Kat: Pitching: A swing and a miss. Ball two.

iStock_000007437156SmallI’m in the midst of preparing for an upcoming trip to Arizona to attend the Desert Dreams Conference sponsored by Desert Rose, a regional chapter of RWA. My travel arrangements are booked, I’ve chosen the workshops I’ll attend, my itinerary for the research portion of my trip is almost set, my business cards are ordered, and I’m in the process of freshening up my website. There’s just one thing left to do: Prepare for my pitch session.

I don’t know about you, but pitching my book ranks right up there with talking in front of a group (of two or more people), asking a strange man in a bar for a date, or buying a chili dog with the works from a street vendor. In other words, at the top of my “most scary things ever” list. Fortunately, I’m no novice when it comes to pitching so I know it’s survivable (barely). I pitched my first book several years ago at a regional conference in Ohio. I was nervous. I was excited. And I was determined to do my very best.

To prepare, I wrote out my pitch on three by five lined cards, practiced and rehearsed my pitch, stewed over this phrase and that, revised, and practiced some more.  During lunch I relayed my fear and anxiety to a “real” writer (no, I didn’t truly believe I was a writer then), sure that her advice would fill me with strength and confidence.

Instead, I was filled with dismay when she laughed and told me that I was wasting my time. She regaled me with her experiences pitching and deemed the process itself worthless since she had never received a publishing contract. When I told her I was going to go anyway, she cautioned me not to get my hopes up if I was asked to send in a partial. Apparently, virtually everyone that pitched was asked for a partial which was code for “not interested”. Sort of the bad date equivalent of “I’ll call you.”

Oh, how I wanted an excuse not to go to that pitch session, but as I pushed away from that table and her I knew something more than pitching my book was at stake now. I had to go. I stood in line sweating through my clothes wondering why an agent or editor would subject themselves to writer after writer stuttering about their books if they weren’t interested in finding stories to publish. (Hint, they wouldn’t). Still I felt like a lamb to the slaughter as I fingered my little cards and waited for my turn.

Finally, the writer ahead of me came running from the room (she literally jumped into the air) gushing about the “partial” the editor had asked her for (apparently she hadn’t met Betty buzz-kill). I congratulated her, but inside I felt sick. She’d been duped.

I was waved into the room. I forced my stiff legs to move, not exactly power walking into the room (think wooden soldier), put out my hand, and introduced myself. The editor was very gracious, tried to put me at ease, and asked me to tell her about my book. My mind went blank. I looked down at my cards. Crap. I’d forgotten my reading glasses and the text was blurry. I removed my glasses, mumbling something about the hell of getting old, and began reading. Now I could read my pitch (a terrible idea on so many levels), but the agent’s face was fuzzy and unreadable. This was a disaster. I wasn’t sure if I was making eye contact or looking her in the nose, plus I had no visual clues to her reaction. There was nothing to do but plow on—wasn’t my five minutes up yet??—which I did while wishing I was dead.

The editor asked me a question about the conflict (conflict? What does she mean, conflict?), and then she wrapped up by, yes, you guessed it, asking me for a partial. I thanked her, and left the room sure old Betty was right, but determine to send my first pages in, anyway (oh yes, I did). Still, I was humilitated. I’d bumbled my way through the whole thing, reading my pitch instead of telling her about my book (Good grief, what could she have been thinking? Maybe it was a good thing I couldn’t read her expression).

Now, I am on the eve of my second pitch session. I know what my story conflict is (thank you, Jenny Crusie), and I can describe what Cheyenne and Hawk are about in a sentence or two. I can talk easily about my story, but I’m more nervous now than I was the first time around. Why? Because Betty Buzzkill was wrong.  Pitching does matter. It’s a way to get your work in front of someone who may be able to help you fulfill your writing goals. More importantly, pitching isn’t just about getting our work read, it’s about selling ourselves.

So here are a few tips I’ll be following this time around:

  1. Present a Professional Appearance. This is a job interview of sorts. Editors/agents are looking for writers they can work with as well as a good story. I’ll look my best.
  2. Keep Expectations Realistic. Pitching is not about getting a writing contract; it’s about getting my story read. Period. If the agent/editor requests a partial, I’ll consider that a victory and send it in.
  3. Keep the pitch short, but make it powerful. I’ll start with the hook; add a sentence or two on the goal and motivation of Cheyenne and Hawk (and maybe Reed – the hero?) as well as the conflict between them.
  4. I’ll be wearing bifocals (yes, I’m that old), but I won’t read from cards (though I’ll probably have them with me for quick reference).
  5. I’ll leave a bit of time for questions, and thank the editor/agent for their time.

Have you pitched and if so, what did you take away from the experience? What would you do differently next time? Tips appreciated but not required.

18 thoughts on “Kat: Pitching: A swing and a miss. Ball two.

