Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Pitch Session

After two conferences in a row, there are a few things I want to share from an agent’s perspective on this rite of passage.

I’ve met a few agents who are “tough love” types when you meet them (which I secretly wish I could be), but the majority of us really try our best to be encouraging and as helpful as possible no matter the outcome of the pitch.

However, the first thing to keep in mind is that despite the fact that you only get 10-15 minutes to try and sell us your story, WE are sitting in that room for hours at a time. Sometimes (hopefully) breaks are thrown in throughout the day, but generally, we are dealing with back to back to back face time all day long. Take the last conference I attended. It started at 8:30 in the morning and I met with someone every ten minutes until noon, and then every ten minutes from 1pm to 2pm.

Needless to say, despite how encouraging and helpful we try to be, sometimes, our patience snaps mighty thin.

So without further ado: what is pissing me off after the past two conferences (the true title of this post)

Lying to Agents

One of my fellow agents approached me last weekend and said, “You know, I had a funny thing happen the other day.”


“I got a submission from a man who then called me and explained that he’d been represented by you three years ago, and had left because you didn’t do anything with his book.”


She tilted her head sideways. “But the funny thing was, I’d seen your bio recently, since you were coming to this conference, and I said to him, ‘are you sure it was Natalie Fischer at Dijkstra? Because she’s only been agenting for a year.’ He assured me it was.”

Again. WTF?!

(As a side note, no sh**t nothing happened with your book if you thought I was representing you three years ago dude…)

I’ve said this many times. Most people just don’t get it: our community is smaller than you think. You lie to us, and guess what – we’ll know.

The most common things people lie about are:

-Worked with so and so agent
-They are sending a “requested” submission
-They have an offer from another agent
-Have x amount of fulls out with other agents
-met/spoke with me at so and so event (read here for THAT terrible story…)

It really sucks that people go and ruin the exciting truths for others, but honestly, when we see any of these things in your letter, red flags go up – especially if you’re cagey about who the agents you worked with or made the offer are. And yes – we will speak to each other to verify the truth.

Teens Writing for Teens

This subject holds a very special place in my heart. I absolutely adore teen writers – I was one myself – and I encourage and will give feedback as much as possible to them.

This weekend, I had a pitch session with a twelve year old girl. I was amazed. She told me she’d written a YA about 18 year-olds – and at that point, I was still on board to be blown away.

Then she told me it was 20,000 words long.

As gently as I could, I said to her, “You know, I think it’s just a little too short. Most YA novels are at least 50,000 words long (yeah, I shortened it for her – no need to give her a heart attack). But I’ll tell you what – why don’t you send it to me. I’d love to read it and give you some feedback on where it might be expanded.” I gave her my card, spoke with her some more on whether or not it might really be MG (b/c then it could be only 30,000 words), recommended some writing sites, and again, told her how amazing she was for being there.

Apparently, after the door shut from her session, she was hysterical. She was a sobbing mess – because I’d told her that her story was too short. Mama bear was livid; she wanted to march in and kick my ass.

I was heartbroken. I couldn’t have been more supportive. And yet, she’s twelve; of course she’s going to cry! Grown adults cry at feedback like that! And my mom would have wanted to tear the head off anyone who made me sob too.

No one’s actions, in my mind, were unjustified here; but the truth is: I would have either said it to her then, or in a rejection letter. So parents, please please please take your child’s emotional maturity into consideration before tossing them to the wolves. That girl should not have been in that pitch session – alone, no less! Yes, it is ok to be supportive, but this is a business; as much as we want to help cultivate talent, that’s not our job.

The Pushy Pitch

I consider it pushy when an author has a query or synopsis with them, sits down, pushes it forward, and says, “Here. Read this.”

Oh no no no. Honestly, I can’t focus on your written words; I’ve been bombarded with pitches all day – I have no idea what I’m reading! This is not in your favor, and definitely not a good use of the time.

I also really don’t like getting business cards from authors. I have your contact information in your submission (hopefully); pushing a card to me seems pre-mature (and annoying; I get so many, and they end up flying out everywhere, and I have to try and make sure they don’t get lost or separated from the submission, etc.).

Don’t try and shove your writing on me. It just pisses me off.

