Pitch sessions at writing conferences

Hi Miss Snark,

What are the specific goals of an agent who offers pitch sessions at a writing conference?

Survival till the bar opens.

What can a writer expect from the 10-minute experience?

Glazed eyes

Is your hook formula from the last COM a good place to start creating a pitch?


Do you think it's possible to pitch more than one project in the 10 minutes, or should one fill the time with greater detail about a single project?

yes, yes

Should the author expect to do all the talking or is there some give-and-take?

dear dog in heaven, this is NOT a lecture or an info-mercial.

Agents hate these.
We do them, we hate them. Almost everyone hates them a lot but I hate them the most of anyone in New York.

I hate them because 99.9% of the people I talk to have high hopes and unrealistic expectations. Those qualities will help them survive the writing apprenticeship BUT it's absolute agony to listen to them talk knowing full well the project they are pitching is unsaleable.

Conferences are sending out invites for the coming year, so it's a topic we are discussing at the watering hole lately. When a conference asks me to attend, I look up their past list of agents, find one I know and get on the blower to them pronto. My question is always "was this a well managed conference" and "did you find any clients there". The answer to the second question is hardly ever yes.

I think that's because writers tend to go to conferences while they are still learning craft. They're pitching projects before they are ready. What they learn there will help them hone their pitch and hone their work and come back months or years later to query me. I'm still getting queries from conferences I attended in 2002.

All that wailing aside, a writer would do well at ANY pitch session to remember that an agent is a human being and being asked a question is a whole lot more condusive to conversation than being told about anything.

So, you say "good morning, how are you" rather than "let me tell you about my novel".

You say "what books did you love this year" rather than "you'll love my book"

You ask "what do you like to know about a project at sessions like this".

And here's why you, and you alone will be the radiant exception in the sea of horror at that conference. When the agent answers the questions about "what would you like to know" you can tell her those things. You can tell her because you have prepared EXTENSIVELY and perhaps even have notecards with answers to the following:

word count?

plot line?


who would read this?
is it like any books I've sold?

what is interesting to you about the characters or the story?

The key to good pitching is to remember that it's SELLING. The key to good selling is to solve your buyer's problem. One question I ask every editor is "what are you looking for that you can't find". Sometimes I have it, sometimes I can pass the info to colleagues. I'd MUCH rather pitch them a book they've told me they're looking for than persuade them they want what I have.

Mostly what these conference sessions do is let you meet agents and get past the chill of a cold call. I give more attention to queries that come from people who attended conferences where I spoke. I do this cause I assume they listened to me, or talked to me, and don't think I'm a drooling idiot (all evidence to the contrary).

Whatever you do, don't expect an agent to critique your work, or sign you on the spot. And if an agent asks for pages, remember it's exquisitely hard to say no in person. I never do unless the person is just absolutely so clearly not ready that it's a waste of postage and time to send anything.

What writing conferences are good for I've learned from you all here at the blog is making contact with other writers.


Heidi the Hick said...

This is very helpful. I've always wondered what the heck goes on at this mysterious get togethers.

Now I have to figure out where and when the nearest one is going on. Then figure out a way to get myself there.

Does anybody know anything about conferences in Toronto? Or anywhere in Ontario for that matter? I assume it would be TO because it's the city that ate the province.

Anonymous said...

Heidi the Hick said...

Does anybody know anything about conferences in Toronto? Or anywhere in Ontario for that matter? I assume it would be TO because it's the city that ate the province.

Heidi, here you go:

Southern Writer said...

I don't know why there are never conferences in Memphis - especially considering how close it is to Oxford and Ole Miss, where great Southern writers are spun out like stars from nebulae - but this is great information in case the miracle ever occurs.

Anonymous said...

LOL! I've seen that glazed look at conferences. I was tempted to offer them a Red Bull :)

Maria said...

Heidi the hick

Also go to a less expensive one--and you don't have to pitch either. You can learn what you need to know by attending. You can 'pitch" informally when you meet the agents walking around (yes you have to approach them, but like Miss Snark said, walk up, introduce yourself and start or participate in an ongoing conversation--not necessarily one about your book.)

