How to Pitch Agents at a Writers Conference

So you’re at a writers conference and you have a chance to sit down with literary agents.  This encounter is basically like speed dating because you have about five minutes to get the person across the table from you to want, if not to commit to a relationship, at least to try one out.

You have probably 15 seconds to make a lasting first impression.  Another 30 to build curiosity.  A mere few minutes to captivate, inspire and intrigue…

GIVEAWAY: Merry is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within two weeks; winners must live in Canada/U.S. to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Miro won.)



Guest column by Merry Jones, author of the Harper Jennings thrillers,
SUMMER SESSION and BEHIND THE WALLS, as well as the Zoe Hayes
written humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and nonfiction (including
BIRTHMOTHERS, Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their
stories.) Jones is a member of the Philadelphia Liars Club, Mystery Writers
of America and The Authors Guild. Visit her at
Find links to all her books here.


These time estimates don’t apply just to hooking agents.  They apply to meeting people in general.  In our culture, we first impressions matter a lot—consciously or not.  And when you approach an agent with your banging book concept, you’re the hundredth person she’s seen that morning.  So you have to make her hear you.  Which means, somehow, you have to get her attention.

And that’s where creativity comes in.  I know authors who have gone far to get agents’ attention.  One woman wore an extravagant, oversized elaborate hat.  Another went dressed as her main character: a prim Victorian lady.  One guy wore his parrot on his shoulder.  And someone actually admitted to hobbling in on crutches, feigning a broken leg, just to make an impression.

They all made, I’m sure, lasting first impressions.  But was that enough?

Apparently, it wasn’t, as not one got agents that way.  Getting attention is good, but it’s just the first step.  It isn’t enough to shock with costumes or win sympathy with a limp.  Even if you wear neon tights and arrive by trapeze, you’ll probably need something more.


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So prepare. Find out what other books that agent has represented, what she is interested in or specializes in, what direction her agency is moving in.

Then, once you have the agent’s attention, show how your work fits with her areas of interest, expertise and growth.  Point out both how your work is similar to books with strong success, and how it builds on that success, moving into profitable and exciting new territory.  Be careful not to swagger; let the agent decide if your book is the next Harry Potter or Twilight.  But help her by placing your book on a mental shelf—for example, “It’s kind of like The Girl with the Pearl Earring meets The Wolfman.” (Or whatever.)

And don’t ramble!  Be prepared with a few well-practiced, succinct sentences that sum up your book.  Envision this summary as a taste test.  Give her one bite of filet, a single morsel of chocolate, one small sip of wine.  Make her want more. Tantalize.  Tempt.  Tease.  Be excited.  Let your enthusiasm and passion for your work show.

(Find a writers conference near you and pitch publishing pros.)

But again, this interaction is not just about you and your work.  A speed date is, after all, still a date.  It involves the other person, too.  Ask questions.  Find out whether this agent interests you.  Whether his/her energy and goals are compatible with yours.  Tune into your instincts; pick up nonverbal signals and cues so that you can decide if the two of you seem to fit. Like dating, working with an agent isn’t one-sided.  It requires shared goals and commitment on both ends.

Afterwards, when your five minutes are up, no matter how the encounter went, remember to shake hands.  Thank the agent for her time and attention, just as you would a speed date.  Walk away with a smile.

And, on your way home, remember to shed the gorilla suit before you hail a cab.

GIVEAWAY: Merry is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Miro won.)



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17 thoughts on “How to Pitch Agents at a Writers Conference

  1. catnipkiss

    thanks for this; good advice for “some day”! I wonder if a writer should still try to get an agent to represent her work if an acquistions person at a publisher has already said “send it to me when you are ready.” Any clue about the protocol? – Cathy

  2. Mrs. Tracy

    I need all the advice I can get, so thank-you! I am self-publishing a book, but it appears that can be a real no no for agents. Not to mention a really have no experience other than a love of writing. I have only tried to query two agents so far, but I have not heard back from either one. I have been researching what I should do and it appears the worst thing a self-published author can do is a mass query (at least according to the two the agents bios I have read). So, I guess this means I will actually have to put myself out there for face to face rejection at a conference. Thanks again! And please, wish me luck!

  3. nataliewrite

    With superb literary agent how-to advice like that, your thriller Summer Session must be phenomenal! Would love to read it this summer.

  4. ShawnLBird

    Thanks for the tips. I have a 10 mins agent appointment at Surrey International Writers’ Conference in October. I chose this ‘big time New York agent’ for her interests, but you’ve got me thinking of some different angles to the interview. Of course, now I’m even more panicky imagining how I’m going to be memorable in all the right ways (my blue and fuchsia hair might help, eh?).

  5. peden101

    In my first and only 7-minute elevator pitch,I tried so hard to impress that I neglected to present the premise of my novel, and was cut off mid-sentence by the program moderator. I won’t try to hard next time.

  6. PMDrummond

    Great advice! I’d never really thought to compare it to speed dating, but it really is. I too am going to the RWA conference in Anaheim this month. I’ll use these tips.

    I’m also going to use the trick that I use with job interviews. I convince myself before I go in that I’ve changed my mind and I don’t really want the job (or agent in this case). Then I relax and just talk to them like I would any other person. In this case with the small time period, it will be any other person in an elevator.

    1. Peter Gibb

      How about honesty and enthusiasm as the top qualities to exhibit? The whole idea of a “pitch” turns me off. It seems too salesy and high pressured, given the time frame. I’ve done it, and had agents say “Sure, send it to me” but I think many agents say this because it’s easier to say than, “No, I’m not interested.” Anyway, it’s all part o the game.

  7. Jenna Bird

    My favorite part of this information is “ask questions” — sometimes we forget, when trying to sell our own ideas, that communication is a two way street and you engage a person more completely by bringing them into the interaction instead of making them the object of it.

    Thanks for this article!

  8. maryannelewis

    This is helpful. I am going to RWA at the end of the month and have an interview with an editor. I looked her up, as you suggested, and it turns out she lives in London and is a senior editor at Harlequin. This was good news to me, even though I don’t have a Harlequin manuscript handy. The better news is that they only require three chapters and a synopsis, so perhaps I could shake that out in a few weeks.


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