How to Pitch a Literary Agent at a Conference

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A couple of weeks ago I attended the Washington Writers Conference, which among other things, included an opportunity to pitch your book to four agents.

How to Pitch a Literary Agent at a Conference

It’s rather nerve-racking for writers because, unsurprisingly, most of us prefer to express ourselves in writing.

Nevertheless, it was still a great opportunity to put ourselves out there. In my life I have pitched eight agents this way and six of them asked for pages. Three of the agents I met at pitch sessions asked for seventy-five pages or more.

By contrast, I’ve probably pitched about fifty agents by sending them query letters—so far only two have requested seventy-five pages or more. What I'm saying is if you get an opportunity to pitch, do it!

What is a Pitch Session?

A pitch session is a five to ten minute period of uninterrupted time with a literary agent. You get to pitch your book (and your sparkling personality) and the agent gets to ask clarifying questions.

Hopefully by the end of the pitch session you’ve at the very least guaranteed that the literary agent will read something you've written.

What is a Pitch?

A pitch is basically an oral version of a query letter. You tell the agent the basics of your book (title, genre, length), what the book is about, and then a little about you.

To the extent you have expertise or authority relevant to your book, do not forget to share it! This is particularly true for non-fiction pitches. In fact, your background is at least important as the topic of the book in non-fiction, if not more so!

Four Tips to Pitch Your Novel to Literary Agents

Ready to get pitching? Here are four tips to pitch your novel to literary agents at a writing conference:

1. Summarize Your Book in One Sentence

To prepare your pitch, first write a one-sentence summary of your book. Then, lead with it when you sit down with the agent.

Everything I’ve ever read and heard about pitch sessions says to do this, and I agree with this advice. At pitch sessions, literary agents spend eight hours sitting in a room to hundreds of pitches—you need to get to the point quickly!

2. Strategize How Best to Use Your Few Minutes

Be sure to think about how you want to use your limited time in advance. Do you want to focus on plot or characters? Or on yourself?

My friend looked at the blurbs on the New York Times Books page to figure out a way to narrow her novel into a sentence or two and found some success. I decided to spend the most time describing my characters because that seemed to get people the most excited when I described my manuscript.

As I mentioned, it’s probably wise to use a chunk of the time discussing your background and credentials for non-fiction pitches. Even for fiction pitches, if you’ve been published before, won contests, etc., don’t forget to mention it!

3. Remember, This is a Human Interaction

In a lot of ways a pitch session is similar to a query letter. You have to sell your book despite some serious constraints.

However, there is a very important difference: human interaction. That should not only affect your nerves, but also your strategy.

In terms of preparation, I suggest reading up on/searching for videos about public speaking, interviewing, and sales techniques. Don’t go crazy, but those tips about mimicking a person’s body language, making eye contact, and practicing are going to be helpful when you pitch your literary agent.

I also think the human interaction aspect means you should allow your own energy to guide you. In other words, if there is an aspect of your work that makes you particularly excited, mention it! Excitement is infectious, and I honestly believe it will only help.

Along those same lines, if there’s something that you’re particularly insecure about, either don’t mention it or make a conscious effort to feign confidence.

The key is to project enthusiasm and confidence!

4. Attend Pitch Sessions, Even When You Don’t Have Anything to Pitch

This is another piece of advice I’ve heard repeatedly.

In the end, a pitch session is an opportunity to have uninterrupted time with an agent. Even if you’re not looking for an agent now, if you think you might one day, this is a way to get the inside scoop.

Ask them questions, get feedback on your ideas, or make a new friend. Whatever you do, make sure you remind them of the interaction when you do pitch them.

Are you excited/nervous to pitch an agent about your current writing project? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to prepare a short pitch of your writing project. Share in the comments section!

Happy pitching!

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

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12 Comments

  1. Monica

    I forgot one thing- don’t bother printing chapters, query letters or synopses. Not one agent wanted a hard copy of these things. Only bring if it somehow helps you psychologically. 🙂

    Reply
    • Elizabeth Mitchell

      I would like to thank you so very much for this! I’m going to a conference in a few weeks and am supremely nervous, which is crazy because I’m rarely nervous about anything. It’s especially good to know they won’t look at hard copies. I had already planned to print the map and dictionary out. But, if they won’t be looking, I won’t bother. I’m still working on making the perfect one sentence–turns out that’s harder than writing an entire novel–but this blog post helped me breathe just a little bit easier.

