I’ve attended numerous writer’s conferences over the years and was never fortunate enough to be granted an agent/editor pitch until last month. And then, when I arrived at the conference, I learned I’d not only been scheduled 10 minutes with my #1 choice, but I’d also been scheduled another 10 minutes with my #2 choice (1 agent, 1 editor). How lucky can a girl get?
Then I started thinking, Holy S–t! What the hell am I going to do? I’d been conducting nonstop research on the essential elements of the pitch, as if someone, somewhere had written a list of explicit instructions I could follow. I hadn’t really expected to be granted a pitch, but still, I’d been amassing huge amounts of advice. So, I knew what I had to do. Sorta.
Since then, I’ve been wondering why both my pitches were successful when, unfortunately, so many other people at the conference did not walk away with a similar outcome. I felt really bad for the people who ended their agent/editor appointments within the first 2-3 minutes (some rushing away with tears in their eyes) and didn’t want to be one of them. There is a lot of info on the Internet, much of it vague and nebulous.
So, here’s my list. It contains 3 elements, and I’ll explain them in detail. I hope I provide some clarity for you.
(1) Write a book you know inside out, and love, and could talk about endlessly
The book has to be complete. Let me repeat: THE BOOK HAS TO BE COMPLETE! Because if it isn’t, how do you know what will happen, how your characters will develop and what they’ll think/feel, or any of the other things the agent/editor is going to ask you about the book? I don’t care how detailed your outline is, it isn’t going to supply you with all the answers the agent/editor will ask. How do I know this? Because both the agent and editor asked me questions I hadn’t counted on being asked. But I knew the answers. (Thank God.)
If you don’t love your book and characters, why would anyone else do so? If you can’t talk about them with enthusiasm and awareness, why would anyone else even want to learn about them? Imagine this, you’re trying to convince your best friend to go on a blind date with someone you say is terrific and perfect for her. If you can’t answer your friend’s questions about why you think she and the guy are ideally suited, do you really think she’s going to risk an hour of her time on him?
(2) Be a professional; know and provide exactly what the agent/editor wants
I’ve been a business owner for 40+ years and have learned that professionalism isn’t something you automatically acquire when you establish a business, get a promotion, or don a business suit. It isn’t denoted by a college degree or letters after your name. It’s an attitude, the ability to listen and speak respectfully, knowing your business industry, fulfilling promises you make, and knowing how to behave in the setting you find yourself in.
One of the biggest reasons I see for writers not being asked to submit their work is because they don’t give the agent/editor what they want. Chuck Sambuchino’s article in Writer’s Digest has the best GENERAL description about what publishers are looking for, by genre, with respect to word count. Of course, agents and editors state their personal preferences for this, and other requirements, in their submission guidelines.
I don’t care how terrific your novel is; if agents/editors are looking for submissions between 65,000 and 80,000 words, they’re not going to ask to see your 50,000-word book. Why? Because you’re not professional. You haven’t done your research–which means you don’t know your craft (aka business industry) well enough–and you don’t care enough about a potential business partner to conduct your due diligence. This same thought process applies to anything else the agent/editor wants and has specified, and that you ignore or overlook.
Examples of how to be professional:
Spend more time listening than speaking. If you do speak, make sure it’s respectfully and pertinent.
Be punctual. Tardiness communicates you’re either unprepared or inconsiderate.
Dress appropriately. What did I wear for my pitches? Ankle pants with a blouse and cardigan (and flats). Why? Because the agent and editor were wearing business casual at the panel they sat on the day before I pitched. Yes, I checked. It’s considered professional to be dressed similarly to the person you hope to be working with rather than much more casually or formally. If you’re not sure, dress up–not down.
Visit the agent/editor’s website BEFORE the pitch. It will contain specific information about the kinds of books he or she seeking. Google the individual, as well, and read all the agent/editor interviews you can find. That’s how you know the agent has 3 German Shepherds or the editor has a personal fondness for kick-ass heroines. Agents and editors are real people; they can be anxious at pitch sessions, too. Just because they have more experience conducting them than you do, it doesn’t mean they like them any more than you do. They can be just as nervous talking to strangers as you are.
You can obtain information online about agents/editors on websites like Query Tracker, AgentQuery.com, and Manuscript Wishlist, which are free. Or you can purchase a one-month subscription to Publishers Marketplace for $25 or subscribe to Writer’s Market for $5.99 per month (or less if you buy an annual subscription). Jane Friedman is a well-respected source in the publishing industry and you can’t go wrong reading articles on her website or blog.
(3) Be confident enough to learn an elevator pitch and how to sell yourself
Please don’t cringe. Seriously. I’ve been in sales for 40+ years and I know what I’m talking about. Here are some facts–not personal opinion–that will help you master this essential element.
You need to be aware of, and interested in, other people. Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People was written in the 1930s and I recommend you read it. I’ve purchased and/or read hundreds of sales books, and this is my #1 go-to. The most important part of selling yourself is building rapport with your potential buyer. Did you know that people prefer to be persuaded to buy rather than sold to? And they’ll NEVER buy from someone they don’t trust, someone with whom they have no rapport.
Your internal thought process communicates itself. You must BELIEVE in yourself. If you’re terrified of dogs, don’t they sense it? Well, people can sense when you’re timid, afraid, desperate, or believe you can’t accomplish a goal. You MUST talk yourself into being positive or, at the very least, surrendering the outcome to fate, destiny, God, or some higher power. You can’t appear confident if you’re tense–you need to be at peace with yourself.
You need to be unique and different from everyone else. This is what is meant when people ask, “What sets you apart from other writers?” How are you, the person, special? What is it about you, and your perspective, that allows you to use words in a way no one else does? I’ve been told my voice comes through in my writing. Now that you’ve read my overlong blog post, do you think my writing is different from that of others? If so, how? If not, why not? Look at your writing and ask yourself the same questions until you come up with the answer.
You need to master the “elevator pitch”. An elevator pitch is the equivalent of a blurb. Like the back copy on your book once it’s published. When I used to sell insurance, I had 30-second and 60-second elevator pitches about me and my insurance agency. Now, I have 30- and 60-second pitches for each of my books. Google “how to create an elevator pitch” and read at least 10 of the how-tos. Then write one based on what feels comfortable to you.
The most important thing about the elevator pitch is to practice it, over and over again, until you can say it in your sleep. Practice it when you’re driving and when you’re in the shower. That way, when you’re called on to answer the question, “So what’s your book about?” your response will roll off your tongue naturally. The more you practice, the more authority you’ll have and the more professional you’ll sound.
That’s it: the end. Feel free to ask questions, volunteer suggestions, or simply comment.