The Bitter Pitch

Generally these are made by people who have been pitching their manuscript for quite a while without favorable responses. I could also call this “the complaining pitch.”

My “favorite” was a person who made absolutely sure that I didn’t represent said person’s genre before proceeding to explain how another agent had had said person’s manuscript for over a year, and finally gotten back with a rather rude letter – and could I just comment on that situation?


I’m not going to bad-mouth my colleagues with you. And I’m not going to take kindly to you when you sit there and explain to me how stupid the pitch process is, and how really, publishers say you can’t get published without an agent, but agents don’t want to speak with you unless you’ve been published, so wtf?

Deep breath. Calm. Down. Drink some wine. Bash the world in your notebook. Then you can talk to me.

The Entitled Pitch

So far, I’ve seen this most often with romance and picture book authors, but only because these are two of the only genres left it is possible to be published without an agent in.

I once had a woman sit across from me and ask me to pitch myself to her – because she was agent shopping. I’ve also had authors inform me that they’ve been published so and so many times, and do I want to work with them or not?

Well…send me a sample, I’ll say. I really still need to see if I connect with your voice.

Blank, affronted looks will follow.

Sorry folks, but there aren’t any shortcuts here. Even a published author has to query like everybody else. They’ll get more attention, sure; the process may be faster, and far easier – but it’s still the same process.

I will absolutely never sign someone who thinks they are doing me a “favor” by doing so; I want to sign clients who are with me because they appreciate what I do and can do for them – and vice versa. Even published authors need agents to help build careers; we know how to move you from a small press to a big publisher, how to move you from a publisher with no marketing to a publisher who is going to back you with 1 million dollars in marketing support. So please, don’t act like you don’t need us; if that’s really what you think, don’t speak with me!

Lessons from all of this?
Avoid the above and you’ll be golden!

The Best Pitch

My absolute favorite pitch sessions happen when an author is prepared with questions. I love to chat. I can read any day; anyone can submit to me for free, any time. This is your chance to actually talk to me. Sure, I like to hear your pitch, but I remember the conversation a heck of a lot more if we had something to talk about! There seem to be plenty of things people ask on #askagent; why not in pitch sessions?

Above all, don’t worry about being nervous. It is VERY rare that someone sits down in front of me who is NOT shaking. Or talking so fast they barely breathe. Or mispronouncing words they’re so nervous.

Don’t worry about it. Just be yourself; ask me some questions, mention if you know something about me (I LOVE when people mention my blog or twitter), share your hook, smile…and breathe. No matter what happens, use what I say as constructively as possible…and move on.


  1. Wow. A lot of insight in this post! The first one being that I didn't actually know agents had these face to face pitch sessions (I guess I'm pretty new to the writing world!). Thank you for everything you've shared :-)

  2. This is an excellent post of what not to do, and what to do. Thank you for this! I'm linking to it next week on my blog's best tweets post!

  3. That sounds incredibly insane! Glad to see you back in one piece.

  4. Thanks for this great post! I'm glad none of the "bad" ones were me, but who knows -- perhaps I would've made those mistakes one day down the road. I'll be sure *not* to now.

    And phew, I don't know how you agents/editors do it! Having people talk at you all day? Ack. I see why the "best pitch" is more like a dialogue -- that's easier for the pitcher and more entertaining for the pitchee.

  5. Yay, a new post!

    Perhaps it wasn't hilarious at the time, but from this end, this is pretty funny. Well, with the exception of the 12yo writer, poor dear. Funny that her mom was ready to defend her; my dad apparently thought being a douche would encourage me. He said he refused to read anything of mine until it was finished. Which resulted in teenage-me refusing to let him read any of my completed books for all of my teenage years. #whoops

  6. This is helpful, Natalie, thanks!
    One question, though: what kind of questions are encouraging and memorable, and which ones just sound way too out of the blue?
    I was thought that, with 10 minutes to pitch, our job was to say our best and get out. Pitching and making conversation sounds even scarier! Any tips on what kind of questions we should be asking and what kind of conversation we should be starting? And should we mix them up with the pitch, or come in, talk a bit, then go into the pitch?
    Well, I guess that was a lot more than one question! I'm just really interested in knowing what would be the appropriate behavior for pitch sessions.

