Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Conference Pitching Tips

Still plugging away on rewriting the last five chapters. And still getting up oddly early. Now, for a writing post!

Summer is a big season for writing conferences and conventions, and the editor or agent appointment is one of the big draws at these events, so for those of you facing editor or agent appointments, here is my handy advice on how to make the most of them (and not screw up entirely), based on years of listening to editors and agents talking about these sessions. I'm sure I've written something about this in the past, but it's important enough to bring up again, and I haven't re-read what I wrote in the past, so this may be new, different and exciting.

1) Your entire career does not hinge on this appointment.
Believe it or not, you can get published without ever having a pitch appointment with an editor or agent. The appointment doesn't even put you that far ahead. It may allow you to skip the query step or keep you out of the general slush pile, but generally if an agent or editor asks to see a manuscript after a pitch appointment, she probably would have asked for it based on a query. The main thing the appointment might get you is a faster read. But while the appointment doesn't give you a big boost, you can harm your potential career in a pitch appointment if you're obnoxious, rude or otherwise rub the editor or agent the wrong way. In a sense, that's a good thing, because a personality mesh is important, and you don't want to work with someone who finds your personality off-putting, which you may not discover until it's too late when going the more traditional query route. But generally, it's a bad idea to be rude and obnoxious enough that no one will want to work with you.

2) Do not make the appointment if you don't have something ready to submit.
If you wouldn't send queries on this project, don't pitch it just because you're at the conference. That seems to be the biggest gripe I hear among agents and editors about these appointments. They consider it a waste of their time to have someone pitch them something that gets them excited, and then find out that it's only halfway done. It's especially bad if the conference specified that appointments should only go to those with complete manuscripts ready to be submitted. That means you've taken an appointment that someone else could have used and you've demonstrated that you think you're one of those special people the rules don't apply to -- and that's generally not someone they want to work with (see tip #1). Most conferences allow you to give up an appointment (and have a waiting list of people who want appointments) if it turns out that you're not ready or if you've discovered that the editor/agent isn't looking for a project like yours.

3) Do NOT prepare a scripted pitch about your book that fills the entire allotted time.
This is bad for two reasons. For one thing, you'll want to exchange some social niceties instead of just plunging into the pitch, and you'll want to leave the editor or agent time to ask questions or even time to ask for the manuscript. If you've scripted an eight-minute pitch for your eight-minute session, you're going to run out of time. But also, imagine listening to someone talk non-stop for seven or eight minutes. How much information would you retain, and how tuned in would you be by the end? The idea is to intrigue the editor or agent into asking for the manuscript, which will tell the whole story. You don't have to tell the whole story in your pitch session.

4) Instead, prepare a high-level, short pitch as a conversation starter and let the editor or agent ask questions.
Using one of my books as an example:
Start by describing the length and genre/target market of your work (fantasy, romance, young adult, etc.): "Enchanted, Inc. is a 100,000 word humorous contemporary fantasy novel."
This gives the editor or agent the chance to decide up front if this is something she might handle. Ideally, you'll already know you're in the ballpark before requesting the appointment, but there are times when conferences just stick people in slots, and there are fine lines determining what an agent or editor might be looking for that don't come through in guidelines. For instance, the agent may be listed as representing fantasy, but she only wants darker, more edgy stuff. Or the editor may have just bought something like that and doesn't want to see more of it right now.
If the editor or agent wants to go on, elaborate with a short description of one or two sentences: "It's the story of an ordinary young woman who discovers that she's so very ordinary that magic doesn't even work on her, and that makes her a valuable employee for a magical corporation." (To be honest, I usually went with "Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter," but those X meets Y pitches can be risky. A lot of agents and editors hate them, and you have to be absolutely certain that the things you're comparing your work to really do apply, and then there's the chance that the person you're pitching to might not like one of those things, even if she might like your story.)
If the person you're pitching to is intrigued, she may ask some specific questions, or she may just say, "Oh, sounds interesting. Go on." This is when you can elaborate. In this pitch for my book, I might backtrack a bit and mention that the heroine is a small-town girl who came to the big city to try to have an extraordinary life, only to feel like a total hick because she can't seem to become jaded by all the amazing things she sees that nobody else seems to care about -- and then she finds out why. I'd probably mention that her magical immunity and common sense are particularly valuable now that the magical company is facing a rogue wizard, and I'd hint at the romantic possibilities with the brilliant and powerful wizard who can't seem to talk to her without blushing furiously. Just remember to make this a conversation instead of a monologue and give the other person a chance to comment or ask questions.

