Back in 2017, I attended my first writing conference (Killer Nashville). For those of you who’ve never attended a conference, but have always wanted to, here’s what you need to know in a nutshell: it’s a convention where hundreds of authors show up to learn more about writing and publishing novels and to hopefully find an agent for their finished book. There are normally classes and/or lectures scheduled throughout the day on various topics from the craft of writing a book, to finding agents, to publishing, to marketing your book baby. Most legit conferences will offer speakers with experience in these areas, and some of the top, most well-known literary agents attend, hoping to be pitched a book they want to add to their client list. Aside from the scheduled events, these agents mill around between classes, on lunch, and during breaks and they wait for brave, eager authors to approach them and cold-pitch their book to them. Some even have scheduled pitch sessions, where, in advance, authors can schedule a 5 to 10 minute meeting with the agent or agents of their choice. These events range from one day conventions to weekend-long seminars.
So, now you know what to expect at conferences. But if you’re like most authors, you’ll be attending them more for the purpose of finding and landing an agent than for the amazing courses offered. I’m not suggesting they are not important or worth-while. They are definitely both. But I just know from experience that if most authors were being honest, they’d admit this is the main reason they attend these conferences. I’m attending the North Carolina Writers’ Workshop soon, which will be my fourth conference, so pitching has been on my mind lately. I thought I’d write a post about how to pitch agents in person at these events, not just to refresh my own memory, but to potentially help other authors who plan on attending one at some point. I’m going to not only give you pointers on what to expect and how to approach these events, but I’ll also share my very first pitch experience to give you some personal insight, as well as to show you that you’re not alone in your anxiety and anxiousness about approaching and speaking to literary agents.
Without further ado, here is my best advice on attending conferences and pitching agents in person.
Research the Agents – Before I attended Killer Nashville, I Googled each agent who would be at the conference and first determined which ones even represented my genre. There’s no point approaching agents who don’t represent the genre in which you write. You’ll be wasting your time and theirs, something you don’t want to do. Once I determined the agents who did accept suspense/thrillers, I then spent days researching each agent extensively. This not only told me everything I needed to know about their agency and if they’d be a good fit for my book and me as an author, but it also gave me some great, fun facts about each of the agents. Why was this important? Because agents are people, too. They have to deal with authors approaching them all the time, even on crowded streets, buses, or grocery stores. They hear the same things over and over again and I’m sure that can become tedious for them. I wanted to show them I could relate to them on a human level. Even better if I could find even the tiniest thing we had in common which I could throw into my pitch to show them not only had I done my research, but that we would work well together because we had X in common. If you do your research, you’ll also learn what makes each agent tick. You can learn how they might respond to certain approaches, what kind of books they love to read for fun, and what turns them off during a pitch, which is uber important. Plus, research helped take away some of the Wizard of Oz aura which surrounds many of these agents. It showed me they were just like me, not some nameless, faceless person behind a curtain, waiting to take my dreams, throw them to the ground, and stomp the life out of them. No, agents actually want to find good books and they pray they’ll find an amazing new author they can not only represent but enjoy working with.
Prepare Your Pitch - Before you even enter the pitch session, before you approach an agent in the hallway or cafeteria (more on this later), hell, before you even enter the building, make sure your pitch is well-rehearsed and memorized and practice, practice, practice. Before I even got in the car to drive to Nashville for KN, I typed up three versions of my pitch. I came up with my elevator pitch (a brief, one-line sentence that describes your book and includes the MC, the conflict, and the stakes), a one-paragraph pitch (which would read somewhat like your query letter that includes the same info, only in more detail), and a one-page synopsis which included anything I thought an agent may ask in follow-up questions (this one usually includes more about the setting, secondary characters, and subplots). Then practice your pitch(es) repeatedly in the days and weeks leading up to the conference. I not only read mine aloud in front of a mirror several times, but I called up my mom, my sister, and any friend of mine who would listen and made them not only hear me out, but to throw any questions that came to mind at me. This will help (somewhat) allay some of the anxiety that comes with the unknown or the lack of practice. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this little tidbit.