  7. I am so so sorry. That whole twelve-year-old scenario is so uncool. What was that parent thinking? I'm so sick about it, I've forgotten the rest of the post and will need to reread it. Bad form, Mom. Bad form.

  8. Wow! Thanks for the great post! I'm going to my first conference next January and will keep this in mind! :)

  9. Jesus, I hope the story about the twelve year-old wasn't really about me...considering I'm sixteen, actually...

    A lot of good points here--next pitch session I go to, I'll have to remember this stuff.

    Thanks for listening at the CO conference--I don't get an opportunity to talk about my writing often, and to someone who can pretend she cares, too. That was special for me.

  10. Wow. Those were serious horror stories. Thanks for sharing with us so we know exactly what NOT to do. :)

  11. I did three pitches at a conference this past weekend. Hopefully, I didn't do any of the bad versions.

  12. Gabriela: anything at all! I had someone ask me about out termite infestation, or the mongo suite I was enjoying (mentions from Twitter). I also have people just say a little about themselves. I don't mind if you jump right to the pitch - just sometimes, even mentioning the weather can help YOU to calm down enough to make your pitch come out right. ;)

    Poison Pen - I DO care! And no, wasn't you, don't worry (unless you're trying to tell me I made you cry too?!?) There was an actual 12 year old girl, unfortunately.

  13. Loved the blog! Thank god I wasn't the 12 year old girl, although I did feel about 12. I loved meeting you. You were the first pitch I ever gave and thank you for not pitching me out of my seat. :)

  14. Wow are these incredible stories, but sadly I believe them. I think writers get so defeated/exhausted that we forget to stop and think sometimes.

    I love the reminder to be prepared to just chat. I had a situation recently where I had a half-hour critique with an editor and expected to talk about what was wrong with my novel. When that didn't happen and he said, "what else do you want to talk about," I was left with my jaw slack for a moment. Wish I'd read this advice before then!


  15. Your post made me realize for the first time how difficult pitch sessions are for the agents - what a marathon! Although I feel very bad about that twelve year old girl's hurt feelings, she WILL realize one day, if she sticks with writing, that you treated her with generosity and compassion. If this experience makes her quit, then she's lucky for that, too. She didn't have to become the "Bitter Pitch" before she quit! :) Great post Natalie.

  16. Very helpful post. I just added a link to it on a previous blog post I'd written on pitches.

  17. Wow -- I'm sorry you had to deal with that situation with the twelve-year-old writer. That's a tough spot to be put into! I doubt any kid of that age has the emotional maturity to deal with face-to-face rejection, no matter how kind and soft.

    I'm kind of ticked at her mom for putting her into that situation, too. I think a lot of parents believe that if they've got a talented kid doors will open for them just because they're a kid. I mean, who wouldn't want to give a book deal to a twelve-year-old?! The mere fact that she's twelve should sell that novel, right? *eyeroll* Parents don't consider that industries are industries -- publishing no more and no less than, say, acting. Either your child has a marketable skill or product right now, or she doesn't. The mere fact of her youngness doesn't matter. We're all here to make money.


    And the chick who wanted you to pitch yourself to her -- I hope what you said in response was "Next!"

  18. Now I know why you didn't sell my novel too!lol
    Sorry, could not resist. Some people are just nuts and there is nothing you can do about it.

    Mine would be the Silent Pitch:
    Frozen in panic and trying to somehow telepathically communicate with you.

  19. Bless you for sticking with it! You (any agent perhaps?) must have a tremendous amount of patients.

  20. Wow, absolutely fascinating post!! It must have been exhausting to meet all those people (but interesting too)!!

  21. You know what might have raised that 12-year-old's crazy expectations was the fact that a 13-year-old was teaching classes at that conference--she has a book deal for a book her mom wrote with her. And a 17-year-old teaching there has a trilogy out, too. I was feeling like a washed-up old-timer myself! One day she'll realize how generous you were with her, but it stinks for you to get a tantrum in exchange for your help.

  22. Interesting reading, makes me glad my agent and I found each other so I don't have to worry about pitchching again for the foreseeable future. One of the advantages of being an "older writer" is that trying many of these things would never even have occurred to me.