  1. The only other thing I can suggest is if your book is part of a series, to mention that (“My book is titled ‘Three Proposals,’ the first of a planned series…”). I’m guessing agents/editors aren’t looking for one-hit wonders, but writers with a definite career path, and having more books on the horizon is a sign of that.

  2. People like Betty, who make themselves feel better by making other people feel worse, really make me mad. I’ve had one previous experience of pitching (I wasn’t ready, but it was very educational, and I’m looking forward to trying again in San Antonio). My ten pence worth:

    1 Agents/editors are busy people. They wouldn’t spend their time on pitch sessions unless it was worthwhile. And that means they think there’s a chance of finding new clients that they can use to build their business and reputation. Probably the quality of manuscripts that comes through conferences is better than sifting queries. The process requires a commitment of time, money, and effort from both parties.

    2 It totally makes sense that agents/editors request a partial from everyone. They are seeing people in a never-ending blur, writers are likely to be nervous and probably don’t present their works brilliantly. The best writers may not write the best synopses or be the best talkers.

    3 This one is something I learned from my past business life; it might be controversial, but I think it’s very important. The pitch session is a two-way process. You’re not just selling, you are also there to get a feeling about the agent or editor, whether they feel right for you. You can’t get that in five minutes, or eight, or whatever, but you can get an idea, so maybe think about one question you’d like to ask them. I used to see people get hot and bothered about performance appraisals and pay reviews and job interviews. Most times they were so busy worrying about how their boss would judge them, they never thought this was their opportunity to talk about things that would make a difference to their role or ask questions about the company’s plans. It simply never occurred to them that the meeting was a two-way street.

    4 There are a million reasons why your story (not you personally) might not be right for the person you meet. It doesn’t necessarily mean the story is bad. That said, if you’re lucky enough to get some criticism, think hard about what it means and how you can use it to make your story (or your writing in general) better.

    5 Unlike baseball, you get an unlimited number of swings. Nobody can put you out of the game, so even if you miss this time, you learn, improve, and swing again till you connect.

    Good luck with your pitch, Kat. Look forward to hearing all about it and learning from your experience!

  3. My stomach is churning and and palms sweaty just from reading your post Kat! Which is interesting as I pitch all the time for my day job, so it’s not the selling that scares me. So what is it?

    Most important (as I only seem to have questions, not helpful advice for you!), is wishing you super good luck! If nothing else, it’s a good step to making the transition to being a professional writer feel real.

    • Thanks Rachel.

      IMHO, pitching equates to letting someone see inside our minds and hearts. I’ve let a few people read my work, but very few. Pitching is letting go and letting someone you’ve talked with for 5 minutes see your work. It’s a leap of faith. In a way we’re throwing ourselves off a cliff the minute we pitch–that’s why it’s scary as sh**.

      This time around, I intend to enjoy the wind in my face as I fall :-).

      • You won’t fall, so no chance to enjoy the wind!

        Jilly’s thoughts about her day job got me thinking – when I pitch for work, one of the most important things to do is to work on making a connection with the person you’re pitching to. I just mention this because I think if I were doing this, there’s a real danger (especially in a such a short slot) that I would focus too much on thinking about ME and how I perform. As far as you can, try thinking about the editor/agent and what they want and need and forget about your needs and wants. Remember that they absolutely want you to succeed (because it makes their life easier).

        • You are going to be super fabulous – can’t wait to hear all about it (living vicariously!)

        • Love this. It’s so much easier to shift the thinking to what you are doing for them, rather than what they are doing to/for you, IMO. I also love Flo’s comments. I’m sure every agent/editor is different, but bringing in a sample just sounds so sensible. I bet a lot of them feel more comfortable reading than speaking, too.

  4. Oh, gosh, I’ve never pitched, but I know a woman who believes that all of her negative experiences will be shared by the world, and she loves to spread the misery. I’m glad your Betty Buzzkill is making you a little mad and motivated, not paralyzed.

    I think Jilly’s got something there with the “two-way street.” You get a feel for who that publisher or agent is — and more than that, just as they have something you want (a publishing contract), you have something they want: a good book. Agents, editors, publishers . . . those guys couldn’t survive without good books. Smile when you go in there, because you are about to make some people very happy. *You’ve* got the chili dog.

  5. I don’t know if she speaks for every agent out there, but Janet Reid is an agent who’s blog I follow, and she dreads pitch sessions more than most authors. Her recommendation is to bring in your query letter and pages instead of pitching, and ask the agent/editor for feedback. Her thinking is that showing an agent/editor what you’re actually emailing out will help you clean up more problems, as well as showcasing you as what you are- an author, not a public speaker. She mentions it in today’s post http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2014/03/query-how-to-figure-out-if-its-me-or-you.html (she’s got a fairly recent post all about it, but I’m unable to scroll back through her archives right now.)

    She’s also done a lot of work on how to improve query letters (and which made her ask for more) over at http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

    Good luck, whatever road you take!

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