I’m doing this in sections because otherwise it will be a very long post.
It used to be that summers were the busiest time of year in terms of editors (and agents) going out into the world to meet authors. Nowadays, there are conferences, conventions, and other events all year round, so writers have many opportunities to try to get their work in front of a publishing professional.
One of the ways events put writers and editors (or agents) together is with pitch sessions. (In case you don’t know what a pitch session is, it’s when a writer signs up for a brief, one-on-one, face-to-face meeting, with an agent or editor.) Most of the time, pitch sessions take place in a large room, with editors and agents spread around enough that they don’t overhear each other (not because anyone is going to steal anything but because it’s distracting to agents/editors and writers).
I know that pitching can make a writer very nervous. I totally understand that! And it’s pointless for me to say, “don’t be nervous.” But, please, try to think of us as people. As readers. That’s what we are, at bottom: we are readers. We want to find good stuff to read.
Here’s the thing: you improve your odds of having someone ask for your manuscript if you know what you’re doing when it comes to pitching. Happily, it’s not too difficult to be prepared. Yes, it takes some time and some work–but if you want to be published by some kind of traditional publisher, this work is part of your job as a writer.
First: have a finished novel. No, seriously, that’s the first thing, before you do any research or start working on your pitch. Nine times out of ten, whoever you are talking to only wants to see things that are finished; if yours isn’t done (or damn near close to done, like you’re writing the last chapter or two), please don’t pitch.
Why is that important? Because when I come back from a pitch event, the majority of the things I’ve asked to see are going to hit my inbox within two weeks. You want to be in that group–you want to strike while the iron is hot, while I remember talking to you and remember something about your book. The submission email (as well as the act of loading the file onto my reader) reinforces the face-to-face interaction, increasing the chance that I’ll remember you when I read the manuscript itself, even if that’s weeks later. If you don’t send the manuscript until many months–or even a year–later, then it’s likely that I won’t remember what intrigued me when you pitched (I might not even remember meeting you).
(And yes, it’s happened that I’ve gotten mss. a year later, even mss. that were supposedly finished when the writer pitched to me. Sometimes the writer has had personal problems–and I totally cut someone slack for that because I’ve been there–but sometimes, the book wasn’t actually finished….)
Second: research. Know your targets: who is pitching at the event you’re attending and who, of those people, is looking for what you write? Don’t waste your time pitching to people who aren’t editing or representing what you’re pitching. Most of the time, information about attending editors and agents (and what they’re looking for) is available on the event’s website…and you can often find more about them online.
Please note that I’m talking about researching a person’s professional side. I once had the daylights scared out of me when someone sat down to pitch, told me they had researched me, commented on schools I’d attended, and tried to make chit-chat about my daughter (who was pretty young at the time)! No one likes to feel stalked…plus significant amounts of small talk means you have less time to talk about your book.
Points one and two make life easier for everyone. Writers pitching finished books makes editors and agents happy. Pitching only to the right editors and agents keeps us from wasting our time (and yours) and means that other writers have a chance to be seen (hey, they’re leaving room for you, too).
Third: If you have more than one finished book, decide which one you’re pitching. If you write in more than one genre, it’s fine to prepare a pitch for more than one book. But you likely won’t have enough time to fully pitch more than one book to each agent or editor, so you need to know which book you’re going to pitch to each person you speak to.
More than once I’ve had people come in with a list of book titles and ask me which book I’d like to hear about. Now, I literally can’t tell a thing about a project from its title, so this is not a terrific idea. Or they’ll say, “I have three finished novels in these subgenres, which are you interested in?” No matter what comes out of my mouth at that point (which hopefully is polite), what’s in my mind is, “Really? I wrote a #MSWL for this event and you didn’t look at it? Not cool.”
Fourth: Find out how much time you’ll have for your pitch. Pitch appointments can be as brief as 5 minutes or as long as 15, and you need to know what you’re dealing with before you get there. Usually this is on the event’s website when you sign up; if it’s not, you should ask. (Sometimes I don’t know how long appointments will be until I’m in the room and I definitely prefer to know ahead of time.)
Fifth: Start working on the pitch itself. Now, this is a bit tricky, because to an extent this depends on how much time you have to work with. If you have a short pitch session, like 5 or 7 minutes, I suggest that you plan to talk for 2 minutes less than your allotted time. If you have a longer appointment, or 10 minutes or more, I still suggest that you prepare a pitch that runs no longer than 8 minutes.
btw, one sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper, typed double-spaced, takes approximately 1 minute to read aloud. I’m not recommending that you read your pitch, but it can help you prep to know that if you want to talk for 4 minutes, you need 4 pages of material.