Approach Agents Properly – This is a big one. As I stated earlier, agents are people, too, and they are approached on an almost daily basis with story idea after story idea. I’ve heard horror stories from agents I know about people who went to one extreme or the other. Some approach them too timidly and full of obvious insecurity. They speak too quietly, stare at their feet (or worse yet, notes), stammer and say “um,” “uh,” “yeah,” and don’t present their book with the passion it deserves. On the other ed of the spectrum are those who approach agents with too much gusto. They are overly-familiar, loud, boisterous, and so eager to get that request from the agent that they barrel over the poor lady and insist that they would be a fool to not want this book. Another important piece of advice is to know when it’s okay to approach them. They know they’re there to be pitched cold by dozens of authors. They expect it. But, do have respect because, as I said, they are people, too. Don’t walk up to them at lunch as they’re biting into their buffalo chicken wrap. Don’t wave them down as they’re walking toward the ladies’ room. Don’t try to stop them as they’re standing by the elevator to their room, or when they’re walking into a class that’s about to start or as they’re walking to their car. No. No. No. No. Don’t do these things. Instead, stealthily keep an eye on them (without being creepy) and when you see them alone between classes, sitting in the hallway, or on lunch break AFTER they’ve eaten, then and only then can you walk up to them. Introduce yourself, ask if now’s a good time to tell them about your book, and when and if they say “sure,” then you give your elevator pitch and go from there.
Pitch The Right Way – Once you’ve gotten their attention and they’ve invited you to pitch your book, here’s what happens next. You give them the elevator pitch as concisely and confidently as you can. Then stop talking. Seriously. Stop. Talking. It will then be their turn to respond one of two ways. Rarely does this happen, but it might. If you throw out your elevator pitch and they say, “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound right for me,” then you thank them politely for their time, turn around, and walk away with your head held high. Take “no” for an answer. Do not, for the love of all things holy, stand there and try to change their mind. They won’t. And you’ll just look desperate and rude. However, most times, the agent will respond by saying, “Okay, tell me more.” If they do this, now is the time to give them your paragraph long (say, 2 minutes) version of your pitch. Again, it’s like saying your query letter out loud. It should introduce the MC (and give some background and why we should care about them), introduce the conflict you have thrown at them (telling them who is the antagonist and/or what happens to the MC that throws a curve ball at their happy existence), and end with stakes (telling why it’s so important for MC to win/overcome/save the day, and what will happen if MC fails and what the MC must do to achieve the desired outcome). But in this version, do not give away the twist or the ending. Leave them wanting more. Then, if the agent is intrigued by this version, they will start asking questions that have popped into their mind while you pitched. BE PREPARED to answer any question. You have practiced, so you’ll be ready for anything. If, however, they do catch you off-guard or ask you something you weren’t prepared to answer, take a second, take a breath, say, “Good question,” then answer it the best way you can, even if you think you sound silly. It’s better to sound a little silly than to say, “I don’t know” or “I can’t answer that.” If there’s a momentary lapse in conversation and you feel awkward, a great go-to is to ask them, “Do you have any questions for me?” Now, take a deep breath, relax, and know that the hardest part is over. You’ve now officially pitched your first agent. Every pitch from here on out will come more and more easily. But what happens at the end of the pitch? Well…
Accept their Answer Gracefully – There’s always that distinct possibility you’ve done your best pitch, but despite your efforts, the agent doesn’t feel the book is right for their list, or that they couldn’t sell your idea to an editor. That’s painful and disappointing, but if they say, “Sorry, but this doesn’t sound right for me,” then, again, shake their hand and thank them for their time, then turn and walk away. I will say this again because it’s worth repeating…do NOT try to change their minds or convince them they are wrong. Just. Don’t. Do. This. Not only will you look like a sore loser and a jackass, but agents talk to one another ALL THE TIME. They will mention that crazy, creepy lady who pitched them and wouldn’t take no for an answer or the dude who berated them and begged them for a chance. It’s a sure-fire way to have your reputation ruined in a heartbeat. Just accept defeat and move on to the next. Every agent is different and remember, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The next agent may love it. But, if you’re lucky and the agent loves what they hear from you, here’s what will happen. They’ll say, “This sounds great.” They’ll reach into their bag or pocket and pull out a business card. They’ll hand it to you and say, “Please email me the manuscript. I’d love to give it a read.” This is the answer you’ve been praying for. But don’t, no matter how tempting, rush over and hug said agent. Don’t gush over them and act like a giddy teenager who just got asked to prom. Instead, take the card, thank them so much for their interest, and shake their hand. I also recommend asking them if they have any preferences for submission. They’ll know what you mean, but what you’re asking here is: Do they prefer a Word document? Do they want your query included in the email? Do they have formatting preferences for the manuscript? They’ll answer your questions and appreciate your thoroughness. After that, thank them again and walk away. Keep the cheering and the fist bumps inside. Run straight to the bathroom, lock yourself in a stall, and cry those happy tears alone. Then gather yourself, go back out into the lobby, and find the next agent. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Congrats. You’ve done it. Now what?
