Perfect Pitch

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.

1. Preparation

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.

2. Knowledge

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!

Advertisements

Pitching an agent? Read these query letter tips…

student-849825_960_720In my work at WordServe, I read a lot of query letters and book proposals (sometimes more than 100 in a week!) that come into our agency. And in my work as a freelance editor, I often help clients develop their proposals and queries before they submit them. After reading hundreds of pitches across every conceivable genre and topic, I’ve come to notice a few significant Do’s and Don’ts that can make or break whether an agent is going to read any further. If you’re newer to the world of publishing and hoping to get your book noticed, perhaps a few of these will be helpful to you the next time you’re putting together your pitch to an agent or editor.

When sending a query to a literary agency…

  1. Don’t claim that your book is going to be a huge bestseller. The fact of the matter is that only a teeny, tiny percentage of books end up at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list—and much of it depends on things outside of an author’s control. If you claim that you’ve written the next Harry Potter, the agent reading your pitch is probably going to assume that you don’t understand the publishing industry very well; have unrealistic expectations; and/or haven’t done your homework. A better way to emphasize your book’s potential is to try something a little less grand that focuses instead on who is realistically going to buy your book: “I’ve written a book about women in the workplace that will resonate with young working mothers across the country.”
  2. Do your homework on the agents and agency you’re submitting to. If you can find out the name of a specific agent at the firm who represents books in your genre, send the proposal to their attention. Mention why you’ve chosen them. Perhaps comment on another author they’ve represented whose work has similarities to your own. If you can’t submit the proposal to a specific agent, send it to the general agency, but make sure you’ve read up on what kinds of books the agency represents. WordServe represents primarily faith-based books; when I get submissions for romance books with risqué content or nonfiction books that argue against our values, I delete without reading any further.
  3. Don’t claim that your book will make a great feature film. Even fewer books end up as movies than end up on the bestseller list (see #1, above) – and agents who see this in your pitch will know your expectations are overblown and be far less likely to work with you.
  4. Do write your pitch in polished prose that reflects your writing style. You’ve got 30 seconds to get an agent’s attention, so represent your writing well. If your book is humorous, inject some levity in your query. If it’s a thriller, create tension with your first line. If it’s literary fiction, elegant sentences that mirror the book’s style are a must. In every circumstance, ensure that there are absolutely no typos; this is your first impression, and it needs to be 100 percent perfect. Seriously: a few typos in a pitch letter is enough to get an immediate rejection.
  5. Do highlight why you are the right person to write this book; but don’t claim that nothing like this has ever been done before. Chances are, it has—and the agent has already seen it. Instead, focus on what sets your project apart, what new angle or new research or new understanding you bring to a topic—and why you’re the best person to tell readers about it. Focusing on your prior experience, personal connection to the topic, research you’ve conducted, or a dedicated audience you’ve built up are all great ways to convince an agent that you’re worth taking a chance on—and that doesn’t require the claim that no one else has ever thought of anything like this. It just requires you to show me why you’re the best person for the job.
  6. Do read the requirements for submission for every agency you send to. Different agencies have different submission requirements, and it’s essential that you provide them with exactly what they want—or your query will likely be deleted without even being read. If an agent doesn’t want attachments, make sure you include everything in the body of the email. Do they want to see five pages of sample material or fifty—or none at all? Do you need to include a full proposal, or just send a query and wait for a response? Following the specific instructions for each agency, while tedious, will result in a much better response rate, as agents will see that you’ve done your research, are taking this process seriously, and have respect for an agent’s time and wishes.
  7. Last, but not least, do show courtesy and respect to the agents you’re submitting to. Thank them for their time (they really are busy), and don’t pester them if you don’t hear back immediately. While it’s appropriate to follow up with an agent if you don’t hear from them within the time frame they list on their website, do not write to them before this window has elapsed. If they say that they aren’t able to respond to every query, accept that you simply may not hear back. With so many queries coming in, agents aren’t always able to give a personal response to each project they see. It’s unfortunate, but a reality of the industry. And finally, if you do receive a rejection, don’t pester an agent to explain themselves or try to argue for reconsideration. Graciously accept the response, and move on. There are many good agents out there, and you want to find one who connects with your work and is excited to partner with you.

Pitching agents is a difficult process—trust me, I get it! But by spending time polishing your query and making sure to send it to just the right places, you’ll increase your chance of finding the perfect person to represent your work. Above all, don’t be discouraged! It takes time, and often lots of rejections, before you find the right agent—but it does happen. For the most part, agents are in this business because we love books as much as you do; and we’re always hoping that the next query letter we open is going to be the perfect one for us.