Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Art of a Strong Pitch, Part 1

I was recently at a conference where I had been scheduled for roughly 50 author pitches. Yes, that’s right. Fifty. Can you imagine what it must have been like for me to sit in a cold room for hours listening to author after author tell me the five-minute version of their book? Think about it. Do you really think I remembered all, if any, of those pitches?

No, I didn’t. Let me tell you, there’s an art to the pitch. Whether you have a scheduled pitch appointment or happen upon an agent in an elevator, there’s a way to present yourself and your book that can almost guarantee that you lock yourself into an agent’s memory. And there’s a way that will ensure the agent forgets you before you even walk out the door.

The trick? Make friends. Make yourself stand out and be remarkable.

There are two ways I’m gong to frame this. First I’m going to talk to those of you who have a pitch appointment and I’m going to give you those key secrets that agents want when getting pitched to. And then (tomorrow), I’m going to talk to those of you who run into an agent at a cocktail party, in the elevator, or are lucky enough to find yourself seated next to one at a luncheon.

Pitch Appointments . . .

Stressful, scary, and for some reason always, always in a cold room. Pitch appointments are dreaded by authors, and you know what? By agents too. By the time I’m done I feel like I’m nothing but a means to an end, and all too often I’ve had to deal with the hostility of a disappointed and disgruntled author.

When it comes to pitch appointments I so often hear authors console themselves by saying that an agent has to read the book anyway (and agents and editors will often say this too). Well, I’m here to tell you that’s a lie and something only the “nice people” say to make you feel better. Call me jaded or just call me mean, but the truth is that after 15 years of author appointments I know within your first three sentences whether or not it’s worth my time to read more. I don’t know if your book is perfect and I don’t know if it’s publishable, but I do know whether it’s worth my time.

For those of you who haven’t yet experienced an appointment with me, let me warn you: I’m not mean (at least I don’t think I am) but I’m not phony either. I don’t request material unless you’ve convinced me to request it . . . and I’m a hard sell.

So what can you do to convince me? Know your hook. If you don’t know what makes your book different from everything out there that’s ever been published, if you don’t know what a hook is or what your hook is, then you aren’t ready to pitch. Some examples of hooks I represent . . .

* The Naked Earl (the title alone is a fabulous hook), a Regency-set historical romance with steamy sex scenes and lots of humor.

* A hot, erotic romance that begins when the main characters meet for the first time in ten years at their high school reunion.

* A cozy mystery series featuring knitters/crochet/rubberstamping/etc. In doing research, I find this is still an untapped area in the cozy market.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Rarely, if ever, does the hook have anything at all to do with the story. It’s that one line that makes you stand out from the crowd, that shows that your book is different. It’s the one thing that makes me stand up and say, “Hey, I’ve never heard of that idea before.”

Once your hook is out, move on to your background. What makes you qualified to write this story? What awards have you won? What else can make you remarkable?

So then what? Once you’ve told the agent your hook, what do you do? The most depressing thing to me is that when the pitch is made (and really, three to five sentences tops! I don’t need to listen to you ramble about your book for ten minutes) and my comments are voiced, the author gets up and (sometimes) runs from the room. Why are you wasting such valuable time? This is probably one of the few times in your life when you can actually talk, uninterrupted, with an agent. Use it! Ask her questions about herself, the agency, the business, the market, something that’s been bugging you from an earlier panel. In other words, if your hook didn’t do it, find another way to make yourself remarkable.

If it wasn’t this book it might be the next. And again, I appreciate it if someone treats me like a human rather than a pitch machine and will appreciate you more if you’ve made a personal connection with me.

For those of you who have experienced the dreaded pitch appointment, what have you found worked or didn’t work for you? How can you recommend others prepare a successful pitch?

Read on tomorrow for how to approach that agent in a social setting. . . .

—Jessica

12 comments:

Lesley said...

I've always wondered how this worked as I haven't yet had the opportunity to attend any conferences but plan to do so in the future. It's great to know what you're looking for so I'm not going in blind. Thanks!

Scott said...

This is good timing. I'm at a conference this week, with two editors and an agent, and knowing how to approach them without looking like an idiot and wasting their time is really helpful. I don't have a pitch appointment, but I'll talk to them and I want to make a good impression.

Tim said...

At the recent BEA pitch slam, I got to pitch to five agents and all of them gave me their card and asked for chapters. Being paranoid, I have a question. Do agents often give out their cards rather than face the (hopefully) distasteful task of telling authors they aren't interested? Or did I just have a good pitch?

Also, when an agent asks for chapters, should "Requested Material" be written on the envelope? Does it get to the agent faster that way?

Thanks!

2readornot said...

At my last conference, I was assigned to pitch to someone who didn't even take the genre I write, so I just practiced on her. I told her first that I wanted to do that and asked if she minded. Then I tried my pitch and she pointed out where it could be stronger and the aspects that appealed to her, as a reader (rather than an editor). she talked a bit about her work and such, and it was a nice way to end the day (I had the next-to-last appointment of the day).

Julie Rowe said...

At my last pitching appointment I pitched a book I really knew well and was excited about. But, I didn't start with my hook, I started by asking the editor how she was doing (I was her last appointment). I told her a little bit about myself and about the genre I write in (the two are related) THEN I pitched my book. I told her I had a manuscript that finaled in the GH and had X, Y and Z elements in it. I knew she was looking for those elements because I researched her in advance.

