Tips on Pitching your Manuscript

By Joe Moore

At this year’s ITW ThrillerFest VI (July 6-9) we’re once again featuring a portion of the conference called AgentFest. AgentFest is a perfect example of why ThrillerFest is and will always be held in the heart of the publishing industry, NYC. Why? Because this year, we have 60+ top agents and editors from the biggest New York houses ready to hear your pitch and find new talent. This number could not come close to being achieved in any other location or city.

We all know how important it is to prepare when pitching a manuscript to an agent, whether it’s at AgentFest or any other occasion: look professional, act professional, be able to summarize your premise in a couple of sentences, and know that not every book is right for every agent (most of the time, that’s why they say no).

But what about those things you don’t want to do; those things that could wreck you presentation or turn off the agent? Here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

Never refuse advice or feedback. Even if the agent or editor is not interested in your book, many times they will offer suggestions or advice on making it more marketable. Never have a closed mind and think that it’s your way or the highway. Professional agents know the market and are aware of what the publishing houses are looking for at any given moment. Also remember that just because an agent is not interested in your book doesn’t mean the book is not publishable. It’s just not for them.

Don’t begin your pitch by saying that “everyone loves your book. Of course they do, because everyone is probably your family and friends, and the last thing everyone wants to do is hurt your feelings. If they were completely honest with you, it would be like hitting your ego with a sledgehammer. Now on the other hand, if Dan Brown, Ken Follett or Stephenie Meyer read your manuscript and loved it, I would mention that somewhere right after "hello".

Don’t be a pest. By that I mean sending the agent multiple emails, phone calls, letters, presents, or anything else that would quickly become annoying. If the agent says no, the likelihood of you turning them around with a box of Godiva chocolates is not good. Send it to me instead.

Don’t suggest that if the agent wants to know all about you they can visit your website or blog. It doesn’t matter if Michelangelo designed your graphics, James Patterson wrote your text, and Lady Gaga composed the music for your book trailer. The agent doesn’t care. All she wants to know is: who are you, what is your idea, and can you present it in a logical, concise and professional manner.

Even if your manuscript has been rejected before, don’t volunteer that information. As far as the agent is concerned, they’re getting the first look at your idea. They’re also realistic and know it’s probably been pitched before. And the fact that you’re standing there means that if it was, it was rejected. Always remember that rejection is as much a part of the publication process as line editing or cover design. It happens to everyone. Move on.

Don’t claim that no one has ever written anything like your book before. If that’s really true, there’s probably a good reason no one has. But trust me, claiming that what you’ve written is a brand new idea is as compelling as claiming you have the winning numbers for tomorrow’s lotto. What you might want to do is suggest that you’ve completed a unique and original treatment of a well-established theme or premise. That will make sense to the agent.

Never say that your book is going to be the next blockbuster or that it should be made into a movie. The top professionals in the publishing and motion picture industries cannot predict with certainty what will be the next blockbuster or bestseller. Neither can you.

In general, always assume that an agent or editor has already heard every variation on a theme there is, because they have. Much of your success in capturing the attention of an agent is you, not your story. Be enthusiastic but not obnoxious, knowledgeable but not condescending, proud but not conceded, prepared but not pushy. And most of all, be friendly and professional. Your presentation is a foreshadowing of what it would be like to work with you. Agents don’t want to spend a year or more in a wrestling match with a jerk.

Remember that literary agents and editors are people, too. Yes, they can have a tremendous impact on your writing career, both positive and negative. But just like the rest of us, they get excited when they hear a great idea. Treat them as people, not gods.

If you practice all these tips and you have a killer idea for a book, there’s a good chance the agent will hand you her business card and ask for a partial. And if by chance, she asks for a full, go celebrate. You’ve accomplished more than most ever will.

Any other pitching tips out there?

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is now available online. In stores June 8.

14 thoughts on “Tips on Pitching your Manuscript

  1. Great advice, Joe. And you’re right about Thrillerfest. 60+ industry professionals is impressive.

    The 8 min or so that you get to pitch your story has always been nerve wracking to me. When I realized I didn’t (and shouldn’t) fill the whole time talking about my writing, that helped me relax. I would say that it’s good to allow time for a conversation by asking them questions too. Find out more about what they’re looking for or see as trends and get a feel for how they handle a client. The relationship has to work both ways.

  2. Two words. Clown Suit. Chances are that agents have never had a book pitched by an author in a clown suit. The other is to do the mime thing and pantomime your idea. Everybody loves mimes and playing Charades. Oh and squirting flowers.

  3. Superb list of tips, Joe. I always tell pitchers “Don’t be dull, and don’t be desperate.”

    You avoid the first by knowing how to convey the essentials of your novel in a crisp and irresistible way. (And if you can’t, it’s not ready to pitch).

    You avoid the latter by looking your best, making your pitch, and having the attitude that you are a writer who has something of value, and the insightful agent will see it.

    Ultimately, you may need more seasoning (see yesterday’s post). But when you pitch, pitch as if you’re already there.

    Check your teeth and nose hairs, too, preferably before the pitch.

  4. You’re right, Jordan. It’s a two-way conversation. Agents are people, too.

    Miller, stop clownin’ around.

    Thanks for the additional tips, Jim. Remember, too, that will Miller’s advice, nose hairs are not a big factor.

  5. Hey Joe, I just saw The Phoenix Apostles listed on ITW’s Big Thrill newsletter. Looks like it’s getting great reviews. Good job!

  6. Having just gone through a quick pitch session last weekend I agree with what Joe just said.

    Funny thing about my session, it was not with an agent of my choice. The roster was full and I was on the backup lsit the week before I came down. A few days before I was told a spot was open with a specific agent, do I want it. I said yes and bangarooni I was in.

    Thing is according to her site she did not do works like mine. I figured that I would not be able to sell the story to her directly but would try and sell myself instead. By the end of that ten minutes she said, “Wow, this just needs the right agent. Let me introduce you to (name withheld). I think we can do something big with this.”

    Go in knowing that even if the agent is not the one you may sell to, they probably know someone who would fit well. You never know what peripheral connections you can make that may be all the difference in the world.

    After all Arthur Dent had only just met Ford Prefect at a party and next thing you know he’s saving the universe.

  7. I wish you great luck, Basil. You’re right, the literary world is a small one. Because there’s very little turnover, agents are well aware of what’s being sought at any given time by editors and publishing houses, and fellow agents.

  8. I wonder how many agents from last year’s Thrillerfest actually signed up clients whose material came from one of those 8-minute pitches. I wonder if the number even exceeds zero.

  9. I actually met my first agent during the SF writers conference. I had signed up and endured the ‘meet the agent’ pitch fest but then sat down at lunch next to a lady I hadn’t actually pitched who became my agent (until she retired a couple of years ago). All my hard work paid off as I had a synopsis, knew how to summarize my work succinctly and was ready to pitch – so, yes, it does happen!

  10. Actually, Mike, I can’t attest to last year’s Thrillerfest, but I know several authors who have met their agents at previous Tfest pitch sessions.
    Every single agent who attends is looking to add to their stable- they’re certainly not there for the rubbery chicken lunch (I know this for a fact, because the year before I was in charge of wrangling agents to attend. And many of them turned me down because they simply weren’t adding to their rosters). So that’s always the conference I recommend to crime fiction writers seeking representation.

  11. If you’re pitching a series, say so and let the editor/agent know you already have ideas for books two and three. Also, I would talk more about my sleuth’s motivation rather than the actual plot. The background setting and characters have to carry a series beyond the one book. A marketing hook also helps in your pitch so practice your log line.

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