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Why We Need to Deemphasize Pitches

If there’s one area where you’ll find authors and agents disagreeing it’s on the subjects of pitches or pitch sessions at conferences. Authors tend to believe, and are taught to believe, that these pitch opportunities are what can make or break a career and that they’re the most important piece of any conference. Agents and editors on the other hand, find them to be the least effective use of their time when attending conferences.

I’m going to be frank as I only know how to be. The reason pitch sessions seem so great is because so much material is requested. This leads authors to believe that there’s a benefit to a pitch over a query. Typically there is not. If I really believe something is good based on a pitch then, since your pitch is basically your query, I would have requested it on the query as well. The reason so much more is requested at a pitch is because agents and editors don’t know how to say no (notice I didn’t say they were too nice ;)). Whether or not they’ll actually read the material when it comes in is a debatable matter.

Might I be so bold as to suggest that we eliminate or at least limit pitch sessions at conferences? At the very least can we limit them to only those writers who have a completed and ready to submit book instead of the hundreds of pitches I hear that, after a request, end with, “well it’s not finished yet.”

Instead of pitch sessions let’s let agents host small roundtable discussions with authors. Let them work with authors on honing their pitches (for the cocktail party later) or their queries. Let the workshops include discussion of the market or the agent’s role in an author’s career. Let the agent get down and dirty with the author and her work to teach her something rather than simply letting her walk away with a business card.

I know this isn’t the fault of the conferences. They do their best to bring in attendees and pitch sessions seem to be a huge draw. I think it’s the problem with our way of thinking. We forget the valuable advice and insight agents have to offer, we forget that they are more than just a sounding board for a pitch. We forget that hours (I wish I was exaggerating) spent taking pitches could be spent teaching writers what an agent knows about this business called publishing.

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10 comments

  1. Thank you for that, Jessica. I’ve always thought that there are downsides to face to face query pitching – taking up more of the agent’s time and making the character and verbal talent of the author more important than the written work itself. Training in how to compose a winning pitch and query letter would be wonderful. I rather suspect I’m dreadful at it, given the fact that a teacher read one of my adventure stories to her class and they begged for the next chapter as they changed out of their games kit – but no agent seems to want to take it on. I’m sure I’m not the only author who needs help here!

  2. Totally agree! I always told organizers to include in my bio that attendees could use pitch time as consultation for anything: query help, marketplace research, publishing questions. I’ve been to some conferences where faculty leads workshops on opening pages, and I always perceived that as much more helpful to authors. Love your idea of small roundtables.

  3. Makes perfect sense. While I can’t usually do conferences, I know I would like to go there eager to lern, with an open mind and heart, instead of constantly gulping down the knot that forms in my throat in anticipation of the “gallows” – pitch session – which I’d love to skip but I’d feel I miss out.

  4. I could see myself signing up for a pitch session while I’m querying because I really like meeting people face-to-face, and it’s fun to meet the people behind the email addresses.

    I also like the idea of roundtables, etc, to accomplish that. People could still practice their elevator speeches with each other, and if something really struck the agent leading, they could ask for it at the end. I’m sorry agents feel pressure to sign up for something so many of them don’t find useful.

    But I’m also the sort of person who would walk up and say “hey, I read your blog and comment sometimes, it’s nice to meet you. Read anything good lately?” Maybe writer’s also like them because it’s reassuring to know it’s one’s turn to meet/talk to an agent and they’re not being rude?

  5. I like the idea of a one-on-one query workshop. Instead of spending your time pitching, use that time to review your query with the agent. You can explain to the agent what aspect of the novel you are trying to convey, and the agent can help you determine what should go into the query and what shouldn’t. What sounds most appealing to agents, and what’s a big turn-off. This way, the writer gets to engage in person with an agent, and there’s no awkward silence because you have a subject to discuss (your query), and you both get an idea of what it might be like to work with the other should the agent be interested in taking on your project. Wins all around.

  6. Agreed. I recently pitched at a conference and was surprised at how many participants thought of it as a make or break event. People were floating on air because so much material was requested. I felt that the pitch session was more of an opportunity to get feedback in real time- feedback that I could use to polish my query. If I could tell agents in these events one thing it would be this- honest feedback does us more good than requesting material. It’s okay if we walk away without a business card .

  7. As a writer, I’ve always seen the value in paying for a critique to get 1:1 time with an editor or agent and hearing their feedback at conferences. This was unspeakably helpful when I was in the “almost there” phase before signing with an agent/my first book deal. But I’ve never “pitched” at a conference, and try to dissuade fellow writers from putting too much emphasis on it. Learning to write a serviceable query was much more helpful since it also helped me refine the big picture aspect of my novel(s).

  8. Yes! I would much rather use that time to learn how to improve my writing from an expert in the industry than stress out about a pitch.

  9. I’d be interested in hearing what you have to teach in a workshop at a conference.

    It can be very difficult approach an agent. There is always the niggling feelings that they would rather be talking to anyone but you. To be frank, pitching is worse than dating in high school.

    I do agree with you, it would be easier for all of us to conduct business if pedestals weren’t involved. 🙂

  10. I like the pitching opportunities conferences offer. I actually see a pitch being a step below a query (you get a request from a pitch, but there are no consequences for not sending material, while you query and get a rejection…that agent/agency is off the list for that manuscript). But I guess I don’t actually use the pitch time to “pitch” in the conventional sense of the word. I use the time differently for each person I meet with depending on what I am wanting – industry information, feedback on my query letter etc. I find it very useful, although I totally understand how it must be from the perspective of the person on the other side of the table.

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