PitchFest is a three-and-a-half hour agent-snagging extravaganza, deep in the conference hall of the Grand Hyatt in New York. Authors with manuscripts to sell line up, awaiting the moment they’re allowed to talk to about their books to any agent in attendance—or every agent, if they use their time wisely. And on the other side of the table, reps from several agencies, big and small, anxiously await the flood of hopeful novelists seeking representation. It’s one of the more magical moments of ThrillerFest, and an event that isn’t really rivalled by any other. There’s no time limit for each writer’s pitch to an agent, and many reps stay beyond the allotted time to take more pitches during the PitchFest Power Hour. For everyone here, it’s the highlight of the day, and for many, the sole reason for attending the ThrillerFest conference.
This column by Adrienne Crezo, managing editor of Writer’s Digest
magazine. You can find her on Twitter as @a_crezo.
Thirty minutes before hundreds of hopeful writers were loosed into a hall connected to rooms full of agents, the noise level is roughly 30 decibels above comfort level and the long line of anxious bodies has brought the building well above “room temperature.” ThrillerFest organizers are taping tablecloths, placing name cards, searching for missing odds and ends. Volunteers and hotel staff direct everyone to their proper locations, set out drinks and assist staff and press, all in a finely choreographed routine that, to an outsider, seems like the height of frenetic chaos. Pitching authors excluded, everyone is at a near sprint.
Writers, meanwhile, are either sitting quietly while reading or mouthing the words to their pitches, generally trying to ignore the anxious energy as they wait or chatting nervously together. Their stories come in snippets:
“If I get just one request for a full, it’s worth it.”
“I’m not going to kill myself if it doesn’t happen today, [but] I really hope it does.”
“I just need [this particular agent] to say she likes the idea. That’s all.”
“I want good things today, but if nothing comes of this, I’m finished.”
“I don’t know, man. I’m trying not to have any expectations. But how do you do that? I guess I expect the worst.”
“I’m just going to pitch as many agents as possible and hope that someone likes what I have to say.”
“My book is different from all the other books I’ve read. And it’s really, really hard to explain.”
Agents here have their own anxieties. I spoke with several before the event, and the general consensus is that every agent wants exactly what most authors strive to give them: Good stories, well-written, to share with readers. Whether or not they’ll find those stories has yet to be seen, but of the handful I spoke to, all seemed hopeful. One rep was visibly uncomfortable before the event: “This is my first experience with [PitchFest]. I hope someone comes to my table!”
One minute before the event begins, the tension is thick, but everyone is relatively still. Agents are called back to their respective tables (most congregated in the halls to talk shop, say hello, and maybe shake off a few nerves of their own). On the signal—a bellowing “And they’re off!” from an organizer—hundreds of unpublished, unrepresented authors fill the hall. PitchFest has begun.
Half an hour in, the lines are long, the noise level is reaching Dull Roar status, and most everyone is smiling.
One hour in, the lines are even longer. New attendees are still trickling in; indeed, the registration tables are still active, even as early arrivers are leaving—some satisfied, some empty-handed. Not everyone is smiling, but scowls are still outnumbered by happy faces.
Midway, I sat down with Eddie Schneider from JABberwocky to see how he was holding up. “It’s going pretty well,” he said. “People seem to be well-prepared, well-practiced. … I’ve seen some potentially exciting pitches. I feel good about it, I think. One thing I’ve noticed in going to conferences is that there isn’t a wonderful correlation between a person’s ability to pitch [and] the writing. … Not everyone is silver-tongued, and that isn’t a problem. Sometimes they’re a little more awkward, a little more nervous, and if [the pitch] sounds like a good idea, or a potentially good book, I’ll decide to take a look at it.”
Nearing the end of the event, I caught up with a few authors who came to pitch. One reported that his day was a solid success: “I was disappointed that in the three hours I only saw six people. But of those six—five agents and one publisher—all six wanted to read the book.”
Another attendee was seemingly surprised by his success yesterday. “I came with no expectations. I didn’t know what to expect, what the agents would want, but I think I did OK. I saw 10 people, and I had two requests for fulls [complete manuscripts] and five for partials [manuscript excerpts]. That’s not bad, I think.”
A woman attending for the first time was disheartened that the agent she set out to pitch today didn’t seem interested: “I really wanted [her] to love my story, but she wasn’t interested in it. I’m not sure if it was my pitch or of it was my premise, my story itself, but that was rough,” she said. But it wasn’t all bad news; the same first-time attendee and first-time novelist visited 11 other agents and publishers. In the end, she says, “I’m sending out four fulls and six partials. That helps ease the blow, a little.”
And one other woman, maybe the event’s most persistent and successful attendee, managed to speak to all but three agents. “Sometimes there was no one standing in [an agent]’s line, so I just swooped on in and gave my pitch,” she explained. I asked what her success rate was, to which she replied, “Well, it was a gamble, and I can’t say that they all loved the idea. Some of [the agents] don’t even rep my genre. But I think I did ok, all told.”
As the clock winds down, the halls are once again filled with the noise of chatting authors. The difference here at the end is that the tension has dissipated. Writers congratulate and console one another, agents begin clearing away their notes and ThrillerFest staff step in to thank and assist attendees and reps alike. The persistence of ThrillerFest’d “full-access atmosphere” remains: Agents continue talking to writers as they leave the floor, discussing changes they’d like to see, offering advice for future pitches and generally just being available and helpful to authors trying to make their way into a tough business.
It’s easy to see, now that PitchFest has concluded, why so many people choose to travel to New Yok for these three hours. No author I spoke to left without positive feedback, constructive critique, or a request to see a manuscript.
If you write thriller or fiction with thriller elements and are seeking a traditional publication route, it’s worth considering a trip to this event. Later this week, I’ll share success stories from previous years. Stay tuned!
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