Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pitch Appointments

While traveling to a conference recently I got to thinking about pitch appointments. For those who haven’t yet had the opportunity to attend a conference, pitch appointments are brief, 10-minute assigned meetings between an author and an agent or an editor. Typically to have a pitch appointment you need to have signed up ahead of time and you need to have a completed manuscript.

My thoughts aren’t so much about how authors could better conduct themselves in these appointments, but how they’re often handled from the perspective of conference coordinators. Should pitch appointments be a perk or should they be something that you ensure every attendee is able to get? I can only imagine the headache that goes into handling pitch appointments. I would imagine it’s probably one of the more difficult jobs of volunteer organizers and I have always done my best to respect those who planned the appointments as well as those who manned the desks during my appointments.

Now I know that every author who attends a conference is going to feel that with the money they are paying they should all get appointments with as many of the agents and editors as they want. I disagree. I think organizers should plan ahead of time how many appointments each agent and editor will take (and I do not think anyone should be required to take more than two hours of appointments in a day) and from there you’ll need to figure out how appointments get assigned. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have spent up to eight straight hours in a room taking appointment after appointment because organizers wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted an appointment got one. In fact, I’ve even been told by conference organizers that they brought me in to work me and that’s fully what they intend to do. I realize that the agents, the editors and the bestselling authors are usually the draw for conference attendees. I also ask organizers to remember that agents and editors talk too, and you’ll find it more and more difficult to find attendees when we tell others how hard we were worked.

Pitch appointments are useless if the agents are so tired they can’t see straight, let alone listen. If instead of looking at the next author as a potential client we’re looking for the door, a pillow, and a quiet room where no one knows us, you’re in trouble. Pitch appointments are exhausting for the agents and I think by now you’ve all come to realize that they are probably my least favorite part of conferences. So when scheduling appointments and trying hard to please all the authors who want an appointment with a certain agent, please don’t forget the agent and that the best thing you can do for everyone is give her a break too.



lynnrush said...

So true.

Ava Quinn said...

//I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have spent up to eight straight hours in a room taking appointment after appointment because organizers wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted an appointment got one. In fact, I’ve even been told by conference organizers that they brought me in to work me and that’s fully what they intend to do.//

Ouch! You need to wear an Agents Are People Too T shirt to those conferences. Or demand each appointment bring many offerings of caffeine liberally decorated with chocolate!

Anonymous said...

Agents should organize their own conference and do a lottery system. That way you control the hours, the lottery system makes it fair for everyone, etc.

Katy Cooper said...

An editor I talked to said pretty much the same thing -- that it's demanding to focus on pitches. For her, she gets in a particular mindset, and that's why the last thing she wants is to be approached with a pitch outside the pitch session.

As an author, I hate pitching face-to-face; it's a nightmare of nervousness (and I'm not shy or an introvert, so...). So now, when I go to a conference, I try to attend agent workshops and/or roundtables/chats with. I'm looking to get a feel for what the agent is like, what his or her philosophy and approach is. (Blogs like this are incredibly helpful, which is why I read here every day, but I think seeing/hearing someone live is useful too.)

Anonymous said...

Jessica. I now have a greater understanding (and dare say, sympathy) for the agents and their time.
The "pitch" appointments sound as though it is a "live" extension of your query inbox! One right after the other, piling up and piling on. How on earth can anyone be expected to meet with someone every fifteen minutes or so for eight hours and still be sane?
I for one, as an unpublished writer, would never want to be the last one on your schedule.
What a shame for both parties.
Why can't they do some sort of lottery--you know, every writer puts her name in a hat and be at the mercy of the luck of the draw.
Sounds more fair to everyone than a marathon of verbal confusion.

M. Dunham said...

Eight hours just for pitches alone? That's... well, barbaric. You'd think they were trying to run you off! I can't imagine how you could focus on the actual pitch after a few hours. You have my deepest sympathy.

Rick Daley said...

I think you're right to suggest the organizers wait until they have an attendee count to determine the pitch ratio. They should set a deadline for registering to be guaranteed at least one pitch.

I've exhibited at many trade shows, and although I've never been to a writing conference, I imagine there are many similarities. If the show organizers don't meet the needs of the attendees and the exhibitors, bad word of mouth can result in a rapid deterioration in attendance. Sometimes when a show goes south it never recovers.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

I have a "pitch appointment" scheduled next week at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I didn't get the agent that would be interested in my novel. I didn't get either of my three selected choices, but I understand the demand so I'm not complaining. Maybe I'll find out what my pitchee prefers to drink and give her a well deserved 10 minute break.