Submit Your Book – Do not rush up to your hotel room or your car, whip out your laptop and shoot the book over to the requesting agent. But also, do not wait weeks to send it to them. My advice is to send it that night, or at least within 2 – 3 days of the conference. This way, your pitch is still fresh on their minds and they haven’t forgotten already. And sending it immediately looks too desperate and needy. That’s why I think 24 – 72 hours is about right. When you send the book to them, put “Requested Material – Title” in the subject line. Start your email after “Dear Sally,” with: “You and I met at Killer Nashville, and you requested my manuscript for TITLE, my suspense novel, which is complete at 70,000 words…” I suggest pasting your query in the body of the email, or, at least, remind the agent in the body, in a brief paragraph, the concept of your proposal. Thank them again for their time and request, attach the manuscript, then go on about your business, sit back, and wait for their reply.
Now that I’ve shared my best advice on pitching an agent in person, I promised to briefly share my first experience so you can have a firsthand account of how it all really goes down. If you’re interested in my bumbling first experience, read on. If not, thank you for your time so far and good luck at your conference!
MY FIRST AGENT PITCH
If you’re still with me, here’s how my first pitch went down. At Killer Nashville, about two hours into the conference and between two classes on a break, I spotted Agent (whom I’ll not name for her sake and mine) standing in the hallway. She was talking to another author (or so I assumed based on body language), but I saw no one else standing around waiting, so I decided to nonchalantly hang back a few feet and surreptitiously keep an eye out for the end of their pitch while pretending to be texting on my phone. When the other author’s pitch ended, I waited a few seconds so as not to overwhelm her, and when no one else approached, I swooped in. I extended my hand and introduced myself, using my pen name, and said, “Would you mind if I told you about my latest book?” She smiled and said, “Sure.” I launched straight into my elevator pitch, which I actually wasn’t that nervous about. Well, I’m lying. I was nervous, but I wasn’t THAT nervous…yet. After my pitch, she said, “Okay, tell me more.” I then began my longer pitch, but suddenly, words failed me. I couldn’t remember everything I had memorized, and I started fumbling over my words. When I realized I was saying, “um,” (major no-no), I stopped, took a breath, and apologized for my nerves. Agent laid her hand on my arm, smiled, and said, “It’s fine. Relax. It sounds good. Keep going.” Or something along those lines. This really helped put me at ease and I managed to get through the longer pitch in the right amount of time (about 2 minutes). Though I was tempted to keep talking, I forced myself to shut up and wait for her to respond. After two or three interminable seconds, she said, “Sounds like Gone Girl, only reversed. I’m intrigued.” She then asked me two or three questions, which helped because it guided me and told me exactly what she wanted to know. After that, she gave me her business card and wrote details on the back of what she wanted. I thanked her for her time, told her I appreciated her interest, and that I’d send the book shortly. I then shook her hand again and walked away. I was on cloud nine, and for the rest of the day, pitching felt more natural. I approached three other agents that day: one at the end of lunch and one in the lobby. All three also requested my book. The moral of the story is, if you practice and prepare for your pitches, you’ll do fine. And after you brave through the first one, the rest are cake walks. Don’t get me wrong. I was nervous as I walked up to each one, but once they smiled at me and invited me to pitch, I managed to succeed and accomplish my goals. I walked away from the conference with three full requests and one partial.
If I can emphasize any one piece of advice from this long blog post, it’s to practice before you pitch. There’s nothing you can say or do in advance that will make the experience anxiety-free, but you can completely reduce the stress levels and increase your odds of success if you follow these few pointers.
I wish you all the luck in the world. As always, I’m an open book. If you have any questions or need any advice, I’m always just a mouse click away. My email is on my website on the CONTACT ME page, or you can always reach out through social media messengers.