What I Learned About Pitching to an Agent at a Conference

I recently pitched to a literary agent at a writing conference for the first time. I’m going to talk a little about what I learned from that experience, but first I want to share something about my experience with pitches in general.

I work for myself, which means I have the joy of going to networking events, where I meet a lot of other small business owners. And one of the excruciating things you have to do at these things is give a pitch in front of others, anywhere from 30-90 seconds (depending on the format) of your business.

And you can’t just say anything. You have to sex it up. You can’t just say, “I’m a divorce attorney”. Instead, you say something like, “I give my clients ease and comfort in their uncoupling process, protect what’s most valuable to them, and guide them in the next transition of their life” or some crap like that.

And hands down the biggest mistake I see people make at these things is not that their pitch isn’t sexy enough. It’s that they talk for too goddamn long.

If someone makes this mistake, I stop listening after 30 seconds. Totally zone out. They lose my attention.

Why do people make this mistake? They might still be working on their pitch and they haven’t quite perfected it. Pitches are always a work in progress, and I know people who are constantly tweaking theirs as their business grows and evolves.

I think people also get nervous. Pauses and silence in conversation feel uncomfortable to some. Typically people’s reaction in conversation is to fill that space. They’re afraid of silence, awkward silence especially. They’re afraid of how it will feel to stop talking and suddenly face that silence.

The problem with this is that they’re not thinking about the other people standing around them. They’re not being considerate of people’s attention span and how they can really only listen to so much before feeling like their ears are being stabbed with a pair of scissors.

As I wrote my pitch, I did a lot of searching on the Interwebs about how to put this thing together. I didn’t find a whole lot about how to structure a pitch, but I was surprised to find the blogs of jaded literary agents, who haaate pitch sessions and who can’t understand why they are still a thing at conferences. The whole affair is pretty exhausting for them if you think about it. They’re fried and jet-lagged, away from home, and they are inundated by a hundred bright-eyed authors and maybe get two good pitches out of it. Reading those blogs taught me something very valuable.

They have precious little attention and care to give you and even fewer fucks to give. Do not waste what little they have to give you.

The fine people from Ooligan Press, who put together the conference, were wise enough to organize a pitch workshop right before the round of pitches. So I was able to learn a thing or two and practice in front of a small group of people, cut and paste a few phrases here and there, before taking the leap.

Here are some ways to connect with that jaded, grumpy agent in front of you and make the best use of your time and theirs:

1.) Read Netflix and/or other book blurbs. You know how when you’re browsing Netflix (or iTunes or Hulu or what have you) and you read these blurbs? Study those formats. Use them as a framework when developing your pitch. Other book blurbs in your genre are also great examples.

2.) Prepare a 90 second pitch and a 3-5 minute pitch. The latter is the one you do at a pitch session. The former is the one you do when you run into the agent in an elevator or at the bar afterwards and they ask about your book. Both are useful.

3.) Answer the question, “What is at stake”. This is the most important detail of all and should not be left out. Another question might be, “What is the arch of the character/story?” Where do they start and where do they end? Show them the big picture.

4.) What makes this story different? How is it different from the 5,834,092 coming of age stories out there?

5.) Do not spew off a list of events. For the love of God, avoid this like a rabid raccoon skulking through the streets. This is sure to be the death knell of your pitch. How do you avoid this? See #1.

6.) Do not over-summarize or use superfluous details. What does this mean? Well for example my main group of characters are part gods and have special powers that allow them to control the elements. Rather than list each character and describe their power, I simply said they had “special powers” and left it at that. Explaining the nature of their powers was not relevant to the pitch. In other words, it was not necessary for the agent to understand that in order to understand the synopsis of the story. So I was able to cut it down and be concise.

7.) Do your homework. Always, always, always research the agency ahead of time. Know who you’re talking to, what they publish, and what they’re looking for.

8.) Practice the pitch until you hear it in your dreams. My marketing coach, [link] taught me an exercise for practicing my business pitch, and it works great for this occasion as well. Take a small, plastic ball and bounce it against the wall as you recite what you have to say. This exercise will help you give your pitch at an even pace. That way you don’t get in front of the agent and talk a million miles a minute, like I do when I’m nervous and talking in front of other people. This is also a wonderful exercise for us kinetic learners. Practice in front of others, too, if you can and get feedback.

9.) Brag about your badass self. When I told the agent I wrote a blog, was on social media, and had self-published a book, she perked up. Talk about the things you’re already doing to get in front of your audience.

It’s not going to be perfect the first time. It takes a lot of practice. But just like jumping in a cold lake, you adjust and adapt.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    Thanks so much for this. Pitches are hell to me. I’ve never give one in person, but I practiced any kind of pitch this last few months. I do believe I leaned a lot by practicing and seekign feedback, but it is still a scary affair to me.
    Your advice is really welcome 🙂

    1. wordsavant says:

      Thanks jazzfeathers, glad it was helpful! This first pitch for me was one of the hardest things I’ve done in a very long time. I realized that nobody gets the amazing book deal on their first try. Most authors get rejected over and over again until they find success. So before I stepped into that room, I asked myself, “What do I want to get out of this?” The answer was surprisingly simple: get the first pitch out of the way so that I could move on to the second and third and so on. Get the first one done so I can do umpteen more pitches. That seemed doable. It’s never as hard as that first time. All you have to do is get it done, and as long as you do that, you’ve accomplished what you set out to to. And definitely keep practicing!

  2. I, too, like the kinetic tip for pacing oneself. The more of your senses you can involve in the learning process, the better you learn. One thing about making a pitch is to also remember body language. Someone who is relaxed, open, and breathing is more likely to have an effect on an agent who is stressed and tired.

    1. wordsavant says:

      Great point on body language, Connie! If the person is relaxed and open, as you say, then the agent is more likely to be at ease as well.

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