Lorra said...

A few years ago, I attended a conference in San Diego that offered pitch appointments. Attendees were limited to three appointments and it was first come/first serve as far as signing up with a specific agent or editor. Once an agent's schedule was full, the only way to get an appointment was to go on a waiting list.

The pitch session were also limited to either one or two hours per day. Can't remember the exact schedule since it's been a few years.

Anonymous said...

I have served a coordinator for pitch session at my writer's group annual conference. You are right. It can be quite a headache for the coordinators. For the most part I have found agents and editors who come to our conference eager to meet with authors and ready to put in three days of work. I also find that the attendees come with high expectations (often times higher expectations than can possibly be fulfilled). This creates a situation where it is easy to disappoint authors.

The first year I coordinated I had pitch appointments going all day long, though each agent/editor only had to listen to pitches for one hour per day. While this worked it was a nightmare trying to make sure each agent/editor/author showed up for their appointments on time and each session only ran the alloted ten minutes. It wore out my volunteer team, and none of us got to attend a single workshop. Bummer. We had to pay our registration fee too so we ended up paying to volunteer.

The next year, we worked with the facility owners and were able to secure enough rooms so that we could schedule pitch appointments for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon each day (agents/editors only worked one of these hours per day) and there were no workshops scheduled during the pitch hours. This allowed everyone to attend all workshops they wanted and have pitch sessions.

This is the best option in my opinion, though we did have some complaints from authors that they did not have the opportunity to meet with every agent they wanted.

I might add that attendees of our conference sign up for pitch sessions the first morning of the conference as they register. When an agent's slots are filled, they are filled. Period.

What we tried to emphasize was that the agents/editors went home with a list of attendees, and authors could include in their queries the fact that they had attended such and such a conference, giving them just about as much clout as those who gave an actual pitch.

You can't make everyone happy and you have to think about the future. Alienating agents and editors by working them half to death will result in a bad reputation for your conference. And, unhappy attendees won't come back the following year.

Coordinators walk a tight line.

Everyone can't have a pitch session. It isn't possible. We try to be upfront about that with our attendees, and we provide several social events for less formal conversations with the professionals.

My biggest complaint with agents/editors has come when the agents/editors use every social event for catching up with one another rather than mingling with the authors despite the fact that we plan one evening specifically for the agents and editors alone for that purpose.

Kimber An said...

All I've ever read or heard about pitch appointments have been complains from both agents and writers. Why do they still exist? I know I've been successfully put off from ever wanting to participate.

terri said...

Great post and very timely with all the conferences coming up in the next few months.

I am attending a conference in July and don't know if I made the 'pitch' list or not. I was only allowed to sign up for one agent and, same thing, when her list is full, it is full.

I'm keeping my expectations very low. A chance to meet an agent in person will help me demystify the process and hopefully educate me more about the query process. And the chance that she might crack a smile when reading my query would be priceless. An invitation to submit a partial would be akin to a winning lottery ticket.

Other than that, maybe an autograph on a book she agented and a chance to leave behind a business card and a good impression on an industry professional.


Anonymous said...

I can't even imagine how short-sighted you'd have to be to do that to an agent (and, thus, to the writers). It's a wonder any agents who are put through that ordeal come back. I think I'll use the query approach, rather than looking for a chance to pitch at a conference.

This may be somewhat unrelated (OK it is unrelated): Do you think it wise for someone with a completed manuscript to wait until the economy (the publishing industry in particular) has seen a substantial recovery before seeking representation? If we're turned down in part b/c of the economy, won't we have ruined our chances for a later time? We can't resubmit when things get better, can we?

jimnduncan said...

Jessica, is there a reason you have to do a whole day's worth of pitch sessions? Can't you tell them, "No, sorry, but I won't spend more than 2 hours a day doing pitches?" Or whatever time you are willing to do?

Everytime I hear about this issue, I always get the disturbing sense the conferences and its attendees expect agents/editors to take as many pitches as possible, that you are in some sense obligated to do so, or that your only reason for going to conferences is to take pitches for potential books that might interest you. Kristen had an interesting discussion about this on her blog the other day, trying to come up with ideas for other ways for attendees to meet with agents and editors that might be more socially oriented instead of the solo pitch. There has to be a better way to do this. Conferences and attendees need to change their attitudes a little bit on just what to expect from attending agents and editors. To the best of my knowledge you aren't making any money by attending conferences.