Mostly I don't think conferences are worth the money. It's important to go to at least one so that you know just what you can gain from them, but after that, I don't think it's terribly effective.

Take paper and pen--write down agent names/addresses (most will not hand out cards). As Miss Snark said, some of them might give your query an extra bit of attention.

One other thing--don't go to a general writing conference. Try to find one in your genre. You'll meet more appropriate agents and you'll also find the talks more interesting.

ORION said...

I go to the Maui Writers Retreat and Conference each year and I can say it definitely helped get me where I am today (agented with novel sold).
My first year (2005) I had a finished manuscript, but was CLUELESS.
The retreat helped me network with emerging authors who were wonderful to me. (Holly Kennedy you ROCK!)
I made connections with established authors who I read and respected and who eventually gave me a blurb for my book (yes you WILL have to do this).
The second year (when I was represented) my agent suggested I meet several editors in these "pitch sessions" and I did EXACTLY as Miss Snark said. I just chatted. They were so relieved to hear I had an agent (and a great one) THEY were asking ME about my novel and asked me to tell my agent to add them to her submission list.
As is happened --these editors remembered meeting me at Maui when their house circulated my manuscript.
They won the auction.
DId I meet my agent at Maui?
Did I make use of every opportunity?
You people who live on the mainland have a distinct advantage over those of us isolated in the Pacific. You have conferences and retreats all over. BUT. You have to be ready and know what they can do for you and what they can't.
This soap box is high.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark: "it's exquisitely hard to say no in person."

Easy for me and for most people with whom I have dealt.

I will teach it to you if you get me a six figure advance on my Geriatric Adult (GA) novel entitled "How I Spent My Summer Vacation Allowance."

Anonymous said...

I'm going to try the Writer's Union of Canada one-day workshop ($45, incl. lunch) when it comes to Moh-ray-al. It's in T.O. Feb. 27. You must register 10 days in advance. http://www.writersunion.ca/registration06.htm

It's not going to be a hustle-bustle agent-rife conference, but for $45, it's a good deal - all sorts of tips for the writing life, and that includes querying, etc. Agents and published writers will be present.
I'll report back here after Feb. 15 if the right thread opens up.
(For anyone else in Canada, there are workshops in other cities.)

Anonymous said...

As someone who has organized writers conferences and seen the post-conference evaluations, let me give writers another big tip: Do not stalk the editors or agents. Do not hover over them while they are on the phone. Do not pitch them in the bathroom. The editor will not yell out from the next stall, "Oh, God, you're clearly the next Jacqueline Mitchard, I'm sliding a contract over to you right now, then I'm calling my friend who works for Oprah before I flush!"

No, the editor or agent will be mad, will complain to the conference organizers, and will never come back. And, he or she will make a note of your name, and will never read anything you submit.

Just a little FYI!

Shanna Swendson said...

I've been a timekeeper/monitor for conference pitch sessions a number of times and have had a chance to observe how they work.

The least effective thing is to have a pitch prepared and memorized that fills the entire time slot you have available. That's when the eyes glaze.

One of the more effective things to do, after asking what the agent or editor wants to know, is to just give the hook -- a 30-second elevator pitch. Then let the editor or agent ask questions about the book. You'll end up conveying a lot of the same information, but because the editor or agent is a participant in the conversation rather than just an audience, he/she will likely be more engaged and you won't have to get out the smelling salts to revive the editor or agent after you've rambled off your entire synopsis in a 7-minute pitch.

Terry Odell said...

And if an agent asks for pages, remember it's exquisitely hard to say no in person.

Which probably explains why the agent who requested the full manuscript last July hasn't responded yet, or to my polite email inquiry (in November) asking if there was any further information. I called the agency, and yes, she still works there.

I consider these requests the pity-F**ks of the business, but there's always that glimmer of hope that this might be 'the one.'

Laura K. Curtis said...

TEN MINUTES! The last conference I was at was 5 minutes. And one of those we spent chatting since the agent, it turns out, lives close to me.

