Writer Wednesday | A Comprehensive Guide to Pitchfest

With the Writer’s Digest West Conference coming up next weekend, I imagine there are a few folks out there who haven’t been to a pitch event and would like insight into the process. It can be nerve-wracking, but it is also so much fun! I’ve written a few past posts, but I thought that it might be nice to put it all into one, all-encompassing guide.

Pitch Slam -- Writer's Digest Conference East 2013

Pitch Slam — Writer’s Digest Conference East 2013.

Make sure you take a look at which agents will be attending the event. Take note of anyone, and I mean anyone, that might possibly fit your manuscript. You want as many options as possible when you start Googling. Yes, Googling. Take your list and Google every single agent and/or agency on your list. Pay attention to things like genre, current representation, bio, and any manuscript preferences. Cross off agents as you eliminate them from your pitch list, and rank the others. Keep in mind that you probably should only pitch to one agent per agency, so pick the best one. Some agencies will have more than one agent at the event, and there may be some overlap in their interests.

Make sure to have this list with you when you’re pitching, and include first and last names of the agent and the name of the agency. This list will come in handy during the event, when things are crazy and you’re not completely sure where you should go next.

If there is a “pitchcraft” session offered, I would not go the route of writing and memorizing your pitch prior to the event. Instead, outline your key talking points. Do a couple of practice sessions so you can talk comfortably about your manuscript.

Oh, and tip: refer to your work-in-progress as a “manuscript,” not a novel.

After the pitchcraft session, tweak your pitch as needed and practice, practice, practice (with a timer – remember, you want your pitch to be sixty to ninety seconds long)! You’ll be sitting when you pitch, so try to practice in that position – personally, it helped me find a relaxing position that I would naturally fall into while pitching, despite the nerves. Also, try to find a buddy you can pitch to – hell, initiate conversation with someone and practice your pitches on each other.

The event itself is, as I described before, “speed-dating for writers and agents: one ninety minute session, three minutes per agent (ninety seconds to pitch and ninety seconds to converse).” Get there early so you have a better chance of being first in line to pitch to one of your favorite agents. Staff members will likely be walking around to make sure you’re in the correct session and to answer any questions. If they don’t give an overview of the set-up in the room, ask! You’ll want to know how the agents are arranged (first name, last name, split by last name in connected rooms). The more info you have, the faster you can navigate and see more agents.

When you’re pitching, keep this in mind – not everyone will love your manuscript as much as you do. That’s okay. You’re trying to form connections here. Sometimes a “rejection” will be more valuable than a request. That agent may give you feedback to incorporate into your pitch for the next agent, or you may gain insight into something you should revise. It’s not the end of the world unless you make it out to be, and “rejection” doesn’t mean you should stop writing.

When you’re pitching, stay in the moment and focus on the agent in front of you. If you’re distracted, it will come across.

In between pitches, talk to the people in line. Network! Each of you is in that room to talk about something you love that you wrote, so do that….or whatever, just make conversation to stave off nerves. Bottom line: don’t ignore your fellow attendees!

At the same time, try to keep an eye on the other agents you want to pitch – you should already know from your list who your top agents are, and you should know how the room is laid out. This will help you prioritize and re-strategize on the spot. For example, if your #3 agent pick has seven people in line, that means you’ll wait twenty-one minutes to see that agent. Likewise, if agents #4 and #5 only have a couple of people, you’ll probably see both in less time. I was able to pitch to eight agents in one ninety-minute session.

Most people tell you to get right into it because three minutes go by fast. I like to give myself the five seconds at the front end to shake the agent’s hand and introduce myself with a Southern sweet tea smile. It’s a big boost of confidence for me, and it gives me a teensy bit of time to collect my thoughts and refocus. So no, I don’t launch into my pitch – I try to add a little personal connection because while I might lose five seconds of talk time, I know I’m less likely to get nervous and flustered, and the remaining two minutes and fifty-five seconds will be smoother and more productive.

A few things not to do:

  • Don’t bring your manuscript with you. I mean, yes, it’s great – but you’re pitching, not doing a reading. The agent will tell you how to submit, should (s)he want to see pages. It’s unnecessary bulk…
  • …and you don’t want to drag too much around with you. I went to one of the events where, no joke, someone had a wheeled carry-on – not laptop briefcase, carry-on. Chances are you are coming from a session or going to a session and need your notebook or laptop, but keep in mind you have to cart everything around from agent to agent. If it’s a burden for you, it will be another level of stress.
  • Don’t push it. If the agent isn’t interested, do not try to argue the point. Don’t cite stats, quote material, or get defensive. Most of the agents I encountered were really personable and offered some critique even if they didn’t request pages. Be courteous and polite, and thank them for their time.
  • In fact, be courteous to everyone at the event. Be courteous to everyone at the conference. The staff members are really friendly and kind. Don’t be that person. You’ll be memorable…for entirely the wrong reasons.

When in doubt, smile and breathe. Regardless of what happens, at the end of the day this is a learning experience and a growth opportunity.

And hey…good luck!

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