She asked to see a full. Because I finished early, I asked what kind of story lines or story elements she doesn't see enough of, and she told me several things that I hadn't discovered in my research.

It was a very positive experience!

Anonymous said...

My first pitch appointment was kind of a disaster. I spent two weeks practicing in front of the mirror, then when the time came, I was so nervous that I stuttered and stumbled around. The agent, Donald Maass, was very kind and invited me to send a partial.

Most writers are shy, and we have this image of agents and editors as being scary. So I can understand why some folks escape. It's nerves. Please understand we're doing our best and trying NOT to be nervous.

With practice, we'll get better.

Travis Erwin said...

Practice. Not jsut in your head but actaully practice the answers to questions such as, What is your book about? What makes it different than the novels already out? Who is you target audience?

I was asked all of these questions numerous times by agents and editors at a conference this past week and even if you think you can answer them practice out loud.

Isabelle Santiago said...

Great advice! I have not been to conference yet, however I appreciate your no-nonsense attitude. I think it keeps things running smoothly if we know what you expect, that way we can try and deliver that. Boom, boom, we both either know immediately this will work, or not.

Truth is, I think when an author is truly passionate about their story, and can deliver it with the professionalism, personality, and enthusiasm necessary, that sort of attitude is contagious. The agent or even editor will pick up on it and want to know if it really is that great. And by being prepared and professional, you impress them on another level.

:) Great stuff,Jessica. Important reminders we can carry with us. Thank you.

L.C.McCabe said...

Jessica,

To answer your question about what we have found to work in pitch sessions, I wrote a lengthy post on my blog about my experiences as a volunteer at the San Francisco Writers Conference and how I fared with the Speed-Dating with Agents.

The full post can be found here:

http://tinyurl.com/38lmsw

The atmosphere at many writers conferences in regards to pitching is incredibly stressful, and I feel it is counter-productive for all parties.

I agree with you that writers need to relax before they start their pitch sessions because it is important to interact with agents like fellow human beings and not the "means to an end" you described. Honestly, rather than writers viewing agents as keepers of secret keys, they should instead contemplate agents as potential business partners and ask themselves is this someone you would like to work with?

If the answer is no, then the writer would be better served by continuing their search for representation.

And of course, writers shouldn't get tetchy if they didn't get exactly their entire allotted time with an agent. Showing a forked tongue when something goes slightly awry will overshadow all other interactions that precede or follow.

I'm looking forward to reading your next installment on this issue.



Tim,

Jessica touched on the issue of agents asking writers for partials in her post. She said "I'm a hard sell."

Why would any agent want to flood their in-box cyber or snail mail with partials of material that they already know is not right for them? Just to avoid seeing a disappointed look in someone's face? Come on. Agents deal with rejections on a daily basis, they have to be able to handle it or they wouldn't survive in this business.

You must have had a great pitch to get five agents ask for partials. Rejoice!

You might also want to wait a week or so before sending in your requested submissions to let the inevitable post-conference deluge subside, and absolutely put REQUESTED MATERIAL on the outside of the envelope or comment line. That's what will place your work on the requested pile instead of the dreaded slush pile.

Also be sure to include your pitch in your cover letter to remind the agents of what attracted them to your work. I read on one agent blog (I forget which one - could have been BookEnds!), that you should always include your pitch/hook in cover letters in correspondence with agents. It helps the agent focus on your particular project quickly.



Linda

Alli said...

Number one rule I follow is to remember agents/editors are human. I think a lot of authors tend to put agents/editors on a very, very high pedastal - which can be our stumbling block. Remember: they want us to have a book they can't wait to get their hands on. Go ahead and ask them how they're doing, give a nice smile and take a deep breath - the more relaxed and genuinely friendly you are, the easier it will be. I promise, this works a treat!

Michele Dunaway said...

I'm one of Jessica's newer authors. I'd sold my first book (and 14 total) before hiring her (she's since sold 6 more in a year). My first sale was the direct result of an editor appointment at the Romance Writers of America convention less than eight years ago.

What Jessica is telling you is very important. Remember it for you treat an editor the same way. Few things, don't be afraid to have your pitch on cards if necessary. I was so nervous I asked if I could read mine. She said yes. (Ask first.) I had eight minutes. The book pitch took 2, enough for her to say send me the entire thing. The remaining time the editor and I discussed the line, what she was looking for, what I liked about the line, etc. She also asked me what I'd read lately in the line. With an agent, know some of his or her client list and why you might be a good addition. It's a job or sales interview, always remember to approach it like that.

The editor later told me she hadn't bought a new author in over 2 years and I was one of 3 she discovered and bought at that conference. I sold my second one to her less than a year later and the rest is history.

PS--the funny part of the story is that editor/agent appointments are such cattle calls that RWA shoved me in early, in the 8:20 spot. Once they realized the girl who was to be at 8:20 could take my 8:30, all was well. When the editor called me to buy the book, she asked me to remind her who I was. I simply said, "I was the one at the wrong time" and she said, "I remember you."

PPS-Often editors or agents will give you their cards and ask you to enclose them with your materials. This proves they actually met you and that you aren't just making it up and writing requested on the envelope.

Michele Dunaway
Nine Months' Notice--Harlequin American--out now!
Hart's Victory--Stories set in the World of NASCAR--12/07
The Christmas Date--Harlequin American Romance--12/07
See my latest cover at http://micheledunaway.blogspot.com

Teri said...

Love your insights . . . and your sense of humor. After talking on email all these years I'd like to buy you that drink next time I'm out east :o]