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The Myth of Being Nice

It’s inevitable when agents attend conferences that the conversation turns to pitches; what we are hearing, how many we are requesting, and if there are any books we might be excited about. It’s also inevitable in these conversations that I confess that I only request about 20% of the pitches I hear. Just like with queries, most I reject. And it’s during these conversations that someone is bound to say that she’s too nice to reject to the author’s face. She’d rather just request it and reject it later. Of course, there might be a slight implication there that I’m not very nice.

I see the “nice” in pitch sessions in a completely different light. When I reject someone in a pitch session I never just send her away with a “no,” instead I use my ten minutes to talk with the author about her book. I want more details on the plot and characters, and I explain the concerns I see (hear) that are leading me to pass. I’ll even give suggestions on what I see can be done to make it a stronger book or a stronger pitch. For those authors willing to listen to what I have to say they are getting a ton more than my rejection would later provide. I’m at the conference anyway and I have ten minutes to do nothing but talk. In my mind, I might as well use that time. It’s unlikely I’m ever going to spend ten minutes writing a rejection letter.

Some agents will tell you they need to see the material before making a decision. I think for some that’s true, but I also think a pitch is nothing more than a verbal query and if you spend enough time talking to an author you can learn enough to know whether the book is headed in the right direction or needs more help, and you can give that help.

My nice is different from many and it’s not by requesting material simply because I’m afraid of seeing an author’s face when I hurt her feelings, it’s in trying to send the author away with professional insight and a taste of what it might be like to actually work with an agent, or at least this agent. I’m always open to queries so if sending a written query or material is of utmost importance to an author she can do that at any time.

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7 comments

  1. I was at a conference a month ago and it was clear the agent and I were not on the same page. Maybe what I was pitching wasn’t interesting or maybe things were bad at her home. I saw this immediately and about the halfway mark I stopped pitching. I than asked what do I need to do that I’m not doing now. In the remaining minutes she gave me a list of things she looked for in a query and synopsis that caught her eye. I wrote them down and quickly shifted to my book. In the final minutes, what could have been a disaster, turned into a productive meeting.

    1. Brilliant Bryan. I think you unlocked the key to pitching. Honestly, agents get pitch-weary pretty fast so the author who wants to change things up in the pitch is often a welcome relief and wakes us up a bit.

  2. I wish more agents approached a pitch session with this mindset. I’ve only participated in one, but I was looking at it as an opportunity for feedback from someone in the industry, not as a make me feel good session. I already have my mom who thinks I’m the greatest writer ever for free, no need to pay for that. The feedback is what I paid for, using it to create a strong query/novel is up to me. Conferences also share some of the blame in this, as they tend to sell these as a shot at landing an agent.

  3. Giving feedback is fantastic! I would love to have such a pitch session. Writing is about creating the best stories possible, and giving suggestions on how to make a better story helps authors do just that. Better to delay the process than put out a book that leaves readers wanting in a bad way.

  4. Hi Jessica,

    I’ll be attending a writer’s conference in December, and I’ll likely be participating in a one-on-one pitch session. Rather than pitch my manuscript, I thought I might spend that time picking the brain of the agent. I think you’ve touched on this topic in a previous post, and I’m wondering if this is a good tact to take? It’s not often that a writer is able to have ten minutes with an agent, and I want to make the most of it. What questions would be most useful for an unpublished author to ask? How do I make the most of my limited time?

    1. I would have no problem with that, but you might meet an agent who insists on a pitch so I would be prepared to do both.

      Well, assuming you’ve done your homework you probably know a lot about the agent. So I guess questions could involve the market or, even better, talk about your book and ask the agent about your pitch or your book. AS for feedback.

  5. I’d rather have an agent take your approach, then request something they don’t want and waste my time and theirs (and missing out on valuable ‘brain picking’ instead).

    I remember pitching to one agent who had major problems with my setting (she told me so) but still requested pages. I could hear the reluctance in her voice and wished she could have just said “not for me”. I didn’t bother submitting.

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