying to market themselves, or have a conversation with a stranger in a suit. I am well aware I’m working with a crew of people who are of the artistic bent, creativity oozing out of their Einstein mop of hair, writers who have a tough time creating a fact sheet stripped of similes or historical allusions. But I also happen to know writers are inherently bright . . . so why do so many shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to these pitches? I’ve come to believe that (1) they’re too busy to research what a pitch is supposed to look like, or (2) they think they know better than the agents what the agents want, or (3) their desire to give free reign to their artistic side gets in the way of the business side.
Again, I’m not judging. I’m not putting down. I realize I’m lucky, that I came at creating a pitch with a background most authors don’t have – I hold a degree in journalism, I’ve taught high school and college classes for years, and, best of all, I’ve been involved with competitive speech and debate most of my life. In short, I understand audience.
While preparing and giving a pitch, it is imperative you assess your audience. What do they want to hear? What are their expectations? What might be their biases? Well, in this instance, you’re addressing professionals, white-collar workers who typically come from a big city, Manhattan in particular. In their world, they are working with other professionals, people dressed in business apparel. Start with that. You’ve heard it before: you can only make a first impression once. Do you want that impression to scream “I can’t button my shirt so I probably can’t meet deadlines, either!” You don’t have to wear a suit (though I believe it shows respect and can’t hurt) but you definitely need ironed dress clothes. This doesn’t mean cocktail dresses or tuxedos – that’s overkill. It also doesn’t mean overly sexy clothes. I don’t really want to spend my time averting my eyes from the train wreck. I understand many people don’t want to abandon their sense of self while dressing, but can you tone it down? Maybe wear a flamboyant scarf or pair of boots, maybe a flower in the hair . . . but leave the fruit-laden turban at home. I’ll spend my entire time staring at your head instead of listening to your pitch. And I’ll tell you what I tell my debaters – take out most, if not all, of your face jewelry and make sure your fingernail polish isn’t distracting. Many professionals in their forties are going to automatically pass judgment on the younger generations’ proclivity to pierce their cheekbones. You know it’s true, so why take a stand in this instance? Again, you have fifteen minutes to get someone to take a look at your life’s work so why not play the Man’s game? Taking the time to dress appropriately can make the difference. Why not make the effort?
You’ve gone online, purchased business attire, and now you’re waiting for the UPS guy to show up . . . don’t go directly to Facebook or YouTube’s funny cat videos. You’ve got a lot more to do. Once at the conference, different editors and agents will want different things from you. You need to be prepared for all possibilities. Remember, the whole goal with these appointments is to get an editor or agent to agree to read more – no one is going to sign you on as a client because of a fifteen minute introduction, but you can hopefully persuade them to give you an email address so you can send the first fifty pages, or a complete non-fiction proposal, or maybe even the whole manuscript. You want to have writing samples and marketing information with you, just in case, and yet be prepared to sell yourself and your book with just your verbal pitch. Consider bringing copies of a professional one-sheet (one page briefly describing the premise of the book, why readers will buy it, similar books on the market, manuscript length and completion, and a very brief bio highlighting your writing experience), a one to two page synopsis (short and straight forward, highlighting major characters and plot points), and the first ten pages of the book. And when I say “consider bringing,” I mean “do it.” If I’m the agent and I’m interested enough in your pitch to ask for a writing sample, don’t you think you should have one?
Now. The pitch. Keep it short and succinct. Think: elevator speech. Introduce yourself politely, present the hook, the major premise and conflict, possibly a theme, and why readers will buy this book, and do this in less than three minutes. Time yourself. Practice it multiple times. Any longer than this for the initial introduction to the concept of your book and you are up against the tendency of a listener to get sidetracked, the human habit of blocking out words in favor of tracing the swirls in the carpet. Further, you need to move your prepared pitch into the realm of give and take. This little speech is supposed to be the jumping point into a conversation, where hopefully they will have questions for you, and you have the opportunity to express what it is you really want to get from this particular meeting (Feedback on the storyline? Questions on the market? Seeking representation? Be clear with yourself and the editor/agent about your goals.).
Almost more important than the content is you. You must sit up straight, lean a little forward, speak with enthusiasm (though not high pitched or at the speed of a chittering squirrel), make eye contact (but don’t stare), and project a pleasant, confident personality. Charisma. I understand you can’t just buy it on a street corner, and that most folks don’t feel horribly comfortable in this type of situation, but this is one time you really need to divest all your energy into faking it. The best favor you can do yourself is to practice the pitch so many times you can say it smoothly and naturally, and then practice the body language I mentioned. Videotape yourself, make sure you don’t come across as arrogant or a psycho killer or a monosyllabic bore. If you do, practice some more. Find yourself a real human to do a test run on.
In the end, just know you need to arrive prepared and not come across as crazy. Good luck. See you at RWA.