Pitch Sessions 101, Part Four: Mechanics & Practical Matters

Every pitch session is set up slightly differently, so not all of this will apply in every setting.

Some of what’s in this post is going to sound silly, but trust me, it can make a difference. Some of this will save you time, which gives you more time to use for your pitch. Some of it will make the experience more pleasant for the person you’re pitching, which may make them more inclined to look favorably on you (and maybe your idea). Some of it’s just etiquette that you may not be aware of.

I’m not sure why, but many agents and editors seem to be sensitive to perfume/cologne/smells in general. So if you’re pitching, it’s a nice idea to use as little scent as possible that day, and don’t smoke right before your session (even if you’re nervous). (I know this sounds really weird, but I have literally had to move away from people on the subway when they are wearing a lot of scent. If I don’t, I cough and sneeze and get a headache.)

Try not to bring a lot of baggage with you. I know that at a convention or conference, it’s common to carry a tote bag (and a purse, if you’re inclined). But I see a lot of people come in to pitch with a tote bag, a purse, a bag of stuff purchased in the dealer’s room or bookstore, a shoulder bag, a briefcase, etc. The more stuff you’re carrying, the more time you need to set it down and arrange it. The more time you need to gather it up at the end of your session. The more bags you have to sort through to find your materials (if you have any). Given that you may have as little as 5 minutes for your pitch, you don’t want to spend too much time on your gear.

Don’t create barriers between you and the person you’re pitching. I’ve had people put their briefcases or big shoulder bags on the table between us, open the bag and take out pitch materials, and then leave the bag sitting on the table between us. This creates a psychological wall between you and the person you’re pitching.

Have a business card. It should be standard business-card sized. It should be easy to read. Even if you put a picture of your novel’s cover or some other image on one side, there should be blank space somewhere on the card. Many editors and agents make notes on the business cards of writers whose books we ask to see. (Related: business cards should be light-colored, so standard black or blue ink can be used to write on them.)

Don’t bring anything else to the pitch to give to the editor or agent (unless you’ve made arrangements in advance). Most of the time, if we’ve traveled by plane to get to the conference/convention/event, we’ve brought only a small suitcase. We don’t want to carry anything extra home with us, including copies of your books, proposal packets, synopses, one-sheets, flash drives, CDs, DVDs, cover flats, CVs, whatever.

Also, please, no gifts of any kind. It’s rare that I’m offered anything at pitch other than coffee (which I don’t drink), and believe me, I appreciate the thought, but it’s too easy for such things to be interpreted as bribes. No joke–if a writer gives me chocolate and I say yes to their pitch, and the next writer doesn’t give me chocolate and I say no, someone will say that it was the chocolate that made me say yes.

Remember: No means No

While your goal is to get a Yes out of a pitch, unfortunately that won’t always happen.

If the editor or agent says No, that’s it.

Don’t try to change the No to a Yes; there’s really no way to do that that doesn’t come across as argumentative or as questioning the agent or editor’s judgement. That does not endear you to the editor or agent.

Don’t ask why someone said no; we may not always have a reason we can easily explain.

If you get a No, it might be the pitch, it might be the project, it might be a mismatch between project and editor or agent. If you pitch to several people at the same event and get a No from all of them, I suggest reconsidering how you’re pitching your book…and taking a hard look at the book as well.

Even if there’s still time in your session, don’t pitch something else if the editor or agent says no…unless they specifically ask you to.

If you get a Yes, you’ll likely be given an editor’s or agent’s business card so that you can send the manuscript.

If you get more than one Yes, it’s up to you to decide what to do next. Submit to an agent first, if you really want an agent? Submit to the editor/publisher of your dreams, if that editor said yes? Please don’t submit to more than one editor at a time; while we expect agents to do multiple submissions, we don’t expect it (or like it) from writers we’ve met at a pitch session.

Best of luck!

Part One: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/pitch-sessions-101-part-one/

Part Two: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/pitch-sessions-101-part-two-what-should-be-in-the-pitch/

Part Three: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/pitch-sessions-101-part-three-some-thoughts-on-preparation/

Pitch Sessions 101, Part Three: Some thoughts on preparation.

The big truth is that there are as many ways to pitch as there are people. There’s no “one true path” here. That trick is to find what works for you.

