The Perfect Pitch

By Joe Moore

On Monday, Boyd Morrison wrote about ThrillerFest, taking place this week in NYC. HThrillerFest-VIII-logoe spoke of AgentFest, a part of the conference that gives attendees the opportunity to pitch their manuscript to some of the top literary agents and editors in the industry.

Building on Boyd’s post, I want to share some tips for improving your chances of connecting with an agent or editor, especially in person at a writer’s conference or similar event.

We all know how important it is to prepare when pitching a manuscript, whether it’s at AgentFest (this year with 50+ agents) 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 my 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 Bruno Mars 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?

19 thoughts on “The Perfect Pitch

  1. I’ve only ever pitched to one agent at a conference and this is what I learned. Agents (or at least this one) don’t say much. I had my tag line ready, said it, waited for questions. None came. “Tell me more” she said, so I started talking (never a problem for me).

    She nodded occasionally but it wasn’t until I started talking about other ideas for books that she seemed to perk up. Then she started throwing in remarks like, “that’s a good idea” or “have you considered sci-fi”. I came away with the impression that agents like the idea you may have more in your stable than the one pony.

    • You’re right, Amanda, that agents want to know you’ve got other ideas. At SleuthFest (our MWA writers con here in Florida) we have been doing agent pitch sessions for 12 years and have also had panels on HOW to pitch. One thing all the agents say is they want to know what ELSE you are working on. The writer who has labored 10 years on one MS and nothing else is not the best potential client. It tells the agent you’re not oriented to a career. And often, your MS isn’t always your best idea.

    • Amanda, the main reason the agent let you do all the talking was that she wanted to see how you put your thoughts together and your ability to express them. That’s a direct reflection of what she might expect from your writing.

  2. Great tips, Joe. Pitches are usually 8-10 minutes one-on-one and are nerve wracking for me. I’ve never done “the group” appointment, where several authors pitch to one agent. Nightmare.

    But I got more relaxed when I made it more of a two-way conversation. After I pitched my 1-2 books, I’d ask questions about their representation and what they are looking for. The agent has to be a fit for the author too.

    And yes, the full request is reason for copious umbrella drinks. Cheers.

    • The ITW AgentFest event is done speed-dating style. It’s probably a lot more overwhelming for the agent than the writer. But what other chance can an author have to choose and pitch to 50 or more agents, all the top names in the business. That’s the power of AgentFest.

    • Wow. That is amazing exposure for an author, and daunting for the agent. Being in NYC is good too. Agentfest is the place to be.

  3. One of the reasons I was finally given why my pitch for FantastiCon was being rejected was that it wasn’t “Sale-able”. The characters were too old for YA, the story not tense enough for a thriller, the comedy and banter not riproaring enough for comedy, and the romance not front and center enough for romance.

    It sounded like a great book, I was told, but it just didn’t fit on any shelf in the store and thus the agents opted to pass on it. And it’s gotten some pretty good independent reviews since I put it out there on Amazon so ~I~ think it’s a decently told story– just not one that traditional publishing could market.

    I don’t have a ton of experience to be tossing out advice but I do think that it helps to remember that ~every~one in the process wants to turn a dollar, and for the agents and publishers that means having a book that will sell within the framework we have for selling books.

    • Rob, there’s nothing wrong with writing a book that might be on the fringe of a genre, but keep the agent’s advice in mind: know your audience and do your homework. Good luck.

  4. Here’s the best advice I can give on pitches: They are 10 minutes long at most. So don’t use up your precious opening moments with a halting, drawn out PLOT summary. Give them a juicy quick CONCEPT, like you’re writing the back copy for your book. A tantalyzing opening line, a quick sketch of your protag and villain and what the stakes are. If it’s intriguing, the agent might ask, “tell me more about your heroine” or “How does the protag resolve the conflict?” But a detailed plot summary only makes their eyes glaze over.

  5. Several years ago I was fortunate to have dinner with a couple of agents and an editor. They told some hilarious stories about pitches gone awry. Among the advice I culled from the get together were 1) never present a potential editor with road kill; 2) never read them date-raoe poetry and 3) don’t get abusive. They never talked about anything great they’d heard at conference pitches. Made me wonder about the value of meeting an agent at a conference. Definitely made me consider very carefully whether I am ready before I write the check for the admission. You can read the column here:

  6. John, one thing to keep in mind is that access to agents and editors at conferences like ThrillerFest is an economical way to kill many birds with one stone. Also, agents don’t come to conferences for the fun of it. They are looking for a product they can get excited about and sell. They want to find a winner. Good luck.

  7. I was speaking recently to my editor and she says she looks for enthusiasm more than anything. Likely she won’t remember what your story is about but she’ll remember your passion for it.

  8. Exactly, Nancy. Agents are readers, too. Just like everyone else, they want to be excited. The author’s enthusiasm rubs off.

  9. Loving the post, Joe. I wished I had gathered up the nerve to talk to you back in 2010, ha!

    You covered most of the good stuff already, so the best piece of advice I’d suggest is: Be yourself, and impress them with your story.

    And if Jon Land and/or Kathleen Antrim are giving the class to make a great pitch during CraftFest, DON’T MISS IT!

  10. Thanks for dropping by TKZ, Jose, and thank you for your management of the Thriller Roundtable. Volunteers like yourself are what makes ITW so great.

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