Pitching to Agents at a Writing Conference

Nervous about pitching to an agents at a writing conference? Valley of Shadows author Steven Cooper has a few tips to make sure your pitch is a success.
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Nervous about pitching to an agents at a writing conference? Valley of Shadows author Steven Cooper has a few tips to make sure your pitch is a success.

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You walk into the room. The door closes behind you. There’s no turning back. The agent is waiting for you. They are sitting at a table and look up to smile. They nod for you to come forward and say, “Hello.” You take one step, then another. It feels like you’re running the gauntlet. I know. I’ve run the gauntlet myself. And I’m here to tell you it’s not a gauntlet at all. It’s a writing conference. It’s a pitch session. You’ve written a book. That’s fantastic. And yet you’re nervous.

That's perfectly natural, but perfectly unnecessary. If you’re nervous in that room, admit it. Agents won’t be surprised. In fact, if you admit it, most will take agents will take it as their cue to put you at ease.

This is not an antagonistic proposition. Most agents go to writing conferences because they want to be there. No one forces agents to attend. No one forces them to listen to you pitch your work. This is not jury duty for them. Agents attend conferences because they need to discover new writers in order to grow their business. Sure, some of them have horror stories to tell. But that’s because occasionally a monster shows up. You don’t want to be that monster.

Be tactful. Be prepared. Know your genre. Make sure you can describe your intended audience (succinctly). Know your comparative titles. Know what you bring fresh to the genre. What makes your book the same but also different? Know your word count. That might sound obvious, but don’t overlook anything. Stay on topic. Don’t ramble. Avoid tangents. Show that you’ve come prepared to answer questions, and answer them concisely. Stay focused. A focused author = a focused book.

Assuming you’ve done your research (and this is my not-so-subtle attempt to remind you to do your research), you will only be pitching agents who represent your genre. Don’t waste your time or their time pitching agents who don’t. You’re not going to twist their arm. You’re not going to prompt some sudden literary epiphany that transforms Ms. Nonfiction Agent to Ms. Fiction Agent.

It. Will. Not. Happen.

And. I. Never. Write. This. Way.

Besides, why waste your time and money pitching an agent who doesn’t represent what you write?

Remember, while you’re an authority on your story, and you should be, you are not an authority on publishing. Leave that to the agents and editors and trust that they know more than you about the business potential of your book. It is a business. And not an easy one. They’re experts at navigating the business. If they’re any good at what they do, they constantly study the market, and they should know how much potential your book has to sell to a publisher. Don’t expect them to mince words about that. They shouldn’t mince words. They should be brutally, but tactfully, honest.

As honest as you should expect agents to be, know that on the flip side (the flip side is just as important), this is all very subjective. Opinions vary. One agent might love your work; another agent might tell you that you’d have a great career selling light bulbs. The same agent who loves espionage one day might be sick of it two months later. You just never know. But consider this: When it comes to opinions, take what resonates with you and leave the rest. Be open and receptive. You’ve paid for this time. Get the most out of it. Really, really listen. You might just get some constructive advice that will turn your book into a blockbuster. Or you might get advice that’ll make your head spin. No advice should make your head spin. To that advice, simply let the voice in your head say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But never, ever argue. When you hear something you don’t like, simply nod and reply with a neutral expression. Say something like, “I never thought of that.” Or, “That’s interesting. I’ll have to think of that.” If you think you have the time to have a constructive conversation about the negative feedback, do so. Begin with, “I’m sorry the book’s not working for you. Do you have any other suggestions? What do you think I should do next?”

Only a jerk will argue over negative feedback. Don’t be a jerk. Word gets around. Agents talk.

You want to stand out? Stand out with your writing and your professionalism. Don’t do stand-up comedy. Don’t dress as a cat if your book is about cats. Don’t arrive drunk. And if your novel takes place at a nudist colony, well, never mind; if you need advice about that, you should ask for your deposit back. Most agents don’t care how kooky you are. You may think you’re colorful; they may think you’re too much to handle. Be yourself, but be a grown-up. Be professional. Seriously. After all, you are pitching yourself as an author. There’s no time in the publishing world for unprofessional writers. Agents aren’t just assessing your book; they’re assessing you. They’re looking for clients who are easy to work with, open to feedback, amenable, serious, dedicated, and genuinely talented. They’re avoiding clients who are monsters. You might have written the next Gone Girl or Harry Potter, but if you’re a monster, chances are you’ve blown the audition.

Remember that icky part I mentioned about this being a business? Prepare for your pitch as if you’re going to a business meeting. Be ready to talk about what you can do to market and promote your book. Because unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know most publishers do little to promote your book for you. No one understands this. We wring our hands and shake our heads, but the reality is that writers today have to do more self-promotion than ever. It wouldn’t hurt to have a brief marketing plan ready to hand the agent. If nothing else, that will make him/her smile. It’s one less reality check they’ll have to do later if they sign you.

Stay on the fine side of the line. Be enthusiastic and passionate, but don’t oversell. Be warm and personable, but don’t be too chummy. Be confident, but not cocky. Don’t tell jokes or talk politics. You’re not in the position to understand an agent’s sense of humor or know his/her politics. And even if you do know an agent’s politics, why waste your time and money talking about something other than your book?

“Don’t kiss ass,” my agent warns. “The ego agents aside, it makes most of us cringe.”

I pitched my agent at a writing conference. She’s seen the best and the worst. She’s seen it all. And she had some very good advice about keeping it real:

“If I hear a writer say ‘This is going to be bigger than War and Peace’ or ‘This book is going to make you a millionaire’ or ‘My mother/spouse/best friend/gardener loved it,’ that is agent code for ‘This book sucks.’ And never say, ‘fiction novel.’ I will get up from the table and not come back.”

Finally, let’s talk self-care. Get a good night’s sleep before your pitch. That might feel unlikely, but keep in mind that, when tomorrow comes, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s all just part of the process and there will be plenty of opportunities to pitch agents regardless of what happens tomorrow. Take a walk in the morning. Have a good breakfast. Sing in the shower. Dance while you towel off. Look at yourself in the mirror. You’re a writer. You’ve finished your book. You believe in your book. You’re stronger than you know. You’ve got this.

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12 Weeks to a First Draft