In a few days I’m going to be off to the ACFW conference in St Louis, where I’ll be spending two days listening to authors pitch their ideas. ACFW is a wonderful conference, with workshops aimed at both newbies and experienced types. All sorts of people will sign up to talk with me (I don’t have any say over who they schedule me to meet), and they’ll have a variety of questions: “Will you look at my proposal?” “Is this salable?” “What advice do you have for me in my current situation?” “Which houses might be interested in my story?” “How could I improve this proposal?” “Would you be interested in representing my book?” I never know what I’m going to see or who I’m going to talk with, so I was interested when someone sent me this question:
I’m getting ready for a writing conference, and while I think I have some great ideas for books, I find I always panic right before a pitch. I lose my train of thought (and my confidence), and have embarrassed myself more than once with rambling replies to agent & editor questions. What advice would you have for those of us who nerve out at key moments?
Happy to do this. Here are my ten keys to pitching an agent at a writing conference…
1. Review your book. I’m assuming you’ve already written your novel, since nobody is really taking on new fiction projects unless they are complete (or, if it’s a nonfiction book you’re working on, you’ve at least written a good chunk of it). So go back and look it over. Remind yourself what it is you want to say about your book. Be ready to give me a quick overview at the start of our conversation (“This is an inside look at the biggest crime spree in Nevada history, told by the detective who cracked the case” or “I’ve got an edgy suspense novel — Fifty Shades of Grey meets James Bond” or “Imagine if there was a way you could reduce your chance of getting cancer by 50%, and all it took was a simple change in your breakfast habits?”). In other words, be able to give me something interesting about your book in a sentence or two.
2. Create your script. Write out what you’re going to say about your book, word for word, so that you’re sure you cover all the essential elements in as few words as possible. Some conferences only give you three minutes to do this, though many give you ten minutes — which means you want to get through the book’s description in order to engage the agent or editor in conversation. So give me a quick fly-over of your story. Hit the major plot themes, say something about your lead characters, and reveal why it’s unique. Use specific images in your wording to make it stand out. And have an ending, so it’s clearly time to engage in conversation.
3. Practice your pitch. That is, you’re going to want to sit down with your script, and say it, out loud, as though I was already sitting across the table from you. Don’t skip this part — it’s what will make your pitch better and give you confidence. It’s what will best help you prepare, so you don’t get tongue-tied once we’re actually face to face. (Sure, when you go into the bathroom to practice out loud, your family will think you’ve lost your mind. Don’t worry! When you told them you wanted to be a writer, they already determined you had lost your mind.) I think knowing what you’re going to say and having already practiced it out loud is the single best thing you can do to develop confidence. You don’t really want to sit and read it to me. You want to sit and say it to me, which means you’ll want to go over this enough times that it just feels natural. You may bring your entire script with you to the meeting, or you may just bring an outline with your bullet points. But practice saying it before you sit down and start talking with me.
4. Find the highlights. Think through how you’re going to make your book stand out to an agent who is going to hear 50 pitches at the conference. Maybe you have a great opening line. Perhaps your story is related to today’s news. Maybe you have unique qualifications for writing this book, or a huge platform to support it, or an endorsement from someone fabulous. Include that in your pitch. Don’t oversell the book (I don’t want to hear that this is the best fantasy since The Lord of the Rings), but let me hear something that will make me remember it. As my mentor once said to me, “Don’t tell me your novel is funny — read me a line that makes me laugh.”
5. Research the agents and editors. I don’t represent children’s books or poetry or gift books. Yet I know somebody is bound to make an appointment with me and start by saying, “I’ve got this wonderful gift book of poems for children that I want to tell you about.” (Then, when I explain that this might be a fabulous project, but it’s not going to be a fit for me, they’ll looked hurt and panicked, and they’ll turn in a critical comment about me to the conference director. Sigh…) Look, what I represent is on my website. The books I’ve represented are listed on Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly. I have a blog where I talk about authors and projects. Anyone who can’t figure out what I do and don’t represent simply isn’t trying very hard. So spend some time researching, to make sure you approach the right people.
6. Know what you want. I will often say to writers, “What’s your expectation for this meeting?” Do they want career advice? Do they want to talk about the salability of their story? Do they want to ask questions about creating a better proposal? Knowing what you want from the person you’re meeting is critical. And if it’s simply, “I want to find an agent to represent my work,” then have realistic expectations. You’re not going to get signed by an agent at a conference. (And if you get offered representation by somebody who hasn’t so much as read your work, be aware that you’re about to sign with a bozo.) A more realistic expectation would be, “This agent agreed my story sounds interesting, and he/she is going to go back, read my proposal, and engage me in a conversation of some kind.” This is a business, and you don’t race to say YES to the first guy who expresses random interest in your work. You do your due diligence.
7. Have something with you. I differ from a lot of agents in that I think you’re always best to have a short overview and some sample pages with you at the meeting. You may not get to them, but what if you tell me something and I say, “Holy cow — that sounds amazing! Can you show me some writing?” Publishers aren’t buying ideas, they’re buying writing. So having some with you is a good idea. I realize some conferences will dissuade authors from bringing any writing, since the fact is most of us won’t take pages with us — too bulky for a carry-on, the pages will just get bent, and we really just want to read it on a laptop anyway. Still, I like talking with an author, then having him or her show me the first couple pages of the book. That tends to reveal if this person is actually a writer, or just someone with a cool idea.
8. Look good. You’re meeting with a professional. Dress like one.
9. Be polite. Everybody likes meeting nice, interesting writers who can talk naturally about their books. Nobody likes meeting an arrogant know-it-all. (On more than one occasion I’ve had authors ask me to sign a non-compete before talking. Good grief… I decline, and start looking at my watch.) So have a conversation. Don’t stalk me. Show me you’re a real person. If you’re nervous, take a deep breath and tell me you’re nervous (I’ll say to you, “then forget the speech, and just tell me about the book you wrote”). Editors and agents are simply people working in the industry, the way you work in your field. Most are pretty good at what they do. You really don’t have to fear them, or act like you’re meeting the Royal Family. They are there to talk with you about your writing.
10. Listen to the response you receive. Don’t be surprised if an editor doesn’t like your idea, or if an agent suggests changes. They could be all wet, but they’re trying to do their job by offering you some experienced perspective. So listen, take the criticism, and reflect later on whether or not you’ll implement their idea. But don’t use your small bit of time to argue. I think my least favorite part of one-on-one meetings is having an author argue with me — not because I’m always right, but because they paid money to come hear what I have to say, and now they want to haggle with me over it. (But, if you’re taking notes, I am always right.)
Let me know if you found this helpful, or if you have other questions about pitching agents and editors at conferences. Hope to run into you at a conference soon!