The small truth is that thinking of the pitch as a conversation rather than a presentation is almost always going to get you the best results no matter how you prepare or what method you use.

There are all kinds of recommended ways to prepare.

One school recommends using index cards: one for each main character and three for your plot (one each for beginning, middle, and end). No more than four points per card, and just notes, not full sentences–phrases that will cue you and help you remember what you want to say.

Another recommends (as I mentioned in an earlier post) one double-spaced sheet of standard 8.5 x 11 paper for each minute of pitch, again broken down into sections for plot and for each main character.

There’s the “write it down in a notebook so that you always have it with you, in case you literally meet an editor in the elevator” school and the “memorize everything until you are word-perfect so that you can reel off the whole thing smoothly given the barest opening” school.

Here’s what I recommend as a start: Think of your book as if it were a book.

A finished, published book.

You’ve read and enjoyed this book and you want to recommend it to a friend. What would you tell that person about the book?

What’s the last book you recommended to someone? Why? Was it the story, the protagonist, the writing? Did you learn something when you read it? Did it speak to your emotions?

Okay, I can hear you thinking that it’s pretentious to claim that your book will teach someone about working in a textile mill (except wouldn’t that be a cool thing, if your research and writing made that world really come to life for a reader) or move them to tears or scare their pants off…. But if those things are some of your goals as a writer, it’s good to tell me that stuff. It helps me see you as a person and to understand some of your hopes beyond “publish my book” and “make money”.

In any case, what I’m driving at is that I want to be engaged by the pitch–just the way I’m engaged when someone I know tells me about a book they really enjoyed.

Sticking to a written or memorized script can make your presentation stiff. While it’s important to know your talking points, it’s equally important not to be glued to them. Be flexible–especially since I’m likely to be poking at you a little, as described in the previous post in this series (https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/pitch-sessions-101-part-two-what-should-be-in-the-pitch/).

Figure out what you most want to say and keep those things in mind, but don’t worry too much if, in the thick of pitching, some element gets skipped over or never comes up at all.

Remember that your goal is not to fill the entire time allotted for your pitch. For one thing, even if you have a 7 minute slot, those 7 minutes don’t necessarily start the minute you open your mouth. Sometimes there’s one timekeeper for the entire room and they may start the session before your butt is in your seat. Sometimes you will spend more time than you think getting settled (I’ll talk a little bit about this and other practical matters in part four). So by the time you’re ready to talk, your 7 minutes may already be 6.

You want to come in at 2 minutes less than your allotted time at the most. 2.5 minutes less is probably even better.

If you can, record yourself giving the pitch. I don’t know about you, but I hate hearing my own voice on a recording (though seeing/hearing myself on tv is okay, which is weird). But part of my job as an editor is to make brief audio-only recordings about some of my books for our sales reps to listen to. I have 1 minute or less to talk about each book!

When I first started doing this, I tried to listen to myself at least a couple of times a year.

It was enlightening.

Sometimes I sounded like I was reading (well, I was reading, but you know what I mean). So I practiced sounding like I was talking, trying to capture the natural highs and lows of my own speech pattern. I’d run the script out loud, half under my breath most of the time, trying to “hear” where the stresses naturally fell.

Sometimes I talk too fast, trying to cram as many words as possible into that minute. Even now, with years of experience behind me, before I start each recording, I take a good breath and think, “go slow.” I’ve told the sound engineer to stop me if I start to race. Getting a little faster when I’m excited is okay, but zipping along at 1,000 miles an hour for a full minute or more? Not good, and hard to listen to.

Listening to yourself may also enable you to identify and change phrases that don’t sound as good out loud as they do written down.

Once you have your basic points set, try pitching a few people. Try ones who have read your book as well as those who haven’t. Encourage them to ask questions during the pitch, to simulate the real experience. And keep an eye on time….

If you pitch someone who has already read your book, ask them if there’s something important you left out of your pitch. Their response may tell you what people are responding to in your novel…and it may not be what you expect.

If you pitch someone who hasn’t read your book, ask them what they think were the most and least interesting things you said. Ask them if they want to read the book based on your pitch alone.

Try not to pitch the same person more than once unless you radically change your pitch after you try them the first time.

