How To Pitch to an Agent at a Writers Conference

Writers attend conferences for many reasons, but one of the biggest draws is the literary agent pitch sessions. Writers get face-to-face time with those in the industry who often appear unreachable. If done correctly, these three to ten minutes sessions can land an author an agent and eventually a book contract. This guest column is by Kerrie Flanagan, director of Northern Colorado Writers.
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Writers attend conferences for many reasons, but one of the biggest draws is the literary agent pitch sessions. Writers get face-to-face time with those in the industry who often appear unreachable. If done correctly, these three to ten minutes sessions can land an author an agent and eventually a book contract. From my experience as the director of the Northern Colorado Writers Conference for the past 4 years, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with literary agents on a different level. They have shared with me their take on pitch sessions and what they like, don’t like and what drives them crazy.

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This guest column is by Kerrie Flanagan,
director of Northern Colorado Writers. Register
now for the 5th annual Northern Colorado
Writers Conference (March 26-27 2010)
featuring literary agents
as well as
author and producer Stephen Cannell.

ARE YOU READY TO PITCH?

Most agents only want to hear pitches from authors who have a finished product. For fiction (including memoirs), that is a completed novel and for nonfiction, that is a completed book proposal. Agents don’t like it when an author gets them excited about a book and then drops the bomb that it isn’t done yet.

Kristin Nelson with Nelson Literary said, "Writers with ‘ideas’ for a great novel are a dime a dozen. It’s that one-in-a-hundred writer who actually has the perseverance and stamina to sit down and write the entire thing (which is a huge achievement all in itself since the majority of aspiring writers never even make it that far)."

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Before signing up for a pitch session, read up on each of the agents. What books do they currently represent? Are any similar to yours? Don't waste their time pitching to them if you know your project isn't a good fit. Your goal is to become an expert on this person. Then when you sit down for the pitch session, you will feel like you know the agent. You can break the ice by commenting on something you learned, “I read on your blog that you are re-reading War and Peace. What page are you on?”

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GIVE 'EM A ONE-LINER

Every author should be prepared to explain their story in one sentence, whether it is at your pitch session or at the evening mixer. No one wants to hear a 20-minute monologue detailing every twist and turn in your plot. “A lot of authors get too hung up on telling me the synopsis of their book,” said Jessica Regal of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, “I don't need to know every plot point—and it doesn't make for a very interesting pitch. It should feel more authentic than that, as if you were talking to your best friend.”

“In the end, I know all good writers aren't great speakers,” said Jon Sternfeld, agent with the Irene Goodman Agency, “but an ability to distill information is a part of being a writer and it's usually a turn-off if a writer says way too much (or way too little) about what I need to know about his/her project.”

ELEMENTS OF A GOOD PITCH

Jessica Regel shared what she likes to see in a good pitch, “They need to be able to succinctly tell me what their book is about. What makes it stand out from every other book that's on the market? Who are the characters? What's the conflict? What are the major themes? What other writers/books would they compare themselves to as far as style? If it's nonfiction, why are they the exact person who should write this book? Why is it a topic that I should read about now?"

PRACTICE

The trick to a good pitch is to practice it so you are familiar with the content, but to present it in a way that is more conversational. Practice your pitch with friends, family and your writers group. Get some feedback and try to get rid of that nervousness.

Jon Sternfeld said, “I wish writers would see the agents more as an equal—when there's too much desperation in the writer's eyes, agents tend to devalue them. If a writer is confident, I know that they don't need me so much as we need each other.”

PROFESSIONALISM COUNTS

One agent told me that she wished writers would dress more professionally. She didn't want to see business suits, but she wanted to see clean cut, job-interview type attire. For her, it set the tone—it let her know the writer understands that publishing is a business and is serious about being a professional writer.

GAMETIME: THE PITCH

When you pitch, all you need is confidence and maybe one note card with a few key points on it. You do not need to bring your manuscript. Ken Sherman, with Ken Sherman and Associates said, “Just take a deep breath and get into it and don't worry. If the story and characters are alive and original in approach we'll pick up on it, especially if you're a good storyteller. That's what it's all about.”

After hearing about your book, an agent has to decide if it is a good fit for her. If it is you will be asked to submit chapters, usually via email. If the agent doesn’t think your book is a good fit for her, don’t fret. All agents are different—so try to move on and start thinking about that next pitch.

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