Let me come right out and admit that I have a terrible track record when it comes to making pitches at conferences. At least, I’m not so good at selecting the right agent for my four-minute sit-down appointment. Cherry Weiner waved me away with one stroke like she was a cynical fairy godmother and I was a wanna be frog prince. Or more specifically, a frog.
But then lo and behold, I had great pitch conversations on the fly, when I hadn’t been prepping and when I wasn’t trying to impress. Which leads me to today’s post—if you’re a person who works best fully prepared and working from some memorized text, these bullet points of advice probably aren’t up your alley. On the other hand, nothing read, nothing gained.
Stop memorizing—This isn’t the 6th grade production of the H.M.S. Pinafore, there need be no exact lines here. I get so concerned that I’m going to miss some darling turn of phrase I’d included in my pitch that I spit that part out and forget to tell the agent something much more pertinent. And the whole time I’m speaking I think I look like I’m desperate to hold in my bladder. It’s not a winning combination of events. Make sure you have the salient points in your head about your book. The agent doesn’t need to hear your lyrical prose from your own lips—she or he is looking for good ideas. The wordsmithing comes into it when you send in a partial or full manuscript, not in the elevator.
Turn down the desperation—While the editor is at the urinal, do not start your pitch. Or when she’s eating a sandwich in the three spare minutes she has all day. Ye olde “elevator pitch” is a lovely idea, but it’s all too easy to look like you’re three seconds away from a mental break and all the agent has for help is a lift phone to the front desk. Breathe, stay calm, don’t go into every pitch as if this is ohmygod your big break moment. You’re more likely to fall from a plane and be mauled by a lynx in the same day. Writers on the edge are everywhere at conferences, congenial ones are much more interesting to the overworked publishing professional.
Lower your expectations—This follows on the heels of the last point for a reason. Writers need to ratchet down their stress level. One way is to run a reality check on how we’re coming off to agents, and the next is to take a step back and consider what this pitch really is. It’s an exchange. I describe an idea, the agent responds with their reaction. If I am ready for a contract for representation to be slapped on the table, I’m going to be disappointed, but I’m also not allowing the agent to have much of a response other than an internal “How do I get away from this guy?” one. However, if I sit down and say, “So here’s my idea,” keeping it casual, I will more likely get some very valuable information (even if it’s a rejection), which is my point of the exchange. If one of the questions I want to answer via a conference is “Does this idea work?” then I must be prepared for a negative. And when I expect a negative, any positive feedback is refreshing.
Know your stuff—Far more helpful than memorizing a logline is knowing how sales are doing in your genre generally. Or knowing to avoid making any reference to Eat, Pray, Love or Twilight. The more a writer knows about what’s going on in publishing (sales of ebooks verses trade paperback, for example), the more she will impress the agent that she is a good person to work with, even if the agent doesn’t want to represent that particular book. One agent told me last August, “I don’t do time travel books,” but because she already knew my reputation, wanted to hear the idea anyway. What I had there was an opportunity, because she liked me personally, to pitch her a story she’d never represent so that she could think of any other agents where she could refer me. And because I felt so low pressure during that particular pitch, it was by far the most fun I’ve had throwing one.
Have more than one project—To be clear, only pitch one project at a time. Don’t initiate another project conversation unless the agent asks first. That’s a sign they’re interested in you if not your exact project. What agents don’t want to hear is the “Well, how about this idea? Or this?” as if you’re a smorgasbord of book projects. Don’t be the Golden Corral. The Golden Corral is an awful, terrible place to personify. But do be able to show that you’re a serious writer with more than one book in your offerings. At least be working on something new. Agents and especially publishing houses want to work with writers who are in it for the long haul. So when someone tells you they don’t do time travel, you can tell them you’ll speak with them next year about your current project. And when they ask what that current project is (because being coy works so well to draw them into your flame), you can get some early feedback on the idea. And that is gold.