Thursday, June 16, 2005


Every once in a while, I read a forum or talk to someone as avid and driven as Ponce de Leon on his lifelong quest. Only these people aren't seeking the Fountain of Youth. They're after the Secret of the Successful Pitch. "How do I get Mr. Awesome Agent to represent my book?" "How did you get your agent?" They want the secret formula. Trouble is, it's different for everyone. But there are a few things that are probably universal. The first is to write a great book and know how to describe it so that it still sounds like a great book. The rest comes under the heading of simple courtesy.

As I well remember, the whole prospect of walking up to an agent or editor and trying to get him interested in your book can be incredibly daunting. And you know what? Even now that I have an agent, I still have to pitch now and then, and I'm still daunted by it. Every time I write a synopsis, I'm pitching. As my agent recently told a roomful of hopeful writers, every time someone asks you what your book is about and you give them an answer, that's pitching. I won't try to tell you that I'm any kind of expert on the pitch. I'm not--not even close. But I thought I might be able to give you a few anecdotes from the trenches and maybe take a little of the mystery out of what happens in the pitching room.

I've always approached pitching the same way I've approached a job interview, because that's really what it is. You have a product and some skills to bring to the table, and your potential agent has skills, and what you're really trying to find out is whether all those goods and skills mix well together. Obviously, if you write romance and the agent you approach handles only non-fiction or hard core sci-fi, then it's not a good match. You'll need to do some research to find out whether your target agent handles what you write. There are books and websites devoted to this, so I won't go into the researching agents spiel today. Instead, we'll focus on what to do when you meet them face to face.

So, you've signed up to attend a conference, you've determined which agents handle your genre, and you know with whom you'd like to speak. Great start. Next thing you know, it's the day of the conference, the day of your scheduled consult, and you're nervous. Fair enough. Use plenty of deoderant and maybe a breath mint, and above all, remember to breathe. The thing to remember here is that the agent may routinely do lunch with editors, she may call many of them by their first names, and she may have the clout to get your foot in the door with a publisher, but she still had to get up in the morning, put on the deoderant and maybe pop a breath mint, just like you. She, too, had to consider whether her new shoes match her suit and whether she ate enough breakfast to tide her over until lunchtime. In short, she's just a person, like any other. Like you. You have different jobs and different experiences, and maybe those will compliment each other enough that you can form a great partnership. But she's not a rock star, and you are not her groupie. You are her potential partner. Breathe. Don't react as though Elvis just walked into the building. (Unless, of course, he did!) They're human, I swear.

Now, the other side of that coin is that they know you're human, too. Don't try shock and awe on them. They don't need to hear how brilliant your sister's husband's cousin thinks your book is. They don't need your entire marketing plan, they don't need your entire social history, and they don't need to hear that you're doing them any kind of a favor by bringing your opus to them for representation. Be NORMAL. Not overly humble, but not arrogant, either. Just be a real person who knows that neither you nor they walk on water. Normal. Talk to the agent the way you'd talk to a new colleague you just met at work. Handshake. Brief but friendly hello. Pitch. It's business. Be professional.

Want some anecdotes? Hmm. Ok, here's what happened at my first conference. I was scheduled to talk to an agent named Andy Zack. I went to that pitching session and tried to behave as a professional. Yeah, I was nervous. Andy listened to my pitch, asked for the first three chapters, then commented, "See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Ok. So it was my first time, and he knew it. But I got through it in good shape and got the request for chapters that I was after. Then at the same conference, I waited in a line to talk to another agent who repped fantasy, Don Maass. It was just after a panel, and he didn't have much time, but when I gave him my quick pitch, he said to send him a query letter with maybe a page or two from my manuscript. By the way he said it, I knew he was just being nice and trying to do me a favor, but a page or two submission wasn't what I was after. Earlier during a panel, I'd noticed Don and Andy Zack giving each other the occasional friendly jibe, and I'd gotten the impression that a little friendly rivalry was going on. So I looked back at Don and said, "Andy Zack just asked me for the first three chapters." He grinned and said, "Well, then I must have the first three chapters, too." (A little disclaimer here: This is only meant as an example of how paying attention to what makes people tick can sometimes pay off for you. It is not meant as a means to get Don to ask for your manuscript.)

I made my first pitches in 1998, for a manuscript that I have since tabled. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about pitching at that conference and the ones to follow. I never forgot the idea that I was talking to professionals, and that in return I was going to act like a professional. "Dress for the job you want," is a quote I got from a movie whose name I don't even remember, but I think it's apt nonetheless. Want to be a professional writer? Act like one. That alone won't get you published, but it can get your foot in the door and pave the way for future pitches. I have gone on to make many more pitches over the years that followed that initial conference. It was at another conference in 2002 that I met and pitched to Bob Mecoy, the man who would become my agent. It takes time and persistance, but it does pay off.

Agents and editors want a pitch that hooks them and tells them what makes your manuscript different than all the other similar ones out there. Hook them with your pitch, then hook them with your writing--it's the one-two punch that'll either get you into the ring with the pros or send you back to the gym to wait for another title shot. That's the bottom line, and the most important part of the secret formula.

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