      Reply
  2. Marcy Mason McKay

    OUSTANDING advice, Monica. I found my first agent years ago at the Texas Writer’s League conference in Austin, Texas. I didn’t have a scheduled pitch with her either. The conference was over and an author friend was asking about my novel. As I explained it to him, she joined the conversation and asked me to send her the first 3 chapters. I signed with her two months later.

    Lesson learned: ALWAYS be ready to pitch even if it’s not an official pitch (but don’t be that creepy stalker type who follows them into the bathroom).

    Reply
    • Monica

      Yes, I agree completely. I pitched a few agents who I knew attended one conference and received responses really quickly. I think just mentioning that I was there helped.

      This comment also makes me think I should mentioned that it’s a good idea join the wait lists for pitch sessions as well because people often drop out.

      Reply
      • Marcy Mason McKay

        All excellent info you graciously shared with TWP readers. Good luck with finding representation for your novel!

        Reply
  3. Tom Farr

    I’ve never had the opportunity to pitch, but I can definitely see the need to be ready and seek those opportunities out.

    Here’s the pitch to my current project:

    A desperate father who is an advanced military soldier serving in a war in a distant land can’t see his children because the war requires the life of every soldier. To survive would be treason. To try to escape would mean the execution of the soldier’s family. But our soldier knows that his children are in danger anyway, and he wants to protect them. But he can’t unless he escapes, which is a serious crime. So he gathers some of the most intelligent minds of the soldiers he serves with and comes up with a plan to escape to be with his children. All the while, he struggles with the mistakes of his past that have brought him to his present position in the first place.

    Reply
    • Gary G Little

      Ok, devils advocate. What makes your protagonist different from every other father serving in that theatre on that side of the war? Escapes? Do you mean going AWOL or desertion? You said he was serving as a soldier and not imprisoned.

      Reply
      • Tom Farr

        Great questions. A few sentences doesn’t cover the full scope of what my story is about. For that, I’d need to write a much longer synopsis.

        My protagonist has a unique set of skills that makes him an ideal soldier in the world of my story. However, he’s never had to be a part of the war because he had a family. Getting married and having children is the only thing that keeps people in my story world from having to be a soldier. The protagonist does something that gets him in trouble, and he’s taken away from his family to be a soldier. He can never see them again, but he’s assured that they’ll live happily after he’s gone.

        Every soldier is basically a prisoner. The nature of the opposing force requires complete devotion. Soldiers are useful in the battlefield, but they’re no longer viewed as useful in the everyday world. So when he discovers that his family’s assured safety isn’t as guaranteed as he thought, he has to escape. To be caught in an escape attempt will mean the execution of the soldier’s family, which in most circumstances means the soldier’s parents. In the protagonist’s case, because he has a family, his family will die. But his family will likely die anyway, so he has to try.

        I’m still working out a lot of details, but those are some of the things I’ve thought though. I also forgot to mention that the story takes place in a futuristic world and the war is against an advanced subset of humanity.

        Thanks for asking.

        Reply
  4. Marilyn Ostermiller

    Great advice, Monica. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I will be pitching a children’s book to an editor with a publishing house and two agents in three weeks at the annual conference of the New Jersey Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

    So here’s the one sentence pitch:
    A 12-year-old girl, on the brink of the Great Depression, finds the courage to fight a bully who nearly stripped away her self-confidence.

    What do you think? Would you want to hear more?

    Reply
    • Monica

      Definitely! Have you pitched before? I was really nervous, but I definitely think it’s worth it.

      Reply
  5. Susan Sparks

    Awesome Monica! Thanks so much. I am heading to the Aspen Summer Words Conference in June and will be meeting two agents. The one sentence summary is brilliant. Working in it. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Wendy Davies

    This is my one sentence summary of the story I’m writing. Do you think this would get an agent interested?

    The Drover’s Rest is an 80,000 word rural romance story about being accepted, finding home, and discovering what really matters.

    Reply

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  1. Pitching at A Writers’ Conference | Donna Stone - […] a few pitching tips from Writer’s Digest and The Write Practice. All I can add is: Tell your subconscious self to…

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