Conferences from the Agent’s Point of View (Revisited!)
Last week I shared some things I learned as an author about meeting agents and editors at writer’s conferences. So, BAM! Let’s switch pitch table sides. Now, as Associate Agent at Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency, I really am on the other side, taking pitches, sitting on the panels, and walking around conferences to meet writers and hear what they have to say. So here are some thoughts, and some tips.First of all, like I said in last week’s post, the important thing to remember is that agents and editors are people. And most are pretty nice, too. Take the folks at the great Push to Publish conference which I’d attended (in 2012). (NB: this Oct. 2013 I’ll be the Push to Publish pre-conference presenter where folks can spend the day with me – registration info here.) I wish I had time to hang out with these agents and editor and swap stories about our clients and our projects. But that’s one thing many conferences are tight on: time.So as an agent, I arrive with a schedule in hand. For some conferences, I may have just been whisked over from an airport, and have barely arrived before I’m “on.” I love to meet my fellow agents and editors. But above all, I want to meet you writers! But time is short. So I meet with you during pitches, or chat with you during registration, or swap ideas with you during panel talks. Longer conferences are great because there are more chances for real exchange. Exchange of biz cards, yes, but also exchange of conversation and ideas. There can be time during a cocktail party or in line for breakfast, or just hanging out in the hotel lounge after the main events are over.
But there are often many of you and few of us agents, so when we do get time with you, it’s important to use it well. I’ve done pitch sessions that have run anywhere from 5 minutes to 15. If a writer comes to me and is especially nervous, I understand. Sometimes however, this wastes our valuable time together as we spend our minutes more on getting focused than on talking about a book. In these cases, I think it’s best for the writer to have their pitch written out. If you just admit right up front that you are really nervous and ask if it’s okay to read your pitch, I for one will smile and say of course. Then you can take a deep breath, read the pitch, and then our conversation can begin from there. And I bet you’ll feel better after that.
Some writers are naturals with pitches and with chatting. And for me, it really is a chat. As if we are sitting together for a moment at a coffee shop, talking shop. These writers smile, and introduce themselves and shake hands. They then sit and say something to the effect of, “I’m here to tell you about my new memoir called ‘About All That.’” And then they say their brief, focused pitch. These authors allow me to then respond with my reaction to the pitch. They listen to any questions I may have and answer them as well as they can. And they ask me questions like what do I think about this sort of book in the marketplace? They listen and allow us to interact, with note-taking happening after our allotted time. This is all time well spent.
Sometimes writers squander their pitch time because they come to me unfocused. They haven’t thought ahead about the market of their novel (is it YA or mid grade?), or come up with a succinct way to describe the novel to me. So we spend our time together learning about the author, her approach to writing, what she wanted to achieve, the many ways she approached creating this book. Everything but what the book is actually about. And because of that, I can’t give any viable feedback or know if this novel is something I want to look at.
Sometimes writers come into the pitch with only one goal: sell! I’m not naive. I KNOW that is the goal. But I think this sort of over-focused writer can miss out on great opportunities that lead to the sell. It’s not just about getting that jazzed reaction from the agent and the green light and that book deal. Seriously. It’s about coming into it ready to learn and pick up cues and adapt and make connections. And all of these things can lead you to the sell, so don’t be short-sighted.
Here’s an example of what I mean. A writer comes up to me very confidant with a pitch. She’s ready to sell it, and is sure a smart agent will snap it up. So I hear the pitch. I may be interested, but I’m confused about something so I ask a question. Over confident writer immediately deflates, convinced they’ve failed. Or withdraws, upset (yes, I’ve seen tears in response to questions). Or grows hostile, convinced I’m ridiculous to say no (which I haven’t even said yet) and that there is nothing more I can do for them and so they should just move on to wow the next person. Every single one of these writers is simply blowing it. Why? Because as long as we have minutes together we can be learning from each other.
I can learn more about the novel in response to my questions. If my concerns are addressed, then maybe I will be interested. The writer can spend time building a relationship with me. Maybe this book won’t fly, but another book might in the future. Why burn bridges? The writer can also be paying attention to my reaction to this pitch. Even if I’m not the agent for you, did I become interested in certain things? Did I become puzzled? Did I express concerns about certain aspects? Then perhaps you can tweak your pitch and your queries to future agents based on this, and be more successful at your next pitch appointment. Ask me, “what do you think?” And if I say I’m not interested, ask me, “do you have any advice that I can use?”
When it comes down to it, I’m looking to work with pros. Even a debut author can be a pro. People who are open to discussion about their books, who are open to suggestions, who are folks I’d consider working with. If you are overly emotional, then I can’t picture you handling changes from an editor or meeting deadlines. If you are hostile or a prima donna, I’m never going to want to work with you. There are many talented people, and even if you are a major talent, if you are sending up flares that you are a difficult person, then I’m not interested.
When I go to conferences, I’m there to meet you, chat with you, and swap ideas. I’m hopeful that I will be finding my next client sitting right across from me. Someone who is professional and interesting and ready to work hard. I meet tons of fascinating people at every one of these conferences. Not all of them end up as my clients, of course. But many of them end up as people who I hope to hear from and interact with again.
I encourage you to remember that a pitch is more than a sell. Conferences are a place to meet people, to make contacts and to learn. Get questions answered. Try out different pitches for your novel at different conferences and learn bit by bit which parts are most effective and which are not working so well. Remember all of this can lead to a sell. I always enjoy meeting people who are passionate about their writing. It’s energizing and exciting.
Enjoy the process, and best of luck!