In another month or so, I’ll be heading off to an area writers conference for long weekend of workshops and socializing. I try to attend whenever I’m able and this year I plan to pitch my newly finished manuscript to an agent.
Many conferences offer the opportunity to pitch your finished story to agents and editors. The prospect of meeting privately with an editor or agent can be both daunting and scary. After all, how do you convince someone in only ten minutes, that the manuscript you’ve sweat blood over for the past year or better is worthy of their time. How do you persuade them to believe that the pages you have in your computer are going to make them money and how do you win them over so they to believe in your work as much as you do?
If you come to your meeting prepared, that should take away a bit of the pressure and give you that extra bit of confidence you need to present yourself as a professional.
First, know what you have. Is your story literary fiction or genre fiction? Is it a mystery set in 1850, with paranormal elements? Is it a love story or a romance? If you don’t know what you have, how will an agent know where to sell it, or a publisher know how to market it?
Each agent and editor is looking for certain things. Announcing you have a historical, paranormal, mystery, that is also deeply symbolic of today’s society, is confusing. The editor looking for literary fiction isn’t going to be interested in a mystery or a paranormal. But if your manuscript can be presented as, “Book Title” is a satire reflective of the changes in our society. “Book Title” begins with the extended family, it-takes- a-village way of life, and ends with a society of individuals, isolated by earbuds and the internet. Set in the past with elements of the paranormal and a bit of mystery to…” You see how the focus here shifts to literary fiction?
Next, study the choices presented when you look through the conference information. There is usually a list of all the agents and editors, along with a short bio for each of them. Google their names, the name of their publisher, or their literary agency. See what type of books they are looking for and what kind of books they have out. Find the agent or editor that is the closest match for your story. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
I met with an agent who was looking for contemporary romance and women’s fiction. My novel was a historical western romance, but she was the closest to what I wrote. I wasn’t sure if I should even sign up to talk to her, but someone said you never know, she could really like it and decide to represent it. Instead, she explained that while she wasn’t interested in a western, she had a friend at another agency who loved them. She wrote down the person’s name and email, and told me to mention her name when I sent my query. So you never do know.
Once you’ve done your home work and you’ve signed up for your pitch session, plan out what you’re going to say. Most sessions are timed, so don’t go over your limit. It is rude and unprofessional. Realize that if you have ten minutes with this agent or editor, you will not have ten minutes to talk about your book. There will be the initial greeting and hand shake and maybe a word or two about the conference. Make sure you have your business card at the ready.
You don’t want to walk into the room with your card extended from your outstretched hand. Nor do you want to be digging through your purse or pockets hunting for it when you need it.
Business cards are fairly inexpensive. Don’t hand over the business card from your day job with wrong information crossed out. A business card with your contact information and web site or at least an e-mail address will automatically let the agent or editor know you are a professional. It is also a good idea to have the name of the conference and the name of the book you are pitching written neatly on the back to remind them where they met you and what you were pitching.
Plan to leave time at the end of your session for the agent or editor to ask questions. It is better to end a few minutes early than to have the conference time keeper banging on the door, or worse leave the agent or editor without the opportunity to ask you something important.
Make sure you dress appropriately, are neat and well groomed. You are a salesman for your own product. Business casual is usually the best. Don’t stroll in late without a shower, because you were at the hotel bar until closing then fell asleep in your clothes.
Know ahead of time what you are going to say. Write it as you would write a query letter or a synopsis. Think about your tag-line or ten second elevator pitch to start things off and capture the person’s interest. Then present a brief synopsis. Think of it as a slightly expanded back-cover blurb. Don’t forget to include the Title, word count and genre. If your book is part of a series mention it, but keep the focus of your pitch on one book.
Introduce only the main character and the villain, or the hero and heroine by name. Anymore names will be difficult to remember and you do not want this person to come away confused about your story. Refer to your main character by their first name frequently after the initial time you mention them. Lots of he’s and she’s blur together and reiterating the main character’s name here and there helps the agent or editor focus on them and remember them. Don’t clutter up your time with a lot of back story, secondary characters, and plot lines. I’m not saying they aren’t important to the story, I’m saying don’t confuse the agent or editor. They don’t have copy in front of them. Remember the principle of KISS, Keep it simple, stupid. Touch briefly on setting, even if your story takes place on another planet or a parallel universe. Now isn’t the time for elaborate descriptions of your world. Mention it and move on. If they’re in the market for your type of story, chances are they already have the gist of your setting. Introduce your character’s main problem, their main goal and the dark moment when things seem at their bleakest. Then give a quick resolution.
Practice your pitch aloud. Time it and see how long it takes. Present your pitch to your spouse or critique partner. See if they were lost or confused by what you’ve said. Did they understand the goal, motivation and conflict of the story.
Be comfortable with your pitch. Write it down key points on an index card in case you get nervous and forget what you had memorized. It is better to glance down at a card if you forget than to stammer and hem-and-haw your way through it.
If the agent or editor has questions about your story they will ask. They might request that you send them a synopsis, all, or part of your manuscript. Don’t whip out 500 pages of hard copy from your messenger bag. They probably won’t take it and you may come off as pushy and unprofessional. Hard copy is bulky and heavy. Many people fly and luggage space limited, not to mention heavy and costly. Say thank you and promise to send it. Be sure to ask how they prefer to receive it. Do they want a snail-mail hard copy or an electronic submission? Do they want it sent as an attachment or in the body of the email? Would they like anything special written in the subject line? Jot down the information so you don’t forget.
Once you get home to send it. Don’t decide to rewrite the ending or worse—hurry up and finish your story. Unless you’re presenting a book proposal for non-fiction, your manuscript should always be finished. Breifly refer to the conference when you write your cover letter with a simple line like, “I enjoyed meeting you at the Blah Blah Conference.” It is just a gentle reminder as they probably have a huge workload and two weeks after the conference they might have forgotten they asked for your manuscript. And only send what they asked for.
If you pitch your story and they tell you it isn’t right for them, simply thank them for their time. Don’t argue or try to pitch a different story. If you should have a second novel to pitch, set up a second session.
When your time is up, thank them and leave with a hand shake. If you see the person later at the conference, just say hello and ask if they are enjoying the conference. Don’t hound them about your story or try to pitch a second one or anything.
Remember this is a business. They haven’t rejected you, they have rejected that particular project. There is nothing personal involved, so don’t bad-mouth anyone, it is unprofessional and as my mother always says, “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” People in this industry talk and you will only hurt your career in the long run.
Enjoy the rest of your conference. Attend workshops and learn craft. And when you get home, make sure your manuscript is your best then send it somewhere else. There are always options, especially in today’s publishing market.