Advice on Perfecting Your Pitch

I’ve done tons of posts on pitching over the years, yet it always seems like there’s room for another. Having just returned from #Pitchfest at #Thrillerfest16 I have thoughts on what makes a good pitch and tips on how to make your pitch stronger. Knowing that #RWA16 is right around the corner, as well as a ton of other conferences, the time is as good as any.

Pitching is really nothing more than a verbal query letter. It’s a way for you to present your work to agents and hopefully get some time to learn a little about the agents you might be pitching to. I’ll be honest, if I were an author I think I would far prefer queries over pitches. The face-to-face is tough and while I love a good conversation with others in the business, pitching is nothing short of awkward. I know, I do it all the time with editors. I despise it.

I know a number of the authors who pitched to me at Pitchfest had previously seen experts to hone their pitches, but there was one thing I saw a lot of that just didn’t work for me. The tagline. As a literary agent, I’m not sold on the one sentence tagline to grab the reader’s attention. I think a lot of authors thought that would be enough and seemed surprised and flustered when I asked to hear more. I do want more. I want the full paragraph or two from your query letter and if you haven’t written a query letter yet don’t bother pitching. Write that first. Then, sort of, repeat that to me in a pitch.

I’ve written a 90,000 word historical mystery set during the Gilded Age in New York City.

Lucy VanSutton is the daughter of a well-to-do lawyer. She hasn’t wanted for much and was raised at her father’s knee. Learning law by his side. When her father mysteriously dies and Lucy’s fiancé is framed for the murder, Lucy is left wondering if the life she’s been living has been nothing but a lie. Told she’s now penniless and on her own, Lucy doubts what others are saying about her father and sets out to prove them wrong, and get her life back.

Facing down the Irish mafia and police detective who seems determined to bury her father a second time, Lucy enters the dark streets of the Bowery and a world she never imagined beyond the safe confines of her carriage, to fight for her father’s name and her own life.

Obviously your story and pitch will be a lot better than the one I just made up in five minutes, but I think you can see where I’m going with this. There’s no reason a verbal pitch can’t be anything different from the one you’re sending in your query. It’s short, sweet and it gets the agent’s attention. That’s the point.

Once you’re done pitching be armed with questions. You might not need them or have time to get to them, but I always end my pitch by asking the author if she has any questions. I felt bad that a majority of them looked at me like a deer caught in headlights. Come on! You must have some questions. If I like psychological suspense who are some of my favorite authors? Is there something specific I’d like to see in my inbox? Do I have any tips on the pitch? Are there any hot trends now? What’s my favorite drink in case you’d like to buy me one in the bar? Heck, how’s my day going?

Parlaying your pitch into a conversation is the ultimate interview trick. Get to know the agent a little better and make yourself memorable, not just the person who jumped up and ran away when everything was over.

When you go into your pitch be prepared. Have your pitch written out. No one should fault you for reading it if you need to. Do your research and know a little about the agent you’re pitching to. Not just what she’s looking for, but what agency she works with and a little about who she represents, where she’s originally from, what her favorite coffee drink is. Write it down if you need a cheat sheet. Come armed with a few questions. Some of them should be strictly business, but make a few fun, just in case the business questions are answered in your talk. Smile. Have fun.

Pitching isn’t easy, but it’s also not the end of the world. Most agents who accept pitches also accept queries. If pitching makes you so sick you’re likely to throw up, skip it and head to the bar. Most agents prefer the bar stool talks anyway.

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8 comments

  1. Jessica, is pitching really necessary? Do you consider a pitched work any differently than a project that comes in through the slush pile?

    I can see how it’s important for authors to be able to talk about their work–eventually they will most likely have to talk with readers, let alone their editor, etc–but is pitching really that important? I’ve never pitched to you, but you’ve read two of my manuscripts after I queried you.

    It seems like a lot of new authors put an extreme emphasis on being able to pitch their work to get requests at conferences, but the same agents they’re pitching to are (generally, not always) open to queries. I’d rather put my focus and energy into craft than pitching, since being able to fix the soggy middle of my manuscript (or whatever) seems more valuable long-term. But that’s just me.

    1. I don’t think pitches are necessary at all. The facetime with an agent is terrific. It does help make you memorable and if I like you I might give your manuscript more time and energy. That being said, in the end they are all valued on the same scale.

  2. Jessica, a lot of writers definitely have the idea that they have a better chance of getting an agent if they pitch in person. When writers learn you’re my agent they often ask, “How did you connect with her, did you meet her at a conference? Did another author introduce you?
    They seem surprised that I just emailed a query.
    If I’d been required to pitch to you in person I feel certain I’d still be looking for an agent. You would have remembered me. I would have been the one who threw up on your shoes and then cried. So, the email query probably worked out better for both of us!

  3. I’ve changed the way I pitch and use it as a ‘research’ face-to-face now. How often do you get the chance for 5 mins with an editor or agent!

    It’s turned things around and I look forward to pitching. I go to one conference a year and we always have an editor and agent from America attend (as well as local editors – but I’m aiming for a US agent). The only problem I have is having someone attend who represents my genre as the conference is for romance writers.

    This year I’m pitching to an editor – although what I do is chat to them about the genre, what they’re looking for etc. If it seems appropriate I ask if they’d read my query letter and give me their thoughts. I learn heaps, and usually get asked to sub my work anyway.

    Jessica, if you are meeting with an editor should you know the authors they work with? If so, how do you find out? Or would knowing authors published with that publisher be enough? I realise that would be the case with BookEnds because as far as I can see you list authors by genre rather than agent.

  4. I had a delightful 15 minute chat with Jessica last October at Bouchercon. I didn’t have anything to pitch, but wanted to take the opportunity to grab some “face time” with her, get to know her, and BookEnds, a little bit, knowing that at some point in the future I might well be querying her. She did ask what I was working on, and I managed to give an off-the-cuff description of my WiP’s premise, but I wasn’t too concerned about being word-perfect. To me it wasn’t a “pitch,” rather just part of the conversation. That really took a lot of the pressure off.

    Thanks, again, for taking the time to do that, Jessica!

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