Over at Indies Unlimited not too long ago, I ran across this comment from multi-award-winning author @MJBowersock:
[A]nyone who has not already been published, who is not a name that people recognize and that will draw sales, will not win a publishing contract with a traditional publisher. It’s like winning the lottery. It could happen, but the chances are, it won’t.
That’s not quite the kiss of death to our dreams of one day breaking into the publishing big time (the big houses call themselves “legacy” publishers now, Bowersock says). But it’s close.
So my question is, what about all those conferences that bring in rafts of agents and editors who claim to be starving for new talent (like you and me)? Are they scamming us? Do they consider a day at a conference listening to pitches some sort of paid vacation?
If Bowersock is right, I guess so. And our chances of coming away from a conference with real hopes for a contract are nil. Conferences aren’t cheap. Pitching is scary. Why go through such an ordeal?
Here’s one answer: because there are benefits from pitching to actual editors and agents that you can’t get any other way.
I’m not suggesting that any writer invest thousands of dollars in conferences. But I am arguing that a judicious choice of conference at the right moment in your process can be worth at least as much as what you’re paying for that cover or that expert to format your text—
—Because pitching gives you several kinds of feedback you won’t get from any other source.
You know what you get from query letters: “Sorry, we’re not the right agency for this book.”
What about your writing group? I consider writing groups essential. But the members of your writing group read as friends and colleagues. They don’t read as business people, charged with making money out of your book.
And therein lies all the difference. They hope to make money off of you!
I’m not plugging for any conference, but I’ve been to quite a few, and I’m sharing my experience. I’ve learned things from pitch sessions that no one else ever told me. I’ll do it again.
If you do decide to pitch, be sure to make your investment count:
- Be ready. Don’t rush to a pitch session with an unspellchecked draft while you’re still trying to figure out whether your main character’s hair is black or red. Exhaust your writing groups and beta readers first.
- Review the faculty to make sure you can pitch to people who work with your genre. Make sure they work for good agencies and aren’t just somebody’s Facebook friend.
- Get one-on-one critiques as well as pitches. If at all possible, pay extra to have the right person at the conference read a query letter or a first page and meet with you so you can ask follow-up questions. Pay for “pitch practice” if you possibly can.
Here are the kinds of questions you can get answered even if there’s scant hope of a contract. They’re the questions you would pay an editor to answer, and Lord knows good editors aren’t cheap.
Do I know what my book is about?
You can muse all day with your writers’ group about your story question, your main character’s goals, why she can’t achieve them, how her journey ends, and so on.
In a pitch session, you have five minutes to lay it out. Five minutes with a steely eyed editor daring you to make him buy it. Get tongue-tied with that agent smiling ever-so-sweetly at you?
Then you haven’t figured it out.
Seeing that stare glaze over or that smile turn to a frown tells you that it’s time to take a good look at your structure so next time you’ll know what your book is about.
What’s derailing my book?
When was the last time you got a response from a query that said, “Sorry, here’s why we don’t want your book.” [Interject sound of strangled laughter from author]
In contrast, you’re three minutes into your pitch, and Steely Eyes says, “I don’t understand why anyone would do that.” Sweet Smile says, “That sounds like a really unpleasant character.” They both say, “I’m lost.” (Often followed by a specific hint as to where and how the road signs got turned around.)
Yeah, I know, if they’d just read the darn book, they’d get it. But the fact is, you’ve just recited part of the back cover blurb that will make readers buy the darn book, and now you know a few things that can turn readers off.
And you have specific issues beyond just-not-good-enough to consider before your next submission: motivation, characterization, style.
Is my idea the high-concept, totally original, million-dollar gem I think it is?
Agents and editors see hundreds of ideas in your genre. You may well be asked, “How is this different from all the other books I’ve seen recently about crazed werewolves in New Jersey?” That five minutes will tell you whether you know the answer to that.
How does my work stack up with someone who is not my friend?
Really, it all comes down to this one: An agent or editor at a conference does not need to make you feel good.
They don’t need you to be in the mood to give them friendly, constructive advice at the next writing group meeting. They don’t need to keep you happy so you’ll hire them again the next time you need an editor.
They’ll give you your five minutes, but after that, they’ve got twenty other people lined up, one of whom might have THE BOOK they came to the conference to acquire.
So the instant they know your pitch isn’t clicking, they won’t string you along.
Pitching at a conference isn’t the way to learn how to make your structure work or how to make your concept a stand-out. But it’s one sure method of finding out fast how close you are to those goals. The day the frown is accompanied by a business card and a willingness to take a look, you’ll know you’ve finally managed to answer the questions that will sell your book.
Do you have advice for making the most of pitch sessions? Share!