    I hope you don't mind if I use some of these examples in a lecture I'm giving next month about things to do (and not do) when trying to get published.

  23. Since I slept all of 3 and 1/2 hours the night before the Con (and I picked the first time slot of the day... why?..) I appreciated that you were kind and welcoming and not at all the 3 headed-agent monster I had imagined :) Thanks again!

    Virginia McGarity (Wilson)

  24. Great post! :D Wow, sounds really hectic! Especially that 12-year-old girl, haha. I'm glad you're so supportive of teen writers though ;)

  25. Some great advice! Especially the stuff about relaxing and having a nice conversation.

    So interesting to hear what people do. And lying? How stupid do you have to be? Yeesh.

  26. B.A. Binns - absolutely, use these for examples! :)

    and Marsha - lol; honestly, that one made me laugh. Way to do some research...at least pick an agent who was around...

  27. I remember my first pitch session at a conference. I was SO nervous. But I walked into that session armed with a brain full of information from fellow authors. Don't do this, do this, don't do this... I would have never dreamed of doing any of these things.

    After hearing I had an agent, a writer "friend" of mine contacted me. He was on the fence as to whether he needed an agent for the book he'd self-published and was hawking on his blog. He said he would like to contact you to interview you so that you could convince him that he needed an agent. I was appalled...but now I'm seeing that this isn't that unusual a thing? We study and work and try so hard to follow all the rules, but most of us don't realize the rules are there because there are some truly arrogant people out there...to a nutty degree. It's disturbing to me.

  28. excellent post.Bravo

  29. SCENE: last pitch of the day.

    AGENT: eyes glassy, tongue hangs out, desperately wishes for potty break and an ‘adult’ beverage, not necessarily in that order. Agent glances at clock, preparing to cut a deal with the devil to leave early.

    ASPIRING AUTHOR (AA): Walks up, shoves hand in agent’s face. “Hi, I’m Bea Zulbub.”

    AGENT: sighs and puts on happy face. “Nice to meet you, Bea. Tell me about yourself.”

    AA: chats and gives one sentence elevator pitch.

    AGENT: smiles and nods, wondering why this nice old lady was talking about demons, sex, and demon sex. Agent doesn’t even represent demons.

    AA: “Tell you what. Let’s blow this joint and I’ll buy you a drink.”

    AGENT: eyes light up at thought of slurping something other than water. But laughs a cold little laugh, she’d been warned about characters like Bea. “No, I’d better not.”

    AA: Bea smiles, eyes flash red. “It’ll only cost a small part of your soul.”

    AGENT: considers offer, shoves hand toward Bea. “Deal, just get me out of purgatory.”

    :-) Margaret

  30. I pitched you early in the morning of CO conf last weekend. It was my first time doing a pitch session. Talk about nervous! I thought you were awesome, and the questions you asked about my story have been food for thought since.
    :) Corinne

  31. Personally, I'm 12 (not lying, I swear.) like said little girl in this post and I don't I would have sobbed in tears, no I probably would have eyes you like a creepy person and when you tell me my novel's too short I'd nod and then seconds later I'd groan and tell you I should have known and moan about me being lazy and how I procrastinate too much xD

  32. Great post! I was remembering my pitch the whole time, hoping you didn't mention me as the what not to do, though I know I made a couple mistakes, at least. ;) It is scary, even though you're SO nice. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who shakes and talks too fast. Thank you for the useful insight!

  33. This was a really great post! Loved it. I happened to find you from another blog. There are times I wish I had an agent. My book was picked up small publisher as a YA and now they are trying to force me to change it to middle grade and cut it in half. I think an agent would help in this area! Anyway, great read here. Thanks.

  34. This is great and hilarious!! I would never have been brave enough at 12 to approach an agent or write a novel, and it had to have been hard to tell her that. I look forward to meeting you at the WoK Speak : )

  35. Wow great post. Have to say though, I read the part about the teen writer and started cracking up. (NOT in a mean-spirited way) But because it happened to me. Most people failed to mention that 32,000 words was not long enough for a YA novel. Although, like you, Natanya Wheeler wrote the kind rejection.

    Still, looking back, there isn't a right or wrong in that situation. You were polite and helpful. That's a plus :)