Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pitching in Person

I've seen the very first initial reaction of a reviewer to Don't Hex With Texas and she seemed to like it, so that's a good sign. This is a very anxious phase, with review copies out in the universe and waiting to find out if people actually like it. I've also learned that the spike in sales last year wasn't in the latter half of the year. It was the second-half of year royalty statement, but that period actually covered April through September. That would then include all the booksignings and all the conventions I went to. So while I was thinking all that travel wasn't doing me any good, maybe it did. I'm still backing off somewhat this year and focusing on the most useful and effective (and fun) events, but I feel a lot better about getting out into the world because it does seem to help.

For yet another topic inspired by last weekend's conference, I want to talk about pitching your book in person, whether to editors or agents. At every conference I go to, I see writers nervously mumbling to themselves, and that usually means someone is getting ready for an editor or agent appointment. For those who haven't yet subjected themselves to this form of torture, it generally means that you get from five to seven minutes of one-on-one time with an editor or agent, during which you get to pitch your book. One of the jobs I tend to get routinely assigned when I volunteer at conferences is timekeeper for appointments, so I've seen a lot of these take place. What people usually do is carefully prepare a full description of their books that almost entirely fills the time they have available. And what usually happens is the poor editor or agent has a hard time staying awake while the author nervously drones on.

So, based on my observations and my opportunities to hear editors and agents gripe about what goes on in these sessions, and based on my career in public relations that involved pitches like these, but without the time limit and about telecommunications technology instead of about books, here are my tips for pitching your book:

1) Do not prepare a presentation that fills the whole amount of time you have available.
You have one-on-one time, which is an opportunity for interaction, so don't make this a monologue. Interaction is good because it means the editor or agent was engaged and participating in the conversation.

2) Instead, think of the session as a live, interactive query letter. Start by establishing the basics like genre, word count and whether or not the novel is complete. If you have publishing credentials, mention them, but this is not the time to list every manuscript contest you've won. If this particular manuscript has won a contest, mention it. If it's won a lot of contests, mention the most prestigious, then say "and others." (One little hint: if a manuscript has won a lot of contests and yet you're still needing a pitch appointment, it may make the editor or agent wonder why you don't already have an agent or why it hasn't sold to any of those final round editor judges, so too many contest wins could actually work against you.)

3) Then give a very short umbrella pitch that describes the main hook of your novel in one or two sentences. Think TV Guide listing.

4) Also prepare a short summary of the plot -- maybe six sentences. Keep it pretty general except for the key specifics that differentiate your story from any others. We don't need your main characters' names and descriptions here, just a focus on what their conflict is and what about their world is unique. Think back-cover copy, except possibly including the resolution. Or else that paragraph in a query letter that describes your plot. Remember that this person is listening to you, and there's only so much information a person can retain.

5) But don't just launch into this. Give your umbrella pitch and then pause. Give the editor or agent a chance to ask for details, and then you can tell more. You may not need your prepared summary because the editor or agent may ask specific questions about your story. The idea is interaction. Let a conversation develop. If the person you're meeting with is asking questions, you know you're giving her the information she wants, and you know she's actually hearing you instead of daydreaming about a vacation in Hawaii while you drone on. When someone is engaged in the conversation -- an active participant instead of an audience -- she's more likely to remember the conversation.

6) Also prepare some questions you want to ask the editor or agent. These can be business specific, like agency policies, but you can also talk about books. Ask what she has coming out in her line that has her jazzed. Ask what she's read lately that rocked her world. Ask what she wants to find that she's not seeing in submissions, or what she's seeing so much of that she wants to scream.

7) Don't be afraid to leave early.
If you've said all you want to say, if the editor or agent still isn't asking you questions, and if you don't have any more questions, then thank your victim and make your exit. You may then be remembered as the person who gave her some much-needed breathing space.

8) This isn't just for official appointments. If you'll be at an event where editors or agents will be present, you never know when you'll be asked about what you're working on, so be prepared. Don't just attack someone and start talking about your work, but if in the course of a conversation in the bar an editor or agent asks you, "So, what do you write?" you'd follow the same steps. "I'm working on a humorous contemporary fantasy -- think Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter -- about a girl so ordinary that magic doesn't work on her who gets a job at a magical company." Then the editor or agent can ask questions if they find that interesting. (And this does work -- the first editor who expressed interest in the first book in my series did so as the result of a party conversation when I wasn't planning to pitch anything since I hadn't written so much as one word of it. The conversation went very much like that, ending with her telling me to write it and send it to her. She rejected it, but without her interest I might not have written it.)

9) If you are very shy and have trouble talking to people, you can bring a query letter with you and hand it to the editor or agent at the beginning of the meeting. I've even heard an agent request that people do this. Then they can skim over it and ask questions rather than listening to you say all that. Keep in mind, though, that it is possible to get published without meeting an editor or agent in person, and if you're very shy, there's nothing wrong with skipping that and just submitting through usual channels. If you're more likely to make a negative impression in person because you're so nervous, you might even do yourself more harm than good. It's better to make a professional impression through the usual query letter approach than be remembered forever as the person who was so nervous she threw up on an agent's shoes.


Lindsay said...

Thank so much for this! I'm doing my first agent pitch at a conference on March 28th, and am frantically googling to minimize my chances of shooting my own foot. These are extremely helpful tips...I love the part about remembering it's a conversation not a lecture, and that that works to both parties' advantage.

Shanna Swendson said...

Good luck with your pitch! Remember that editors are people, too, and they're used to dealing with nervous authors.