I think conference attendees have slightly skewed expectations when it comes to conferences. Too many pay their fees with a primary goal of pitching an agent/editor with the intent of getting pages requested. Too many writers have distorted expectations about what a pitch session can accomplish. Somehow, they believe it significantly ups their chances of representation. From what I know, it does not. At best it allows the writer to sidestep the query process with one agent. One. Odds are they will be rejected. The odds of pitching an agent at a conference who is going to love your writing and feel your story is marketable, is not much higher than finding that needle in a haystack. Sure, agents find clients at conferences. It's but one of many reasons they attend, but I'm guessing you don't go expecting to find your next client. You're hoping for that needle in the haystack. You enjoy the other aspects of the conference, without expecting to find that next great book to represent. Writers need to do the same. The only difference with editors is that it does actually allow you to get pages in front of someone you might not otherwise be able to since so many do not take unsolicited material. You can however, query any agent you want who represents your kind of story.

This whole expectation that agents/editors should be at the beck and call of conference organizers and attendees needs to stop. If pitches are the reason people are going, then organize the whole conference around pitching. I still like the idea of agent/editor panels that take a mess of pitch blurbs and basically say yes or no and why. I saw this done once before at a conference, and it was very educational and fun. Small group discussions with agents/editors, where everyone sits around with coffee/drinks or whatever and discusses writing, their stories, or just getting to know the agent better. There are lots of things that could be done other than the ten minute, nerve-wracking pitch session. The expectation level needs to be lowered. The assumption should be that representation is not going to happen by going to a conference. Just like querying in general, the answer is going to be no 99.9 percent of the time. If writers go into these things with a more realistic assessment of their chances, and understand that they aren't paying money to up their shot at getting sold, then more interesting and enjoyable things can occur. The sole purpose of going should be to learn and connect with others who share the same love for writing.

Maybe every conference should start out with a presentation on just what writers can expect from doing pitches. Too many writers feel that if they just get their pages to an agent, side-stepping that pesky query process, then their chances will somehow be greatly improved. They need to know it just doesn't work that way. Conferences need to get out of the mode of having pitch sessions is a way to generate extra money. They need to have other ways to attract attendees, and attendees need to quit going based on whether they get to do pitches or not.

Agents should band together and force the issue to some degree by refusing to sit in a room for more than a couple hours a day doing pitches. It's not the only reason you go, and there are other ways to connect with writers besides a ten minute one on one.

Ok, this absurdly long rant is now done.

jbstanley said...

This would be comporalbe to aksing an author to sit on eight hours worth of panels. Let me tell you - it would never happen. We'd be at the nearest bar after Hour Two!

jbstanley said...

I apologize for the typos. Too many cups of coffee this morning. :)

Megan said...

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Amy said...

Ugh, I couldn't listen to ANYONE talk for 8 straight hours. That seems inhumane. Two hours straight would be my limit too.

Actually, I wouldn't want to talk to an agent who had been sitting in a room for 8 hours. I'd probably take her/him out to get a coffee or something for my slot. I didn't realize conferences did this.

Personally, I would just rather email my pitch and listen to you all talk about the industry or gossip over coffee anyway.

Robena Grant said...

San Diego State University holds a writers conference in January. They charge a registration fee then an additional $50 for a pitch to an editor or agent. You can request one of each.

The pitch requires you send the first ten pages and a brief synopsis and the cut off ends about six weeks before the conference. On the pitch day you get to discuss your work for ten minutes and the editor/agent decides if they want to see more. Many will write suggestions on the pages.

The editor/agent goes into the pitch knowing ahead of time what she's dealing with.

The author won't pitch unless the work is really ready, (unlike in the conferences where a pitch is part of the initial registration, so therefore everyone takes advantage)because who wants to waste $50 on a "practice pitch" or work that isn't completed.

Janet Reid said...

This is spot on. It's hard enough to maintain fresh enthusiasm for each new person when you meet ten or twelve in a one or two hour period, but eight solid hours? That's totally counterproductive.

And mostly pitch sessions are a total waste of time. Talking about a book, particularly with people who are nervous, trying to remember a memorized pitch that frequently isn't very good....I'd rather just read the query letter and then discuss.

Suzan Harden said...

Jim, you hit the nail on the head. Just replace "expectation" with "entitlement."

I've met a lot of writers who think just because they have three chapters written, much less the whole book, they're entitled to be represented by an agent.

The reason I've taken pitch appointments is to get to know the agent in question. Using that ten minutes for social engagement is more useful to me than pressuring the poor agent into reading my ms.

Jamie said...

