The Art of the Pitch
As this year’s PNWA conference rolls around, and as other wonderful writers’ conferences continue throughout the year, I think it is the perfect time to offer a refresher course on pitching to agents and editors. Over the years, as an editor, I’ve heard hundreds of pitches. Excellent ones, good ones, bad ones, and “please, please stop speaking” ones. Now, you don’t want to find yourself in that last category, so listen up, pitchers, and learn to be an ace so you can nail down a victory and avoid the standard bush league plays (yes, I’m on a baseball bender, so sue me).
So, what is a pitch? Well, it’s a short, face-to-face (ack!) meeting with an agent or editor, lasting around ten minutes. The pitch itself is your whittled-down book description, usually about three or four (sometimes five) lines. And you thought writing a synopsis was tough, eh? But how is this possible, you say? My book is so complex, so layered; I couldn’t possibly describe it in less than twenty sentences. Too bad, so sad, I say back to you. Remember that agents and editors have to pitch every single book they buy to their publishers, marketing team, publicists, fellow editors, book buyers, etc., so if you, the author, can’t hone it down, what chance do they have? And if agents and editors can write their own pitches for dozens of books each year, you can do it for one.
The key to a good pitch meeting is preparation. First of all, know the agent you’re pitching to and his or her agency (or publishing house, in the case of an editor). It’s pretty pointless to pitch to a children’s book agent when you’ve written a dark thriller. So know your genre and do your research. Also, throw out some writers you admire that the agent or editor works with—in other words, be professional and show that you’ve done your homework. It’s a sign of a good business(wo)man.
Secondly, in terms of preparation, don’t show up at the conference and write your pitch the night before, or God forbid, a half hour before the meeting. You want to write, revise, edit, read it aloud, edit, start over, reword, and rework many times in order to get the perfect pitch. And then, once you have the words right, you want to practice reading it. No agent or editor wants someone to read the words in monotone: “This is a book about a girl and I sound like I would rather be anywhere but here and have taken lots of tranquilizers and wish I were dead.” Practice pitching with passion—this is your baby you’re selling. You’re in a business meeting to hawk your product. So sell it! No one will buy something if the seller can’t even muster enthusiasm. Get in there and give it your all. Use inflection in your speech, show excitement—hey, even consider some facial expressions! You want to come across as engaging and excited, but there’s a fine line between this and crazy. So don’t cross it. You don’t want to go so far the other way that you scare an agent and have them fear that you’ll follow them around throughout the conference, jumping out from behind bushes with a psychotic grin, yelling out pitch lines again and again. But the bottom line is: write, condense, rewrite, edit, finalize, and then practice, practice, practice. Then practice again.
Now about those nerves. Pitching is a nerve-wracking experience. Hell, even editors and agents get a bit anxious at conferences! Trust me, it’s true. You will be much less nervous if you know the pitch like the back of your hand. This is when all of your practice pays off. And please, don’t sit down and say, “Gosh, I’m so nervous.” That is not a good way to begin a professional meeting. Remember that the agent or editor is fine with nervousness, even expects it, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise for you to officially broadcast it.
Oh, and one more thing: bring copies of your synopsis with you, just in case the agent or editor wants more information on the book. You can hand them a nice copy of your short synopsis to take with them. Don’t show up with chapters and packets; but a synopsis on-hand is always a wise idea.
I bet you’re wondering if all of this time and stress is worth it. Well, it definitely is! This is a golden opportunity to meet one-on-one with an agent or editor; you’re putting a face to your name and project; you’re distinguishing yourself and making an impact instead of being buried in a stack of hundreds of queries. Look at a pitch as a big break, an “in” that you wouldn’t usually get simply mailing out query letters. This is why you don’t want to waste this moment. Prepare, practice, and make yourself proud. Your book (and the “pitchee”) will thank you for it. So all you pitchers out there: go out and toe the slab, throw some heat from the hill, and attack the strike zone! Okay, I’m gonna wrap this up before I get tossed from the game for excessive lame attempts at baseball lingo. Good luck out there!
Erin Brown worked as an editor for almost a decade at two major New York publishing houses, William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, and Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press. She’s had her dream job for ten years now, as a freelance editor working directly with writers in order to improve their work (and hopefully find representation and publication!). You can contact her at www.erinedits.com. You can also email her directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.