Last month, I spent a day at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference in Estes Park. It was a beautiful setting, and I got to hear a wide range of pitches from new and accomplished authors. Some of them really impressed me, leaving me eager to hear more. Some of them… weren’t quite as successful.
What accounts for the difference between a good pitch and a bad pitch? Well, some of it simply depends on the project, but I found that I was willing to listen to a pitch for just about any kind of book if it was done well. The difference between pitches really came down to a few things: preparation; knowledge; engagement with the agent; enthusiasm for your project; and avoiding a few simple mistakes. Let me elaborate.
When you’ve only got 15 minutes to pitch your book to an agent and convince them they need to know more, preparation is king. You have to know what you want to say, how you’re going to say it, and have all the necessary materials at hand. Now, I’m not saying you won’t forget some of it or flub a few things because you’re nervous—everyone is!—but preparing beforehand what you want to say and how will really help ensure that your pitch is smooth, organized, and leaves the agent with a clear idea of the project.
This doesn’t mean that you have to memorize a script, but write down a few bullet points. Do you want to lead with the book’s hook? Do you want to establish your credentials? The conversation may take a different path once you and the agent start chatting, but having some points in the back of your mind that you know you want to cover will help you to steer the conversation if it flags.
I’d also recommend having a one-sheet to hand to the agent at the beginning of the pitch. This includes information such as the book’s one-line hook, a brief synopsis, word count, intended audience, and a brief biography of your writing credentials. Having a full proposal is great, but by starting with a one-sheet you can give the agent a quick overview of the project without losing too much time. I’d rather hear you talk about the project and then review the proposal on my own time than spend the whole 15 minutes wading through a 50-page proposal.
It may seem obvious, but you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. You need to know your project back to front. If it’s fiction, be able to explain the plot in a few sentences. Have a ready answer for the important themes and what you want the reader to take away. And be able to demonstrate knowledge about the world of the book—if it’s a medical thriller, have you researched the medical topics involved, interviewed a nurse, done background reading? If it’s a non-fiction book, be able to demonstrate your expertise on the topic. Point to the research you’ve done, experts you’ve consulted with. Be prepared for the kinds of questions a novice might ask about the topic. And don’t be afraid to show your smarts—that’s what we want to see.
3. Engagement with the Agent
You need to be able to set yourself apart from the tens or even hundreds of other pitches, and one way of doing that is by making a connection with the agent. Know who you’re pitching to before you approach them. Explain why you wanted to pitch to them—“I know you’re interested in historical fiction” or “I see that your agency represents So-and-So, and I’m writing in the same field.” By demonstrating that you’ve put in the time to prepare for this meeting and that you respect the agent’s time, you’ll make a great impression and start things off on the right note. That personal connection may make them more likely to remember your project among the many others they heard, and increases the chance that they’ll see you as someone they’d like to work with.
4. Enthusiasm for Your Project
I’m not saying go over the top here—you can be too enthusiastic about your work—but it’s important to show that you care deeply about your book. Agents want to see commitment: someone who believes in what they’re doing and who is willing to work really hard to get their message out there. Emphasize why you’re so passionate about this project, and explain to the agent what you’re willing to do in order to see it in print. Enthusiasm is infectious. If an agent can see how dedicated you are to a topic—that you eat, breathe, and sleep it—they’ll realize that you’re an author worth getting behind. We want high-energy, motivated, excited people who won’t let the difficulties of the publishing industry dissuade them from seeing their project all the way through.
5. Mistakes to Avoid
I’d rather focus on dos than don’ts, but there are a few tips that I’d recommend avoiding when you’re pitching your work.
- Don’t give an overly lengthy, extremely descriptive synopsis of your novel that includes every event that occurs in every chapter. You’ve got 15 minutes; at the most, five of those should be spent talking about the plot.
- Don’t begin by asking the agent what they want to hear about. Take control of the meeting, deliver your opening line, and be active in steering the conversation.
- Don’t show up without materials. You’ve got to have at least a one-sheet to hand over, if not a full proposal.
- Don’t take it personally if the agent expresses that they’re not interested. You are not your work, and each agent is looking for something different. It’s a better use of both of your time if agents are upfront about projects that simply aren’t a fit for them.
- Don’t forget to thank the agent for their consideration, leave your business card, and if they’ve asked you to, follow up with them afterwards. The onus may be on you to get in touch; make sure you do so within the week if they express interest!
There are a lot of things that go into a good pitch, but perhaps the most important is this: don’t be afraid. Agents are excited to hear about new projects, and they want you to succeed as much as you do. We wouldn’t be in this industry if we didn’t love authors and books, and we really are on your side. Our greatest hope is that these pitches turn into lasting client relationships, exciting new projects, and great book deals. So keep ‘em coming!