Last month I attended the Missouri Writer’s Guild Conference and pitched to agents in person for the first time. I was terrified. We aren’t talking a little stage fright here, I mean full on knees shaking, I think I’m going to puke, terrified. I ran around for weeks prior to the conference freaking out about my upcoming encounters with the agents. The funny thing was I’d been to a conference before, I’d met agents, and it wasn’t a big deal. But this time felt different. I was going to be putting my manuscript out there in the world. What if I didn’t do it justice? What if the agents hated it?
As the conference approached I nearly talked myself out of pitching. Nearly. But there were a few things that helped make the pitch process less painful.
1.) Practice Makes Perfect
Practice Practice Practice. When you are going to give a speech or a presentation what’s the one thing you almost always do? Unless you're the kind of person that likes to “wing it,” and that’s not me at all, you practice. When you're going to pitch an agent you should do the same thing. Spend some time constructing a pitch and then practice it like you are having a conversation with someone. I practiced in the shower, in the car, in front of the mirror, to my dog, and even pitched to fellow writers. So help remove the nerves from the equation and know what you are going to say ahead of time. The more you say it the more naturally it will roll off the tongue, and the more excited you can sound about your work.
2.) Meet the agent first
As a shy introvert I hate meeting new people. I never know what to say and I always feel like I’m an awkward, bumbling idiot. All of those feelings stem from the fact that I fear the unknown. I’m a giant control freak and when I can’t control a situation I start to panic. When you meet someone for the first time there are so many unknowns, which is why I feel so awkward around new people. So for me, taking the unknown out of the picture is key.
In this case, the unknown is the agent that you may have followed on Twitter forever but have never met in person. While you may have some idea of their personality from online interactions (or stalking – don’t lie I know we all do it!) that isn’t always a guarantee of how they will act in person. So if you can, find a good time (yes the “a good time” is important) to introduce yourself to the agent. If you can sit at their table at lunch, catch them after a seminar they gave, or volunteer to shepherd them, those are all good ways to take five minutes to say “Hi I’m so and so, it’s very nice to meet you, I’m glad you’re here.” You can even mention that you liked their seminar or possibly say I’ll be pitching to you later or tomorrow but keep the exchange brief.
Keep in mind, this is not the time to talk about your book or even mention your writing (unless they ask), just meet them. You don’t walk up to random people and start pitching your book, so don’t do this to an agent. From this brief encounter you should be able to tell that the agent is probably pretty nice and not some crazed, axe-murdering psycho setting out to ruin your writing career. See agents are people too!
3.) Don’t worry about being perfect
Now that you’ve practiced your pitch and met the agent, you’re hopefully a little less frazzled and ready to pitch. It’s going to be perfect! But what if it’s not? What if you mess up? What if you forget something? What if… Yeah stop right there. You can what if yourself to death and drive yourself crazy. I know I did. The good news is you don’t have to be perfect and shouldn’t try to be. You know why? The agent doesn’t know your book, they don’t know what you‘re going to say, and they don’t know what you practiced. So if you mess up, the only person who will know is you. Unless you have a really bad poker face like I do. So take a deep breath, calm down, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Give yourself permission to pitch well but not perfect.
4.) Treat it like a conversation with a stranger
Stranger or friend, when people find out that you write, what is usually the first thing that comes out of their mouth?
The encounter usually goes something like this:
Stranger: So what do you do in your free time?
Writer: Free time? What’s that? I spend most of my time writing.
Stranger: Really? That’s so cool! What do you write?
Writer: Middle Grade and Young Adult science fiction mostly.
Stranger: Wow that’s neat what’s your book about?
I’m going to stop the fun, little scenario there because the next thing out of your mouth should be a quick concise couple sentence description of your book. I know writers love to talk about their books, I do as well, but if you go on much longer than a few sentences you risk boring the stranger to death or losing their attention in some crazy long description that they won’t follow. But if you choose your words wisely, the next thing that will come from the stranger after your description is some kind of comparison or question about your book. Something like ohh that’s cool so kind of like X book or movie, or cool, so what happens next?
Now go back to the little scenario and replace the word stranger with agent. Congratulations you’ve just pitched an agent. I just let you in on a little secret that saved me at the conference—the realization that pitching to an agent is no different than talking to a stranger about your book. You’re hoping that they want to know more and one day want to read some of it. If you can keep the agent engaged and get them asking questions you are on the right track. If they ask to read some, you are in. The goal of the pitch is to get the agent to request pages. Plain and simple. So if you can grab their attention and keep them interested, you’ve pitched well.
5.) Realize you have nothing to lose
This one is big. When you walk up to the agent to pitch where are you at? They know nothing about your book, they haven’t read it, and don’t know you exist. Harsh but true. So if you pitch to the agent and they say no, where are you at then? Well they know who you are, what you write, what your book is about, and that it’s not right for them. So what did you lose? Nothing, in fact if nothing else you met a nice person in the industry. So even if they say no, you are ahead of where you were when you started. And if they say they want to see part of your manuscript even better you’re one step closer!
There you have it, nothing to be so nervous about. Agents are people too, they are nice, and they want to hear about your book, because guess what? They love books! So don’t sweat it!
So do any of you have upcoming conferences where you will be pitching in person? What scares you the most? Have you pitched in person before? What tips do you have?