I'm a Golden Heart finalist looking forward to pitching at the RWA national conference this year. I was just arguing with my mother over whether it's better to query each agent in advance of the conference, or go in cold.

She says I can talk my way into anything. I say I don't plan on stalking customers at Barnes & Noble, so my writing needs to speak for itself. If an agent rejects my work before the conference, I'll either know to pitch a different book or cross her off my list altogether, depending on the wording of her response.

Jessica, if you're reading this, what are your thoughts?

Kristin Laughtin said...

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have spent up to eight straight hours in a room taking appointment after appointment because organizers wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted an appointment got one. While I can understand wanting to be "fair" to all teh conference attendees, this is a bit ridiculous. At any sort of convention, there are limits to how many people cam attend any certain event. The most popular are often ticketed or require waiting in a long line, and anyone who wants to go needs to get there early enough to ensure they have a spot.

Pitch appointments, for which there is great demand and little supply, should be treated in a similar fashion. Make it a first-come-first-serve situation, where you either have to register in advance or get there early the day of to sign up, or make it a lottery system if that seems more "fair". Publishing's a business; none of us have any right to your time.

jimnduncan said...

Here's a thought.

Anyone who wants to pitch at the conference has to send in the query, along with a synopsis and a copy of the completed ms. Attending agents/editors are forwarded the queries (say the first 50 to submit within the agent's desired genres) six weeks in advance. Two weeks before the conference, they send in the list for the top (20?) they might like to see more of. These 20 folks are assigned pitch appointments, so then you get ten minutes with an agent where there is already at least some mutual interest/possibility. The agent then decides based on those pitches which she wants to see pages on, and organizers plop them onto a usb membory stick and give it to the agent/editor before they walk out the door.

Or something similar. This would take some of the randomness out of the equation, and make the pitches more useful to both parties, as well as getting rid of the 'wrong genre, incomplete ms' issues that tend to plague pitch sessions. Whatever the case, writers need to understand that agents only have so much time to devote to these things, and there are far better things to do at a conference than stress over a ten minute meeting that won't up your chances any more than writing a good query letter will.

Shannon said...

Eight hours! That is crazy. I've only been to one conference and didn't pitch, but they were clear when signing up that there were limited slots to pitch agents or editors and that you could only pitch to one. The conference definitely kept it to a reasonable number of pitches for the agent and editor involved.

I found the agent & editor's roundtable talk (which was packed) extremely helpful and they didn't look exhausted :)

Patricia Haddock said...

Writers are people, too. My first agent pitch was a nightmare. It was pitch one of day one of the conference. The agent hadn't received my sample chapter ahead of time -- or so he claimed. He dismissed the 9 books I had written because they were with "small" publishers. He was a total jerk. If my fiction takes off, I can't wait to remind him about how he treated me.

Annette Lyon said...

I'd never expect an agent to do appointments all day long. That's insane. For the conference I co-chaired a year ago, we asked the agent and the editor how many pitches they'd like to have--and we kept it to that number. Attendees had to sign up early or miss out.

Jan Erickson said...

The Aspen Summer Words writing retreat and festival does a great job of scheduling and facilitating the pitch sessions, imo. And, it's always clear that they are more for practice than to selll your work. In fact, you don't have to have a finished work, they read about ten pages in advance and you talk from that. As I put it, the essential question of those sessions, it seems to me, is, "Is this anything?" Then, "How can I strengthen it?"

kimmelin said...

I'm curious, Jessica, what your thoughts are on whether or not conference attendees should pay extra for the pitch sessions? It seems to me that, by paying an extra $50 or $100 for the opportunity to pitch to an agent or editor, that the level of "expectation" or "entitlement" several of your previous commentors mentioned is only heightened: almost like a pay to play deal. But, if statistics speak truthfully, that fifty or one hundred bucks doesn't guarantee a whole lot more than a traditional query letter for most of the writers who will make their pitch, therefore setting them up for double disappointment (rejection + a bundle of money down the drain).

At the conference I recently attended in Tempe, AZ, one of the two agents there reportedly told each of the writers who pitched to him to send in their ms (as if he was potentially interested in the piece of work, but really because he didn't want to "disappoint anyone in person"). For those folks, they suffered a triple let down, right? (getting their hopes up + rejection + $100 down the tubes...enough to buy twenty lattes!)

What are your thoughts???

If conferences are to continue pitch sessions, would it be slightly more ethical to not have writers pay for them? Do some conferences charge for them to help defray the cost of bringing the agents/editors in whereas other conferences cover those expenses through higher reg. fees?

Just curious.

Thanks for the great post...