Conference season and the pitch

By Joe Moore


This week, ThrillerFest VII, the annual writer’s conference sponsored by the International Thriller Writers is taking place once again in the heart of the publishing universe, NYC. Like many other major conferences held each year, ThrillerFest is a great opportunity for writers and fans to come together and celebrate their love of the genre. If you’ve attended a conference like ThrillerFest, you already know the benefits. If you haven’t yet experienced a conference, make a goal to do so soon. You won’t regret it.

ThrillerFest is actually a combination of 3 events: CraftFest, AgentFest and ThrillerFest. CraftFest is a 2-day series of workshops taught by some of the most successful mystery and thriller authors on the planet. Names like Berry, Sandford, Gardner, Coulter, Palmer, Morrell, Rule, Child, and TKZ’s own James Scott Bell are just a few of the instructors on staff this year.

ThrillerFest is a 2-day collection of discussion panels and spotlight guest interviews culminating in the naming of this year’s ITW Thriller Awards.

AgentFest is an insanely popular opportunity for writers to pitch their manuscripts to over 50 top New York agents and editors. The pitching exercise is what I want to talk about today.

We all know how important it is to prepare when pitching a manuscript to an agent: 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 if per chance they don’t like it, the last thing they want to do is hurt your feelings. If they didn’t like the book and were completely honest with you, it would be like hitting your ego with a sledgehammer. Now on the other hand, if John Grisham, 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.

9 thoughts on “Conference season and the pitch

  1. Great tips, Joe! I’d also add: Don’t tell the agent that this is the first of a series, and you’d be delighted to send him a synopsis of the next three books!

  2. Great post. I particularly like the one about “don’t be a jerk.” I’ve gone to several conferences and have observed a lot of people, and I’d like to add to the above by saying “don’t be a drunk jerk.” I can’t count how many authors I’ve watched drink themselves into a stupor and then pitch their work. The agents may drink before you pitch them, you may not…

  3. Jim and Kathryn, thanks for the additional tips. All useful.

    Alison, I’ve witnessed the same event at the bar. Drinking might give you courage but rarely a contract. Thanks for dropping by.

  4. Good reminders, Joe. And no matter how enthusiastic the editor or agent seems at your pitch session, it all boils down to your book. Be professional and be polite at all times, even if you get a rejection.

    Kathryn, I would mention that my book is the first in a series, and if the agents wants, I can include a page with ideas for the sequels along with my proposal. But that’s all–one page should do it.

  5. I know there are different ideas about that guideline, Nancy! When I was pitching my draft, I took advice–I think it was from the Now-Departed-From-The-Blogging Scene,
    Miss Snark–who warned against pitching an unsold manuscript as a series in a query letter. I think she said to wait for an agent to express an interest in the manuscript before discussing one’s plans for a series (And of course, she gave that advice in her own Snarky way!)

    The agent who wound up offering me a contract said she would do it on the basis that it would be sold as a series–and of course, I quickly came up with synopses for two more books!

  6. Great post, Joe. Timely too. One thing I would add is to allow enough time to engage the agent or editor in questions that you’ve thought through in advance. A good fit with a publisher or agent is a relationship that should be mutually beneficial, so take the time to quiz them too in a respectful professional way. Establishing rapport through conversation can be very helpful & relieve the tension that a pitch can generate.

  7. I been to one pitch session at a writer’s conference. No love connection, but I enjoyed the experience. She laughed at the right places.

    Now, I had included the phrase, “(title) is a stand alone book with the potential to become a series.”

    Yes or no in future queries? This one has since hit the trunk, but it was fun.


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