5) Think about how you usually talk about books.
My favorite way to pitch a book is to pretend that it's a really great book I've just read and I'm trying to persuade someone else to read it. Think about what you say about other books you've read and apply that to your own work. You're really trying to accomplish the same thing -- to make the other person want to read it.

6) It's okay for you to ask questions.
Although we're usually thinking in terms of the agents or editors selecting us, it works the other way around, as well, especially with agents. It's not just about finding someone who'll have you. It's also about finding a good fit. You can use this one-on-one time with an agent to ask about her agenting philosophy, the number of clients she has, how long she's been in business, how she prefers to communicate with authors, her latest big sale, really, anything you want to know about the agency. These questions may come first (because why pitch if you don't think the agency sounds like a good fit) or last (if you have time after talking about your project and finding out that the agent is interested).

7) Be prepared to talk beyond the project.
In some respects, this meeting can work like a job interview. The agent or editor may ask you what else you're working on, what your career goals are, what you like to read, etc. I've heard of people who came in to pitch one project, but the one that sold came up in the "what else are you working on" part of the conversation. When monitoring appointments at a conference (I was the timekeeper), I frequently saw editors or agents say "no thanks" to the pitched project right from the start, and then they asked what else the writer had in the works. So, although the main thing you want to pitch should be in a ready-to-submit state, it's a good idea to think about a short, high-level pitch for any other projects you have in progress. You should also take some time to think about your career plans. Do you want to stay in that one genre or branch out? Do you see this book as part of a series? About how many books do you want to write a year?

8) The official appointment isn't your only opportunity to talk to editors and agents.
If you didn't manage to line up a personal appointment, that doesn't mean you're totally out of luck. Some of the best networking opportunities at conferences and conventions happen at the hotel bar, around the swimming pool or at luncheon tables. It's just a little trickier then. For one thing, you can't just launch into your pitch. Only talk in specifics about your work if the editor or agent asks you to. At some point in the conversation, if the editor or agent finds you witty and articulate or interesting, or if it turns out you have the same taste in books, she may ask the "what do you write?" question. Start out vague ("I write humorous fantasy") and get more specific if she continues to ask questions. If she wants to see something, she'll ask for it and hand you a business card. Don't push the point or put her on the spot if she doesn't ask. Aside from possible pitching, these are good opportunities for you to learn more about these people, how they work, what interests them and if they're someone you want to work with. Even if you never get the chance to pitch your book to them, you can certainly put something to the effect of "I enjoyed meeting you at the XYZ conference and chatting with you at lunch on Saturday" in your query letter. Going to conference sessions where editors or agents are speaking is also a good idea because you can learn a lot about them. If you ask a question in those sessions, make sure the question is of general interest and not a pitch for your book in disguise. Avoid stalking as a way to engineer casual conversations. Once you've had a chance to talk to your target, back off and don't keep following her around the conference. Physical violence to ensure that you get that coveted luncheon seat next to the editor of your dreams is right out.

9) Don't wear something stupid with the idea that it will make the editor or agent remember you.
At the very first Romance Writers of America conference I attended, it seemed like half the women there were going around wearing these huge, elaborate hats. It turned out that there was apparently a bit of advice given out somehow, somewhere that you should wear a hat to your editor or agent appointment because it would make you more memorable and you would stand out. I don't know if it worked, but my guess is that they were too busy looking at the hats to listen to the pitches, and I'd rather be remembered for my story than for what I was wearing. If you have to wear a giant hat to be remembered, then maybe you should work on your personality and social skills. Ditto goes for costumes or quasi-costume attire -- like authors of historical novels wearing long, lacy dresses. Mind you, I'm talking about events that are focused on interaction with publishing professionals. If you want to dress up like one of your characters or wear a crazy hat at an event aimed at fans, then go wild.

10) Don't bring your manuscript with you in any way, shape or form.
Especially with today's baggage restrictions, the editors and agents don't have room to carry back anything extra. Your single CD-ROM with your manuscript on it may not seem like much, but multiply that by every appointment, and soon you've got a suitcase full. If they want it, they'll ask you to mail or e-mail it. At most, offer your query letter on a single sheet of paper (I've heard an agent say he prefers to just read the query at the start of the appointment, then use it as a conversational jumping-off point). If you must have something to give, have a business card and write the title of the book you're pitching and the conference name on the back.

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