Once you have your basic pitch settled, don’t practice it into the ground. Run it with a few people and then put it away. When you get to the event itself, you’re likely to meet other people who are also going to pitch. If you have a chance before you go to see the agents and editors, pitch each other–but only once each–as a warm-up.

I’ve got one more post planned for this series, so come back on Monday, June 8, for the last part of Pitch Sessions 101.

Part One: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/pitch-sessions-101-part-one/

Part Two: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/pitch-sessions-101-part-two-what-should-be-in-the-pitch/

Part Four: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/pitch-sessions-101-part-four-mechanics-practical-matters/

Pitch Sessions 101, Part Two: what should be in the pitch?

What should your pitch contain?

Here’s some of what I look/listen for:

1) the story! I’m plot-driven as an editor. When I hear or read a synopsis (or a full manuscript), I’m building a plot-house in my mind. And I know where the floors aren’t even or there’s a missing wall or window–where the house needs repairs or re-design. For me, if story’s not strong or doesn’t seem to hang together, I’m not going to be interested in the book.

However, I don’t need a huge amount of detail at pitch stage, just enough to let me know that your novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

That last bit’s important because some writers don’t want to reveal the end. They leave it out of a written synopsis or don’t include it in a verbal pitch. I suspect this is because there’s advice floating around that says if you don’t include the end, editors and agents will be curious enough to ask you for it. That is wrong. We need to see that there’s an end because we want to know that you can end the book. Some people can’t–they’re all set up, no pay off.

2) the main characters. Note the plural here: I am assuming there is more than one important character in your book. If there isn’t you may not have a novel yet. I want to know about the villain(s), too, not just the good guys.

If you only tell me about male characters, I’m going to ask if your book has any women in it. If you only tell me about female characters, I’m going to ask if there are any men in the book.

It’s a good idea to tell me about diversity in your cast as well. You don’t need to justify diversity, btw, and don’t let anyone convince you that you should. A character doesn’t a “reason” to be a POC, to have a disability, to be LGBTQ, to not be Christian, to not be American. They just are who and what they are.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve said, “I’m going to ask” more than once. That’s because a pitch session is a conversation as much as it is a presentation. Probably more.

Getting to the heart of your project within the allotted time is important. I frequently interrupt a writer’s prepared presentation to try to dig deeper into the material, both because I’m aware that time is passing (I usually have a timer running on my phone) and because writers often get stuck during a pitch and I’m trying to move them along.

I might ask:

  • What inspired you to write this book?
  • What interests you about this time period? This part of the world?
  • How did you settle on this myth or legend or monster for your story?
  • Why has your main character decided to make this major change in their life? What do they want to achieve?
  • Have you written other books–published or not?
  • Are you published at novel-length? (self-published counts)

I might say:

  • Tell me about the research you’ve done on: a plot point, a character’s background, a culture you explore in the book, the food people eat, the science behind your thriller elements, the religion displayed by your main character.
  • Tell me about the relationship between your two main characters: how long have they known each other?
  • Tell me about other publishing credentials you have or awards you’ve won, and forgive me for not knowing–I just can’t keep up!

I may ask you the same question more than once, or I may ask you for information you already gave me. This isn’t because I’m not listening; it’s because I focus on different things at different points in our conversation.

I’m going to try to engage you, to draw you out. This is both to give me a better sense of your book and to give me a better sense of you. If I take you on, it’s likely that we’re going to work together for at least two years (I’m talking about traditional publishing here, and there are a lot of steps between manuscript and books-on-the-shelf). During the pitch, I am looking for indications that we’ll work well together, that you understand that traditional publishing is a business.

It’s not possible for you to predict exactly what I’m going to ask, so don’t make yourself crazy trying to. One of the reasons your book should be finished is that it’s more likely that you’ll be able to answer my out-of-left-field questions if you know the whole story yourself.

Part One: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/pitch-sessions-101-part-one/

Part Three: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/pitch-sessions-101-part-three-some-thoughts-on-preparation/

Part Four: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/pitch-sessions-101-part-four-mechanics-practical-matters/

Pitch Sessions 101 (Part One)

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.

Part Two: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/pitch-sessions-101-part-two-what-should-be-in-the-pitch/

Part Three: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/03/pitch-sessions-101-part-three-some-thoughts-on-preparation/

Part Four: https://editingandgeekery.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/pitch-sessions-101-part-four-mechanics-practical-matters/