That said, the agent was very nice. And I traded with someone else to get her because I know she sells the kind of book I am pitching. She asked for pages, but as Miss Snark said, it's hard to say "no" in person. Though what I heard at that conference was that there were a fair number of "no's" based on whether or not the agent or editor handled the kind of manuscript the author was pitching.

That being the case, the advice I would offer is RESEARCH RESEARCH RESEARCH. Most of these conferences won't tell you who you will have until you get there, but they have a list of the agents who will be there. Check out ALL of them. If you can trade for the one you want, do so. If you can't, go to the notes you made before the conference so you can find out about the particular agent you are pitching to.

"I know you don't handle cozies, but I am hoping that if this idea appeals to you, I hope you will let me pick your brain about one who might" goes a long way toward showing your professionalism. The agent I was pitching to *does* work with the thing I was pitching, but she also asked about anything I might have in the wings and when I described that project in general terms (since it was not yet finished), she said "get on that and you can sell it to X publisher--that's exactly the kind of thing they are looking for."

I was also lucky enough to sit down with a WONDERFUL agent who asked me to send her my first chapter even though she wasn't the one assigned to me. I did send it. She sent me a fabulous letter with some advice and told me to re-send the chapter once I made the recommended changes.

I did so. Without a doubt, she was right--the manuscript is much stronger now that I've gone through the whole thing picking up on the kind of thing she suggested. I haven't heard back from her, but even if the changes I made didn't make enough of a difference so that she asks for a full, I got advice that was worth the cost of the conference.

I know people who went to pitch sessions before their manuscript was even finished, basically just to talk to the agent about whether the kind of work they were doing was something the agent thought was commercially viable. Almost all of them said it was worthwhile and they'd do it again. if nothing else, to get beyond the fear of facing someone who could be essential to your future.

Just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

Conferences are so worth the money in my opinion, as long as you come prepared. The last conference I went to featured these intimate Q and A sessions with an agent/editor team of your choice. The one I attended had only 8 or 10 people there. I'd researched the agent before I went to the conference and had a list of questions. I was shocked to find that I was probably the only one in the room to have done so, and for an hour, I asked a ton of questions, with only three or four questions from other people in between. I even ran out of questions and had to think some up on the spot because there was this dull, painful silence in the room because no one would ask the agent or editor anything. Anyway, the agent remembered me the next day when I had my ten-minute session with him. He said he was so glad I was at that session and that I saved the day! (Hooray! I'm a superhero!)And after we talked about my book and he read my first few pages, he gave me a referral to an agent I would die to have. So, be prepared!

And while we're talking ettiquette, it's important to know that agents and editors aren't the only ones you should try to be nice to. Like, if you're, say, an ex-nun who wrote this book about how horrible the Catholic Church is and how all Catholics have been brainwashed by the evil authorities of the Church, you might want to find out what religion someone is before you start trying to sell them said self-published memoir. (Not that this happened to me or anything! :) )

Anonymous said...

"What writing conferences are good for I've learned from you all here at the blog is making contact with other writers."

And I've learned more from this blog then I ever did at a conference. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

So, what are editors saying to: "What are you looking for that you can't find?"

Randy said...

The benefits of conference going kinda evolve as you evolve as a writer. At least that's the way it's worked for me. At first it was all about learning the craft, then it morphed into the networking aspect, now it's more of a career opportunity.

As far as pitching goes, someone please shoot me before I sign up for another appointment. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know those agents and editors sitting across the table are mere humans; just tell that to the gremlins doing the cha cha in my stomach--they don't listen.

And yet...and yet...(sigh)...I'll probably do it again (was that a gunshot I just heard?). Even though I may never be one of those writers who "gives good pitch" it's kind of a wasted opportunity to pass up.

Anonymous said...

George Clooney meets his fans everyday and it is quite normal and common for him.

However, few fans ever get to meet George Clooney, but if they do, chances are that they will be nervous, flustered and not act like themselves because they've got just this one moment in time to make a good impression and possibly entice a marriage proposal or at least a dinner invitation.

You might think I'm exaggerating, but honestly, for many of us conference attendees, the agent pitch really is this kind of a huge big deal...every single time. Well, at least it is for me.